Egypt's free-falling Muslim Brotherhood loses zero-sum game

Hatem Maher, Wednesday 10 Jul 2013

The influential Muslim Brotherhood has lost its first genuine test after coming above ground. Now the group faces an uphill struggle to stay afloat after its rapid fall from grace

Muslim Brotherhood
An Egyptian protester looks at the damaged Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in the Muqatam district in eastern Cairo (Photo: AP)

Hassan El-Banna, whose religious zeal and activism spurred him to establish the Muslim Brotherhood more than eight decades ago, is said to have regretted in the twilight of his rich life the group's deviation from its original course by mixing religion with politics.

However, the powerful, as-old-as-the-hills group still managed to come through a host of political struggles unscathed, leaving an indelible mark on the modern history of a country ruled by an iron fist for hundreds of years.

More than 80 years on, the shadow of El-Banna's regret might be hanging over one of his ideological descendants – Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie.

The Brotherhood's detractors believe the group got politics into a real mess when it finally reached the pinnacle of power, having been forced underground after being subject to oppressive tactics for decades, first by King Farouk – the last monarch of Mohamed Ali's dynasty – and then by three military autocrats.

The ouster of Mohamed Morsi – Egypt's first-ever freely-elected president, who hails from the Brotherhood – is a natural outcome of the group's disastrous performance in the first year of what should have been a four-year tenure in office, if not eight, critics argue.

"The Brotherhood's main problem was that they still played the victim role after assuming control of the country. When they took charge, they could not change that mindset," professor Khaled Fahmy, who chairs the history department at the American University in Cairo, told Ahram Online.

"They could not build any bridges of cooperation and co-existence with either fellow Islamist factions or non-Islamist ones. They had suspicions about whoever objected to their policies," Fahmy said.

Brotherhood hawks

The Brotherhood's rigidness, which saw them renege on a handful of promises made to the opposition when Morsi beat off former Mubarak-era minister Ahmed Shafiq to become Egypt's first freely-elected leader last year, is partly due to an old-school mindset embraced by the group's influential leaders.

The Brotherhood's big guns are followers of Sayed Qutb, the group's late leader who was executed in 1966 after being accused of plotting to overthrow the regime of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who cracked down on Islamists during his tenure.

Qutb was accused by critics of endorsing hard-line views about the necessity of adopting Islamic Sharia Law and advocating resistance against "infidel governments."

More moderate figures in the current hierarchy were opposed by the conservatives, better known as the "Qutbis," a battle that led to the resignation of two leading figures before Morsi's election: former deputy supreme guide Mohamed Habib and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, who had been a member of the powerful Guidance Bureau.

The duo's departure gave Badie and his mates free rein to implement their unyielding ideologies, which incurred the wrath of the opposition only a few months after Morsi was propelled to power.

"The Brotherhood sometimes underestimated the opposition and sometimes made light of it. They had the illusion of conspiracies being hatched against them," Fahmy added.

"The political landscape changed hugely after the 2011 January revolution, and the Brotherhood should have been aware of that. They should have cooperated with other factions; that was the only way for them to appease the growing anger against their rule," he said.

"Instead, Morsi acted as if he was the leader of the Brotherhood, not the leader of Egypt, only following the advices of the Guidance Bureau – the group's hawks who follow the Qutb school. Morsi himself was one of the hawks; he was the one who expelled Abul-Fotouh from the Guidance Bureau," Fahmy said.

Opponents of Morsi were enraged after the president declined to fulfil pledges made during what was widely known as the "Fairmont meeting" shortly after he was elected, including the formation of a national salvation government.

A decree Morsi issued in November last year, which shielded his decisions from judicial review, further stoked tensions and sparked unprecedented clashes between the president's supporters and opponents.

Political activists took to the streets on several occasions to object to what they perceived as Morsi's authoritarianism, and they were eventually joined by many ordinary Egyptians frustrated with ongoing economic hardship.

The Egyptian army subsequently intervened to overthrow Morsi, saying it had to bow to "the will of people." But that was not the only reason, argue critics.

No love lost

Some state institutions, mainly Egypt's notorious police, were the powerful tool that Hosni Mubarak used for three decades to keep the Brotherhood at bay, imprisoning most of their outspoken leaders and harassing their candidates on the eve of every parliamentary poll.

There was no apparent direct confrontation between the military establishment and the Brotherhood, but Islamists still complained they had no right to study in army faculties.

Morsi's bold move to dismiss former defence minister Hussein Tantawi, who was Egypt's de facto ruler during a tumultuous transition to democracy, and bring in Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi as a replacement less than two months after assuming office, was hailed by Brotherhood supporters as a giant stride towards asserting civilian control over a semi-autonomous army.

But that was not exactly the case.

A relative honeymoon came to a premature end last month when Morsi, a staunch supporter of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, decided to sever Egypt's relations with Syria without first consulting El-Sisi, according to veteran Egyptian journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal.

"On the day of that Syrian conference [15 June], Morsi phoned El-Sisi to inform him that he had taken a decision to sever ties with Syria," Heikal, who had been in regular contact with El-Sisi in the run-up to Morsi's ouster, said in a televised interview.

"El-Sisi told him that such a decision would not make any difference in the complicated situation there [in Syria], stressing the importance of maintaining relations. But Morsi told him he had already made up his mind, and that he only wanted to inform El-Sisi," Heikal said.

With no love lost between the police and army on one hand and the Brotherhood on the other, calls for protests against Morsi – just as he was due to complete his first year in office – gave the security establishments a golden opportunity to become a thorn in the decaying Brotherhood.

"Rather than Morsi taking over the state, state institutions remained fairly autonomous and effectively ejected him," wrote Shadi Hamid, a director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre.

"Morsi was incompetent; stuck in a bubble, but strength of the 'state' poses questions regarding whether any government can pursue real institutional reform," said Hamid.

Existential challenge

Whether or not the Brotherhood can regroup and re-enter the political fray remains to be seen, but their relentlessness vis-à-vis an equally determined army could backfire at a time when it provoked an unprecedented outpouring of anger among millions of Egyptians.

An open-ended sit-in in a Cairo suburb combined with recurring street battles between Brotherhood supporters and opponents, which has left more than 100 dead since 30 June, suggest that the group is not willing to give in anytime soon.

A bloody confrontation between the army and pro-Morsi protesters near the Republican Guard compound in Cairo left at least 50 dead on Monday, raising the spectre of a wider conflict in a country struggling to restore order.  

The authorities, for their part, have moved to arrest some influential Brotherhood leaders, including Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat El-Shater and Saad El-Katatni, head of the group's political arm.

"The Brotherhood is facing a serious existential challenge," Fahmy said. "They can either adopt a critical attitude and ask themselves what went wrong, or blame other political forces and the whole democratic system for their own shortcomings."

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