Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 April 2009
Issue No. 941
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Too old school to strike

The Muslim Brotherhood is tied to a worldview that cannot come to grips with the protests that mark today's political scene, writes Hossam Tammam*

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has a problem with activists who don't belong to any recognisable party. That's why it didn't take part in the 6 April strike last year, and that's why it's not taking part this year.

In fact, the MB doesn't seem to appreciate the many changes that have come over the Egyptian political scene of late. One of those changes is that hopes for reform have been dashed. Reform doesn't seem to be forthcoming, not in Egypt or anywhere else in the Arab world, and definitely not offered willingly by old school politicians.

Another thing is that a new crop of protest movements has emerged, usually working through an individualised agenda, focussing on professional and economic demands. Islamic movements, including the MB, may have boosted their popular appeal but they are old school in their thinking. They tend to look down on protest movements that lack leadership, a strict hierarchy, and an inflexible doctrine.

In a replay of events last year the MB has declined to take part in the 6 April strike, although it says that it supports strikes as a form of political action guaranteed by the law and the constitution. Justifying its refusal to participate the MB said that as the country's largest opposition group it should have been consulted. This is more or less what the MB said last year. The excuse is starting to wear thin.

The MB is not known for its ability to maintain alliances outside the circle of Islamic activists or to perform as part of a broad political front. This is a result of the indoctrination that goes on in a closed organisation run through a strict hierarchy and which demands blind obedience to its leaders.

Another reason that prevents the MB from cooperating with other groups is the self-importance it has acquired since it started outperforming other opposition groups in elections. The MB has developed a habit of lecturing others about the great sacrifices it has made over the years.

Even if this were true, harping can only alienate other parties, if not the public as a whole. The fact is the MB's long history of suffering sometimes makes it act in an isolationist manner, as if it were a closely-knit clan, not a group seeking allies on the local political scene.

If the MB is having trouble communicating with long established opposition parties it is having a worse time figuring out what the new protest movements are doing. The MB may be a bit paranoid when it comes to the old style parties but its attitude towards the new protest movements is one of utter bewilderment.

Take the issue of reform. The MB wants a far-reaching agenda that would rehabilitate it as a legitimate movement and allow it to have its own party. This kind of agenda comes with a vision of politics that fails to see the potential of protest acts confined to specific demands.

To add to the confusion the MB is divided between the conservatives who want to keep doing things the old way and the new breed of Islamic activists who are interested in taking part in public protests, whether rigidly organised or not.

Because the MB as a whole subscribes to conservative politics it has been dismissive of impromptu protests and puzzled at actions organised by social movements with limited agendas. If it isn't grand politics, done the old way, with slogans and leaders and all the rest, the MB is not interested.

For all the progress it has made over the years -- and there is no denying it has come a long way -- the MB is still the daughter of conventional, if not totalitarian, politics. This is a real barrier, setting it apart from the new type of activism that took the country by storm in recent years. Often the MB dismisses the new wave of protest movements as being "the doing of communists".

The MB doesn't seem to appreciate the full extent of the changes that occurred in recent years. This year, just as 2008, MB leaders, when questioned about their failure to join the 6 April strike, had one explanation: they haven't been consulted in advance.

Apparently the MB is still the slave of conventional politics. It wants a scene that is thoroughly orchestrated, not one in which chaos reigns. It is not that the MB is averse to taking risks. It is just that it likes to know how much risk it is taking, who it is pitted against, and what gains it may get in return. Impromptu protests, leaderless protest movements and industrial action are not to its liking. A strike that threatens to turn into civil disobedience or widespread violence is not something the MB is prepared to encourage.

This is a far cry from the new brand of protest movements which seem to thrive on spontaneity. There is nothing in the legacy of the MB that has prepared it for today's political scene. It is still playing by the wisdom of the elders, best summed up in that famous saying: "Better 70 years with a bad sultan than one day with no sultan."

* The writer is a political researcher.

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