Ending the Brotherhood anomaly

Khalil Al-Anani, Friday 11 Mar 2011

Building a democracy in Egypt will not be possible without engaging the Muslim Brotherhood. But while they are organised, there is no reason to fear a Brotherhood take over

A key significant outcome of the Egyptian Revolution is ending the anomaly of the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s time for the Ikhwan, the oldest and largest opposition movement in Egypt, to be officially recognised. Since its outlawing in 1954, the Muslim Brotherhood maintained its social and organisational network as coherent and vigorous. Over six decades, Egyptian regimes have attempted to eradicate, exclude, and suppress the Muslim Brotherhood, however they failed. The movement has defeated all the “army generals”, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, who ruled Egypt in its post-independence era.

The role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 25 January Revolution is undeniable. However, it was subtle. Despite its reluctance in the beginning whether to participate or not, the movement pushed its grassroots base to join the revolution vividly. Over the 18 days of the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood deliberately kept a low profile. As Essam El-Erian, a prominent Brotherhood figure, put it: “We are not in the forefront ... we keep a step behind.” Yet the Muslim Brotherhood positioned itself as one of Egypt’s future-makers. Not surprisingly, the movement participated in the “national dialogue” with former Vice-President Omar Sulieman, at least for the record.

The real role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the revolution has not been revealed yet. However, one could contend it anchored around social and logistical activities. The movement has invested its long experience in delivering social services; medical care, food, and subsidies that nurtured protesters over 18 days in Tahrir Square. Moreover, it capitalised on its media outlets to generate the revolutionary mood that swept the country. And the Muslim Brotherhood fueled the revolution by providing protesters in provinces where it has heavy social and organisational presence, such as Alexandria, Mansoura, and Sharkia, north of Cairo.

The movement kept one eye on Tahrir Square, to preclude any attempt to hijack the revolution, and one eye on the West as the world was watching the turmoil. Mohamed El-Beltagi, a prominent Brotherhood leader and former MP, was the Muslim Brotherhood's contact point in Tahrir Square. He was responsible for handling media appearances and preserving the movement's presence in the revolution. For the Muslim Brotherhood, El-Beltagi was the angel who safeguarded the revolution from subversives.

A few days after the “Friday of Rage” of 28 January, I received many calls from different press agencies, all asking: Will the Muslim Brotherhood take over the country after Mubarak? A perennial question that dominated Western media over the past few weeks until the junta took power. The question proves Mubarak’s success in creating “Ikhwanophobia” over the past three decades to justify his authoritarian rule. But as he attempted to do the same with Christiane Amanpour of ABC News a few days before giving up, now it was too late.

Apparently, the Muslim Brotherhood was fully aware of such entrapment. Their answer thus was short and clear: we aren’t Iran. Mohamed El-Katatny, former head of the Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary bloc, explained, underlining: “We reject the religious state, we are not responsible of the speeches and statements of external forces. The regime has been using the Muslim Brotherhood scarecrow to tell the world that the regime is the only one who can safeguard the country, but this is wrong and it is their way to try to ignore the people's demands.” However, such statements were not enough to satisfy some Western policy circles.

Since the beginning of the Egyptian revolution, Iran has been invoked to exemplify the new Egyptian bogeyman of the region. Not only did such simplistic and superficial estimates dominate Western media over the past three weeks, but they also shaped the thinking of some think tanks and policymaking circles. Ironically, such an image overlooks the significant distinction between Egypt and Iran, religiously, politically and culturally, not to mention historically. Moreover, if there is any similarity between Iranian and Egyptian revolutions it would be with the “Green” one that shook Ahmadinejad's regime in 2009 and that has been revived a few days ago. Moreover, if Egypt would adopt any regional model, it might be Turkish, but certainly not that of Iran’s Mullahs. Not only because Egypt is the largest Sunni country in the Middle East, which makes it counter-force for Shia Iran, but also because of its long tradition of centrist (wasatiyyah) Islamic thought.

True, the Muslim Brotherhood is a potent and well organised movement, which is understandable as secular and liberal currents have been marginalised and fragmented over the past three decades. However, the movement is not genuinely cohesive. The movement has been prone to internal divisions, and sometimes schism, such as the case of Al-Wasat group in 1996, over political and ideological differences. In addition, and most likely, the ramifications of the Egyptian Revolution will change the internal dynamics of the Muslim Brotherhood. For instance, the movement has to adopt a progressive and reformist discourse that can accord to the new and drastic changes in Egyptian society. Moreover, the movement will have to accommodate its younger generation through democratising its structure, otherwise it will lose its grassroots. Finally, the Brotherhood's interaction with liberal and secular currents in Tahrir Square will impose a major change on its mindset and strategies for a long time.

Nonetheless, establishing a democratic architecture in Egypt will not be possible without engaging the Muslim Brotherhood, otherwise it will be dysfunctional.

The writer is a researcher at Middle East Institute, Durham University. His latest book is The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: Gerontocracy Fighting Against the Clock, Shorouk Press, 2008.


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