In contrast to President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s overtures to Muslim Brotherhood members not involved in violence in the post-30 June 2013 period, the government is continuing to follow through on policies aimed at politically eliminating the Islamist organisation and cutting off its sources of funding. Most recently the Teachers and Pharmacists Syndicates, long time political platforms for the Brotherhood, were sequestrated. Earlier this week the assets of Zad and Seoudi supermarket chains, owned by leading Brotherhood members Khairat Al-Shater and Abdel-Rahman Seoudi, were seized.
Although it sometimes appears there is an element of conflict between the political outlook and actual practice of the government towards the Brotherhood, on closer inspection this proves not to be the case. President El-Sisi has stated on numerous occasions that as long as he is in office there will be no Brotherhood organisation and “no office of the Supreme Guide” in Egypt.
When asked whether it was possible for his group to respond to El-Sisi’s overtures the response of a Brotherhood official — now in prison — made it clear the very idea was alien to the group’s leadership. There might eventually be the possibility of some personal initiatives with some individual Brotherhood members that might lead to partial accommodations — the source suggested he might be one of the links in such a process — but these would exclude the organisational framework of the group. Nor would the government have a direct hand in these initiatives. They would be launched informally, through mediators such as civil society organisations or some syndicates.
According to Ahmed Ban, a specialist on the Brotherhood, such moves are unlikely to have any real impact. The Brotherhood is always looking for a facade to use to evade the obligations of any dialogue. If some initiatives involving some members from the “middle generation” of the organisation do pan out the senior leadership will claim they are individual initiatives that do not represent the organisation. Such was the leadership’s reaction to the initiatives of Hamza Zawba, Amr Darrag, Ali Bishr and others.
“There is a major problem,” says Ban. “The leaders keep using terms, such as legitimacy, that are so divorced from reality no one listens to them. There is also a time lapse in how the Brotherhood handles political developments. The so-called Brussels Declaration, the Cairo Declaration and talk about the unification of revolutionary ranks might have been acceptable in 2012 but it is not acceptable today. As for the future, it is contingent on the question of ideological revision. Can the Brotherhood bring itself to do this? It’s hard to imagine. More likely, the group will try to reproduce past cycles, starting with movements on university campuses, moving into the syndicates and then into parliament and, eventually, making a bid to seize power at a moment when the government is weak. The difficult thing about this scenario is that the coming generation of the Brotherhood will be more extreme with respect to the state.”
Nabil Abdel-Fattah, an expert on political Islam, agrees with Ban, but adds the Brotherhood’s opportunities under El-Sisi are likely to remain as limited as they were in the early years of the Mubarak regime. They will not return to the political arena as a movement or an organisation, although there may be a possibility for them to make a comeback as individuals. Yet even this will take time, and is difficult to envisage before the end of El-Sisi’s first term in office.
Political scientist Hassan Nafaa, who proposed an initiative before El-Sisi reached power, argues the crucial question now for the future of reconciliation concerns less the positions of the various sides but whether El-Sisi himself has a vision on the issue. Nafaa believes it remains possible that El-Sisi might propose an initiative and be prepared to set in motion the necessary mechanisms without preconditions. Then it would be up to the government to implement the measures required by the dialogue and respond to such questions as whether the Brotherhood would be allowed to run in parliamentary elections and, if so, under what conditions. Would the Muslim Brothers engage in the political process through a party, such as the Justice and Freedom Party, for example. Such a dialogue/reconciliation mechanism would require the Brotherhood to make certain commitments. Could it demonstrate that it is really ready for a solution, that it is prepared to abandon underground modes of operation and move entirely into open through a proper political party framework? Or will it prove stubborn and cling to the clandestine ways to which it has grown accustomed?
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly from Paris, Alan Greish, a leading journalist who writes on Islamist movements, said there is no single European outlook on the MB. Greece and Cyprus, for example, support El-Sisi and a policy opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood. Countries such as Britain and France tend to waver: they do not want to rupture relations with the El-Sisi government but they do not believe that the exclusion of a large political faction from the political process is a good idea. Greish added that while there is some support in Europe for initiatives to promote reconciliation between the Brotherhood and the Egyptian government there are also fears such a move would be regarded as intervention in Egyptian domestic affairs .
“The Muslim Brothers have a problem in Europe. Apart from the fact that they are not organised — it is still uncertain, officially, who speaks for them and who represents them — to European ears they do not speak logically. For example, when criticising the recent Egyptian presidential elections they say that the voter turnout did not exceed six million and that most of those were Copts.”
Greish observed that within the larger MB movement significant sections of the international organisation are critical of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. “I sense this from Rachid Al-Ghannouchi in Tunisia and from Hassan Al-Turabi in Sudan. Even Qatar is worried. It fears rupture with the Gulf Countries and the perpetuation of the rupture with Egypt.
“The Muslim Brotherhood was born before Qatar,” says Abdullah Al-Azba, Managing Editor of the Qatari Al-Sharq newspaper. Speaking to the Weekly by phone from Doha, he observed that Qatar is Wahabi in outlook but has come to see a number of things clearly — that it is important to restore cohesion in Egypt among them. Politically, Qatar does not want to become a party in a war between the Brotherhood and the Egyptian state, although “it could sponsor an initiative for reconciliation between the Egyptian state and the MB if asked to do so in the interest of promoting stability in Egypt”.
Walter Miller, a member of the US delegation to the UN, suggests that Egypt is way down Washington’s list of regional concerns at the moment. He does, however, believe that politicians in Washington will remain reluctant to condone the exclusion of any party from the political process as long as that party is prepared to play by the rules.
Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Studies, maintains that, in spite of setbacks, Islamist movements remain players in the Middle East and will resurface, most likely in new forms, in such countries such as Egypt. He added that the Muslim Brotherhood had cast itself as a moderate non-violent group. The West believed this and looked to them as means to contain Islamist extremism. However, the proponents of that policy were mistaken in describing the Brotherhood as a democratic party with an Islamist ideology and refused to see the organisation for what it was, as evidenced by its behaviour and practices during the year it was in power in Egypt.
It is unlikely that the Brotherhood will make a comeback in the near future. This does not only apply politically but also in terms of the organisation’s religious activities. The Brotherhood has lost all public trust and sympathy, and the government is steadily dismantling the political and economic infrastructure that enabled it to operate underground. The president has moved to establish a public philanthropic organisation in order to fill the gap that Muslim Brotherhood charitable services used to fill in marginalised areas. Members of that group will probably slip back onto the political scene but in an individual capacity and not before the end of El-Sisi’s first term. This does not preclude the possibility that the Brotherhood will pursue other courses of action now that it is so fragmented. Most likely it will try to keep its protest drive alive, on university campuses in particular, in spite of intense clashes with the police. It may also perpetuate its alliances with other terrorist organisations, such as Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, to carry out bombings and attacks in an attempt to portray the new government in Egypt as incapable of restoring security and stability. There may also be other alliances in the works, with such terrorist groups as ISIS, to promote instability in Egypt.
This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly