“Egypt and the Struggle for Democracy” Georgetown University January 29, 2014 “The Future of the Muslim Brotherhood: Retrenchment or Reform?”
If I were a gypsy who could read the future in a clump of tea leaves, I might be able to discern what path the Muslim Brotherhood will take in the days ahead. Yet as someone who has studied the group for 23 years, I am perhaps more acutely aware than most that what we know about the internal workings of this group -- before, during and after its brief tenure in power -- is far exceeded by what we have yet to document and fully understand. The removal of President Morsi on July 3, and the interim government’s ever-widening crackdown on the group, including the arrest of nearly all its top leaders, the freezing of its assets, and the interim cabinet’s designation of the group as a “terrorist organization” in December, have left the Brotherhood with an unenviable set of options. Yet several factors make it difficult to ascertain what will happen next. First, with so many of its top leaders in prison, and in many cases held in solitary confinement, the normal chain of command within the group has broken down. It is unclear which, if any, of the Brotherhood’s senior decision-makers are in a position to articulate a coherent policy agenda and who, in their absence, have been deputized to make decisions on their behalf; it is also unclear whether the group retains the institutional capacity to communicate and carry out directives emanating from on high among members on the ground.
much of the group’s existing networks forced to operate in the shadows, it is difficult to capture and assess emerging trends within the wider movement. For example, it’s hard to know the extent to which the rank-and-file’s loyalty to the Brotherhood’s core leadership is eroding, and 1
whether new fissures and splits are emerging that could substantially alter its organizational landscape in the future. Third, the path the Brotherhood will take going forward depends in part on the willingness of the military, the judiciary, and secular parties and civil society forces to accommodate the Brotherhood’s reintegration into Egyptian political life. Since Morsi’s ouster, positions have hardened on all sides, and Egypt’s political actors appear to be more ideologically polarized and resistant to negotiation and compromise than at any time since the transition began. Yet with the approval of a new constitution and another round of presidential and parliamentary elections on the horizon, a new set of dynamics will be set in motion, potentially opening the door for a chastened, less defiant Brotherhood – or a spin-off under a different leadership - to gain a foothold in the new order. Given our lack of direct knowledge concerning the current mind-set and calculations of the Brotherhood’s top leaders in state custody, the survival mechanisms the group has activated to endure under siege, and the scope and substantive pivots of current intra-movement contention and debate, as well as the fact that the anti-Brotherhood stance adopted by other state and civilian actors could soften over time, the future of the Brotherhood is fraught with uncertainty. Rather than focus on what the Brotherhood should do, which, in the present context, is largely an exercise in wishful thinking, or what the Brotherhood will do, which, for the reasons ennumerated above, is impossible to predict on the basis of the information at hand, let me identify what I see as the Brotherhood’s main options and lay out the costs and benefits associated with each. I will then highlight some nascent trends within the movement that could lead to a turnover in the group’s core leadership, and/or occasion the fragmentation of the Brotherhood into two or more separate groups in the medium to long term. 2
A first point worth emphasizing is that in recent months the Brotherhood has been subjected to the most devastating assault it has encountered since the group’s dark days under Nasser. With stunning speed, the Brotherhood has lost many of the cards it had going in to the transition period as the largest, best organized and most popular sector of the opposition in the Mubarak era. After ascending to the heights of state power with Muhammad Morsi’s election as president less than two years ago, the Brotherhood now finds itself vilified in the state media, pursued by the security police, and denied any legal outlet for self-expression. Yet the Brotherhood’s senior leadership has shown little inclination to assume any responsibility for the group’s demise. Rather, at least in their public discourse, Morsi and other senior leaders in the Guidance Bureau and the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, continue to frame the group as the victim of a fascist military coup and its civilian cheer-leaders, suggesting that the Brotherhood’s opponents are motivated by some deep-seated animus against the group rather than reacting, at least in part, to its own mistakes. So far, the dominant response of the Brotherhood to the recent crackdown has been to challenge the fundamental legitimacy of the forces bent on its exclusion. In so doing, as Khalil al-Anani observed, it has revived the mihna (trial, or ordeal) narrative that dates back to the Nasser era and emphasizes the Brotherhood’s victimization by a corrupt and brutal police-state. Falling back into the familiar grooves of this narrative now that the group find itself again under siege, Brotherhood leaders have appealed for sumud, or steadfastness, in the face of state repression. This has entailed efforts to shore up its solidary networks at the grass-roots level and mobilize acts of public resistance against the forces of tyranny, invoking the ideal of selfsacrifice or martrydom on behalf of the Islamic cause. Further, by framing Morsi’s ouster as an 3
affront to democracy and the people’s will, the Brotherhood has identified itself not only as the champion of “Shari’a”, or Islamic rule, but also as the torch-bearer of “Sha’ariyya”, or constitutional legitimacy. As part of the wider “Anti-Coup Coalition” established by the Brotherhood and its allies this summer, it pitches itself as defending the gains of the Egyptian people and the democratic aspirations of the uprising that have been crushed by the resurgence of the “deep state”. Framing its actions as both a defense of Islam and democracy, the Brotherhood has attempted to seize the moral high ground, insisting on the bankruptcy of the “re-booted” transition process and calling on members of the Egyptian public to boycott its proceedings and deny it any credibility and support. Assuming the role of spoiler as the military-backed transition gains momentum enables the Brotherhood to demonstrate its fidelity to the Islamic cause and the spirit of the Egyptian revolution, and reinforces the moral authority of Morsi and other senior leaders now languishing in prison as heroic figures standing up to the forces of injustice. Yet maintaining a posture of defiance in the face of overwhelming odds has several down-sides as well. First, the Brotherhood’s claim that such defiance is consistent with the preferences of the Egyptian public has lost credibility. Not only did millions of Egyptians pour into the streets to demand Morsi’s resignation in June, but after Morsi’s removal, many of them have tacitly supported – if not openly celebrated – General al-Sisi’s seizure of power. After three years of nearly constant turmoil and disruption, the public appears to be exhausted by conflict. Many seem to favor the acceleration of progress toward the formation of a stable political order, so that government leaders can turn their attention to reviving the economy and alleviating the daily hardships that have been overshadowed by partisan wrangling since the transition’s start. Second, by framing 4
the Brotherhood’s “raison d’etre” as necessitating a posture of defiance, movement hard-liners have tied the group’s hands, making any move toward dialogue and reconciliation with the country’s reining power-holders appear tantamount to submission and defeat. Third, such a stance prevents the group from assuming a constructive role in the new political order, and risks alienating more pragmatic supporters who, in exchange for an end to the current crackdown, are willing to accept the terms of engagement set by the state. There are signs that at least some leaders in the Brotherhood have become attuned to the rising costs of rejectionism and defiance, and begun to search for an honorable way out of the current impasse. Yet such voices do not represent a consensus within the group as a whole. Internal dissension regarding the proper way forward came into view last November, when the Brotherhood issued two seemingly contradictory messages in rapid succession. First was a statement issued by Morsi from Tora prison on November 11 warning that “Egypt will not recover from its crisis until the coup is reversed”. Yet at a press conference held by the AntiCoup coalition five days later, Mohammed ‘Ali Bishr, one of the few senior leaders of the Brotherhood still at large, floated the idea of a national dialogue which, for the first time, did not hinge on the reinstatement of the deposed president or a restoration of the 2012 Constitution drafted by a parliamentary commission under Islamist control. The Brotherhood was not yet prepared to throw in the towel completely; as Bishr emphasized, such a dialogue could only be convened if the government pulled back from the “arrests, bloodshed, and hate speech” directed against the Brotherhood in the recent crackdown. According to American University in Cairo professor Emad Shahin, the group’s imprisoned senior leaders did not formally authorize Bishr to speak on the Brotherhood’s behalf, but they gave the initiative their approval. As reported by 5
Al-Ahram, an anonymous Brotherhood source explained the softening of the group’s position as due in part to pressure from its external allies, most notably the governments of Turkey and Qatar, as well as members of the international Brotherhood organization abroad. At any rate, Bishr’s initiative may indicate an effort by the group’s imprisoned old-guard to create a new dynamic while insulating themselves from any direct responsibility for any move that could be interpreted as a sign of defeat. Unfortunately, the interim government has shown no inclination to ease its pressure on the group, nor have the country’s secular parties and civil society groups flocked to the Brotherhood’s defense. In this context, it remains to be seen how much the Brotherhood is willing to concede for the chance to be invited to the negotiating table by the country’s current power-holders. The more drastic the concessions demanded of the Brotherhood, the less receptive its leadership will be to the idea of reconciliation, and the longer the current impasse will persist. Whatever path the Brotherhood chooses going forward, the group’s head-on collision with the “deep state” has already led to a decline in the group’s public support. One sign of this trend was the Brotherhood’s resounding defeat in the Doctors’ Syndicate elections in December, when it only gained a single seat, after nearly two decades as the leading force on its executive board. Looking ahead, a key question is whether the vertically integrated hierarchy of the organization will survive, and whether its top leaders will be able to rely on the continued loyalty of the group’s activist cadres, now that the costs and risks associated with affiliation with the group have increased. While there is no evidence as yet of a mass defection of the group’s base, there are signs of growing disillusionment with the Brotherhood’s current leadership, particularly among youth. Such disillusionment has assumed different forms, with different implications. 6
On one end of the spectrum, journalists report that some Brotherhood youth are becoming increasingly frustrated by the leadership’s measured response to the recent crackdown, and begun to advocate an escalation of protest. In addition, groups of Brotherhood members have engaged in vigilante attacks on secular figures, including Khaled Dawoud, the media spokesman for the Destour Party, and Buthayna Kamel, a television presenter close to the National Salvation Front, setting a disturbing precedent. More broadly, observers note that Morsi’s ouster has prompted some Brotherhood supporters to lose faith in the democratic process, paving the way toward a radicalization of some elements of the group in the days to come. On the other end of the spectrum, several new initiatives, spearheaded by urban youth cadres, have emerged in the wake of Morsi’s ouster that cite the rigidity and arrogance of the Brotherhood’s old guard as a primary cause of the group’s demise. Ahmed Yehia, a lawyer and coordinator of a new group called “Brotherhood Without Violence”, claims that President Morsi “abandoned Islam in favor of a naked pursuit of power” and, by inciting violence after the military took over, put the group’s members in harm’s way. A second formation known as “Ahrar al-Ikhwan” or the Free Brothers, likewise emphasizes that they remain dedicated to the Brotherhood while withdrawing their confidence from its current leaders, who, on Facebook, they accuse of “asking us to do what contradicts the teachings of our religion and the interests of our country”.
Another group cited in recent press reports, known as the Brotherhood Youth
Alliance, has apparently defected from the organization and, as of this fall, collected more than 7,000 signatures in an effort to form a separate party. To the best of my knowledge, such initiatives remain limited in scope and have yet to make an appreciable dent in the Brotherhood’s core base of supporters. Yet they point to growing disillusionment among some of the 7
Brotherhood’s most active cadres, which, as AUC professor Gamal Abdel Gawwad observed, heralds the onset of broader processes of transformation and disintegration that are likely to accelerate in the future. While predicting what lies ahead on the basis of limited information is always hazardous, I would argue that neither the greatest hopes nor the greatest fears about the Brotherhood are likely to be realized in Egypt’s current climate. There is little chance that the group’s top leaders will suddenly “see the light” and commit to a fundamental overhaul of the Brotherhood’s parochial culture or gracefully step aside so that reformists can initiate a genuine process of healing and reconciliation with its adversaries. Such a move would not only undercut such embattled leaders’ influence and prestige, but is also out of synch with their insular and conservative mind-set, including a perception of Egypt’s kaleidoscope of actors as “us against them”, an impression which the Brotherhood’s recent trials have no doubt reinforced.
same time, the Brotherhood is unlikely to give up on democracy and take up arms against the new regime. First, its leaders are well aware this is a fight they are bound to lose. Second, such a shift flies in the face of the longstanding acculturation of group members to the pursuit of incremental Islamic reform through peaceful channels. Finally and perhaps most importantly, to give up on democracy would be to jettison a pivotal thrust of the Brotherhood’s identity, namely, its role as the country’s most vigorous defender of constitutional legitimacy, the people’s will and the gains of the Egyptian “revolution”. Rather than steer the group in a radically new direction, the Brotherhood’s top leaders are likely to soldier on, while various elements within it will attempt to push the group in different directions or hive off from it to pursue new initiatives of their own. But the Brotherhood’s path will also depend on the cues it receives from state and 8
civil actors in Egyptian society. The more receptive such forces are to the Brotherhood’s political rehabilitation, the more internal calls for reform will resonate for members of its base. The more Egypt’s current power-holders remain bent on the Brotherhood’s exclusion, by contrast, the more easily group leaders will be able to capitalize on their victimhood status and dismiss Egypt’s so-called democracy as a new type of authoritarian rule.