Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 January 2012
Issue No. 1081
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A gift-wrapped challenge

Finally on the verge of power, the Muslim Brotherhood will find fierce the criticism of Egyptians if they fail to provide practical solutions to the country's woes, writes Ammar Ali Hassan*

As the first results of the People's Assembly elections came in and pointed to a Muslim Brotherhood victory, I recalled the hundreds of articles that I had read over recent years by political analysts and commentators from Mauretania to Iraq predicting that the alternative to the dictatorial regimes in the Arab world would be those movements and organisations that take Islam as their political ideology. I, too, foresaw this likelihood. In The Nation in Crisis, I included a chapter entitled, "Arab Islamists: An alternative project or another disaster?" In another book, The Obligatory Duty: Political reform in the prayer niches of Al-Azhar and the Muslim Brotherhood, I wrote, "We are fighting the NDP to make it either reform itself or leave, and we are pressuring the Muslim Brothers and urging them to modernise their ideas." In addition, the headline of an article of mine published in Al-Masry Al-Youm in 2007 asks, "Is Mubarak working for the Muslim Brotherhood?"

As these predictions become a reality and we watch the advent of the "Supreme Guide's government," we must bear the following considerations in mind:

- Although the course we have embarked upon remains risky and will continue to produce problems, we must respect the results of the elections. We must remain firm in our belief that the people have the right to choose and the ability to refine and rectify their choices. However, we also need to bear in mind that democracy is a set of values and procedures and that electoral polls are only a part of this process. Their purpose is to ensure equal opportunity among rival parties, but the essential stuff they are borne of is the empowerment of the people, the respect for individual liberties, the guarantee for a peaceful rotation of power, and the paramount importance of the principle of equal citizenship. We need to understand this thoroughly and build upon it in the future.

- Recent developments on the Egyptian political scene are the product of an unforced, voluntary convergence of ideas and actions. The Islamists are winning in accordance with the rules of a secular political project while secularists are meeting defeat due to their failure to create a discourse with an authentic religious component and to their inability to build a grassroots network that they could mobilise to bring out the vote in their favour in the elections. The political competition in Egypt today is governed by modern terms and concepts. People are creating political parties, not cliques or factions. The parties are fighting to get into parliament rather than into the ruling class, and they are doing so by means of elections, instead of declarations of allegiance, because they have acknowledged the value of democracy in its modern sense, as opposed to shura (consultation) as propounded in Islamist literature over the past decades. We could therefore say that while secularists have lost, secularism has won and that although the Islamists have come out ahead, their original political project has faded. There is nothing wrong with this. As the prophetic saying has it, 'Wisdom is the goal of the faithful; wherever he finds it he is worthier of it.'

- There are essential differences between the opinions, declarations and visions that politicians voice during electoral campaigns and the commitments and considerations to which they will be bound once they find themselves in positions of power. If the Freedom and Justice Party used religion to rally votes, once in parliament and an authentic party in the process of designating positions and making policy decisions it will have to keep its eyes on other audiences and it will have to act as responsibly as possible, regardless of political slogans and rallying chants. It will have to think of the international environment abroad and secularists, Copts and military authorities at home. It will have to discriminate between those who help build and those who are interested in undermining Egypt's new democratic experience. But above all, it will have to address the worsening problems bequeathed by the Mubarak regime. These problems and the way they are handled will set the terms for a new type of legitimacy, one that is based on performance and accomplishment. If the Muslim Brothers succeed in producing viable solutions, their supporters will continue to back them; if they fail, they will be penalised in the next elections, especially if guarantees for the integrity of the polls are improved.

- It takes little effort to realise that the political Islam movement has two sides. One we have seen in its "waiting" phase, when it faced the pressures of police crackdowns, persecution, exclusion and ostracism. The other we are beginning to see today, now that it is approaching empowerment as the result of the Freedom and Justice Party and Nour Party victories in the polls. The closer we move towards that phase, the more we will experience what has been predicted or ignored and the more the Islamists' broad grassroots bases will reassess their support for the Islamists on the basis of the gaps between word and deed and between theory and practice.

- The Islamists are far from being a single, homogeneous, like-thinking bloc, and it would be grossly mistaken to operate on that premise. There are very pronounced differences between the Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wasat Party, even if they were temporarily set aside due to current exigencies and common interests, and they are certain to resurface and affect their attitudes and their political calculations with respect to one another. Nor are the Muslim Brothers a single camp. There is that part that is visible above the surface, the part we deal with, that people see on the media and that seems to be more accepting of "the other" and more open to modern political ideas. There is another part below the surface, one that is very conservative and whose thinking is close to conventional Salafis. Then, too, there are the Muslim Brotherhood youth who are more inclined to modernism and the thinking of the revolutionary youth groups. While these internal differences remained submerged or suppressed for decades for fear of jeopardising the cohesiveness of the organisation, they cannot remain hidden now that there is no longer a concern for fear and persecution and now that the Muslim Brothers can safely voice their views and exercise their political muscle.

- Some observers maintain that a clash between the Muslim Brothers and the military is inevitable. However, at closer inspection of how their "endurance culture" influenced their behaviour in the past and present, one reaches a totally different conclusion, which is that in order to minimise the impact of a conflict over vying legitimacies, both sides will try to work out a "deal" that will have a profound effect on the political situation in Egypt in the foreseeable future.

- If I have taken the liberty to use the term "Supreme Guide's government," it is because we cannot ignore the glaringly obvious fact that the person of the Supreme Guide plays a pivotal role in the Muslim Brotherhood by virtue of his authority and his historic and religious stature. He is certain to impart his mark on the way the Muslim Brothers manage government.

- Criticism of the Muslim Brothers' ideas and behaviour at this stage does not imply a desire to demean them, to cast them back to their former ostracism, or even to promote a rival group or camp. Rather, it is nothing less than a duty to adopt a critical spirit towards a group that is on the verge of attaining power and that regards itself worthier of this position than others. In such a spirit, the purpose of criticism is to encourage objective thinking, to promote better performance and to help pave the way for a better future for our country, regardless of the political or ideological backgrounds of those in power.

- The Muslim Brotherhood has not yet formulated a comprehensive political theory and it has not been sufficiently open to the recent theoretical input of the hundreds of scholars who have been keen to develop a contemporary political outlook for Islamic thought, theology and jurisprudence. Perhaps the lack of a coherent theoretical outlook explains why Muslim Brotherhood officials have issued so many conflicting statements and not infrequently contradicted themselves.

- Although the Islamists have won 70 per cent of the seats in the People's Assembly, we should remember that they obtained only 10 million out of the 25 million votes that were cast in the first two rounds. What this means is that they benefited from the fragmentation and mutual rivalries of the forces that were competing against them, as opposed to the support of the majority of the people. This reality should be taken into account when public policies are being formulated.

In light of the foregoing observations, what might the "Supreme Guide's government" look like? How would it think and act?

At first glance, one might argue that the Egyptians have made great inroads in their long struggle to build a modern state and that no one would be able to destroy or bury their accomplishments. Egypt has its own cultural character, embodied in its popular heritage, its successive layers of civilisation, its humanitarian expertise, its sociological genes and its historical role, and no one can deny it or ignore it, for it has ultimately prevailed over all invaders and interlopers who have drunk from cultural sources other than that slowly and carefully forged along the banks of the Nile. I believe that the Muslim Brothers understand this to a considerable extent, which is why they will curb their more impetuous instincts and refrain from engaging in a direct clash with these ideological structures and social customs. In fact, the likelihood is that they will clash with the Salafis who generally promote a political project that deals with Egypt as though it were just born on 28 November 2011, which marked the beginning of the electoral process that handed the Salafis substantial political representation.

Nevertheless, looking further ahead, after asserting control over government, the Muslim Brothers will probably set their sights on establishing their control over the state, which they seek to imprint with their interests, outlooks and connections. Governments with their various ideological outlooks come and go, but the state itself should remain aloof to the fluctuations resulting from the rotating shifts at the helm and it should strive to preserve its stature, values, functions, institutions, basic laws and social structures. Therefore, the Muslim Brothers will do all in their power to strengthen their presence in all administrative, economic, security-related, social, cultural and religious institutions, and to fill any vacuum that emerges in the public sphere. Years of oppression have stamped themselves on the Muslim Brotherhood mindset and engrained in them a deep suspicion of others. They will therefore shunt aside anyone they disapprove of and although they may be forced to work with others in an alliance or coalition, they will try to keep that spirit of cooperation within the confines of the rule that holds that advancing the Muslim Brotherhood takes precedence over other considerations, regardless of how essential those considerations might be in the opinion of others.

The Muslim Brotherhood's electoral slogan was "We are working for the good of Egypt," inspired by a previous slogan, "We are working for the good of all people," and signals a shift, if only superficial, from a universal to a national operational framework. Nevertheless, how the Muslim Brothers translate this slogan into practice will be far more crucial, and their chief test in this regard will be the economy, or more precisely, development. We can safely say that the Egyptian people voted for that party that they felt was the most capable of safeguarding public assets, after these had been plundered for years, and that would now take the country forward after decades of deterioration. If this is the case, it was not so much "ideology" that determined their vote as it was the belief that the Islamists would succeed where the previous regimes have failed, especially in the fields of education, scientific research, healthcare, wages and pensions, employment, housing, fighting illiteracy and poverty, and the realisation of self- sufficiency in food, clothing and medicine. The people have pinned their hopes on the Freedom and Justice Party and Nour Party and they will now expect some concrete results. These parties, in turn, face an extremely challenging task, for the problems bequeathed by the Mubarak regime are manifold, highly complex, and self- reproducing. Religious sloganeering and preaching that plays on the emotions will not solve them and the people will be satisfied by nothing less than real solutions.

Until now, none of the competing parties or movements has come up with a complete and thorough programme for handling these formidable problems. The proof that the Muslim Brotherhood does not meet this condition is to be found in the fact that, after more than 80 years of waiting to come to power in Egypt, they had to turn to foreign experts for their Nahda (Renaissance) Project. Nor do the two small ventures that they have undertaken since the revolution give grounds for confidence that they will forge a path that will fulfil the hopes and aspirations of the Egyptian people. Their new newspaper and satellite television station lack both professionalism and an ability to compete, qualities that could have been supplied had those responsible for these ventures opened the doors to properly trained and competent professionals from outside Muslim Brotherhood ranks. As seemingly minor as this example is, to many it is highly revealing. It indicates that unless otherwise necessary or convenient it will resort to its own ranks, regardless of the accommodations it may have made with affiliates of different trends and bodies of opinion for electoral purposes and in spite of its leaders' incessant pledges that they will work consensually and will include everyone in the processes of managing the affairs of the country so that everyone can assume their responsibility to help extricate the Egypt from its current plight.

No less worrisome is the Muslim Brotherhood's behaviour towards those not from within its fold. Its practices of exclusion, marginalisation, smear tactics and systematic character assassination do nothing to inspire confidence it its ability to seriously and sincerely appreciate and accommodate ideas, attitudes and perceptions different to its own. This, in turn, raises grave doubts over the extent of the Freedom and Justice Party's commitment to the gains Egypt has made in civil liberties. While the Muslim Brothers may have become more open to and accepting of public and individual freedoms, especially when compared to the Salafis, what will be required of them when in power will be far greater and more profound than the ideas they conceded at a time when they were banned and excluded or, at least, in the ranks of the parliamentary opposition.

The Muslim Brothers have a choice. They can foster an experience that will draw worldwide admiration, as was the case with the Malaysian and Turkish models, or they can fall into the trap that produced the Islamist failures, such as Sudan, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere. They are virtually at the threshold of power. They realise that there are people who will keep a close eye on them, follow their every move and wait for them to make mistakes. But even before fear of popular scrutiny and possible punishment, the Muslim Brothers would be well advised to contemplate the wisdom of this Quranic verse: "Lest you grieve over what you missed or exult in what you received. God likes not all vain and boastful persons." They should also believe, if only hypothetically, that they are on the verge of a trial in the guise of a gift.

* The writer is political analyst.

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