From mosque to palace
The Muslim Brotherhood has finally reached the peak of the pyramid of power, but that doesn't mean to say they now have a free hand, writes Hasan Afif El-Hasan
More than half a century after the 1952 Gamal Abdel-Nasser coup, Egypt has come full circle. The people have the same grievances that led the Free Officers to take the initiative and seize power, and that are now at the root of the Tahrir Square protests. In King Farouk's era there was great deal of corruption and nepotism and after the 1952 coup a new class of elite made up of officers with no accountability, leading to more corruption, was created. Under the monarchy, a small percentage of the population owned almost all the wealth, and after half a century of authoritarian rule, still few Egyptians own the total wealth. There is widespread poverty, massive unemployment, endemic corruption and a universal culture of nepotism.
The charismatic Nasser was loved by the vast majority of the Egyptian people because he nationalised the Suez Canal, liberated Egypt from foreign dominance, distributed land, built the High Dam, expanded the education system, provided free healthcare, rent control and guaranteed government jobs for all university graduates. But Nasser laid the foundation of a brutal police state ruled by a military dictatorship. If leadership means selecting the right people to help do the job properly, then Nasser failed miserably. He gave the Egyptians his first vice president Abdel-Hakim Amer, a playboy military man who proved incompetent beyond measure; he appointed Anwar El-Sadat as his vice president, another corrupt anti-democratic military man. Nasser allowed Amer and other coup leaders to form circles of power that put all their energy into competition for control of Egypt's resources. When the Syrians asked to join a union with Egypt in 1958, Amer was appointed as Syria's governor. After three years of Amer's autocratic rule, the Syrians, fed up with his corrupt regime and no accountability, decided to terminate the union, thus Amer, the right hand man of Nasser, was behind the failure of the first pan-Arab unity dream experiment. Nasser got rid of Amer only after he led Egypt to the 1967 war defeat by Israel.
The Egyptian people today are revolting against the antidemocratic institutions that were created by Nasser and inherited by his successors, Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. They put an end to the Orientalist version of the Egyptians' psyche that the Egyptians are apathetic to their oppressive rulers. Their revolt and sacrifices hardly appear apathetic.
Mohamed Mursi, a previous political prisoner and the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate for Egypt's 2012 presidential election was elected with 51.73 per cent of the vote. He read the oath of office at three different locations: Tahrir Square where Egypt's revolution was born, Cairo University and before the Supreme Constitutional Court. He declared: "Today, the Egyptian people laid the foundation of a new life: absolute freedom, a genuine democracy and stability." The question is whether President Mursi will govern as an Islamist or a pragmatist secular. The eighty-four year journey of the Brotherhood movement from the mosques and coffee shops of Cairo to the presidential palace is among the longest in history for a political movement.
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood was founded by Hassan El-Banna, a schoolteacher by profession, in 1928 as a protest movement against "corrupting Western culture" and "British political and economic control of Egypt under the oversight of a decadent puppet monarchy". It envisaged bringing Egypt to a true and strict interpretation of Islam away from the corrupt aspirations and conduct created by European dominance, while in the long run establishing an Islamic caliphate similar to the system of government under the Rightly Guided Caliphs following the death of the Prophet Mohamed.
The military wing of the Brothers, which does not exist today anymore, distinguished itself as fearless and dedicated in fighting side-by-side with the Egyptian military in the 1948 war against Israel and along the Suez Canal against the British occupation in the 1950s.
The Brothers had hundreds of thousands of followers when it was banned and many of its members were hanged in 1954 by President Nasser's regime after being accused of trying to assassinate Nasser while delivering a public speech in Alexandria. The Brothers denied any involvement in that event and accused Nasser of fabricating the incident to shore up his domestic support. A generation of the Brother's followers was radicalised, including Sayed Qotb, who was executed with many of the movement's leaders in 1966. Qotb argued in his books that Nasser's regime was beyond the bounds of Islam. Qotb called for overthrowing the regime by violent means because it belonged to the category of "pre-Islamic ignorance" (jahiliya in Arabic).
The Brothers distanced themselves publicly from Qotb's radical ideology in the 1970s, renounced violence and cautiously embraced the democratic process. Qotb's writings inspired extremist jihadist groups including Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya and Al-Takfir wal-Higra to split from the Brotherhood accusing its leadership of accepting the status quo and the military regime. A wave of Islamist terror was carried out by jihadist groups. President Sadat was assassinated in 1981, some secular intellectuals were murdered, there were frequent attacks on the minority Christian community, and dozens of tourists near Luxor in Upper Egypt were killed in 1997.
After Egypt's humiliation in the 1967 war and Nasser's death, the Brothers participated in the debate whether Egypt should be identified by its nationalist, Arabist, Islamist or ethnic affiliation. President Sadat brought the Brothers back into the mainstream because he sought their support to dismantle Nasser's socialist programmes. The Brothers are enthusiastic about defending private ownership and opposing socialism as an un-Islamic principle. People in Islam are free to practice capitalism in the form of transactions of goods where each party retains certain profit as a universal economic system, according to the sociologist Janet Abu Lughod. After all, the Prophet Mohamed was a merchant before the Divine Revelation. The recent emergence of Islamic finance institutions on a major scale and their success in competing with other international banks suggests that modern capitalism can be combined with Islam.
The Brothers initially embraced Sadat's economic policies, infitah, that appeared to encourage free market initiatives. But when corruption, patronage and nepotism plagued the country, the Brothers could not support Sadat anymore. The gap between them and Sadat became too wide to bridge once Sadat signed the peace treaty with Israel.
Following Sadat's assassination by radical Islamists enraged by his visit to Israel, his successor, President Hosni Mubarak, re-enacted emergency laws that meant people could be arrested at any time at the whim of the regime. The Muslim Brotherhood was designated as an outlaw organisation; its leaders and grassroots who joined for reasons of deep conviction were routinely arrested, harassed, shackled and tortured in Egypt's jails. Its leaders were portrayed by the ordinary Egyptian people as martyrs to the cause of freedom. The problem that faced Mubarak's regime was that the Brothers and their sympathisers were everywhere in society: in universities, in all professions, in NGOs and in local government. Perhaps the regime was concerned about the Brothers seeking to help the people, implicitly indicting the regime for its incompetence.
The Muslim Brothers' strength is their honesty and their kindness, which no one can deny. They run wide range of social programmes that include education, health and job training. The Brothers earned respect beyond their core constituency, but Egypt's complicated problems require compromises even with the Muslim Brothers' deepest held slogan, "Islam is the solution." President Mursi will never be able to apply a strict version of Sharia law in Egypt under a democratic system of government because he would be restricted by the majority of the Egyptian people. If authority corrupts the Brothers once in power, and they forget why the people elected them, or if they do not compromise, the recent history of Egypt will not be on their side.
The writer is a political analyst.