Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1150, 29 May - 5 June 2013
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1150, 29 May - 5 June 2013

Ahram Weekly

‘Performance, not piety’

As the Muslim Brotherhood loses popularity in both Egypt and Tunisia, could this mean the demise of political Islam in Egypt and the other Arab Spring countries, asks Gihan Shahine

Al-Ahram Weekly



Ghada, a 45-year-old teacher, headed to the ballot box in Egypt’s first free parliamentary elections with much confidence in her choice. She had no second thoughts about choosing to vote for candidates belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood.

“They are the only ones I trust my kids’ future with. They are people with integrity. They work hard, and I trust them to try to make this country get better,” Ghada said at the time of the parliamentary polls.

In the presidential elections, Ghada still insisted on casting her ballot in favour of Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi, later Egypt’s first elected president.

Today, however, Ghada may not be as confident of her choice, with all the country’s public anger, political turmoil and economic adversity. She knows “there must be something wrong since things are getting worse everyday, and almost everybody is angry and dissatisfied.”

“I think the Brotherhood shot themselves in the foot when they ran for the presidency at such a hard time,” Ghada said. “The rotten heritage they were bequeathed from the former regime was too heavy for anyone to handle. There are also those inside and outside Egypt who want the revolution to fail, and the president and the Brotherhood do not seem to have the necessary expertise to deal with all these challenges at one time.”


A SHARP DROP IN POPULARITY: However, as a Brotherhood sympathiser, Ghada may still sound more tolerant about the group’s failings than the majority of Egyptians, who are frustrated at the country’s seemingly endless economic, political and social woes, blaming these on Morsi and the Brotherhood.

A recent poll by the Egyptian Centre for Public Opinion Research (Baseera), revealed a sharp drop in the popularity of Morsi, from high approval ratings of 79 per cent in September to 49 per cent in mid-March last year.

Disapproval of the president’s performance has risen gradually over the past seven months from an initial 15 per cent to 39 per cent over recent weeks. It now stands at about 43 per cent of respondents, according to Baseera pollsters. After his first 100 days in office, 58 per cent of respondents said they would vote for Morsi again, but today that figure is down to 35 per cent.

A more recent poll by the US-based Pew Global Attitudes Project on 16 May also found that “only 30 per cent of Egyptians say they are satisfied with the way things are going in their country, down from 53 per cent last year and 65 per cent in a spring 2011 poll conducted weeks after the ouster of [former president Hosni] Mubarak.”

The study showed that the popularity of the Brotherhood had dropped from 75 per cent in 2011, to 70 per cent in 2012 and then to 63 per cent this year. More alarming, perhaps, was the poll’s finding that “today’s level of satisfaction is comparable to the level observed in spring 2010, roughly a year before the revolution.”

The survey also revealed how levels of satisfaction varied, due to sharp splits in Egyptian society. According to Pew, 53 per cent of those who expressed a positive view of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and 51 per cent of the Salafist Nour Party’s supporters were satisfied with the country’s direction, as were “Egyptians who want the Quran to shape the country’s legal system and those who prioritise stability over democracy.”

In contrast, 74 per cent of “people who back the opposition National Salvation Front [NSF], those who want the Quran to have less legal influence, and people who prioritise democracy” say it is bad.

The polls are not the only indication of anger against the Brotherhood, and protests have been escalating as the president nears completing the first year of his presidency on 30 June. An opposition movement called Tamarod was launched on 1 May to register opposition to Morsi, with the aim of forcing him to call early presidential elections by collecting 15 million signatures by 30 June.

So far, movement campaigners claim they have already collected more than three million signatures of no-confidence in the president from citizens frustrated by the poor performance of the regime.

In addition to the protests and strikes, the Brotherhood has also lost control of both the pharmacists and the press syndicates, two of the main professional syndicates in Egypt, after recent internal votes, with the group’s candidates also being defeated by their independent and liberal rivals in recent student union elections.

Political analyst Adel Amer notes that if the figures are anything to go by then the results of the second free student union elections in post-revolutionary Egypt indicate a sharp loss of Brotherhood popularity in the country — a far cry from its major victory in the first student union elections after the 25 January Revolution. The Brothers, for instance, only won two per cent of votes in Assiut University and only three out of a total of 28 seats in the Ain Shams student union elections.

“The drop is an indication that people may no longer be much interested in the Brotherhood’s slogan of ‘Islam is the solution’ and that the group is losing credibility in the Egyptian street,” Amer noted.

At the same time, the ruling Islamists do not seem to be faring any better in Tunisia. The percentage of people there dissatisfied with the direction of the country has also peaked at 77 per cent of respondents, according to a recent survey by the International Republican Institute.

The head of the ruling Tunisian Al-Nahda Party Rachid Ghannouchi has been pelted with tomatoes and eggs as he attended events commemorating the second anniversary of the revolution that ousted the former regime in some rural areas. Such incidents have been interpreted as indicating widespread public dissatisfaction with the government’s performance in Tunisia.


THE RISE OF POLITICAL ISLAM: There has been almost a consensus among analysts worldwide that the Arab Spring provided political Islamist groups with an unprecedented chance to rule, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, where the majority of voters cast their ballots in favour of the Islamists after the countries’ revolutions.

Egypt’s first democratic polls in the post-revolutionary period indicated that a majority of Egyptians seemed to have wanted an Islamist government. Egypt’s largest and best-organised Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, constituted the largest bloc in the now dissolved parliament, followed by the ultra-conservative Salafist Nour Party, which unexpectedly was the second-largest political group in the parliament.

There was also the moderate Islamist Wasat Party, formed of Brotherhood dissidents, which came fourth on the list of parties winning seats in the same parliament. Morsi, the former head of the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, won the first presidential elections in June 2012.

This sudden rise of political Islam after the popular uprisings in the Arab Spring countries has been a concern for local and international analysts, who have been bent on finding answers to the question of why political Islam made its way to rule many of the Arab Spring countries, particularly Egypt and Tunisia.

Many analysts have argued that those who voted for the Islamists in the parliamentary elections in Egypt were not necessarily seeking Islamist rule. Instead, many people may have opted for the Islamists because they believed that they had integrity and that they were people with clean hands who would not steal from the country, unlike the members of the former regime.

Some analysts also suggested that the Islamists had earned massive public sympathy as a result of decades of persecution, having been persecuted at the hands of many despotic, Western-backed Arab regimes. In Egypt, Syria, Libya, Algeria and elsewhere, members of Islamist movements have been jailed, killed and tortured in great numbers, or they have simply fled abroad.

In the meantime, the Islamists’ involvement in welfare activities in favour of the poor and underprivileged, as well as their focus on issues of daawa (preaching),made them perhaps the closest of all other movements to many members of the public.

Today, however, many Egyptians are frustrated at the Islamist government’s performance in the face of a fraught economy, unprecedented rises in prices, unemployment and the absence of security.

Since the 25 January Revolution that overthrew Mubarak in 2011, Egypt has been suffering from a dramatic drop in investment amid widespread instability. Foreign currency reserves have dropped from $36 billion to almost $13 billion over the past two years, and the value of the Egyptian pound continues to fall against the dollar. Fuel shortages, slumbering tourism, and an unprecedented inflation in basic food prices, as well as the high rate of unemployment, have all been driving people almost to a state of despair.

The recent Pew poll revealed how the “national mood in Egypt has turned significantly more negative over the past year,” during which optimism about the future has ebbed. About three-in-four Egyptians believe that the economy is “in bad shape, and most think the country’s standard of living is declining. Many also believe law and order and morality are deteriorating,” according to Pew.

Many blame Egypt’s first freely elected president and the Muslim Brotherhood for the crises that are now plaguing the country.

“What has the president or the Muslim Brotherhood done for the country, except drag it into endless crises,” asked Atiyat, a 63-year-old domestic worker. “I may be illiterate, but I can see the country is getting worse everyday. We do not need more Islam, for the majority of Egyptians are already good Muslims. We need a better standard of living.”

Forty-five-year-old engineer Mohamed Salah has more or less the same complaints. “We cannot keep up with the increases in prices. We cannot live with the shortages of fuel and electricity and the scaring absence of security.”

Although Salah concedes that many of the current problems should also be blamed on the corruption of the former regime, he insists that “the current government’s incompetence should be to blame now, for it has failed to do anything whatsoever to solve these aggravating problems.”


THE REGIME’S MISSTEPS: Political analyst and expert on Islamic affairs Seif Abdel-Fattah explains that although it would only be fair to say that whoever ruled Egypt during the present tough period would face more or less the same challenges, it is also clear that the current regime and its ruling party “do not have a comprehensive and clear-cut governing strategy, but are rather working according to piecemeal solutions.”

“To be objective, we first have to admit that the current political situation is extremely tough for whoever rules the country — whether political Islam or any other ideology,” Abdel-Fattah told the Weekly.

The country was undergoing a post-revolutionary transitional period that was fraught with difficulties and challenges linked to the nature of the period itself, he said. Public hopes and expectations were normally high after any revolution, and there were often domestic and foreign attempts to abort the success of uprisings anywhere in the world, he added.

However, that said, Abdel-Fattah lamented the fact that “the Muslim Brotherhood tends to depend on and employ those it trusts [according to loyalty or identity], rather than those who have experience in governance at a time when it lacks this kind of experience. This is a grave mistake on the Brotherhood’s part.”

“In the meantime, the regime has been increasingly less transparent about its decisions, causing further political turbulence,” Abdel-Fattah said.

There is almost a consensus among critics that perhaps the Brotherhood’s gravest mistake has been its failure to reach an accommodation with the revolutionary forces. Instead, critics say, it has created hostile relations with the opposition, as well as with many institutions that it believes are dominated by remnants of the old regime, particularly the judiciary and the media.

That, according to critics, has led to a highly polarised situation in which the Brotherhood has been left with almost no supporters outside Islamist ranks, even losing the support of its former Salafist allies, most prominently the Nour Party.

Political expert Amr Al-Shobaki believes that the Brotherhood’s standoff with the judiciary was one main reason why the group’s popularity has been dropping among different political groups, resulting in a state of general public mistrust.

“The Brotherhood pushed Morsi to sack the former prosecutor-general and appoint a new one by executive authority,” Al-Shobaki wrote in a recent column in the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm. “The Brotherhood’s battle with the prosecutor-general in turn caused the Egyptian people’s trust in the group to decline.”

In the meantime, Al-Shobaki wrote, the group’s “deadly clashes with revolutionary youths in front of the presidential palace, in Muqattam, and in other areas across the country” had been equally detrimental to the group’s popularity.

Many would perhaps agree with Yossri Al-Azabawi, a researcher at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, who said that the Islamists in both Egypt and Tunisia have miscalculated in their attempts to be “monopolistic about power” and hesitant at best in accommodating the opposition and the revolutionary forces seeking a share in the countries’ rule.

“In both Tunisia and Egypt, the Islamist regimes have been attempting to force change from the top, rather than induce change from the bottom, leading to confrontations with the people and with liberal forces that refuse to bow to change or accept any kind of marginalisation,” Al-Azabawi explained.

The consensus remains that “unless the Islamists adapt to change and realise that the rules of the game have changed after the revolutions, meaning that they have to share, rather than compete for or monopolise power [as was the case under the former regimes], they will be doomed to failure,” Al-Azabawi said.

Yet, Abdel-Fattah would not blame the Islamists alone for Egypt’s current situation. Instead, he singles out the country’s elite as a whole, saying that what the liberal and Islamist forces share is a “lack of political experience”. Both have “slipped into more or less the same mistakes” that are driving the country into a vicious circle of political feuds, he added.

“Both [the regime and the opposition] have marginalised civil society and young people, put themselves in conflict with the military, and engaged in a power-grab struggle instead of joining forces to solve public woes,” Abdel-Fattah said. In the tug-of-war over power, both the opposition and the regime have resorted to the same tactics, being those that they would have otherwise rejected. 

“Both, for instance, reject seeking foreign support and joining forces with prominent figures belonging to the old regime, for example. But both have done exactly this in their attempts to grab power,” Abdel-Fattah added.

Islam itself may have been tarnished in the process. “The Islamists have [unintentionally] tarnished religion when they used an irresponsible political and religious discourse that steers clear from the true essence and forgiveness of Islam,” Abdel-Fattah said. “The liberals for their part have also been exerting almost systematic efforts to distort the image of the Islamist currents, claiming that they represent an alternative and more tolerant discourse that in fact attempts to exclude religion from public life.”

However, since the Islamists are the ones who hold the reigns of power, Abdel-Fattah insists that they are the ones who should initiate change. Otherwise, they will be the first to lose, he said. “There is no doubting that the Islamist project will pay a heavy price for all [the regime’s] malpractices,” Abdel-Fattah warned.


HAS THE DEMISE BEGUN? Today, many would perhaps agree with a recent opinion piece in the Lebanese daily As-Safir entitled “The Crisis of the Popular Revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia: Diagnosis and Treatment”, which speculated that the reign of political Islam had perhaps lost “the dearest thing it ever had: its political innocence”.

“Political Islam can no longer claim that the people have experienced every other political current and reaped nothing but oppression and poverty, and that because political Islam is bound by the Islamic doctrines of justice, charity and equality, it is suitable for democratic governance and would achieve the people’s interests and secure them a good future,” wrote the author of the piece.

The drop in the popularity of the Brotherhood in both Egypt and Tunisia has indeed opened up a heated debate over the fate of the group, as well as, more importantly, of political Islam as a whole.

Whereas some analysts have been quick to speculate on the imminent demise of the Islamist project in the Arab Spring countries, others have insisted that it is too early to judge the Islamists’ performance or speculate on the end of political Islam. 

But if the polls are anything to go by, a recent public opinion poll by on the topic found that around 72 per cent of respondents said that the angry protests in both Egypt and Tunisia indicated that the demise of Islamist rule had already started.

Khaled Fahmy, a history professor at the American University in Cairo, is among those speculating that the demise of the Islamist project has already begun, as he told a recent interview with the US newspaper USA Today.

Many voices from within the Islamists’ own ranks are also increasingly anxious that the escalating drop in public satisfaction with the Brotherhood’s performance in Egypt and Tunisia could ultimately harm the Islamist project as a whole in the region. After all, they say, the ordinary person can hardly be expected to grasp that the spectrum of political Islam is not limited to the Brotherhood, but that it also includes the Salafis and Sufis.

Whereas the Salafis tend to split over their support for the Brotherhood, the Sufis are already opposed to the regime. But few ordinary people realise that political Islam takes different forms, and thus they tend to blame any misstep on the part of the Brotherhood on the whole Islamist project.  

As Islamist lawyer Montasser Al-Zayat has speculated, any failure “of the Islamic project in Egypt would in turn mean the demise of political Islam for at least 50 years to come. The Arab nations that were inspired to support the [Brotherhood’s] slogan of ‘Islam is the solution’ would then abandon it for other ideologies, unless the ruling regime finds a quick remedy to their ailing problems,” Al-Zayat warned in a recent seminar.

Abdel-Fattah, who has recently resigned from his post as a consultant to the presidency, similarly warns that if “the shortcomings of the current Islamist governments in Egypt and Tunisia persist, the popularity of the whole Islamist project will continue to erode.”

Yet, Al-Azabawi argues that no one can give a final say on the fate of political Islam, since both Egypt and Tunisia remain in a state of transition. The revolutions in these countries have not ended, and the regimes in them have not taken on their ultimate form. In the meantime, Al-Azabawi said that although the Islamists hold the reigns of executive power, no one could claim that Egypt and Tunisia were experiencing fully-fledged Islamic governance in the pure sense of the term.

Looking at the varying fates of political Islam in other parts of the Arab and non-Arab worlds provides additional data regarding its fate. 

The Islamists, including both the Brotherhood and the conservative Salafis, are still “doing well in elections in several countries that have started to democratise and in places like Syria where armed conflict persists,” noted Rami Khouri, a senior fellow and specialist on Middle East issues at the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, writing in an Agence Global opinion piece.

Syria’s Al-Nusra Front, for instance, has been gaining popularity, and it even controls some areas liberated from government control.

Likewise, the Islamist parties of Hamas in Palestine and Hizbullah in Lebanon still retain much public support despite the challenges they face inside and outside their homelands. In Yemen and Libya, Islamist parties also enjoy considerable popular support, though this remains a far cry from that which they gained in post-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia, according to Khouri.

Looking at the broader picture of non-Arab examples in Turkey and Iran also “offers more fascinating evidence of the varying fates of the Islamists in power,” Khouri wrote.

In Turkey, for instance, Khouri explained that the Islamist Justice and Development Party has “fared very well and been re-elected twice, in part because it has downplayed religious issues and focussed on responding to the citizens’ needs.”

In Iran, however, “the Islamic Republic’s theocratic leadership has faced significant calls for reform in recent years, probably because many, perhaps a small majority, of the Iranian public are not content with its combination of autocratic political controls and strict Islamic dictates, combined with poor economic performance.”

Experience, Khouri concluded, thus shows that “performance, not piety”, meaning efficiency in governing and responding to citizens’ needs, is what determines whether the Islamists gain or lose popularity when they assume power.


EMERGING FROM THE BUBBLE: Khouri also asked an important question: do the Islamists fare better when they are in opposition to autocratic rule or to a foreign occupier, or when they serve a limited constituency of welfare services, than when they take the reigns of government themselves?

“It is of course much easier to be in the opposition than to be in government,” stated Abdel-Fattah matter-of-factly. The fact that “no one from the Islamist groups has ever been given the chance to rule before” compounds the problem, especially when “no one from within or outside the Islamist current has the necessary expertise for that heavy task at this critical moment,” he added.

Analysts say that the Islamists in the Middle East have been suffering from decades of political isolation, and that have been jailed and demonised by the region’s autocratic rulers for more than half a century.

“The Islamist parties, with the partial exception of the Moroccan PJD, still show signs of their previous isolation, both within their own countries and internationally,” said a recent study entitled “Islamist Parties in Power: A Work in Progress” by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Government repression and the policies of the United States and the European countries forced them to stay in their own bubbles,” the study elaborated. But “not all Islamist leaders at this point are familiar and comfortable with the world outside the bubble.”

Although Egypt’s Brotherhood managed to run members as independent candidates in elections under the former Mubarak regime through deals with other political parties, the group remained banned from forming an official organisation or political party until the ouster of that regime.

More importantly, it was excluded from many official domains in Egypt’s bureaucracy, and Brotherhood members were never allowed to be governors and were never hired for sensitive positions in Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, Interior Ministry, or intelligence agencies, for example.

In Tunisia, Al-Nahda, then called the Islamic Tendency Movement, sought recognition as a political party in 1981, but this was refused. In response to its growing popularity, many of its leaders were then exiled or imprisoned. The organisation only started functioning normally after the overthrow of former Tunisian president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali in the Spring 2011 revolution, becoming a legally registered party in Tunisia in March 2011.

This “forced isolation” of the Islamist groups, according to Carnegie researchers, makes “it difficult to interpret whether some of the positions that most upset secularists in these countries and outsiders are truly radical statements, to be taken literally, or the result of naiveté about how certain statements resonate outside the confines of the Islamist community.”

More importantly, perhaps, that forced isolation may also explain why the Brotherhood has been improperly prepared to rule.

“Those who have criticised the Brotherhood in the past as being solely concerned with political power have been far from the mark — a senior leader of the movement today is more likely to have joined with the expectation of serving in prison than the hope of occupying the presidential palace,” wrote Nathan J. Brown, a senior associate at Carnegie’s Middle East Programme, in a study entitled “Islam and Politics in the New Egypt”. 

For Brown, the fact that the group grasped the reigns of power before “they felt fully ready” and while “feeling under attack” also explains much of the Brotherhood’s “Nixonian rhetoric” and “political missteps”.

The Brotherhood has shown “agility” in winning elections and has managed to control the presidency and “seems poised to knock down barriers to its members’ entry into a host of state institutions, ranging from the media to perhaps the military,” Brown wrote.

“But the fact remains that the Brotherhood was not built primarily for politics and certainly not for governing.”

The Brotherhood, Brown wrote, was formed as a reform movement in the 1920s with a focus on social services and preaching. It then gradually became engaged in political activities, which were considered part of its mission, but not necessarily the most important one, over more recent decades.

It shifted most of its energy to politics over the past two years, and today the group needs to develop “a strategic vision that enables it to change from an opposition social movement dedicated to the reform of all society into a competitive political party”, Brown wrote.

Yet, it remains questionable whether the Brotherhood will be able to deal with the mounting pressures of governing. “Compromises are necessary: they are the stuff of normal politics,” Brown suggested. But the group will have “to adjust to a new environment where the shortcomings of public bodies are increasingly attributed to the movement.”

“The Brotherhood has received more than its share of negative publicity before: the regime of Hosni Mubarak pilloried the Brotherhood for everything from terrorism to a claimed alignment with the United States,” Brown elaborated.

Today, however, the group has to face far more pressures as it attempts to rule. “Any political problem or misstep, from an accident on the state railways to an increase in unemployment to perceived electoral fraud, risks not only tarnishing the Brotherhood’s image, but also alienating the population from any sort of Islamist vision for politics and society,” Brown said.

“Never before has the movement had to bear such a burden.” For Brown, the question is not whether the group will be able to “survive intact — it will likely flourish,” but rather whether it will be able to “remain true to its mission of Islamising reform.”



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