Caught in two minds
The Muslim Brotherhood's reaction to the Hizbullah controversy reveals that until now the movement is split in its strategic outlook between two opposing political directions, writes Amr Hamzawi*
The Muslim Brotherhood MPs did well in the People's Assembly discussion of the unearthing of a Hizbullah cell in Egypt. They came out clearly and unequivocally in the defence of Egypt's national security and condemned all attempts to violate it on whatever grounds, whether in the name of the resistance or with the purpose of offering logistical and military aid to resistant Palestinian factions in Gaza. On the other hand, the statements issued by Supreme Guide Mohamed Mahdi Akef could not have been more harmful to the Muslim Brotherhood's situation and its standing among the Egyptian public. Akef dismissed the Hizbullah cell case as "media hype" and shrugged off the importance of national security as he rushed to the defence of Hassan Nasrallah, saying, "There are two agendas in the region one working to protect the resistance and advance its victory over the Zionist enemy, the other concerned only with placating the Americans and Zionists." Other members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leadership echoed the supreme guide's vindication of Hizbullah, stressing that the cell's aim was to support the resistance in Palestine, not to harm Egypt. The claim tests even the most credulous and the stance flies in the face of the patriotic convictions of the majority of the Egyptian people.
What concerns us, here, however, is that the disparity of opinion between the Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary bloc and the Office of the Supreme Guide is indicative of divergent outlooks within the Muslim Brotherhood on the concept of the state and its national security requirements. Whereas the former group's approach is consistent with its desire to assimilate as an active and responsible player in the legitimate political life of Egypt, the latter's position reflects the continued hold of the logic of perpetual confrontation and conflict between the Muslim Brothers as an officially banned organisation and the ruling elite.
In defence of Egyptian sovereignty and national security in the People's Assembly, Muslim Brotherhood MP Essam Mukhtar declared, "The national security of Egypt is a red line that no one should be allowed to cross." With even greater fervour, MP Hassanein El-Shura stressed that the Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary members "condemn any assault against Egyptian national security. Egypt first! Egypt first!" Such statements reflect a mindset that fully embraces the concept of the nation state and gives it prevalence over the antithetical concept of a resistance movement that transcends borders as theologically justified in the discourse and literature of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood MPs' views on the question of a Hizbullah cell in Egypt may not be identical with those of the ruling elite, but they are very close when it comes to potential threats to Egypt's national security and sovereignty, which are essential corollaries to the nation state. Thus, to the Brotherhood parliamentary bloc, this must take priority over the aims of supporting the resistance, contrary to the official rhetoric of the Brotherhood, which accords the "resistance against Zionists and Americans" a supreme and holy status that overrides all other considerations. This latter is the logic that has been used, occasionally, to justify rebellion against ruling authorities, to rally support for the jihad in Lebanon in 2006 and in Palestine in 2008, and to vindicate the violation of Egyptian sovereignty and national security.
The Muslim Brotherhood MPs' position reflected a prime trait of responsible political behaviour, which is awareness of where political opposition stops and the need to stand united on major national issues starts. These parliamentarians, thus, took excellent advantage of the space available to them in the People's Assembly where we saw the largest opposition faction demonstrate its solidarity with the ruling party in the defence of Egypt's national security and in contributing to shaping a public outlook unconditionally opposed to Hizbullah's attempt to intervene in the country's domestic affairs. The press statements of the supreme guide and some of his bureau members in defence of Hizbullah, the sanctity of the resistance and its use of Egyptian territory to support the Palestinians in Gaza, on the other hand, reflect the continued existence of a dangerous trend in the Muslim Brotherhood leadership.
With its persistent refusal to acknowledge an overriding commitment to the sovereignty of the nation state, the Brotherhood will remain incapable of leveraging itself from its current position as a banned organisation to an officially recognised movement with a legally recognised status as a political party or otherwise. In contrast to the "Egypt first" attitude voiced by the Brotherhood's bloc in parliament, the Brotherhood leadership acted in accordance with what we might term the "resistance first" principle, in which context the concerns of national sovereignty and security come a distant second. Accordingly, its spokespersons were disdainfully indifferent to the significance of the existence of a Hizbullah paramilitary cell in Egypt as part of an arms smuggling network passing through Egyptian territory, in spite of the fact that such phenomena constitute a security breach that no sovereign nation can afford to ignore or countenance. Such contempt for national sovereignty was not only a tactical error, it was also deeply offensive to the patriotic sentiments of a large segment of the public who now have as much cause as the government to suspect the aims and priorities of Egypt's largest grassroots movement.
I am convinced that the divergence in the stances between Muslim Brotherhood MPs and the Office of the Supreme Guide is not part of a cynical assignation of roles, with one group hastening to placate a public shocked by the revelations concerning Hizbullah's activities in Egypt while the second group continues to display its long-held solidarity with the most influential resistance movement in the Arab world. Rather, the parliamentarians' view is connected, above all, with an awareness of the duties and obligations that come with taking part in a nation's official political life. The Brotherhood almost instinctively knew that their future in the People's Assembly was contingent upon their embracing an unequivocally patriotic stance against Hizbullah's violation of Egyptian sovereignty. They knew that adopting the militant Islamist resistance rhetoric would not only place them in a precarious position with the authorities, but also cast them outside of the realm of responsible and popularly acceptable parliamentary behaviour. Moreover, Hassan Nasrallah's admission of responsibility for creating and running the cell deprived the MPs of any opportunity to seek refuge in a grey area. They could no longer, for example, question the veracity of the information revealed by the security agencies or voice doubts about Hizbullah's actual involvement.
The Office of the Supreme Guide, on the other hand, focussed its attention, first and foremost, on keeping its reaction to the Hizbullah cell consistent with its Islamist, pro-resistance discourse, in accordance with which this ideological imperative transcends principles and prerequisites of the nation state. The Office of the Supreme Guide set the demands of the resistance above the national concerns of Egypt during the war in Gaza in 2008-2009, and it clung to this prioritisation in its reaction to the Hizbullah cell case.
The coexistence between the nation state outlook and the "above-the-state" outlook cannot last for long in the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood. The organisation will have to make up its mind. If it hopes to assimilate fully into Egyptian political life, it will have to place Egypt first and adopt the Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary bloc's attitude toward the Hizbullah cell as a binding strategic approach for the entire organisation. If, on the other hand, it plans on continuing as a theocratic movement whose rhetoric and vision transcends and even defies the needs of the nation state, then it stands little hope of emerging from its current status as a banned organisation.
* The writer is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.