Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 December 2009 - 6 January 2010
Issue No. 979
New Decade's special edition
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A different game for the MB

The Muslim Brotherhood remains too riddled with contradictions to make any significant move forward in the coming decade, argues Khalil El-Anani*

Click to view caption
Militancy casts shadow on the future of the Muslim Brothers

Over the past eight decades, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has succeeded in augmenting its social profile and organisational presence in Egypt. Unfortunately, the Muslim Brothers' political rhetoric has yet to develop in a way that qualifies it to become a partner in government or a political party on the lines of those founded by MB offshoots in other Arab countries.

Any realistic prediction of the shape of the MB a decade from now must proceed from an assessment of the movement's development since the late 1970s. It was at this point that the Egyptian Brotherhood decided to participate in the political process and abide by its rules. In the 1980s it made unprecedented inroads, expanding its popularity and influence. Indeed, it became the most influential and widely accepted grassroots movement in the country, which enabled it to achieve major breakthroughs in participatory politics. Its members won significant numbers of parliamentary seats in the 1984 and 1987 elections and began to dominate many professional syndicates.

These successes occurred in tandem with two major developments. One was the regime's steadily intensifying battle against militant Islamists belonging to the Jamaa Islamiya and Islamic Jihad. The second was the MB's growing ability to communicate with and influence large segments of the Egyptian public in mosques, schools and universities. By the early 1990s the government had become so leery of the threat posed by the still officially outlawed group's steady rise that it decided to take definitive action to halt it. The Salsabil case of 1992 brought the first mass arrests and military trials of MB members since the 1960s. It is noteworthy that while these trials were in progress the MB issued its first document addressing such fundamental issues as citizenship and freedom of expression. Appearing in 1994, the document, in spite of its vagueness, marked a significant development in the group's rhetoric.

A decade after the so-called "citizenship paper" appeared the MB issued a "reform paper" outlining the organisation's positions on a number of rights and governance issues. The rhetoric had noticeably matured, though it remained marred by ambiguities and inconsistencies. The MB then scored an unprecedented victory in the parliamentary elections that were held in November 2005. Its members now controlled 20 per cent of the seats in the People's Assembly.

Since the outset of 2006, however, the MB's fortunes have steadily declined in the face of the increasing determination of the regime to eliminate the movement from the political scene. Not since the Manshiya incident in the 1950s has the relationship between the regime and the MB reached such a degree of animosity. It would be no exaggeration to say that the carefully calibrated political contest between the two has escalated to a zero-sum game. The backdrop to the confrontation is a shared sense that the battle has neared its end. In some quarters of the regime a belief has come to prevail that the MB is at its weakest for decades and could soon be wiped out. Conversely, the MB leadership believes that the regime has grown so old and decrepit that it could easily be tipped into the grave. Both sides are biding their time, waiting for the opportunity to deliver the blow that will lay the other to rest.

In truth the government has scored a number of gains against the MB in recent years. It has largely succeeded in neutralising the largest opposition movement in the country, adding weight to claims that the MB is faltering despite its parliamentary presence. The MB has been economically drained as the regime has systematically attacked its sources of finance. Some 20 large and another 20 smaller companies owned by prominent MB members have been closed down which is perhaps why, according to the official story at least, the MB leadership in Egypt has begun to appeal for financial assistance from abroad. The movement has also be en organisationally drained through the arrest of second, third and possibly fourth tier members. This attrition has sapped the group's ability to withstand the assault from the regime and, in the absence of the mid- level leaders, to communicate with its membership base.

In August 2007, in an attempt to absorb some of the regime's wrath, the MB published its first manifesto for a political party. The step partially backfired. The document contained some very undemocratic ideas regarding the rights of women and Copts and the creation of a body of clerics that would wield supreme power. The document roused the anger of swathes of Egypt's intellectual, cultural and political elites and even drew criticism from some Muslim Brothers abroad, including Rashed Al-Ghanoushi, Ali Al-Bayanouni and Kamal Al-Halbawi.

Given the above, the fate of the MB over the next 10 years will be contingent upon two sets of variables, one associated with the organisation itself, the other associated with its relationship with the regime and political developments in Egypt.

In the first category must be included the extent to which the MB can develop, open up and democratise its discourse. As a start towards this end the organisation would have to revise its party platform and rethink many of the points that stirred harsh reactions. That the MB is capable of such a revision remains questionable given the extent to which conservatives now dominate the organisation.

It will need, too, to change its organisational structure, radically overhauling its internal regulations governing the powers and jurisdictions of the supreme guide, the Guidance Bureau and the General Shura Council. As the recent crisis in the Guidance Bureau and rumours of the supreme guide's threat to resign have demonstrated, the MB does not have a sturdy enough institutional infrastructure to resolve internal disputes.

Opportunities for the younger, reform-minded generation to rise within the hierarchy so as to allow an injection of fresh blood and courageous ideas are also needed. The generation gap in the MB is already wide and threatens to yawn further, though it seems unlikely that the organisation's geriatric old guard will willingly relinquish power.

Nor does it seem that the MB is truly ready to found a political party. This has much less to do with the general political climate and circumstances than it does with attitudes within the MB itself. A large segment of MB members do not see the point of establishing a political party; rather, they view the move as a distraction to the proselytising activities, which they believe is the MB's major calling. The likelihood, then, is that the confusion and overlap between the political and proselytising activities will persist.

The MB also remains torn between a nationalist and universal agenda. The organisation remains at a loss over whether to define itself as an Egyptian national movement with no international agenda or as a religious movement with a global agenda. It is one thing to take positions in support of other Islamic countries and resistance movements, quite another to act against national interests. The MB has transgressed the bounds on several occasions over the past three years.

As regards the relationship with the regime and other domestic political factors, the MB's future is contingent upon the regime's ability to resolve the question over whether to assimilate the MB as a legitimate participant in party politics. At present, the chances of this occurring are unlikely. The regime's determination to exclude Islamists, in general, and not just the MB, from the political process, looks unshakeable.

It also depends on the extent of liberalisation within Egyptian politics. The more Egypt moves away from an authoritarian government towards greater democratisation and plurality the greater the chances that the MB will shift to a less rigid rhetoric and more democratic outlook.

The ability of the MB to reformulate its relationship with the regime and base it on the principles of respectful competition, as opposed to animosity and backstabbing the regime regionally and internationally, as it has done on several occasions over the past two years, is also important, as is the group's ability to improve its relationship with other political and social forces. One of the chronic illnesses of this movement has been its failure to build permanent political alliances.

It is difficult to see any qualitative leap forward being made by the MB by 2020, either on the level of its ideological discourse or in terms of political participation and influence. Its parliamentary success in 2005 increasingly looks as if it might be the high point of the coming decade.

The MB found itself in a crisis as it attempted to elect a new guide and, for the first time since 1995, a Guidance Council. The elections turned out to be a face-off between reformists and conservatives. And it ended in a victory for the conservatives, indeed the ultra- conservatives, who tightened their grip on the Guidance Council. This was a blow to the reformists and may prove to be the start of the intellectual and political decline of the group.

The elections are bound to cast a shadow on the MB's image at home and abroad. Marred by discontent and division at the MB's uppermost echelons of the group, the elections may have spelt the end of the reformist thinking, without which the MB is likely to slip back into its old secretive ways.

One must expect further clashes to occur between the MB and the regime, either because the conservatives cannot formulate a realistic agenda or because they cannot engage in mainstream politics and maintain a workable relationship with the regime. The new general guide may turn out to be incapable of winning over the public, so much so that the MB may look back to Mahdi Akef's days with yearning.

Should this happen, hardline wings are likely to appear within the MB, or many of the group's members would leave the MB to join more hardline groups. In other words, the MB's recent crisis was a turning point for a group now facing an uncertain future.

* Senior scholar at the Institute for Middle East and Islamic Studies, Durham University, UK.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Issue 979 Front Page
Current issue | Previous issue | Site map