Egypt's Islamists – what next?

Dina Ezzat, Saturday 2 Mar 2013

Two years after Mubarak's ouster, Islamists, now in power, may be heading down the former president's ignominious path

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi (Photo: AP)

On Tawfikia Street in the heart of downtown Cairo stands Arafa, an elderly vegetables merchant who has been doing business there for close to 40 years. During this time he was "neighbours with the Muslim Brotherhood" when they had their small, humble and routinely monitored office in an old apartment building on the street.

"They were decent and good people; they were good neighbours. They really cared and were always helpful. When they left I thought it was a loss, and when they had a candidate (for the presidential elections) after the revolution I went and stood in a long queue to vote for him," Arafa said.

The candidate was President Mohamed Morsi.

Today, however, this over 70-year-old man says he is "unhappy" with the performance of the Muslim Brotherhood's president. "This is not what a president should be like," he argued, emphasising the importance of efficient state management in order to improve socio-economic conditions. "Oh well — may the Almighty bring about a better day; it is all in His hands," he added with dismay.

Dismay over the performance of the Muslim Brotherhood is not uncommon. On the women’s carriage of the Cairo Metro underground sit a group of lower middle class housewives and civil servants, all veiled, complaining endlessly about living conditions, lack of security and fear that "prices will rise even higher." No one feels safe, they say.

"We have to admit that things were somehow better during the days of [ousted president Hosni] Mubarak; at least one could walk safely on the street," said Aisha on the Metro from Shohada (Martyrs) Station — formerly Mubarak Station — at Ramsis Square to her house near Ain Shams on the less economically privileged side of eastern Cairo.

Presidential overreach

It has been a little over two years since Mubarak was forced to step down in the wake of the 18-day January 2011 uprising. Since then, members of the many shades of political Islamic groups, including the most prominent eight-decade old Muslim Brotherhood, parted ways with persecution and walked the path of the political process until Mohamed Morsi, candidate of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), was sworn in 30 June as Egypt's first democratically elected president.

During his first weeks in office, according to supporters and critics alike, Morsi managed to impress. He came across as a modest man keen to serve the nation and to communicate directly with people free of security-related boundaries.

Last August, Morsi enhanced his popularity when he acted in the wake of an attack on borders guards in Sinai to remove the two top men of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) who had run the country since the fall of Mubarak to Morsi's inauguration and arguably beyond. According to many analysts, the move was a clear "political coup," and achieved in only a few weeks after taking office.

However, the honeymoon did not last for long. On 22 November, Morsi's former Spokesman Yasser Ali announced a presidential decree by which Morsi bestowed on himself absolute and extrajudicial powers, prompting outcry nationwide, including from some Isalmist quarters.

Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fottouh, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood expelled for joining the presidential race independently, spoke firmly against the presidential decree. Other figures of the Islamist trend, including prominent judge and intellectual Tarek El-Beshri, joined the reaction against the declaration that was ultimately toned down after the intervention of some independent Islamist intellectuals.

Islamists in crisis

Out of the more or less 20 political Islamic parties/groupings only Strong Egypt, Aboul-Fottouh's political party, openly opposed the 22 November declaration as it did the draft constitution rushed to a referendum and passed on less than two thirds of one third of eligible voters.

According to Mohamed Ossman, head of Strong Egypt's political bureau, the position of the party was that the declaration was "an anti-democratic move" — something not so much designed to serve the cause of the "Islamist political project" but to pave the way to dictatorship that should be rejected by Islamists.

The "crisis of the constitutional declaration" opened the door for an ever expanding criticism of the whole political Islamic scene that had previously been perceived by a plausible alternative to the regime founded in the 1952 Revolution and that had long opposed political Islam.

According to political analyst and commentator Amr Elchoubaki, who has written extensively about political Islam, coming to power has once and for all exposed political Islamic groups: "Had they not pursued the top executive job maybe they would have still maintained the idealistic image that they enjoyed during the Mubarak years."

During the Mubarak years the Muslim Brotherhood were widely perceived as moral opponents to a corrupt regime. Under the banner, "Islam is the solution," the Muslim Brotherhood positioned themselves as a group with vision and compassion whose wide network of charity helped the poor, at times irrespective of faith.

Today, Elchoubaki argues that the Muslim Brotherhood is expected to fix the system rather than to provide charity, now that they are in power with a president in office, albeit one narrowly elected amid fears of a reinstitution of the Mubarak regime through second-round contender Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister.

The Brotherhood, who held a majority of seats — with other Islamists — in a parliament that was later dissolved, and have been enjoying an unmasked presence in government and across the bureaucracy, has failed to deliver on promises made during electoral campaigns.

The group has also failed to live up to their commitment to a truly participatory political engagement with the liberal opposition — the row over the constitution a key example. Moreover, it went into open-ended confrontation with the judiciary, pitting varied institutions of the state against themselves.

Eventually, the Muslim Brotherhood was left with no supporters outside the Islamist movement, including Salafists and associated political party groupings.

Consensus breaks down

This Islamist isolation is no surprise to Mohamed El-Bakir, a Salafist with association to Aboul-Fottouh's Strong Egypt Party. Since 30 June, he argued, the Morsi presidency has ignored the demands of true revolutionary forces and has therefore lost their support.

"I have not seen signs of social justice, for example, which was a key demand of the January 25 Revolution," El-Bakir said. He added that meanwhile the army is still enjoying the same immunity it enjoyed under Mubarak rule and the Ministry of Interior is yet to undergo any serious reform.

Moreover, according to Ossman, who was once a member of the Muslim Brotherhood before who chose to join the Aboul-Fottouh current, "The Muslim Brotherhood has still to formulate a mechanism by which it could truly engage with all shades of the political scene as well as with the demands of revolutionary forces."

To date, Ossman argued, the Brotherhood is unable to go beyond the Islamists-only club represented in the Islamic Judiciary Authority for Reform established by Muslim Brotherhood strongman and second-in-command Khairat El-Shater.

According to Ahmed Said, another former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who defected a few months after the January 25 Revolution when the organisation failed to show solidarity with revolutionary forces attacked by the state, evolution within the Muslim Brotherhood is not impossible.

"On the contrary, the mood among the youth is for reform. It will just take time for reform to fall into place — especially when the old leadership remains obsessed with the organisaiton and its watertight system," Said argued.

What future for Islamist movements?

Debate within the Muslim Brotherhood about the current mode of rule and future of the organisation is expanding and is causing a headache to the leadership of the group, according to sources from within the group. It is in fact, according to some, a more nagging problem than the recent fall-out between the Muslim Brotherhood and a sector of its Islamist allies — the Salafist El-Nour Party.

This split within the Islamist camp is perplexing to many commentators. Some observers say it is only a temporarily fight over the share of power that El-Nour wanted in the executive branch, while others insist that it is a true schism within the Islamist camp that has started to now show its many shades.

According to the accounts of some Arab and foreign diplomats in Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood-Salafist spat is in fact a reflection of a tug-of-war between arch-enemies in the Arab Gulf, Qatar, a firm supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia, the ultimate supporter of Salafist groups.

Whatever is the reality, in view of the decision of the liberal/leftist opposition grouping the National Salvation Front (NSF), established to confront the controversial 22 November decree, to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections, the political battle now is between Islamists.

The joke on social media and Cairo streets now is that the Muslim Brotherhood would be the majority party and the Salfists would be the opposition. Some argue that it might even be the Salafis who gain the majority seats of the next parliament, rather than the Muslim Brotherhood.

According to Mukhtar Nouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who defected after two decades of association, "Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, whose declining credibility is easy to argue, due to the unfortunate performance of the president and his government, the Salafists have not been tested, technically speaking. So they might have a better chance. But the fact of the matter is that the performance of the presidency is discrediting the entire project of political Islam, as we have known it for years."

Mohamed Abdul-Koudous, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was openly critical of Morsi's performance to the extent of blaming him for discrediting "the long, honourable history of the Muslim Brotherhood," the call of political Islam has not been defeated.

For Abdul-Koudous, the theory is good but the practice has fallen short. "Mohamed Morsi might have never thought that there would come a day whereby he would be a president. The January 25 Revolution took us all by surprise. We have all acted in haste. But it is not too late to shape up," he argued.

Elchoubaki sees the survival of political Islam conditioned on key steps: first, political Islam groups — especially the older and larger Muslim Brotherhood — will have to go through a process of revision and reform; then these groups will have to decide to act part of the existing system rather than in the hope of tumbling the existing system to bring in a new system; last, the Islamists will have to come to terms with the fact that democracy is not a one-off electoral process, but rather a multi-pillared mechanism that will only keep them in power if they succeed in impressing the public.

"The Islamists have to step beyond Sharia (Islamic law) preaching and get into offering serious solutions to serious problems that the average Egyptian is facing in their daily life, and they need to realise that if in power they will have to cater to the pleasure of all citizens and not just Muslims," Elchoubaki said.

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