As a direct result of relying on outmoded dogmas, the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood backed the movement into a lose/lose corner. On one hand, steadfastly refusing to end its sit-ins led to a bloody defeat and possibly further alienation from mainstream Egyptian opinion on the other, even if the movement’s leadership decided to heed the calls of some of its younger members to abandon the received wisdom accumulated through its bitter history, that might not be enough to secure a legal place in Egypt’s future political process. Many of Egypt’s secular forces, who realize that the Brothers’ popularity, and that of the entire Islamist “trend,” is at an all-time low, are determined to take full advantage of the situation and not include what they labeled “exclusionary religious movements” in any reconciliatory political process. Is there a way out for the Brotherhood’s leadership?
In the immediate aftermath of the coup that deposed President Mohamed Morsi on 3 July 2013, it looked as though the Muslim Brothers had decided to embrace all options including violence. In the heat of the moment, some members of the Muslim Brothers and a number of their supporters waved flags associated with militant Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda, and issued rampant threats against the deposed president’s opponents. After a quick recalibration, however, the Muslim Brothers wrapped themselves in Egyptian flags and brought women and children with them to demonstrations proclaiming that their resistance to the military-backed government would be non-violent.
To many, this seemed to be a welcome departure for the Muslim Brothers who had not shied away from espousing violence to achieve their ends through much of their history. However, a closer look at the Brothers’ strategy offers insight into the extent that the group’s past continues to weigh heavily on its decision-making in the present. The group’s history is a burden that severely handicaps their ability to reach a political settlement that would secure a legal place for the movement in Egypt’s political future.
Indeed, the parallels between the past and the present are striking. For example, just as they have always done, the Brothers fundamentally overestimated their support among the general population while underestimating the strength of their opponents. In 1953, Muslim Brothers’ luminaries Sayyed Qutb and Hassan al-Hudaybi confidently declared that the Brothers would destroy their opponents (the Free Officers and the military regime that had ousted the monarchy in 1952). There are echoes of that now as many leaders of today’s Brothers confidently declared their ability to defeat the opposition and to reinstate Morsi within a few short days. In both instances the Brothers seem oblivious to the range of forces allayed in support of the new regime.
This inability to grasp the political significance of the moment might be traced to a second factor that has marked the Brothers self-perception since they became a significant player in Egyptian politics in 1930s. The group continues to represent its discourse as synonymous with Islam and as such distance themselves from any other political movement or trend. Indeed, the Brothers continue to portray their political struggle not as competition for political power but as martyrdom in the path of God. This is not new. In 1965, Qutb and those in his immediate circle (include the current Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie) declared themselves al-‘Usba al-Mu’minah (Faithful Core). That was enough to justify their view of the 1960s as a battle against the “infidel” regime of President Nasser whom they saw as a lackey of the West conspiring with the Jews and the Soviet Union to destroy Islam. Similarly, we now hear echoes of this dusty rhetoric from many Brothers who stridently assert that their group represents the only vision of Islam and that their struggle is not so much about the future of Egypt, but the future of Islam writ large. To them, their enemies are criminals determined to extinguish God’s light on earth.
Third, as in the past, the Brothers continue to depict themselves as victims protected by angels facing off against non-believers. Longtime Brotherhood activist, Zayneb al-Ghazali, claimed that while imprisoned in the 1960s, God’s angels appeared in her cell to feed, clothe, and protect her. She also stated that Qutb, who appeared to her after his execution, was enjoying the company of the Prophet of Islam. Then over the past weeks, a number of Brotherhood speakers claimed to have seen the angel Gabriel at their on-going encampment in Rabea al-‘Adawiyya that was so brutally attacked on the morning of 14 August 2013. Among them are some that have gone so far as to claim that they have received divine visions claiming that the Prophet of Islam requested that president Morsi lead him in prayers. In fact, even during Morsi’s presidency, Fahmy Howeidy, the Islamist writer, characterized Morsi’s opponents as Pharaohs and non-believers and the Brothers and President Morsi as Moses and his Godly people.
And finally, the Muslim Brothers continue to muddy the facts. For example, ‘Umar al-Tilmissani (a former head of the Brothers) declared that the movement’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, was the true initiator and the real architect of the 1952 coup that toppled Egypt’s monarchy and brought Nasser to power. This complete rewriting of reality is parallel in the way the current leadership claims that not only did Morsi challenge American/Israeli hegemony in the region (a powerful populist position that is not supported by facts) but also that he had agreed to hold early presidential elections after the military’s ultimatum of 30 June 2013. Again this is not supported by facts. Moreover, the Brothers also continue to argue that the deposed president included the opposition in all his decision-making processes. Regardless of one’s view of the military intervention of 3 July 2013, no serious observer could reasonably assert that Morsi’s government was inclusive.
If history is any indication, the current strategies like those the Brothers adopted during previous moments of political upheaval will fail to achieve the movement’s goals. One need look no further than their 1954 misreading of the political situation (i.e. believing that their group was more powerful and more popular than the Free Officers) that caused their defeat as Nasser detained thousands of Brotherhood members. Eventually, more than 1500 were sentenced to long prison terms and six were hanged. This inability to fully grasp the ramifications of their actions greatly weakened the movement at a time when it was facing increasing repression from the Egyptian state. Was the historical analog to this lesson the frightful violence perpetrated by the security forces against the two encampments of Morsi supporters this week?
With all of this in their history, it is perplexing that the current leadership has not learned from the past. Even more inextricable is that despite the caution from a prominent and ardent supporter, Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail, a prominent Salafist preacher, many weeks ago on 27 June 2013, that the Brothers had lost much of their ability to mobilize the masses, they still do not have a realistic view of the present. Indeed it is quite clear that their support, even among Islamists, is dwindling and their popularity among ordinary citizens is very low. This explains at least in part the so far muted response among Egyptians about the violence of 14 August.
At the same time, no one can question the fact that the Brothers enjoy enthusiastic support from among their followers and that they are a disciplined and organized force. But, facts on the ground indicate that the movement’s current strategy, its attempt to mobilize the “street” against the military-backed government, has not worked. The Brothers have failed to attract support from outside their ranks. In fact the movement had been reduced to what might be called a “Hail Mary” strategy. Every three or so days, the Brothers organized small marches in an effort to attract others to join them. The strategy produced the opposite effect. Ordinary citizens seemed to grow impatient towards what they saw as disruptive tactics. Indeed, so far, despite a large number of fatalities of Brothers’ supporters, there seems to be scant evidence of sympathy for the Brotherhood. One could see this in especially sharp relief among the residents of the Rabea vicinity who made no secret of their desire for the Brothers to end their encampment and depart their neighborhood. It is possible the events of Wednesday 14 August may change that, but it seems unlikely.
One incident sums up much of the sentiment on the street. On 9 July 2013, under the leadership of longtime Brotherhood activist Mohammed Abdel Qudus, a handful of Brothers attempted to organize a protest against the death of the Brother’s photographer Ahmed Assem (who was killed during the first massacre perpetrated by the Egyptian army in the wake of the 3 July Coup). Almost instantaneously, dozens of ordinary Egyptians harangued them, calling them traitors and in turn blaming the Brothers for the events at the Republican Guards Club that resulted in the death of fifty-one people. One wonders if the same will now happen on an even larger scale after the violence of 14 August 2013.
This decline in the movement’s popularity is due to several factors. While some of these factors are socio-economic issues that were inherited from the era of the deposed president Hosni Mubarak, much of the anti-Brotherhood sentiment can be traced to their use of divisive and doctrinaire tactics during the movement’s unsuccessful one-year in power. Upon taking the reins of government after the elections of 2012, instead of offering immediate plans to ease the sufferings of Egypt’s poor or its struggling middle class, the Brothers engaged in what many believed to be avoidable battles with Egypt’s entrenched institutions (such as the judiciary or the media) and with secular forces and minorities. While the Brothers claimed these battles were aimed at fighting corruption, many ordinary Egyptians perceived them as an effort of “Brotherization,” a process to assure the Brothers’ control over every aspect of state and society.
The massive anti-Brotherhood demonstrations of 30 June and 26 July give some indication that many Egyptians pin the Brotherhood’s failure on its archaic ideology, outdated policies and its seeming lack of interest in social and economic justice. To further complicate this, after a particularly virulent anti-Brothers media campaign many Egyptians are now questioning the group’s loyalty to Egypt. According to this view, the Brothers only consider control of Egypt as a stepping-stone towards the establishment of a new Muslim Caliphate.
That brings us back to the present moment. Now, the leaders of the Muslim Brothers have a choice, either to continue on the same path as they have throughout their history or to initiate painful but necessary reforms in order to begin a new future within Egypt’s diverse political landscape. Unfortunately, early indications are that powerful voices of the Brothers’ past (like that of sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the influential Qatar-based Egyptian cleric, who recently called on Muslims from every part of the Arab and Muslim World to join the struggle of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt in order to obtain martyrdom) will prevail.
What might reforms look like? There may already be some indications. Many young Brothers recently formed three separate trends within the movement, Ikhwan Bila ‘Unf (Brothers Without Violence), Shabab al-Ikhwan (Youth of The Brotherhood) and Ahrar al-Ikhwan (The Free Brothers) and are calling for a comprehensive review of the movement’s ideas and practices. These young activists appear to have realized that the Brothers’ old strategies are outmoded and belong to a different era. This is happening at the same time that some leftist and liberal activists are also calling upon the Brothers leadership to join with their younger members and to abandon the discordant ways of their violent past in order to secure a place in Egypt’s future.
What is clear is that the Brothers must recognize that their old ideas are not suitable for today’s diverse political landscape. They must acknowledge and put into practice the idea that for any Islamist (or indeed any political) project to succeed it must be inclusive for Christians, Jews, Shi’a, and other minorities who must be treated equally under the law. The movement must abandon the notion that it represents God’s faithful core; abandon secrecy, deception, and violence. It must also entertain the possibility that the Muslim Brothers failed to govern precisely because of their intolerance and their tendency to express this intolerance with acts of violence against those who oppose their maximalist vision of an Islamist Egypt.
Sadly however, even if the movement adapts all of these changes it still might not be enough to include the Brothers as a legal political force in Egypt’s future. Many liberal and leftist activists are demanding the dismantling of the Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party (and all other religious parties for that matter). Their argument is simple. They argue that those whose foundational beliefs and practices are built on excluding the others cannot be included in a reconciliatory political process. It is hard to tell, but it seems as if this argument is gaining popular momentum. In fact, Egypt’s cabinet is now considering a proposal to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood.
To avoid further marginalization, the Brothers’ leaders must stop looking backward. They must make a courageous decision and agree to rejoin the current political process or risk returning to the margins as an underground group. There are no guarantees; but this time around the movement must acknowledge that it does not have a God-given right to either dominate (or wreck) Egypt’s diverse political landscape. It must learn how to compete against other political communities using socio-political ideas not divisive religious rhetoric.
Most importantly, if the Brothers think that this crisis is similar to others in their troubled history, they are badly mistaken. This time is different. The movement is not only facing the wrath of a military regime; it is also facing the anger and distrust of a large segment of the population. For the Brothers to have any voice in Egypt’s political future, the movement must abandon their past and look for a new path forward before it is too late.
 For example see, Ahmad Abdel Migid, Al-Ikhwan Wa Abdel Nasser: al-Qisah al-Kamila Li-Tanzim 1965 (Cairo: al-Zahra Lil-I’lam, 1991). Hala Mustafa, al-Islam al-Siyasi Fi Misr (Cairo: Markez al-Ahram, 1992), 107-131. Mahmoud al-Sabbagh, Haqiqat al-Tanzim al-Khass (Cairo: Dar al-I’tissam, 1989).
 Zayneb al-Ghazali, Ayam Min Hayati (Cairo: Dar al-Tawzi’ al-Islamiyyah, 1999), 15, 215-216.
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