The violence and slaughter that erupted in front of Al-Ittihadiya presidential palace in Egypt was a vision of man in his primordial state of nature, or what Thomas Hobbes described as the “war of all against all”. The result was eight dead and hundreds wounded. What sparked this chaos was the constitutional declaration issued by President Morsi several weeks ago and in accordance with which he granted himself sweeping powers that placed him above all agencies that could hold him accountable, including the judiciary. Eventually he revoked this declaration, but the damage had been done and its effects are lasting.
The “Battle of Al-Ittihadiya”, as it was dubbed in the Egyptian media, occasioned something of a competition to brand the Muslim Brotherhood with every epithet in the lexicon of political evils. They were “fascists”, “terrorists” and guilty of “sectarian incitement”. Amidst that media frenzy, it was difficult if not impossible to conduct a rational and objective analysis of that “Bloody Wednesday” in order to determine how it happened and what it signifies, whether with respect to the future of the democratic transition in Egypt or the image of the Muslim Brotherhood in the mind of the general Egyptian public.
Now that some time has lapsed, as I look back on the constitutional declaration crisis, what strikes me as most important is not just the death and violence that aroused such grief among Egyptians and that stirred both sorrow and anxiety among many of our Arab neighbours, but also the way the Muslim Brotherhood reacted and how it handled the crisis. Here I will register some preliminary observations that I believe will shed light on the mistakes the Brotherhood made and how these will impact on its popular image and its future.
First, its decision to dispatch its supporters to Al-Ittihadiya palace in order to support President Morsi was catastrophic. Regardless of the justifications that were recited regarding some conspiracy to topple the president (with regard to which there as been no evidence so far apart from unsubstantiated charges and rhetorical flares), there can be no doubt that Brotherhood leaders bear the largest share of responsibility for the deaths and injuries that were caused that day. That decision reflected a total lack of wisdom and political acumen. It was impetuous and reckless and ultimately it did more harm than good to the Brotherhood and the president. It reaffirmed the ongoing organic connection between Morsi and his group, belying the repeated claims he had made that this special relationship had ended the moment he became president. More significantly, it indicated that the Brotherhood believes that it has the right to confer upon itself functions that are preserve of state agencies, notably the Republican Guard and the Ministry of Defence, which are responsible for protecting the president. Even presuming that these two agencies were remiss in their duties or, worse, had “conspired” against the president, as some Brotherhood leaders and their supporters allege (in spite of the fact that Morsi had restructured the Republican Guard and that he had, personally and over the vehement objections of the revolutionary forces, approved the choice of minister of defence), the Muslim Brotherhood has no right to exercise a mandate over the state and to impose a de facto reality, as it tried to do. The fact that the Muslim Brotherhood acted in this manner handed the media a golden opportunity to reproduce assertions that the Brotherhood has armed militias and that these are little different to mafia gangs.
Second, the Muslim Brotherhood’s handling of the crisis triggered by Morsi’s constitutional declaration drove many to question the credibility of their political discourse and to suspect the sincerity of their commitment to non-violence, democratic values and respect for political plurality. Most of us had believed that such matters had long since been resolved within the Brotherhood organisation. But it now appears that there is a growing rift between word and deed. Perhaps some might counter that the Brotherhood had been provoked by its adversaries and their “conspiracies” to undermine it. While there may be an element of truth to this, the argument only affirms our contention, which is that the Muslim Brotherhood has become embroiled in acts of violence, elimination and other attempts to silence opponents on the grounds that they oppose the Brotherhood. In a democracy the existence of differences is taken for granted and what sets one political faction apart from the other is the ability to express its views in a peaceful manner and the ability to reach common ground with other factions. In acting the way it did, the Muslim Brotherhood effectively stripped itself of the democratic mantel it needs to form alliances or enhance its image.
Third, the crisis revealed a descent in the Muslim Brotherhood’s political rhetoric to an unprecedented level of vituperation and incitement, which eventually led to material and physical violence against its adversaries. Over the course of the past few weeks, Brotherhood leaders, much in contrast to their customary rhetorical reserve, unleashed barrages of vitriolic statements on how to respond to critics of the president and his constitutional declaration. They had thus fallen into the same error that they had frequently held against their opponents.
Fourth, and most importantly, the crisis revealed the extent to which the Muslim Brotherhood has moved not only toward alliances with hard line Salafist forces but toward the “Salafisation” of its own doctrine. In so doing, it sacrificed its relations with liberal and secularist forces, which had frequently allied with the Muslim Brotherhood before the revolution, and in the process it discarded its “civil” face for one that is staunchly conservative. All the demonstrations and other political actions the Muslim Brotherhood engages in these days are in coordination with ultra-rightwing forces, as though some pact has been concluded. The millioniya (million man) demonstration of a couple of weeks ago in the name of “legitimacy and Sharia” is a salient example of this trend. One purpose, at least, is to demonstrate at home and abroad that it has the power to mobilise the Islamist street behind President Morsi. Undoubtedly, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership believes that this tactic will terrorise its adversaries at home while enabling it to pressure its Western allies into lending it their support on the assumption that the Muslim Brotherhood is a lesser evil than the forces further to the extreme right. If this is, indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood’s thinking then they have overlooked the fact that their success in mobilising the Salafis detracts from their own civil society capital and will propel increasing numbers of its own bases toward Salafism and out of its direct control. Indeed, this trend had already begun several years ago.
Fifth, the crisis drove the final nail into the coffin of the myth of an effective reformist trend within the Muslim Brotherhood. The past few weeks have done little but to profile the most insular and indurate trend in the Muslim Brotherhood, some of whose most prominent figures actively engaged in incitement to violence. This applies to some whom we had once thought to be endowed with a degree of prudence and political discernment. It has become clearer than ever that the generation of the most obdurate hardliners dominate the Muslim Brotherhood and control all its decisions and movements.
Sixth, the Muslim Brotherhood’s response to the crisis revealed the extent to which it is prepared to mobilise on a sectarian basis on the principle that “Those who are not with us are against us”. Apart from the marked departure that this represents from the centrism and moderation that often characterised the rhetoric and behaviour of the Muslim Brotherhood in the past, it creates new enemies. It tells us that everyone who opposes or criticises the Muslim Brotherhood must be an adversary, a conspirator or part of the fulul (remnants) of the Mubarak regime. To this was added a heavy dose of religious labelling that cast critics and adversaries on the opposite side to the “righteous” and those destined for paradise.
The Muslim Brotherhood may have won a major round in the political game, but it lost ethically, morally and symbolically. It would be well advised to rethink its ideology and political behaviour.
The writer is a researcher at School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University.