On Why the Brotherhood Failed

From Orient XXI, an insightful article on how Egypt is trying to find itself. Here is an excerpt for why it was not found within the Muslim Brotherhood:

All told, how did the Brotherhood rally against itself, within a year, such a large number of Egyptians as to make its undoing possible? How could so many of those who had elected them into power, or broadly accepted the polls’ results, reject them with such vitriol? How could the oldest, most established Islamist movement in the region become so quickly alienated in a religiously conservative society, to the point of being castigated as un-Egyptian?

Our sense is that the Brotherhood paid the price less for what it did, than for what it is. Although it presents itself and is perceived as a blend between religious movement and political party, it is mostly something else: a “secret society” and a vehicle for social mobility. By secret society we allude not to a scheming cabal but to a closed community. One does not simply join the Brotherhood, but fuses with it, marries into it, comes of age within it, and belongs to it profoundly.

There are nuances, debates, tensions even, within the organization, but being a Brother is a form of socialization, a frame of mind, a chain of command, and a perimeter within which one cultivates a distinction with the rest of society. The Brotherhood’s project, as conceptualized and proselytized by its founder Hassan al-Banna, is a dogma to which members wholeheartedly subscribe and are actively discouraged from questioning. It is a hierarchical organization where respect for (read complete obedience to) more senior leaders is a welcome sign of piety and dedication.

As such, the Brotherhood offers its members status, support and opportunities for social ascension – not least within its own ranks – in a broader environment that is not conducive to success via merit or other means. This is why leaving the Brotherhood bears such a trauma: you do not merely quit, but divorce yourself from its social, religious and business networks. For those who have gone through it, it is often a heart-wrenching process, in which one’s entire social world can turn its back. For its devoted members, therefore, the Brotherhood is more than a religious movement and a political party: it is a way of life that runs parallel to a larger society perceived as insufficiently pious and generally dysfunctional.

There can be a node of sympathy here. In the Mubarak years the Brotherhood was generally kept away from the political game, but mostly allowed to function as a social force. This force served as a network and an identity and a protest against society at large. As long as they kept to themselves they offered much both to members and to society.

But the Brotherhood also viewed itself as a vanguard to transform Egypt. And a vanguard almost by definition ends up either gaining the mantle of leadership or failing spectacularly. The January 25 revolution put the group to the test, but the broad societal basis for change meant the Brotherhood could not lead. They were a participant, a primary one, but not the vanguard.

So when they attempted to lead, especially in winning the presidency, it was not a natural progression. They couldn’t simply do what they wanted, and a vanguard is unaccustomed to having equal partners. As the article posits, perhaps they were incapable. But if a vanguard isn’t leading, it can be viewed even by semi-sympathetic would-be partners as an exclusive cabal.

The Brotherhood won the presidency, but the revolution was turned into a democratic process. Such was one of its successes, but also its loss. A revolution demands thorough, structural change; a democracy diffuses this energy into mere hopeful reform. The Brotherhood wavered between both, portraying itself as revolutionary and democratic. But in doing so it failed to win the confidence of either. As needed partners left its side, all it had to rely on was itself. It chose a populist, religiously conservative route to try to rally support, but this only cost it more among traditional state actors and elites, who became more determined than ever to resist. And again as the article describes, the people came to see them as something alien to Egypt; no matter how much they pleaded they wanted the best for the nation, they were seen in this as desiring the best for themselves.

And now they are gone. There is a node of sympathy for this loss in terms of the social attachments of their members. The dissolution of a family is always tragic, even if dysfunctional.

But there is no sympathy needed for the dissolution of a vanguard. Of course, some may outright rejoice. A vanguard is a wager for a goal greater than any family. By overreaching familial bounds, they risk contempt if they lose for laud if they win.

It is too early to write their obituary, though the contempt is palpable. But on the other hand if somehow the script is flipped, the Brotherhood might become the vanguard it always intended. If the ‘coup’ is reversed, it will be the Brotherhood in full leadership. They may wrap themselves around the January 25 revolutionary mantle, but now it will be their revolution. Perhaps then they will be comfortable; perhaps then they can win.

But must Egypt disintegrate to get there? Is this their current strategy? Or, is this the natural outcome of a revolution, rather than democratic reform?

In the meanwhile, Egypt is seeking to define its identity. The constitution notes almost every conceivable source, but grounds Egypt as the gift of the Nile. Will this satisfy? Identities involve negotiation, but they also involve choice. In a single person this can be messy; can it be simpler in a nation? The Brotherhood, in all its ambiguity, failed to provide a satisfactory answer. Will June 30? Will Sisi?

For all, let us look with sympathy. Not for the use of identity to forge political power, but for the necessity of a people to know who they are. From here, when their answer is settled, political legitimacy will flow.

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