To chants of “Command, command oh Badei, you command and we obey,” the Muslim Brotherhood in power was fast mutating into the very caricature of itself as painted by its bitterest enemies. Its easily mobilized, effortlessly bussed loyalists, happy to throng in their thousands in typically malevolent and horrifyingly brutal defense of policies and decisions they knew nothing about, now stood in stark contrast to the “new Egyptians” born of the revolution they made – a brave, free and rebellious people who bow to no one, and for whom the very notion of “obedience” is anathema.
Edward Gibbon, from whose seminal 18th century “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” I borrowed the title of this piece, attributed the descent of the Roman Empire to the loss of “civic virtue”. Be that as it may, the Roman Empire and its ultimately dismal fate are far from being our concern here, but having borrowed the title, I find it difficult to resist the temptation of appropriating Gibbon's notion to the case of - what I now strongly believe to be - the equally dismal, yet hundreds of times swifter fate of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Nearly two years after the Egyptian revolution, and five months after seizing the nation’s supreme political office, the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood is no longer able to see Egypt as such, and post-revolutionary Egypt in particular. It no longer seems able to perceive itself, and its Salafist and erstwhile Jihadist allies, as members of a nation whose people – through revolution – transformed themselves from subjects to the self-entitled, self-empowering, self-emancipating citizens of a highly diverse and most profoundly pluralistic nation, in terms of its politics, culture, life-style preferences, social locations and interests, ideological and religious persuasions.
Rather, the Brotherhood and its allies, gradually, yet certainly and swiftly, became no longer able to see themselves as part of, let alone partners in, this very specific, living and vibrant Egyptian nation being reborn, but as an advance battalion of a mythical Islamic Umma, for which post-revolution Egypt is little more than spoils ripe for the picking, its people hapless subjects to be conquered and subjugated. All of which, incidentally, might be described in Gibbons’ terms, as entailing the “loss of civic virtue”.
It needn’t have been so.
The Brotherhood, as I and many others in the democratic camp have argued for years, was not easily reducible to the caricature image its bitterest foes tried to paint it as – more often than not, as a way of justifying their implicit or explicit, subtle or flagrant collaboration with the Mubarak regime (to ward off the Brotherhood’s “fascist threat”), with all the commensurate privileges such collaboration provided.
Pity then, that the seductive kiss of power in post-revolution Egypt should have transformed them, vampire like, to that very caricature. We might identify several crucial moments in that transformation:
The first such moment predated the Egyptian revolution and has been most insightfully traced and analyzed by the late Hossam Tammam, a brilliant young scholar and a wonderful human being who hailed from the Brotherhood and who saw himself, until his untimely passing of cancer last year, as an Islamist, albeit of a genuinely and profoundly democratic and humanist variety.
Tammam showed that by 2008 the organisational wing of the Gamaa had seized full control of the group, effectively pushing out and/or rendering ineffectual the main representatives of “the political wing” – most prominently, then deputy supreme guide Mohamed Habib, and Abdel-Monem Abul-Fotouh, who has since split from the group and formed the unfortunately named yet highly significant Strong Egypt Party.
As Tammam shows, the organizational wing, with many of its chief representatives hailing from the group’s highly secretive and iron-disciplined “special organization”, has been the most regressive, conservative and close-minded section of the Gamaa. Made up as they are of “Qutbis” (in reference to the militant doctrine of Sayed Qutob) and Salafis, this powerful branch of the group had viewed their “political” counterparts as little more than window dressing, useful in jazzing up the image of the group before the outside world, but unrepresentative and irrelevant where its internal reality and deeply held beliefs were concerned.
In charge of an organization that most uniquely takes over virtually every aspect of its members’ lives (you marry into the Brotherhood, are employed by one of its many businesses, and your social, cultural and needless to say, spiritual life, are almost wholly enclosed by the group), the organizational wing easily emasculated the “political” wing by 2008, giving the group its current Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badei, in 2010.
The second crucial moment in the Brotherhood’s descent took place very soon after the overthrow of Mubarak on 11 February 2011. The military, which took over the reins of power, fell on the Brotherhood as the one sure ally that might help them stave off the dismantling of Mubarak’s authoritarian power structure and bring an end to the revolutionary upsurge of the people.
Unlike the revolutionary youth, the Brotherhood’s leadership was a known quantity, which had maintained (constantly, and through thick and thin) open lines of communication with the regime’s “deep state”. The group’s leadership had been hesitant to join the revolution, and in stark contrast to the revolutionary youth, oversaw a highly disciplined organization whose huge membership was bound by obedience.
On the other hand, having come on the heels of nearly three decades of the most thorough eradication of political space in the country, the Egyptian revolution proved remarkable in its ability to deliver a fell blow to the Mubarak regime, even while its architects were wholly unprepared, organizationally and in terms of political experience, to seize even a partial share in power and put into effect – however gradually - that revolution’s aims.
For both the military and their Muslim Brotherhood allies, the revolution had not so much given rise to a new political and social order as it had created a power vacuum which needed to be filled. For the Brotherhood specifically, the moment of “Tamkin”, or empowerment had arrived. A power-sharing arrangement between the twin inheritors of the Mubarak regime seemed written in the stars.
Yet the revolutionary energy unleashed in January/February 2011 would not dissipate. Over and over again, that vibrancy – which meanwhile had recreated the nation’s political space in dramatic and unprecedented ways – would make itself felt in putting tens, even hundreds of thousands of Egyptians back on the streets.
Commensurate with the above, yet another process was swiftly kicking in. And this is what I have described before as the “profaning” of the Muslim Brotherhood. Legality, accession to the avenues of political power, no less than the rebirth of “the political”, had wrested the Brotherhood from the hitherto rarified realm of “the sacred”, and brought it rudely down to earth.
As I’ve pointed out before, that “realm of the sacred” had been made up of an amalgamation of elements, including the preeminence of ideology (indeed, the reduction of the political contest into ideological, doctrinal, and hence ultimately religious terms), victimization and repression, effective disenfranchisement of the group, no less than its ability to create and expand an elaborate, doctrinally based and highly-financed patronage network well able to compete with the Mubarak state’s progressively crumbling and corruption-ridden patronage.
Both processes: continuing revolutionary energy on the one hand, and the profaning of the Brotherhood, on the other, were to make themselves felt in a remarkably swift loss of popularity for the nation’s preeminent Islamist group.
In the space of a few months, between the parliamentary elections (28 November 2011 - 11 January 2012) and the first round of the presidential elections (23 - 24 May 2012), the Brotherhood had managed to lose over half its electoral base – nearly seven million votes.
This was to peak with the Brotherhood’s accession to the summit of the political order, to become within President Morsi’s 5 months in power, not only profaned, but damned in the eyes of previously unimaginable section of the people.
A Brotherhood in power that is happy to collaborate with the US and Israel in fighting terrorism in Sinai; speaks of strategic ties with Washington; signs a typically stringent loan deal with the IMF; shows astonishing ineptitude and lack of vision; fails to deliver on any of its own promises, let alone the promises of the revolution; and is hailed by the US and Europe for its role in “containing” Hamas and safeguarding Israel’s security is a Brotherhood that has lost whatever mystique it once had.
Under these conditions the leadership of the Brotherhood seemed driven by two opposite compulsions, which combined not to pull it in different directions, as one might expect, but to push it almost irrevocably hurtling headlong along a single, ultimately suicidal path.
The first of these was arrogance. The domestic power vacuum, underlined further by the pathetic demise of the SCAF, strong Western, particularly American backing, regional support from oil-rich Qatar and a willingness to accommodation by the other Gulf states, no less than the growingly Islamist stamp on the Arab Spring – all of which seemed to give credence to what Western pundits had begun parroting repeatedly: the Islamist moment had arrived finally in the Arab world.
For an international movement – which sees the Muslim-majority world from Morocco to Indonesia as its ultimate constituency – the seductive force of such a compulsion cannot be overestimated.
Yet at one and the same time, the Brotherhood’s leadership, however self-delusional, could not fail to be aware that its claim to political preeminence in Egypt (supported by 90% of the population, as President Morsi claimed recently) was so much stuff and nonsense.
At a 51% majority, Morsi had come to the presidency by the skin of his teeth; the Brotherhood’s loss of popularity grew almost exponentially during his first months in office, and the Brotherhood’s boundless political ambitions were being increasingly challenged by the very revolutionaries who had helped put Morsi in office.
Such awareness however did not make for a willingness to open up to a growingly politicized, and pluralistic Egyptian society and its reemerging political landscape, but rather to create a frenzied sense of urgency that if they don’t seize the full reins of power today, they will have lost what is possibly their single chance to do so in the 84 years of the group’s life.
It all came to a head.
Thus, we witnessed the feverish attempt to “seize the day” by pushing through a ramshackle, profoundly authoritarian post-revolution constitution drawn up exclusively by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salfist and Jihadist allies. It was thus that we saw the concerted attempt to trounce the judiciary, arm the president with nearly absolute powers, and put into shape the requisite means and conditions by which the revolutionary energy and political awareness of the people might be crushed.
And it was thus that we witnessed as well the unprecedented resistance by the people of Egypt. On Tuesday an estimated three quarters of a million people marched on the presidential palace, even while tens of thousands were gathered in the revolution’s iconic heart, Tahrir. And even while thousands of protesters were demonstrating in cities across the country, often laying siege, and occasionally storming the regional offices of Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.
On Wednesday, thousands of Muslim Brotherhood thugs, armed with rifles, shotguns, knives, chains, bludgeons and remarkably, tear-gas were bussed into the vicinity of the presidential palace to attack the few hundred peaceful protesters that had staged a symbolic sit-in before the palace following Tuesday march.
As the footage and testimonies of protesters, bystanders and journalists kept coming onto the airwaves and the social media, we seemed to have been hurled back in time and space, to the rise of Nazism in Germany, Fascism in Italy, Francism in Spain.
The mutation of the Muslim Brotherhood into its ugliest caricature: a gang of fascist thugs was complete.
They shall not pass!