Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1217, (16 - 22 October 2014)

Ahram Weekly

The rusty pendulum

What are the Muslim Brotherhood’s options, asks Ammar Ali Hassan

Al-Ahram Weekly

Since its founding in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood’s fate has followed a kind of roller-coaster trajectory. It rose up to such heights that it could touch the skies and was then toppled from its perch and plunged down to the earth.
 
It has been as if the organisation were a kind of Sisyphus, eternally pushing a boulder up to the top of a hill only for it to roll back down the other side. Or perhaps it has been more like an old rusty pendulum swinging relentlessly from side to side, going nowhere.

This image may not apply uniformly across the many countries in which there are Brotherhood groups headed by a general guide. They are all, however, subordinate to the authority of the guidance bureau in the group’s country of origin, Egypt. This authority may come through a direct administrative/hierarchical line or in terms of emotional and intellectual loyalty to the doctrine of the organisation’s founding father and ideologue.
 
The latter described the Muslim Brotherhood as “a Salafist calling, a Sunni path, a Sufi truth, a political organisation, an athletic group, a scientific and cultural association, an economic firm and a social idea” which, he claimed, was equipped and capable of realising the “totality of Islam” on earth and would therefore strive for “global mastery” in order to establish a caliphate “from Ghana to Fergana.”
 
We cannot predict the future of the Muslim Brotherhood, whether in the short or the long term, without probing its ideology, the history of its relations with successive governments and ruling authorities, its capacities or physical and symbolic sources of strength and its network of relationships with other Islamist associations, organisations and groups.
 
It is also necessary to examine the abilities of the Brotherhood’s rivals and adversaries to develop a viable plan for containing this organisation, refuting its flimsy ideological and jurisprudential premises, and filling the social vacuum that the Brotherhood exploits when the state, political parties and community organisations fail to provide needed services to the poor and marginalised classes.
 
It is equally important to assess the level of awareness of the ruling elites, as countering the Brotherhood takes much more than mere security measures. This is an intellectual, cultural, social and political battle that requires a strong element of religious reform that has long been delayed in the Islamic world.
 
In addition, there is the external factor: we need to assess the extent to which international powers rely on the Muslim Brotherhood and work to sustain and promote it as a major political player that can serve their interests in the Arab and Islamic countries.
 
This could be from government positions of power, or by acting as a Trojan horse that puts such a constant pressure on governments that they will never be able to escape the cycle of dependency on the West and on the US in particular.

Egypt created the Muslim Brotherhood, and it was the Muslim Brotherhood that set into motion the phenomenon of political Islam throughout the world, whether through the processes of splintering and fissure, emulation and rivalry or other means of dissemination as it spread throughout the world in pursuit of its elusive dream.
 
Today, following the ouster of the Brotherhood from power and the defeat of its project in Egypt, the group’s ideology is on the wane, its slogans have been exposed as empty words and its organisation is crumbling, raising questions about the very future of political Islam.

However, before proceeding to this question, we must first answer the following: what alternatives were available to the Muslim Brothers in the wake of the 30 June Revolution in Egypt?

The answer to this is not easy, given the continuation of the Muslim Brothers’ “emotional crisis” after their fall from power and their conflicting statements, along with their apparent return to underground activities, especially since the government declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation and the judiciary banned its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).
 
Nevertheless, alternative courses can be identified by analysing the way the Muslim Brotherhood thinks, which is informed by its history, the current socio-political context, and those international connections and strategies that made the Obama administration regard the Brotherhood as a party that was both capable and willing to serve US interests in the Middle East. It is in this light that it can be said that the Brotherhood had three courses open to it following its fall from power.

The first was to look forward. This option entails engaging in ideological revision and issuing an apology for the wrongs that the group committed against the Egyptian people during its period in power. In this process, the group could forge a new identity, one that claimed a national or patriotic outlook and manifested a sincere and unqualified belief in political plurality, freedom of thought and the rotation of power.

It would have also demonstrated a new attitude and approach based on the idea that democracy is not reducible to the ballot box but rather extends well beyond such procedural factors to embrace a range of values and principles, including personal and civic freedoms, tolerance and openness, equal opportunity and respect for human rights.
 
In accordance with this new concept, the group would clearly need to reorganise its ranks to remove elements connected with the Brotherhood’s “secret organisation” — the paramilitary wing that practiced violence and terrorism — and bring forward reformists to inject a new ethos that is entirely unlike the radical takfiri ideas of ideologue Sayyed Qotb.
 
Were the Brotherhood to undergo such a process, society would be willing to re-assimilate it, both ideologically and organisationally. But this acceptance would come with a condition: the organisation must submit itself to the authority of the state and its regulatory organs rather than continue in its current form, aloof from the processes of supervision and accountability, as though it were a state within a state.
 
However, it remains highly unlikely that the Brotherhood will choose this course of action and revise its thinking on questions of the nation state, citizenship, legitimacy, peacefulness and openness. This is not just because the group does not believe in the need for ideological revision, but also because it lacks the thinkers and theorists capable of overhauling the ideas that have led to its abysmal failure.

Option two is to move backwards, meaning to enter into a violent confrontation with the state and society using terrorist means to exact revenge for its removal from power and to attempt to undermine the new order that has replaced it. This course entails working with takfiri terrorist organisations and/or channelling a portion of the Muslim Brotherhood’s energies into practices of excessive violence with the purpose of forcing the government into offering it radical or major concessions.
 
This option, simply put, is suicidal. No organisation can shake the foundations of such a firmly and deeply rooted state as Egypt, which has experience in dealing with terrorism and has defeated it more than once.
 
The third option is to remain rooted in place. In this scenario, the Brotherhood would enter into negotiations with the state with an eye on being reincorporated into the political process in accordance with the prevailing laws and systems. It would enter the parliamentary, municipal and perhaps even the next presidential elections.
 
In this option, the Brotherhood would give every sign that it accepted the new order but harbour other intentions that it could furtively carry out by funding and mobilising takfiri organisations to carry out terrorist attacks to undermine and sap the energies of the state.
 
The first part of this course would have necessitated the survival of the group’s political arm, the FJP, as a legitimate political entity. This is no longer an option. Still, the Brotherhood has other opportunities to infiltrate back into the political process via other political parties or as independents, as it did before the 25 January Revolution.

In the context of this strategy, two issues suggest themselves as determining a considerable part of the Brotherhood’s actions and behaviour now and in the future. These issues, which have been largely absent from public discussion, though some commentators have touched upon them in passing, relate to the “Brotherhood persecution industry” and the “Brotherhood’s schizophrenia with respect to rights and duties.”
 
The former refers to the Brotherhood’s attempt to build an image of victimhood or cult of oppression for itself, with the aim of preserving the cohesiveness of the organisation. This has been done by constantly causing clashes with the authorities through the organisation of violent demonstrations, funding terrorist operations or inciting segments of society and circulating tendentious rumours against the government.
 
The second has to do with the Brotherhood’s campaign to continue pressure to obtain civic rights and to win the sympathy of secularist forces and their support, if only partial, for this campaign. Yet, while the group presses for such rights, it remains determined to avoid any commitment to civil and moral obligations and duties to the state or the nation.
 
This is a crucial dilemma. When considering scenarios for reconciliation and assimilating the Muslim Brotherhood in the future, this duality of thinking indicates that group members still regard their allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood as more important than any other allegiance.
 
In the next three to five years I believe that the Brotherhood will blend options two and three in accordance with its reading of developments on the ground, especially with respect to the achievements of the current regime and its broad-based popularity.
 
While the Brotherhood has erected a seemingly high wall between itself and the current government, rendering it difficult to make any move towards reconciliation among its membership base and sympathisers, there is nothing to prevent it from making overtures to the next government.
 
After all, it believes that one of the main reasons for its survival and expansion throughout the world has been its willingness to ingratiate itself with, and to serve the interests of, successive governments and ruling authorities. This tendency has been virtually a constant in Brotherhood strategy since it first entered the political arena only a few years after the organisation was founded.

At the same time, Brotherhood groups in other countries remote from its homeland will persist in their customary habit of currying favour with the authorities and society during what they call the phase of “patience”.
 
Then, when they attain the phase of “empowerment,” they will reject the rules of the game that brought them to power and try to avoid the mistakes committed by their mother organisation in Egypt, while at the same time preserving the connections that link them to the interests of the major international powers.


The writer is a novelist and socio-political researcher.

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