As the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist movement in general face an existential problem in Egypt, and with the rise of militant Islamist groups that found a margin to grow after the 25 January 2011 uprising, Nabil Abdel-Fattah, an expert in political Islamist movements and editor-in-chief of the annual Religion in Egypt report published by Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, shares with Ahram Online his views on the prospects for the new relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the state.
Ahram Online: How would you describe the current moment in Egypt?
Abdel-Fattah: It is full of ambiguity and vagueness. First, I think the current political moment, with all its contradicting details, makes it hard for anyone to attempt to define a specific scenario for the future of the Islamic movement—the Brotherhood, or the Salafists. The fact that security remains the first priority for the new president and political parties—both those formed before and after the revolution—and the lack of a clear political vision from which all parties suffer, all this has a negative effect on trying to understand where the state or the Brotherhood can go from here.
Secondly we have another factor that adds to the complexity of the current political scene, which is the rise of the Jihadist Salafist groups and the spread of their organisations in the region, especially in Syria, Iraq and Libya, in addition to the Hothis in Yemen. These groups are adding more and more to the turmoil that the region suffers.
AO: How is all this affecting the relationship between the Egyptian state and the Muslim Brotherhood?
Abdel-Fattah: It has a big effect. The mutual hostility is also very vague and one cannot predict which path the Islamist movement in Egypt will go as this will be highly affected by regional conditions one hand and by the state’s vision of the political role the Muslim Brotherhood will be allowed to play in the future.
AO: How can you describe the state's vision of the Brotherhood?
Abdel-Fattah: There is always this pragmatic approach of the ruling elite in dealing with the group and this was very clear after 30 June 2013 and the ouster of president Morsi who hailed from the group. But to understand this more one has to look deeper into how the state dealt with the group through similar moments in history.
Under the rule of Anwar Sadat and then Hosni Mubarak, the compromise reached between both parties after years of clashes was mainly based upon the return of the group to play a political role within a frame defined by the state itself. Sadat allowed the group, after years in jail or working underground, to come back to the political and social scene to combat his rivals on the left, whether the Nasserists or the Marxists, and to be able to build for his regime a new legitimacy away from Nasser’s legacy. But years after working within the frame defined by the regime, off shoots of the Brotherhood came out as more radical militant groups and killed Sadat.
Under Mubarak a similar thing happened when he decided to go a step further and try to integrate the Brotherhood into politics through an agreement between the group and the security apparatus. Through this agreement the group was allowed to win seats – sometimes a majority – in the professional syndicates and then in the parliament itself by winning a number of seats in the 1984 parliamentary elections. This is a legacy we need to put into consideration when analysing the horizon of the relationship between the Brotherhood and the state. After every deadlock the state always aimed to reach a political compromise with the group.
AO: But how can this affect the current situation, especially with the continuing protests of the Brotherhood and militant attacks by some Islamist groups affiliated one way or another with the group against the army and police in Sinai and some other cities as well?
Abdel-Fattah: There is no doubt that these actions are complicating the current situation. On one hand the state might need to negotiate with the Brotherhood to reach a state of stability in order to be able to face the economic crisis and send a message to the international community that everything is under control in Egypt. This could require that the group make some changes within its political structure and accept the legitimacy of the elected president.
On the other hand, we have the rhetoric of a wide range of political and social forces that went out in 30 June against the Brotherhood and their president. These forces include sections of the urban middle class, some businessmen, and the Coptic Christians, in addition to sections of the lower classes. All these are still under the influence of the chaotic status that was created by the failure of the Islamists to rule, whether through the parliament or the presidency, and accordingly are demanding political isolation.
AO: You said that the current political moment has its own pressures and demands, what are these then?
Abdel-Fattah: There is the alliance that supported 30 June and their demands of political isolation. There is also the pressure of the fact that the transitional road map that was announced on 3 July is not fully fulfilled as the parliamentary election has not been held yet. All the laws and decisions made by the president now will be reviewed by the coming parliament and it is not yet clear what kind of parliament we are going to have. These are just some of the pressures.
As for the demands, there is the urge to reach a stable security status that can pave the way to more economic stability and open the door to more investment. There is also the fact that the United States and the European Union are demanding a political integration of the Brotherhood, and the fear that some feel that a complete isolation of the group could lead to the fracturing of the group that had already started to see the emergence of some militant factions that have relations or at least show support for ISIS or Al-Qaeda.
AO: So what kind of scenarios do you expect in such a foggy moment?
Abdel-Fattah: There are a number of preliminary scenarios. One of them is political isolation for some time through court sentences that will lead to the imprisonment of some of the leading figures of the group and its members until things settle down and some kind of negotiation is possible through which there could be a limited integration of the group into the political scene allowing it to work within a framework defined by the state itself. In this case the state might also abide to pre-emptive security measurements every now and then to keep the group within its control.
AO: How long could this take?
Abdel-Fattah: This could take from three to five years. Also, if the electoral laws were deemed unconstitutional – and there is a possibility they would – the new parliament could be dissolved and at that time it might be the right political moment to reach a compromise with the Brotherhood.
This scenario is not an easy one, however, especially because it will face resistance, like I said, from some political and social factions, and also because we can never be sure that everything will go as desired, ignoring other social and political interactions that might lead to a different turmoil from what we see now. I mean with the current status of political and economic instability we might see a different scale of movement among the working class or the lower middle class. Not to mention the current angry pro-democracy activists who oppose both the state and the Brotherhood.
AO: What is the second scenario?
Abdel-Fattah: The Brotherhood would be allowed to return to political life through some of their unknown members and would be able to reach the parliament by using money and their organised base. In this case the number of those who reach parliament from the group will define the reaction to their return. If it is an acceptable number that avoids clashing with the whole political system this will be a chance for the group to regain its balance and return gradually to the political scene. If the opposite happens, they might be a reason people would be ready to accept dissolving the parliament.
If the violence against the state in Sinai and other places continue I think this will widen the gap between the public and the Brotherhood and create more pressure on the state and the president to isolate the group for a longer time and will increase its crack down on its members.
AO: Is there other scenarios?
Abdel-Fattah: Yes. I think one of those depends mainly on the ability of the Brotherhood itself to maintain its ideological and organisational structure if things remain as they are now and the state, through its security apparatus, manages to control the level of violence practised by the group or other radicalised groups affiliated to it.
I expect all the tough verdicts against the leading member of the group to be commuted in the appeals, as happened before in the 1970s. This might even include Morsi. This could prompt some of the reformist middle rank members of the group to force a revision process of all the Brotherhood did in the last year, whether when they were in power or after, and to raise the necessary questions about why and where they went wrong.
A new reformist voice in this case will be able, maybe even by the some support of the state, to overthrow the hawks who are currently leading the group and take the lead. If the doves in this case are able to introduce a new vision that attracts the young members and sympathisers from the urban middle class and maybe workers and farmers, the group can present itself once more as an alternative that could dry up the human resources of radicalised groups such as ISIS. In this case the state will give a platform for the group to work on the ground and the public will be more ready to accept their return.