What Path will Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Choose?

Three options are presented in an excellent and thorough analysis from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

I will excerpt the conclusions for each, but the whole article is worth reading. If you would like to skip over the quotations for my brief commentary, please scroll down to the end.

First, on the possibility of Inclusion and Integration:

Assuming there are prudent, democratic interlocutors who are truly interested in mediating a settlement with the regime, such as Beshr and Darrag, can they really command the organization’s support? The answer, most likely, is no, given that most of the key positions in the group’s decisionmaking bodies, including the Guidance Bureau, the Shura Council, and administrative units, are occupied by individuals completely loyal to the Brotherhood’s incumbent leadership and tied to it through a multilayered network of business, familial, occupational, personal, and ideological connections.

Furthermore, the Brotherhood’s leadership has masterfully employed existential fears of regime repression among the group’s members to deter any serious call for self-critique or internal revision. Brotherhood leaders have so far adamantly refused to admit their grave mistakes and betrayal of the causes of revolution and democratization. The best they can concede, based on the dovish Darrag’s statement to the media, is to support the viewpoint that the only mistake the Brotherhood made while in power was underestimating the power of the Egyptian “deep state” and its capacity to spoil the political process. Darrag believes that the Brotherhood should have adopted a “more revolutionary strategy” in order to cleanse the state. But he expresses no regrets about the authoritarian constitution, the exclusionary political process, or the divisive policies put in place by the Brotherhood while in power. Moreover, even if Brotherhood leaders admit to grave mistakes during their rule, as long as the regime continues its repressive policies against the organization, the time will not be right to critique these leaders or hold them accountable for their shortcomings and wrong deeds. Therefore, internal Brotherhood fragmentation and secession will remain highly unlikely.

Nevertheless, even if some interlocutors can hypothetically solicit a degree of support—and hence start creating a real moderate faction within the Brotherhood—this scenario presents an invitation for the breakdown of the Brotherhood’s organizational unity. As long as there are no comprehensive transformations of the group’s ideology and mission, the recalcitrant Brotherhood mass will not accept these moderates’ offers of settlement on the regime’s terms, which will be depicted as an unpalatable act of treachery. The Brotherhood might come to a historical end, and more radical groups might emerge to the right of the Brotherhood, attracting its disgruntled former supporters. So, the first scenario, which is the resolution preferred by the United States and the European Union, is highly problematic and unlikely, at least in the short run.

Second, the Violence Scenario:

Nevertheless, Islamist violence may have reached its logistical and social limitations. First of all, violence on a large scale requires a large number of people willing to execute it and a social base willing to support it. Small pockets of disaffected, radical Islamists are not enough. Furthermore, unlike in Algeria in the 1990s, topographical conditions favorable to armed insurgency do not exist in Egypt. The country also lacks a clearly proviolence social constituency large enough to provide shelter and support for fighters.

Increasing social hostility to Islamism in general and to Islamist-driven violence in particular can isolate the politics of violence and further erode public support. While radical Islamic groups in Egypt waged an armed confrontation with the state in the 1980s and 1990s, it is important to recall that during that period the public remained either sympathetic to the Islamists or opposed to them but not motivated enough to throw its weight behind the government. This time the violent Islamists will face opposition from both the state and society (or at least wide segments of society), as demonstrated by the continuous street battles between Islamists and the Egyptian public in residential areas, popular neighborhoods, public squares, and marketplaces across different cities and towns in the months since November 2012.

The Syrian scenario is also unlikely. It is hard to believe that the Egyptian army can split along sectarian, political, or ideological lines like its counterpart in Syria.

The violence scenario, if it materialized, could arguably involve more low-intensity violence, limited to specific activities and locales. It might take the form of street conflicts between Islamists and anti-Islamist individuals in different urban neighborhoods. Street violence between common people and politicized actors has been a recurrent pattern since the early days of the transitional period. Many residents consider any politicized marches through their neighborhoods to be a transgression into their territory. Friction and clashes have occurred as a result, increasing in recent weeks, and are now focused on Brotherhood marches. Yet such low-intensity violence would likely fall short of anything like the Algerian or Syrian cases.

So both the accommodation scenario and the violence scenario are improbable. This leaves only one other possible outcome—a continuation of the status quo.

Third, the Continued Protest Scenario of De-legitimization:

The Brotherhood’s odds under the continued protest scenario are not terrible. In fact, the group can already claim that it has made headway through the troubled waters of the last month. The organization is arguably (at least in the minds of some Brotherhood activists) in a much better tactical position than when protests against Morsi began or even than when he was ousted, when public sympathy for Morsi’s cause was at its lowest and the faith in the interim regime’s transitional road map was at its zenith. The biggest problem with this scenario is its extremely risky nature. The pursuit of this option would risk losing the political gains the Brotherhood has made since Mubarak’s fall: official recognition, political participation, and power sharing. Such gains could be partially sustained if the accommodation scenario were to be embraced.

The bet the Brotherhood would be making with the continued protest scenario is that it can achieve longer-term gains, such as exhausting the transitional regime until it surrenders to the Brotherhood’s conditions, if it accepts certain near-term tactical forfeits. However, a complete defeat on the part of the military and the state is likely impossible as well. Ironically, the continued protest scenario in the long run may morph into a modified version of the accommodation option as the maximum that the Brotherhood can gain given the current balance of power.

The author does not dare to predict which path the Brotherhood will take. The best, that of internal self-reform and reflection, he believes is institutionally unlikely as well as near impossible under current circumstances.

But the difficulty lies in the nature of the Brotherhood itself, which he describes even before presenting the three options:

The Brotherhood is not a “moderate” Islamist movement that can be further moderated and democratized via inclusion. Instead, it has shown itself to be an assertive, even reckless movement, invested in Islamist ideology and dominated by an entrenched leadership structure. It has demonstrated a tendency to maintain multiple public discourses in an attempt to reconcile irreconcilable sets of political vocabulary. The soft-spoken English-speaking Brotherhood cadres who communicate with Western diplomats and analysts and propagate lofty statements about the compatibility of Brotherhood objectives with liberal democracy are not exactly representative of the real Muslim Brotherhood.

To truly understand the Brotherhood, one should examine the movement at the grassroots level, in the small towns and rural areas across the Delta and Upper Egypt—the organization’s real power base and the constituency that its leaders represent. At this level, the Brotherhood does not support pro-democracy rhetoric. Instead, it is more aligned with Salafist religious interpretations and understandings of the organization’s mission and goals as expressed by Sayyid Qutb, the renowned Muslim Brotherhood intellectual of the 1950s and early 1960s. Qutb was instrumental in advancing the notion of “organization first,” which suggests that the Islamist cause is inherently connected with the creation and sustenance of the Muslim Brotherhood society as an exclusive representation of Islam.

Intellectually and culturally, the Brotherhood encompasses different schools of Islamic thought, some of which are more open-minded and reformist than others. But based on the Brotherhood’s doctrinal literature and actual behavior, it is clear that the core of the organization centers on an ideology of an “Islamist state,” “Islamic transnationalism,” or “Paxa Islamica” and on notions of a government based on God’s sovereignty instead of the people’s sovereignty.

I have only one small quibble. The constitution produced under Brotherhood leadership specifically stated ‘sovereignty belongs to the people’, over the objections of Salafi members.

Of course, the constitution included several clauses which elevated the role of sharia, and thus of God’s practical sovereignty. The author might argue the constitution was necessarily a compromise document and was certainly a step in an Islamist direction, consistent with Brotherhood pragmatism.

As far as my read on their options, the current period is characterized by choice number three – of continued street protests. The Brotherhood can maintain this for a while, but only up until a coming critical event.

Once the amended (or new) constitution is put to popular referendum, assuming its approval, the Brotherhood claim of legitimacy takes a thorough blow. The people will have democratically sanctified the mass rallies which led to the military deposing of President Morsi.

At this moment, protests will not be enough. The Brotherhood will have to choose between active campaigning for a no vote or a boycott, or else sabotage the process. They must not allow a popular vote to go against them.

How will they do this? At that moment these three choices will come to a head. They can bide their time now with protests, but in another month or so, the die will be cast.

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2 thoughts on “What Path will Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Choose?

  1. First of all the article is trying to depict that there is some kind of crisis that needs “settlement”, overlooking the fact that Egyptians are now facing the worst war in its very long history – a war against terrorism – which naive, or let us say, well-intention Egyptians, including myself, thought America was serious about. No Egyptian man of honor, at least the millions who took down to the streets on June 30, July 3 and July 26, in a scene described by the international media and book of world records as the most massive gathering in the history of mankind, would accept any mediation with terrorists who killed our soldiers, policemen and young people and mutilated their bodies after they died.

    It has become apparent for each and every Egyptian who loves his/her homeland that the American administration has been supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. YES! Obama is supporting fanatical Muslims like the Brotherhood…

    Because of this terrorism-supporting Obama, the American administration has even lost the sympathy of moderate Egyptians who now believe that America does not the seek the good of the Egyptian people or their homeland.

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