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The Politics of the Brotherhood Democracy: How the Muslim Brotherhood Burned Their Bridges

[The Arabic reads: [The Arabic reads: "The Brotherhood are liars". Image originally posted to Flickr by Gigi Ibrahim]

As members of the Muslim Brotherhood lick their wounds as well as lament the opportunity they have lost to consolidate their rule and vision of political Islam in Egypt, they will likely be reflecting on the multiple strategic missteps that pulled their country to the edge of civil war. Crowning this list will be their decision—in the weeks after the January 25 Revolution—to invest in a strategic relationship with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), to the detriment of their relationship with Egypt’s revolutionary forces. As its cadres now call for the continuation of the January 25 Revolution and its objectives, it is necessary to question whether the Muslim Brotherhood ever was a revolutionary force.

Just as the Muslim Brotherhood had allied with former president Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers in the military coup of July 1952, the Brotherhood’s elites entered the political sphere in 2011 with the attitude that their political base coupled with the power of the military would allow them to dominate the new political scene. In 1954, however, the attempted assassination of Gamal Abdel Nasser resulted in a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood as they witnessed the imprisonment, and even execution, of their members. These events undoubtedly bred the Muslim Brotherhood’s eagerness to avoid confrontation with the SCAF in 2011, and instead to seek a strategic relationship with the generals during the transitional period. Yet just as Nasser turned on the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954, the Brotherhood again witnessed the decimation of their once-strategic relationship with the military in 2013—a tactical disaster that has been in the making for over two years. Whether history will refer to the mass uprising of 30 June 2013 as a coup or a revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood had failed to consolidate its strategic military relationship—a relationship that has come at the expense of cooperating with and incorporating opposition forces in governance.

Observing the leadership vacuum immediately after the January 25 Revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood undoubtedly identified an opportunity in which it could capitalize on its organized base and political leadership to become the unofficial spokesperson of the revolution. In doing so, however, it put the revolutionaries’ demands at the mercy of its relationship with the SCAF during the transitional period. Indeed, siding with the SCAF during the transitional period and the presidency of Mohamed Morsi necessitated the sacrifice of several of the goals of the January 25 Revolution. These included a transition roadmap acceptable to the Egyptian people, reform of the security sector, and an end to military trials for civilians. The activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and their confidence during Morsi’s first year in office evidences as assumption on their part that they had tamed the Egyptian Armed Forces. This ultimately impaired the Muslim Brotherhood’s ability to cling to power, at the very same time that such an assumption voided their need to cooperate with the opposition. Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood’s behavior during the past three years simply demonstrates that it was never a revolutionary force. Indeed, it has long been a conservative player in Egyptian politics: desperate to avoid persecution; its cadres eager to follow its leadership; regardless of its strategic mistakes; and willing to abuse the system for short-term political gains, including its “Ikhwanization,” or “Brotherhoodization,” of top positions in the state.

Between the Streets and the Ballot Box

The Muslim Brotherhood’s conservative nature became apparent in the early days of the January 25 Revolution. The leadership asked its members not to take to the streets, in part fearing a violent crackdown that would paint the demonstrations as the work of an Islamist movement. The demonstrations ultimately drew protesters to the streets by the millions, and the Muslim Brotherhood—partly due to the insistence of younger members—eventually joined the mass protests. By the time Egypt’s new Prime Minister Essam Sharaf addressed a large crowd in Tahrir Square on 4 March 2011, he was flanked by senior Brotherhood leader Mohamed al-Beltagi—a telling sign that the incorporation of the Brotherhood into the political structure had already begun.

Joining a wave of registrations of political parties, the Muslim Brotherhood rapidly formed the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) within weeks of Mubarak’s ouster. It did so despite Egyptian law’s clear prohibition of the creation of a political party with a religious frame of reference—a move that would have been impossible without the approval of the SCAF, the de facto leadership during the transitional period. The Brotherhood’s newfound confidence on the political scene, after years of political persecution under the Mubarak administration, could only have come through the tacit approval of the SCAF.

Only weeks thereafter, two members of the Muslim Brotherhood were selected to join the Constitutional Committee, which was entirely handpicked by the SCAF to draft an interim constitution. The proposed amendments were meant to provide guidelines for the transitional period preceding the presidential elections. On the Muslim Brotherhood website at the time, Sobhi Saleh—a Brotherhood lawyer selected to the committee—was paraphrased as saying that the referendum would be guarded by the army, which was committed to the transfer of power to a civilian administration as soon as possible. In retrospect, it was likely that the Muslim Brotherhood’s support for the constitution was based on a roadmap that specified timings for the transition of power and parliamentary elections that would be advantageous to the FJP, in exchange for the support of the Muslim Brotherhood and its voter base to the SCAF.

The new constitution effectively conferred legislative and executive responsibilities to the SCAF. Article 56 of the constitution delegated to the SCAF the power of legislation, public policy, the public budget, and the “right to promulgate laws or object to them,” in addition to the ability to appoint and dismiss the prime minister and deputies. This merging of the military and executive branch appears blatant now. Yet at the time of the drafting of the constitution, the military enjoyed considerable legitimacy among much of the public as the guardian of the revolution, since it had refrained from dispersing crowds during the anti-Mubarak demonstrations. The FJP was unique among the various new parties however, for its particular eagerness to assert the military’s legitimacy and independence. The constitutional referendum, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, was held on 19 March 2011, and seventy-seven percent (fourteen million voters) voted “yes” to passing the provisional constitutional amendments.

The institutional conservatism inherent in the Brotherhood’s organization made it hesitant to openly criticize an institution of the old regime, and instead resulted in what seemed like an agreement with the SCAF, or at least a willingness to play by its rules. This was not due to blind trust in the military institution, but a vested interest in a relationship that could be mutually beneficial for both parties. Wael Eskandar has pointed out that in the past the Muslim Brotherhood has been unable to make political gains, including gaining seats in parliament, without an “understanding with the wielders in power.” Such instances have included pledging the support of their electoral base to the al-Wafd Party in 1950, in return for the release of Brotherhood prisoners and permission to resume some of their activities. More recently, disclosures from the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in 2011 indicated that the Muslim Brotherhood was already in contact with the regime during the first eighteen days of the revolution, negotiating the evacuation of protesters from Tahrir Square in exchange for the release of Brotherhood political prisoners.

The release of a number of Islamists from prison, among them prominent Muslim Brotherhood figure Khairat al-Shater, around the time of the constitutional referendum, further points to an agreement of sorts between the military and the Brotherhood. This demonstrated shortsightedness and political immaturity on the Brotherhood’s part, as the military and police institutions have been responsible for the detention, imprisonment, and torture of Brotherhood members for years.

The Brotherhood Base on Display

After Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011, prosecution of civilians before military tribunals and the violent dispersal of protests continued—a reminder that although the government’s head had been removed, the Mubarak-era tactics of the security apparatus continued unabated.  Although the Muslim Brotherhood called for an end to military trials for civilians, it was careful to keep its followers out of protests. When the SCAF proposed certain supra-constitutional principles, presented in the al-Silmi Document, to the political parties in the fall of 2011, the SCAF-Brotherhood relationship was put to the test. The principles noted that the official religion of Egypt is Islam, while asserting that Egypt is a “civic state.” Equating a “civic state” with a “secular state,” the Muslim Brotherhood, along with its allies in the Democratic Alliance, rejected the principles. Only days after the al-Silmi Document was made public, the Brotherhood openly and sharply criticized the SCAF for prolonging the transitional period, and publishing constitutional articles that challenged the Islamic frame of reference within the constitution. From then on, the Brotherhood began choosing its battles, as it warily eyed popular protests, and focused instead on challenging the supra-constitutional principles.

In September 2011, the April 6 and Kifaya movements, along with various political parties, planned a mass demonstration calling for a clear endpoint to the transitional period, and the end of military trials for civilians. The Muslim Brotherhood boycotted this protest. Saad al-Katatni, then Secretary General of the FJP, claimed that many of the revolution’s objectives had already been achieved and that the demonstration did not have clear targets. He further asserted the need for allowing government officials sufficient time to realize the revolution’s goals.

Less than a month later, the Muslim Brotherhood joined other Islamist forces on 18 November 2011, in a demonstration protesting the supra-constitutional principles. The large showing of Islamist forces that day allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to put its voter base on display, a move that surely lent credibility to its eventual ascent to the presidency six months later, with the approval of the SCAF. The al-Silmi Document was eventually overshadowed by the November parliamentary elections and ultimately rejected.

When non-Islamist protesters took to the streets again in November 2011, challenging continued military rule and protesting against the newly appointed Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri, the Muslim Brotherhood again refrained from participating. While al-Katatni condemned the violence used by riot police against protesters, he criticized the long-term occupation of Tahrir Square, which he described as “paralyzing the city.” With the first round of parliamentary elections scheduled for 28 November 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood was focusing its efforts on mobilizing its voter base.

The Brotherhood’s political tact and attitude towards the SCAF was again tested at the beginning of 2012. Following violent clashes at the Port Said Stadium on 2 February 2012, in which over seventy young football fans lost their lives, the April 6 Youth Movement was quick to release a statement claiming that the events were “part of a plan by the military council and the Ministry of Interior to push the country into chaos and force us to embrace military rule.” The movement considered the massacre an example of the security vacuum to which the military had exposed the country. By contrast, although the FJP condemned the events at Port Said Stadium, and called for a cleansing of the Ministry of Interior, it placed this responsibility with the SCAF, deferring to its authority on matters regarding national security. Again, the FJP found itself at odds with revolutionary forces, because its conservative leadership considered an alliance with the military to be advantageous. The FJP issued a statement speculating that the responsibility for the Port Said massacre lay with “domestic parties and dubious forces” with connections to the old regime.

The Brotherhood’s divergence from the revolutionary forces’ line manifested itself again in February 2012. Responding to bloody clashes between protesters and police forces, a coalition named the Alliance of Egypt’s Revolutionaries organized a campaign of civil disobedience, including a general strike, to begin on 11 February 2012. This coalition united over fifty political groups, among them several prominent revolutionary movements, as well as students and independent workers’ unions. The Brotherhood and the FJP immediately stated that although they agreed with the premise of the campaign, they disagreed with its methods. They began by rejecting the general strike on economic grounds. They also warned against it using religious arguments, stating that al-Azhar and the Coptic Church considered participation to be “unlawful from an Islamic perspective” and a “great sin.” To counteract the campaign, the Muslim Brotherhood and the FJP’s North Cairo Secretariat coordinated with local council employees in “a cleaning day for Egypt,” during which they worked to clean streets in the districts of Rod El-Farag, Shubra, and Sahel.

From a strategic perspective, the FJP seemed to regard civil disobedience as nihilistic, given that a date had been set for the registration of presidential candidates, that the Shura Council elections were nearly complete, as was the formation of the Constituent Assembly. In essence, relations between the FJP and the ruling authorities necessitated compliance with SCAF rule, which the FJP believed would facilitate their accession to power. In justifying its position to the public, the FJP presented the civil disobedience campaign as a challenge to domestic security, while its organizers rather saw it as a rejection of Egypt’s state of insecurity. The FJP made the circular argument that civil disobedience contributed to “terror and destruction,” thereby contradicting its own previous position condoning the aim, but not the means, of the campaign.

Domination over Participation

Faced with the opportunity to assume leadership in post-Mubarak Egypt, the Brotherhood again undermined their credibility. Eager to play down their ambitions to lead the post-revolutionary government, the Freedom and Justice Party pledged only to contest twenty-five percent of seats ahead of the November 2011 parliamentary elections and vowed not to field a candidate for presidency. By the end of 2011, however, the FJP had broken this promise and won forty-seven percent of parliamentary seats, dominating the lower house until it was declared unconstitutional and dissolved in June 2012. In early 2012, Mohamed Morsi, then chairman of the FJP, affirmed: “We are not going to support any of the group’s defectors who have decided to run for president.” He was referring to the announcement of former Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh’s candidacy for president. Khairat al-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Deputy Supreme Guide, denied his own potential candidacy, saying it was not “an option or a possibility.”

Yet with the opposition split into various parties, the Muslim Brotherhood clung to the possibility of dominating in the new leadership vacuum. It was precisely this split in the opposition that allowed the Brotherhood to capitalize on its well-organized base. Its leaders were counting on the support of thousands of Egyptians, who had come to associate their organization with social services, and who appreciated its survival through the harsh political repression of the Mubarak years. When the Brotherhood announced Khairat al-Shater as its presidential candidate in March 2012 then, it was reneging on its promise not to field a candidate, and violating its slogan, “participation without domination.” While al-Shater was ultimately disqualified on technical grounds, the FJP had already put forth a new candidate, Mohamed Morsi.

Once the June 2012 presidential elections had arrived, the political landscape was divided: this was reflected in electoral voting patterns. Out of over twenty-three million voters, representing 43.4 percent of the eligible electorate, Mohamed Morsi had received 5,764,952 votes, or 24.78 percent, with Ahmed Shafiq falling behind with 23.66 percent. During the run-off, Morsi won a narrow majority of 51.73 percent, or 13,230,131 votes.

By the time Morsi had assumed the presidency, the FJP had alienated much of its opposition and only succeeded in forming temporary alliances with the Salafi al-Nour Party on certain issues. Within only a few weeks of assuming the presidency, however, Morsi took the opportunity to cast himself as a reformer by addressing the controversial role of the SCAF. Among the first challenges of the presidency was re-establishing the balance between the executive and the SCAF, particularly as the military leadership was closely associated with the Mubarak era and the security vacuum of the transitional period. Following an attack on a military base in Sinai in August 2012, in which sixteen Egyptian soldiers were killed, Morsi seized the opportunity to retire General Hussein Tantawi, the face of the SCAF during the transitional period, and Chief of Staff Sami Annan. Morsi also annulled a constitutional declaration that the SCAF had issued in June, which accorded it legislative powers and budgetary controls as well as a role in overseeing the creation of the new constitution. While seen as a bold move, the retirement of these figures was likely part of an agreement with the SCAF to ensure their quiet exit from politics. Tantawi and Annan were awarded state honors and presidential advisory appointments, prompting questions as to whether retirement would also grant de facto immunity from prosecution for their involvement in deadly crackdowns on protests. While in October 2012, a judge ordered a probe into accusations that Tantawi had been involved in the death of demonstrators during the transitional period, silence over the results of the probe since indicates that military officials still enjoy considerable protection from the judiciary.

In hindsight, the appointment of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to succeed Tantawi as defense minister marked a public relations victory for the armed forces, which has long been bogged down by a tradition of seniority. Almost twenty years younger than his predecessor, al-Sisi was also one of the youngest members of the SCAF, as the former head of Military Intelligence. By retiring officials associated with the crackdowns on successive protests in late 2011, the military institution had already taken a step towards becoming the “people’s” armed forces. The enthusiastic welcoming of the SCAF’s intervention after the 30 June uprising could certainly not have come to pass with figures such as Tantawi and Annan still at the helm.

Having addressed the new role of the SCAF, Morsi then faced the greater challenge of representing his constituency. The imbalance of the Constituent Assembly, which was tasked with writing a new Egyptian constitution, became the focus of activists’ and politicians’ criticisms, which pointed to its domination by Islamist members. Fearing a judicial threat to the legitimacy of the Constituent Assembly and Shura Council, President Morsi then issued a constitutional declaration in November 2012. The decree put himself above the law and stated that all constitutional declarations created by Morsi since 30 June 2012 could not be appealed nor canceled by any entity until a new constitution had been created and ratified, and a new parliament elected. In Egypt’s new democracy, the president was utilizing dictatorial methods to push through his vision, and continuing to alienate the opposition.

Cracks in the Political Framework Appear

In late 2012, amid domestic political uproar and violent protests in response to the constitution, the military warned of “disastrous consequences” if the constitutional crisis was not resolved, in an attempt to push the president and the opposition toward compromise. Meanwhile, the Central Security Forces, deployed to protect the Presidential Palace from throngs of anti-constitution protesters, stood idly by as they disassembled security barriers and approached the palace walls. The SCAF’s comments were among the initial signs of a wedge between the presidency and the military. The complacency of the security forces toward protesters at the Presidential Palace further undermined the president. In response, the president repealed the constitutional declaration in December 2012, but refused to heed the popular call for a suspension of the referendum on the new constitution. The president was again putting his party at odds with the opposition.

The constitution was issued in what many regarded as a rapid drafting and voting process in response to the fear that the Supreme Constitutional Court would rule to dissolve the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly. As thousands of protesters streamed into Egypt’s streets calling for the rejection of the constitution, and judges boycotted their role as overseers of the voting process, Morsi once again alienated opposition forces by asking protesters to take their discontentment to the ballot box rather than to the streets. Due to the judiciary’s boycott, the vote on the constitution was split into two rounds, since not enough judges had agreed to oversee the polling stations. At the same time, desperate to main the façade of a “majority,” Muslim Brotherhood supporters took to the streets to support the constitution. The constitution was widely considered by human rights organizations to be conservative or vague on topics such as freedom of the press, women’s and children’s rights. Curiously, the constitution preserved and even strengthened the autonomy of the Egyptian Armed Forces, and ensured the budget of the Armed Forces would remain classified. The draft passed with 63.86 percent, amid a turnout of thirty-three percent of voters. The president had again circumvented the democratic framework to push through his party’s political preferences.

By the beginning of 2013, the lack of security reform within Morsi’s administration had taken center stage in national political debate. The detention and later conviction of individuals implicated in the 2012 Port Said Stadium massacre had caused riots and violent confrontations between security forces and protesters in Port Said. The deteriorating security situation and perceived excessive use of force by police caused Morsi to order the withdrawal of police from the streets, with the army installed to restore order. By the end of January 2013, forty-eight protesters had died in Port Said, predominantly in clashes with police forces. Morsi’s imposition of a one-month state of emergency in Suez, Ismailia, and Port Said, a staple of the Mubarak era, clashed with the second anniversary of the January 25 Revolution. On 25 January 2013, demonstrators took to Tahrir Square to “complete the revolution’s goals.” The National Salvation Front announced that the protests were meant to challenge Morsi’s policies, but not to force him to step down. Meanwhile, the president desperately called for a national dialogue meeting with figures of the opposition, hoping that the meeting could bring stability. The National Salvation Front stipulated five demands, including constitutional reform as a condition for national dialogue to occur, and threatened to continue supporting demonstrations if those demands were not met.

Events in Port Said demonstrated the president’s lack of control over the security forces, necessitating deference to the military to bring stability to the area. Meanwhile, residents of Port Said defied Morsi’s nine o’clock curfew, further indicating the president’s lack of control over his constituents. By contrast, when the military reached Port Said, they arrived to cheers. At this point, the military needed only to distance itself from the administration to absolve itself of its transitional phase reputation, and to cast itself as even-handed protector of the people. The SCAF had shrewdly retreated from its public role in politics and dissociated itself from a struggling administration. It appeared only occasionally, to issue statements reiterating its allegiance to the Egyptian people and appeared to take tougher stances on national security than the president. This paradox became even stronger at the end of June 2013. When the president seemed to be pleading with the populace to avoid protests and domestic turmoil during his speech on 26 June, the military gladly assumed the role of mediator while issuing an ominous statement on a “dark tunnel” that lay ahead of Egypt.

Continued short-sightedness and attempts to consolidate domination of the political scene put the final nails in the Muslim Brotherhood’s political coffin. A cabinet reshuffle in May 2013 included nine new ministers, three of whom were prominent Muslim Brotherhood figures, with the rest considered allies of the Islamist movement. The reshuffle failed to replace controversial figures such as Information Minister Salah Abd al-Maqsoud, and Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim. The former was widely seen as biased toward the Brotherhood, and the latter as incapable of carrying out urgent security sector reform.

In April 2013, the Tamarod (“Rebellion”) Campaign began, gathering signatures calling for the resignation of the president, and for early presidential elections: these had reached a figure of twenty-two million by the end of June. Meanwhile, the president was fanning the flames by appointing more controversial figures to influential positions. Of the seventeen new governors Morsi appointed on 17 June, seven hailed from the Muslim Brotherhood, in a step interpreted by many as aiming to guarantee forthcoming electoral victories for the FJP in these governorates. One of the new governors, Adel Assad El-Khayat, a leading member of al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyya, was appointed in Luxor. This was the site of the 1997 terrorist attack by his own organization, which has since renounced violence, but which then killed sixty-two people. Strikes immediately broke out in Luxor, where tourism is a life-line for the city, and the new governor resigned amid the controversy.

On 23 June 2013, General al-Sisi released a statement warning that the Egyptian Armed Forces would not remain silent as the country “slips into a conflict that will be hard to control.” This marked the military’s strongest caution yet to the Morsi administration, warning of impending military intervention and highlighting a significant internal rift in the Egyptian state. As millions protested throughout Egypt’s governorates on 30 June 2013, several ministers and presidential advisors resigned in recognition of this widespread discontentment with Morsi’s leadership. While the president clung to his post and reiterated his legitimacy as an elected president in his speech of 2 July, it became increasingly clear that his situation was the result of over two years of failure to build alliances with the forces that represent the diverse opinions, attitudes, and needs of the Egyptian population.

Abandonment on All Fronts

Resilience through decades of political persecution had strengthened the Muslim Brotherhood into a nuclear organization, its members unified by loyalty and reverence to its leadership. The Muslim Brotherhood could therefore capitalize on its members’ ability to organize in large numbers for the presidential and parliamentary elections, and for the constitutional referendum. What was lacking, however, were critical ties with the opposition—ties which the Muslim Brotherhood had foregone at the very beginning of the transitional period for a more strategic relationship with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Countless strategic mistakes made by the Muslim Brotherhood and the FJP since June 2012 indicated the organization’s inability to transition from an apprehensive and persecuted organization, into one with a mature and inclusive political leadershipOn 30 June 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood’s delusions of self-sufficiency, majority power, and legitimacy cracked under the pressure of millions of protesting Egyptian citizens. They had collectively suffered from the categorical negligence of the state’s responsibilities under the Muslim Brotherhood. As expressed by Mohammed Bamyeh in his article on the June Rebellion in Egypt, Morsi clung to legal or constitutional legitimacy—a legitimacy that “can be undone at any time by revolutionary legitimacy.” The Brotherhood nevertheless appeared confident that the ballot box had conferred a blank check of four years to its leaders to experiment in the governance of Egypt. This seemed to rule out any need to form alliances beyond the Islamist bloc, and was a dangerous self-deception. Nathan Brown notes the secret to the Muslim Brotherhood’s ability to survive Egypt’s harsh political climate as “a tight-knit organizational structure that rewards loyalty and the ability adjust and adapt.” It is precisely this tunnel-vision of inward reflection and exclusive trust in its leadership and followers that has brought the Brotherhood to its current crisis. This time, however, the Brotherhood’s method of adjusting and adapting to the political situation resulted in a severely miscalculated dependence on the military institution to uphold any remnants of its legitimacy. The military’s forty-eight hour ultimatum was a demonstration of the president’s isolation as a result of two years of strategic mistakes. As Egypt moves to a controversial transitional period under military rule, it remains the Brotherhood’s political short-sightedness and its empowerment of the military that placed Egyptian politics at the mercy of military intervention.

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