Brotherhood lacks mandate to impose its regional vision
There is a small diplomatic row running and a larger philosophical question looming. The diplomatic row, which has exercised the media and online spheres in both Egypt and the UAE, turns on the remarks last month of Essam El Erian, vice-chairman of Egypt's ruling Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Egyptian political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mr El Erian was speaking to the upper house of the Egyptian parliament about the detention by the UAE of 11 Egyptians on suspicion of crimes against the state. The UAE announced last month that it would be trying 30 Emiratis and Egyptians, accused of setting up an illegal branch of the Brotherhood (the 11 Egyptians are assumed to be among these 30). Before that announcement, Mr El Erian told the upper house that Egypt had "lost patience" with the UAE over the 11, before saying, in inflammatory language, that the UAE ought to realise "nuclear Iran is coming, the Persians are coming, not the Egyptians, and you will become slaves of the Persians".
Sound and fury, perhaps, but enormously undiplomatic language, which led to a backlash against the Brotherhood, from within Egypt, from Egyptians who have built careers and lives in the UAE, and from UAE residents themselves. Finally, the head of the FJP backtracked and said the comments do not reflect the party's official position. Indeed, such was the anger among Emiratis that one prominent columnist suggested the UAE ought to cut diplomatic ties with Egypt.
But behind the diplomatic spat and the inelegant language lies something else, a political and philosophical question that has been brought into sharp focus since the Arab Spring. No political movement has done as well out of the mass uprisings that shook the region as the Muslim Brotherhood, which now wields the levers of power in the Arab world's largest country. Governments and people have watched nervously and wondered how to react as this previously banned movement has swept to power.
The broad opposition to Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian president, has brought masses of people onto the streets, hoping to unseat him.
There is a link between the criticisms that so many millions of Egyptians have of the Brotherhood and the criticism that others in the region have of the movement. And it can be seen in one small incident still playing out in a building in Cairo's upmarket Zamalek neighbourhood. It is here at the culture ministry that activists are now deep into a long sit-in against the appointment of a new minister of culture affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood. Artists are concerned that the new minister, Alaa Abdel Aziz, will use the figleaf of tackling corruption to impose a Brotherhood-sanctioned view of the arts on Egypt.
"Writers and artists are Egypt's priceless resource," wrote the novelist Alaa Al Aswany, author of the best-seller The Yacoubian Building, reacting to the news. "But the Brotherhood seems to ignore this, just as they ignore the fact that art appreciation marks the dividing line between primitive and civilised mankind."
The struggle over the culture ministry goes to the heart of why people are nervous of the Brotherhood. At its core the Brotherhood, like many social and political movements, has a sense of what the "good society" is. It has a specific vision, in other words, of what society ought to look like.
The problem is that the Brotherhood refuse to accept any other vision of society. Their view of how society ought to be run has no geographical boundaries - and thus does not take sufficient account of the specificities of each society and each country.
Other countries where the Brotherhood is active, such as Tunisia and Yemen, have their own histories and cannot easily to be moulded to fit the template the Brotherhood believes in. The UAE, as well, has its own particular vision of the good society, taking into account the specific nature of the country, its demographic mix, its culture and sense of itself, and the complex geopolitical neighbourhood in which it finds itself.
In Egypt, it is clear that the Brotherhood, despite having won the presidency and a plurality of seats in the parliament, does not have the mandate to change Egyptian society in the direction they wish. What the Brotherhood definitely does not have is a mandate to change other countries. And certainly not in secret: what has most angered ordinary Emiratis about the trial of the 94 activists is the secret attempt to change the nature of the society - the verdict is set to be issued today.
The vision of how a society ought to be is not merely a set of philosophical prescriptions. It is a political reality as well.
In Egypt, the Brotherhood's attempts to remake the society have run into enormous opposition, proof that the version of modernity the Brotherhood espouses is not one that enough Egyptians agree with.
This is epitomised by the sit-in at the culture ministry. Here is the Brotherhood attempting to impose their vision of creativity on perhaps the single most culturally creative city in the whole region.
In the year since the Brotherhood took over, the big question has been whether they could articulate a sufficiently inclusive vision that would accommodate the many social and cultural realities of Egypt. That plenty took to the streets last weekend shows they could not. If the Brotherhood cannot sell their version of modernity on their own turf, it is unclear why they imagine it would be welcome elsewhere.
On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai
Updated: July 2, 2013 04:00 AM