The Muslim Brotherhood and its future prospects

The Muslim Brotherhood and its future prospects
Comment: A pair of new books strive to answer questions about the future of the Muslim Brotherhood both in Egypt and the wider Arab world.
7 min read
02 Apr, 2015
An Egyptian burns the branding of the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood [AFP]

Four years have passed since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, and Egypt is facing many questions.

Was the revolution simply an intermediary episode or has it brought profound change to the country?

Is the system that was put in place after 3 July 2013 and the overthrow of the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, a step backwards?

Is there still a future for the Muslim Brotherhood, even though it is on the defensive - not just in Egypt, but across the Arab world?

It is time to step back and reflect, and put aside the snap judgements and occasionally misguided enthusiasm of initial assessments.

Two books have helped formulate in-depth answers to these questions. The first, under the direction of Bernard Rougier and Stephane Lacroix, L’Egypte en revolutions, focuses on Egypt, a major player in the Middle East, and the second, Les Freres musulmans et le pouvoir, edited by Pierre Puchot, builds on a wider perspective of the region and one of its main ideological trends.

     It is time to step back and reflect, and put aside the snap judgements and occasionally misguided enthusiasm of initial assessments.

Noteworthy in the first book, written by fifteen or so (mostly French and Egyptian) specialists, is the chapter on the justice system by Nathan Brown.

It discusses the contradictory role of judges in the revolutionary process, and their independence from power that is sanctioned by the centres of power at the heart of the state.

Equally interesting is the chapter by Ismail Alexandrani discussing the increase in violence in the Sinai - where the army is engaged in open warfare, while civilians pay the price in blood, and the Palestinians of Gaza are also victims.

For their part, Stephane Lacroix and Ahmad Zaghloul Chalata recount the development of the revolutionary Salafi movement, a far more radical organisation than the Muslim Brotherhood.

Beyond incantatory claims for the immediate application of Sharia and the haziness of its political programme, it is characterised by a nationalistic spirit where foreign powers are concerned (primarily the US and Egypt).

Above all, it attaches great importance to the uprising of 25 January 2011, "understood as the beginning of a revolutionary process and not the culmination of it".

Headed by charismatic Sheikh Hazim Abu Ismail, this thinking represents "the denial of the traditional political game in favour of radical change". It is this thinking that will lead revolutionary salafis, unlike the Brotherhood, to remain on the battlefield.

Similar to the "Ultras" (the crews of organised football fans who played an active role in the 2011 uprising) in terms of their youth, slogans and willingness to confront the armed forces, they are the ones still protesting today, despite violent repression across the country.

For more on this, see Nicholas Linn and Emily Crance, An Underground Army Challenges President Sisi, and 'Jours tranquilles a Matariyya.

One of the book's most original contributions is its study of electoral sociology. For the first time since 1952, Egyptians participated in presidential and legislative ballots from 2011 to 2013, as well as in referendum consultations - the results of which were not concocted in the offices of the leader or state security.

As Clement Steuer points out, from 2011 to 2012, "the liberalisation of the political offer and the end of state tolerance of fraudulent practices and electoral violence made it possible to bridge the traditional division separating the party system from the rest of society".

What have we learned from the figures deciphered by Bernard Rougier and Hala Bayoumi?

First, Egyptians turned out in huge numbers to vote, with the proportion of voters rising from under a quarter of the population to more than 50 percent. Second, the spike in support for Islamists that seemed irresistible during legislative elections in winter 2011 to 2012 (think back to the numerous editorials in the western press on the "Islamist winter") did not last.

Six months later, the Brotherhood, often complacent over police violence against revolutionary protesters, and outnumbered by Salafis in parliament, quickly lost its political virginity, against a backdrop of a deteriorating economic situation - for which it was not responsible.

As a result, their initial success did not translate into Egyptian voters adhering to political Islam.

Indeed the Brotherhood was unable to adapt to a situation of open competition, democratic debate and to move away from the idea that "Islam is the answer" in favour of concrete proposals for social change. Less influential in urban centres, much of their support came from poor farmers in the countryside who were the first victims of a law adopted by Mubarak, a law that had threatened the gains of the Nasserite agrarian reform, and for which they had voted. 

Both authors emphasise that families linked to large-scale landowners and to the state apparatus lost control over rural voters during these two "revolutionary" years.

Can these structures be rebuilt by the new regime, at a time when it is struggling to maintain the unity of all the players who brought it to power – the army, police, businessmen, the network of the former National Democratic Party (NDP), judges and "liberal" parties?

One thing is certain: the era of free elections in Egypt is over for the moment, not because of the Muslim Brotherhood, but because of forces presenting themselves as anti-Islamist, supported by various "liberals".

     The problem is that politics and religion are based in two different worlds: one earthly, the other heavenly.

The book edited by Pierre Puchot is an essential encyclopedia of the Brotherhood, each chapter dealing with a different country.

It has been written by extremely knowledgeable specialists and yet remains accessible.

A lengthy text by Marie Vannetzel reflects further on the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, particularly on its inability to leave behind its culture of secrecy.

It also looks at the Brotherhood's conviction that it is invested in "a holy mission" to justify the fact it is not a simple political party and its militants are "above" the rules of normal society.

Indeed, the Brotherhood's noble objective is to '"instate Islam on Earth". Organisational tasks are then both worldly and religious, earthly and divine.

To achieve such a result, the organisation must be ruled over with iron discipline, as explained by its second-in-command, Khairat el-Shater:

"There is no Brotherhood without a leader, and no leader without obedience."

A convenient parallel might be drawn between this concept and Joseph Stalin's vision of the world's communist parties.

The problem is that politics and religion are based in two different worlds: one earthly, the other heavenly. The first is a place of compromise and collaboration, the second, almost by definition, is a place of the absolute.

In a further contradiction, the religious legitimacy of the Brotherhood is weak outside their circles of sympathisers: not one of Islam's contemporary great thinkers belongs to its branch of thinking, other than the 90-year-old Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

Therein lies a source of distrust for many Muslims regarding an organisation that appears to prefer to make use of Islam than to serve it.

During Mohamed Morsi's presidency, not one measure of Islamisation was adopted - leading to criticism from Salafis - despite the Brotherhood having tried, without much success, to build alliances with the police and the army, and expand into the state apparatus.

Has the Brotherhood been more successful elsewhere? The book edited by Puchot demonstrates the extraordinary diversity of its trajectory, shaped more by dissimilar situations on the ground than by a shared ideology.

The Brotherhood is not united by an overarching sense of fraternity - despite widespread discussion of international co-ordination. This in itself might well have deserved a chapter in the book, as it has become an essential element in the dossier of Egyptian power against the Brotherhood which stands accused of serving foreign interests. 

Although the "moderate Islamist" Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey - the only non-Arab country in the study - was for many years considered a "model", it has little in common with al-Islah in the fragmented, tribal Yemen, or the Justice and Development Party (PJD) which runs the Moroccan government in the shadow of an all-powerful king, or the Sahwa (awakening) movement in Saudi Arabia.

Despite this, the Brotherhood has succeeded in integrating into society, and its involvement in the political game remains an issue for the region.

Many have reduced the Arab world to a dilemma between military dictatorship and Islamist dictatorship.

How can we escape this? Might an "historical agreement" between all the political forces, following in the footsteps of the Tunisian model offer a better path than the authoritarian Egyptian model?

This article was originally published by our partners at Orient XXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.