Another authoritarian state party?
What exactly is the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, asks Azmi Ashour
Only some years ago, the idea of forming a political party marked a radical departure from the ideological principles of the Muslim Brotherhood's founder, Hassan El-Banna, who rejected the concept of partisanship. This largely explains the long period of debate over the creation of a Muslim Brotherhood party, and then over the proposed party platform which, when put to the public, stirred not inconsiderable concern and criticism. Most crucially, it was unclear whether the Muslim Brotherhood wanted a civil or a theocratic state. The Brotherhood's hemming and hawing over this question continued until the 25 January Revolutionary Youth Movement succeeded in toppling the regime in the dramatic way that reverberated around the world. Everyone was stunned, barely able to fathom what happened.
This certainly applies to the Muslim Brotherhood, and for many reasons, foremost amongst which was that they did nothing to trigger the revolution or set it in motion. This was done by a new generation of young men and women who were unaffiliated with a party and not ideologically indoctrinated. The Muslim Brotherhood only hopped aboard the revolutionary train well after it took off, in which regard there was nothing to distinguish it from other political forces that similarly joined beneath the banner of the Egyptian flag and the spirit of Egyptian patriotism, another concept that the Muslim Brotherhood has long had trouble with. For decades, the Muslim Brothers had truly been at the forefront of demonstrations, especially on university campuses, which boosted their leaders' confidence that they could move the street at will towards whatever ends suited them. Now, all of a sudden the street had begun to move without their presence and without their leadership.
Then the regime fell, the very regime from which they derived their legitimacy and that enabled them to mobilise a large swath of the street on the grounds that they were suppressed and oppressed by the regime's brutal authoritarianism. Of course so too were most other political forces and the bulk of the Egyptian people. What made the Muslim Brotherhood an exception was the media focus on it and the way the former regime used it as a bogeyman in order to manipulate public opinion. Once that regime fell, the organisation discovered that it had to search for a new source of legitimacy. It needed to repackage itself. It had to do that quite urgently, moreover, because in the rush of some of the positive results of the revolution, a political party that had been waging a 10-year struggle to establish itself finally won official approval. The Wasat Party (Centre) offers a moderate image of the Islamist frame of reference on contemporary issues. Most of its founders had split off from the Muslim Brotherhood a decade ago in pursuit of a modern and sophisticated approach to political realities, one that contrasts sharply with the Muslim Brotherhood's rigidly conservative vision.
The repackaging took the form of the Freedom and Justice Party. It took the Muslim Brotherhood Shura Council less than two months to decide to create it. It was announced on 30 April 2011 together with the appointments of its chairman, two deputy chairmen and a secretary-general, all from the Brotherhood ranks, of course. Ordinarily, one would welcome such a development wholeheartedly, but the way it was created, its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and the party programme beg many questions.
First, according to Muslim Brotherhood Deputy Supreme Guide Kheirat Al-Shater in an interview with Al-Ahram on 5 March, the new party is to act as the "political wing" of the Muslim Brotherhood. So the Brotherhood as a whole is not transforming itself into a political party; it is merely creating its own political institutions (the party), just as it has its economic institutions with its many projects and ventures with which the businessman Al-Shater is closely connected. With such a perception of a political party, as merely another Muslim Brotherhood organ, alongside its military wing, as long as people are talking of wings, the �Brotherhood effectively continues to reject the basis of a modern civil state.
Second, the way the Brotherhood unveiled its party project is very reminiscent of how the National Democratic Party (NDP) came into being and for what purpose. Decreed into existence by president Anwar El-Sadat in the late 1970s, the NDP was created as the monolithic state party for the organisation and mobilisation of the ruling order, from the tip of the pyramid to the base and from the capital to the remotest village. The Muslim Brotherhood acted no differently, albeit the tip of its pyramid is the Supreme Guide and the scope of its monolithic party is the Muslim Brotherhood rank and file, so far. True, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership made some cosmetic adjustments to make it appear as though the party is structurally separate from the mother organisation, but it retains the conviction that the party is their "political wing" and meant to function as such.
If this tells us anything, it is that the Muslim Brotherhood leadership has yet to grasp the significance of the 25 January Revolution, the circumstances that gave rise to it and the reasons why it was able to achieve its results so quickly. The young men and women who led that revolution were more rational in their thinking and behaviour than the general run of the established political forces, Muslim Brotherhood included. Proceeding from the virtual world, they translated their ideas and dreams into actions on the ground without penning themselves into rigidly hierarchical organisational structures, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which confers an aura of sanctity on its leaders. The youth of the revolution spurned such elitism and exclusivism, not through lip service but in their every action, which turned all participants into effective entities in the collective drive without discrimination. But this is still not the Muslim Brotherhood's way of doing things. Instead of transforming themselves into an ordinary political party that conforms to the rules and logic of other political parties, they cling to their old vision and create a state within a state. Moreover, since they still do not subscribe to the principle of the civil state, that state within the state is a theocratic one, with a "political wing" (the party), an economic one and a military one, which they don't talk about because it is not the right time.
Apart from the religious factor, one is hard put to find how they differ in attitude or methodology from the former regime's dictatorial approach to creating, legitimising and running a political party. If the Muslim Brotherhood elders had truly grasped the philosophy of the youth revolution they would have begun to institute some major changes in their organisation's mentality and modes of action. But the way the founded and plan to run the "Freedom and Justice Party" is proof that they have not really changed. In the current political dynamics, founding a political party is praiseworthy, but not when the method is dictatorial, the approach cynical and the attitude so derisive of the two-century old legacy of the social, cultural and political evolution of the Egyptian civil state.
* The writer is a political analyst.