What role can the Muslim Brotherhood, with its current ideological standpoint, play in the post-Arab Spring era in Egypt and following the ouster of its political leader Mohamed Morsi from the presidency? I believe that the movement may still have a role to play in revolutionary politics in Egypt as it has demonstrated the ability to adapt and change to different social, economic and political circumstances and, therefore, can continue to do so. The revolutionary conditions by which the movement has traditionally flourished are still present in Egypt.
In examining the strengths and qualities of the Muslim Brotherhood and the prospects for its continuation, it is important to say that at its inception, the movement sought to establish its core ideological belief that the application of Islamic principles and Islamic Law are the solution to the social, economic and political problems facing Muslims in Egypt and throughout the world. Its founder Hassan Al-Banna graduated in 1927 having memorised the entire Qur’an, six books of the sayings of Prophet Muhammad and 19,000 lines of poetry. His favourite line of poetry is reported to have been, “If the people are looking for someone to face the challenge, I believe that they are looking to me and I shall not sit behind or be lazy.”
Al-Banna was certainly very productive. By the time that he was assassinated in February 1949, the Muslim Brotherhood had become an extremely important and powerful organisation. Evidence of its vast influence was clear, with more than 2,000 branches all over the country and 2,000 societies for charity and social services. It ran health clinics, sports clubs, schools and other educational institutes, mosques and Islamic centres, and had a presence of 10,000 army volunteers in Palestine. (Helbawy, 2009, pp62-63, 74) The founder’s hard work established his movement’s appeal to three main groups: the youth who were offered an organised, disciplined clear path and chain of command; the rural masses who benefited from his health clinics and schools; and other Arabs such as the Palestinians who were supported in the struggle against Zionism. In the eighty years of the organisation’s existence, it is argued that the Brotherhood has been Egypt’s most cohesive political movement, with an unparalleled ability to mobilise its followers. (Trager, 2011, p115)
Notwithstanding the major challenges to the organisation’s existence and its operations, it is unlikely to lose this strength completely despite the jailing of its leaders and its banning after the coup in Egypt. In similar crackdowns in the late fifties and throughout the sixties under Gamal Abdel Nasser, and in the late eighties and early nineties under Mubarak, the Brotherhood showed its ability to re-galvanise support. In 1992, it demonstrated its strength when an earthquake struck Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood provided more support and relief aid to the citizens of the capital than the government, much to the embarrassment of the Mubarak regime. (Stilt, 2010, p78)
To understand the sources of the Brotherhood’s political strength there are three main factors to take into consideration. Firstly, despite its Islamist rhetoric it appears willing to engage and participate within the democratic process; it is seen as a moderate political force in contrast to the Jihadists who loathe the Muslim Brotherhood for rejecting global jihad and embracing democracy. (Leiken & Brooke, 2007 p107) Secondly, it has always been willing to make alliances and work with other political parties; and thirdly it has a careful recruitment procedure which helps to ensure that it invests only in young men who are already inclined toward its Islamist ideology. (Trager, p116)
In 1984, the Brotherhood contested the parliamentary elections and won eight seats in a pact with the Wafd Party; in 1987 it won thirty-six seats with the Liberal and Socialist parties. Furthermore, by 2005, it is argued that the Brotherhood had become a politically astute tactical group. Evidence of this can be seen by the tentative manner in which it approached that year’s parliamentary elections. Analysts claim that the movement fielded a limited number of candidates deliberately to prevent it from winning too many seats and avoid drawing attention to itself. It won 88 out of the 454 seats, larger than any other opposition group. (Wickman, 2011 p211) There is a counter-view that Mubarak allowed the movement to perform well as a way of showing the then Bush administration the extent of the threat it posed, while not allowing it enough seats to affect the passage of legislation. (Stilt)
Further evidence of the movement’s political strength lies in the process by which members join its ranks. Most go through a slow but deliberate vetting process to determine who are “good” Muslims and can show loyalty. A beginner must make a four-rank accent to become a “working brother”, which allows him to vote in all internal elections, participate in all of the Brotherhood’s working bodies and compete for higher office within the group’s hierarchy. (Trager, p17) This system was introduced at the beginning of the movement and was formalised in the 1970s. The mechanism protects the movement and prevents it from being infiltrated easily; as such, it consolidates and maintains the movement’s momentum.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology has maintained what can be termed a “flexible consistency”; it is flexible to the demands of the changing political climate but consistent in placing Islamic principles at the core of its ideological visionary message. The Brotherhood under Al-Banna set out the core consistent Islamic principles that have survived throughout the movement’s history: complete trust in Allah and the Qur’an, and in the sayings and deeds of the Prophet; straightforwardness; virtue; and knowledge of the religion. It is the responsibility of every Muslim to earn his living, be charitable to the poor, support fellow Muslims financially and to be responsible to one’s family in terms of health, creed and character. The motto of the Brotherhood was traditionally, “Believers are but Brothers”. That was expanded into a five-part slogan: “Allah is our objective; the Qur’an is the Constitution; the Prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; death for the sake of Allah is our wish.” (Helbawy, 2009, p65 & Ikwanonline, 2013)
Those basic Islamic concepts were to take a more radical turn in the writing of one of the Brotherhood’s leaders, Sayyid Qutb. In 1964, he published Milestones, or Signs on the Road, in which he suggested that anyone who does not rule by God’s laws is not a true Muslim. His thoughts were to resonate with many of the radical young members of the group but infuriated many others, including the Egyptian president who sentenced Qutb to death. However, the Brotherhood leadership was also unhappy. From his own prison cell, Hassan Al-Hudaybi, the founder Al Banna’s replacement at the head of the Brotherhood, rejected Qutb’s conclusions. He wrote Preachers not Judges and expressed the belief that only God could judge faith. He rejected takfir (the act of declaring another Muslim an apostate), arguing that “whoever judges that someone is no longer a Muslim… deviates from Islam and transgresses God’s will by judging another person’s faith.” Within the Brotherhood, Hudaybi’s tolerant view in line with Hassan Al-Banna’s founding vision prevailed, cementing the group’s moderate vocation. Qutb was hanged in 1966. (Leiken & Brooke, 2007 p110)
The Qutb interpretation led to many splinter groups and extremist elements breaking away from the Brotherhood, particular when the movement decided to embrace democratic principles. However, some analysts remain deeply sceptical about how the Brotherhood can reconcile its call for the implementation of Islamic law while embracing the principles of democracy. Wickman asked why official Brotherhood documents appear to be ambiguous on this issue: “This raises the question of whether the Brotherhood is supporting a transition to democracy as an end in itself or as a first step toward the ultimate establishment of a political system based not on the preferences of the Egyptian people but the will of God as they understand it.” (Wickman, p205)
In 2007, the Brotherhood published the Draft Platform of Political Party and gave the first detailed outline of the Muslim Brotherhood approach to democratic power. It is believed to have been a “first draft” written principally by Mohamed Morsi in consultation with the differing factions of the movement but the final draft was never released. The document ratified aspects of the existing Egyptian constitution. It supported three areas in particular: Article 2, which refers to the Sharia as a primary source of legislation, the constitutional courts and the civil nature of the State. (Brown & Hamzawy. A. 2008) (Harnisch & Mecham. 2009 p189) (Stilt, p86) In many ways, the Brotherhood had again adapted its ideology while remaining true to its Islamic principles and succeeded in convincing the international community of its commitment to democracy. In the meantime, the movement demonstrated throughout its continued anti-imperialist and anti-Zionism stance, its stronghold in the professional organisations and unions, its anti-corruption stance and its grassroots support, particularly in the rural areas.
The challenges and obstacles that face the Brotherhood can be summarised as internal, external and ideological. It appears that there are two main internal problems that may threaten the stability of the movement. At least three different factions are struggling for control. The first may be called the Da’wa faction, which includes the majority of the “old guard” leaders, now in their 70s and 80s, who enjoy substantial authority and respect as a result of the great personal sacrifices they made for the movement during the Nasser era, in some cases spending more than 20 years in prison. The second faction is led by the pragmatic conservatives who combine religious conservatism with a belief in the value of participation and engagement. The final faction is the group of reformers who chose to remain within the Brotherhood in order to push for change from within. Advocating a progressive interpretation of Islam, the leaders associated with this trend have pushed for further ideological revision in the Brotherhood’s traditional position; they are calling for greater transparency and fundamental changes. (Wickham, pp209-10, 220)
The second internal problem stems from the lack of control over various militant groups affiliated to the Brotherhood which has damaged the image of the organisation and could affect future stability. In 1945, militants associated to the National Front of Egypt killed the then prime minster, Ahmed Mahir, because of his close association with the British; the Brotherhood had close ties with the National Front and was therefore implicated in the killing. Other incidents like the killing of the prominent Judge Al Khazinder and burning the court room by the “Secret Apparatus” wing also caused the leadership great embarrassment. (Helbawy, p72) It was also accused of trying to assassinate Nasser in 1954. The late 1980 militant attacks against tourist targets in the country were attributed to groups acting under the umbrella of the Muslim Brotherhood, which, it is alleged, orchestrated the violence. The movement’s members were again imprisoned as enemies of the state.
A main external threat comes from the residue of the National Democratic Party (NDP); ousted President Mubarak’s banned party. As has already been witnessed, despite the fact that the NDP was dissolved, its structure remains intact. Most of the 56,000 members of local government in Egypt are from the NDP. It still develops networks within universities, media outlets and other public bodies, and the interlocking relationships between former NDP activists and security and intelligence agents with whom they have long worked still operate. Only the presidency has been removed from the backbone of the authoritarian state but the other key elements of the military, security services, the single party and parts of the executive administration have not been changed. (Springborg, 2011 p10)
The final obstacle relates to the divisions between secularists and Islamists which have become deeply entrenched, aggravated even further by inter-communal tensions and violence between Muslims and Copts. The greater the gaps between secularists and Islamists, Copts and Muslims, the harder it becomes for nascent coalitions of political activists to bridge them within broadly-based representative political institutions. (Springborg, p10)
Other hindrances affecting the Muslim Brotherhood include the movement’s occasional lack of consistency in its public statements, some of which have been extreme; its association with groups like Hamas, which is regarded as a “terrorist organisation” by the West; and its lack of recognition of the state of Israel.
The Brotherhood may continue to be one of the most popular and powerful institutions in Egypt because the movement’s social network, political structure and ‘flexible consistent” Islamic ideology have allowed it to survive for more than 80 years. Transformations have included its acceptance of the democratic process and the presentation of moderate ideas towards a slow, gradual and popular acceptance of Islamic principles and the expansion of its support from rural bases to major cities all over Egypt. In addition, it has joined professional and trade unions to secure a powerful influence in these areas.
However, there are major obstacles in its path to regaining a hold on power, some of which are outlined above. If the Brotherhood can overcome some of those obstacles, not least its marginalisation from the current political process and the imprisonment of its leadership, it is argued that it will return to its former position of political power. Ironically, the principles of democracy, once demonised by Qutb as “bankrupt”, appear to be the strongest avenue to enable its return to power. There is a view that the revolutionary conditions are still present in Egypt. The vulnerability of the military-civilian regime means that violence and oppression remain across the country. If, however, the Brotherhood cannot overcome its obstacles, it will return underground to its silent but important presence organising, supporting society and perhaps waiting for another Arab Spring.
The author is a post-graduate student at Westminster University, London
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