Q&A - Muslim Brotherhood and the state: Possible scenarios

Ahmed Eleiba , Monday 22 Dec 2014

Political analyst Nabil Abdel-Fattah talks to Ahram Online about the Muslim Brotherhood – will it ever return to the Egyptian political scene?

Nabil Abdel-Fattah
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 (Photo: Al-Ahram)

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.‎
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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.‎


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