Is the Brotherhood ‘Rethinking’?

Rethinking Political Islam

(from Brookings)

When Brookings released a new paper from a young Muslim Brotherhood member based in Istanbul within the context of an ongoing series on political Islamism, prominent analyst Eric Trager had a poignant reply on Twitter:

“Brookings’ “Rethinking Islamism” series jumps the shark, features MB who, of course, doesn’t rethink anything.”

I laughed, but upon reading the analysis of Ammar Fayed I also noticed some sections where the group does appear to have reviewed its current situation and its year in power. I will highlight a few sections below.

But Trager also tweeted a comment that rings somewhat true:

“Islamists on Islamism – By casting MBs as research analysts, Brookings is allowing itself to become Ikhwanweb.”

Much of the article is simply a restatement of the Muslim Brotherhood internal narrative. There is no mention of the Turkey-based satellite incitements to violence, and only token mention of the ‘blurry’ line between revolutionary protest and violent means. That the people turned against Morsi is attributed solely to state-controlled media, and current divisions in the group are downplayed against an inherent unity asserted without refuting current outside analysis.

As an insider, Fayed is in a good position to know, and the paper on this count is still very valuable. But perhaps Brooking miscasts it; it is less an analysis than the presentation of one particular trend within the organization.

Unfortunately, it also seems somewhat contradictory. The overall theme is that the Muslim Brotherhood has not turned to wholescale violence because it would contradict the longstanding traditions that favor a social outreach over revolutionary change.

Fayed provides a very useful insider’s view of Brotherhood history, and contrasts the group with more violent actors:

This “model” [of the MB] carries out social services through official institutions subject to the law and operates under the authority of the state. The other carries out social services only to further the direct replacement of an absent or failed state with “Islamic rule.”

I think this is true, but toward his conclusion he says that the group is starting to change in its understanding of its enemy:

The conflict has shifted from a political conflict between the Brotherhood as an opposition group and the ruling regime into a conflict between the Brotherhood and the idea of the Egyptian state itself.

I agree with the author that the Brotherhood has not turned to violence in large swaths. But in contrast to his intended point that this will not likely happen, this point opens up that the MB is warming to a position he cast earlier as the domain of extremists. Within it he also takes a swipe at the Coptic Orthodox Church, stating “in the view of many” they are “abettors to the killings and ongoing repression”.

Earlier, Fayed relates how this state apparatus framed the Brotherhood:

By the end of June 2013, the state succeeded in “factionalizing the Brotherhood,” by portraying them as fifth-columnists separate from the rest of the population with self-serving goals. The message was clear, that the Brotherhood doesn’t have Egypt’s best interests at heart, only its own.

Certainly this was a message mobilizing against the Brotherhood. The author spends much of the paper describing the group’s attitude toward social services, showing how it serves the good of society at large.

But at the start of the paper, describing the Brotherhood founder’s somewhat nebulous and shifting attitudes toward politics, he wrote:

In the opening of the first issue of al-Natheer magazine in May 1938, Hassan al-Banna clearly stated “Until now, brothers, you have not opposed any party or organization, nor have you joined them… but today you will strongly oppose all of them, in power and outside of it, if they do not acquiesce and adopt the teachings of Islam as a model that they will abide by and work for…There shall be either loyalty or animosity.”

Clearly, this us-versus-them mentality is deeply ingrained in the Brotherhood ethos. The ‘loyalty or animosity’ theme is also a hallmark of Islamic extremism.

But this leads to one of the author’s points of reflection. The Brotherhood needs to better cooperate with others:

As long as the Brotherhood’s political imagination is unable to overcome the mindset of “coup versus legitimacy” and develop an alternative political discourse that meets the demands of the disaffected social segments that ignited the January revolution, then the Brotherhood itself may be an obstacle in its efforts to build a new culture of protest.

And in Fayed’s final conclusion, he makes an appeal:

Until now, the group has not formed a clear political vision. Nor does it have the tools to remove the military from its political calculus. Therefore, the group must work with other forces that reject the policies of the current regime.

Such an alliance, he believes, can form a broad national front whose goals and programs are based on the priorities of the revolution at large. This national front could also delineate pragmatic plans to coexist with the political and economic influence of the military for the foreseeable future.

The strategy is sensible, but he fails to state one of the most significant reasons this is not happening. Early on, the national front forces he describes felt betrayed as the Brotherhood collaborated with the military against the revolution. Yet even in this appeal to them now he does the same – imagining pragmatic plans to coexist with the military.

In a sense, this may help prove his point. The Muslim Brotherhood is not a very revolutionary organization. In fact the author’s semi-solution is to consider abandoning the political project and return to its comprehensive social role. If out of politics, he posits, the group could be a powerful force to marshal the populace to push non-Brotherhood politicians toward Islam-inspired positions.

Here is where Fayed’s most powerful rethink takes place:

The Brotherhood’s brief experience of being in power and its subsequent removal by military coup has served to strengthen the idea of separating the Brotherhood’s role as a social institution from its role as a political force …

In hindsight, it appears that the Brotherhood’s direct participation in competitive politics has done substantial damage to decades of social and religious institution building.

But since this social institution building project has been dismantled, as he acknowledges, where can the Brotherhood go now? He doesn’t see the group diving into violence, but acknowledges there is no space for reconciliation with the regime as long as Sisi is in power.

In short, there is a deep impasse in which the Brotherhood can only hope that current conditions deteriorate until the people rise again in revolt. Whatever authority comes next, it seems, might be able to work out an arrangement to restore the group.

In history this has been seen before. After Nasser, Sadat gave an opening. It may be wise to wait. Without stating it so clearly, this may be his real analysis on why the Brotherhood has not resorted to violence.

Of course he also mentions the many Brotherhood members in prison, which makes a difference also. But instead of his focus on internal Brotherhood dynamics, I would propose a different reason:

Army unity did not break, Egypt is demographically homogenous, and the people do not like violence.

For consider, the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine believes in armed struggle. The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria believes in armed struggle. Every situation is different, of course, but there is nothing intrinsic to the Brotherhood that believes in nonviolence. In Egypt, they made practical decisions on the best way to pursue their objectives within the scope of the possible.

In a vastly more constricted setting, they do the same today.

Had a division of the army broken off, should we imagine the Brotherhood would not have rallied behind it? Had they seized a portion of Upper Egypt, for example, would they not be fighting to defend it?

It is true the Brotherhood has not run off into Sinai, but an insurgency does not control Sinai, it only plagues it. Furthermore, the Brotherhood was never strong there, it would be unfamiliar terrain.

So why are not thousands of Brotherhood members committing individual terrorist acts? I would suggest it takes quite a bit to turn a frustrated political activist into a wanton killer, especially if there is no well-defined endgame. The Egyptian people do not like violence; Brotherhood members are drawn from the people. Besides, there is already a long history of Islamist insurgency from a few decades ago that only served to alienate the masses.

No matter how difficult the situation, they hold to the calculated decision that violence is still not the winning option. Give them at least some credit for this, but not necessarily the honor of principle. They have always been willing to fight, and the Brotherhood has never denied it. Their comprehensive vision of Islam does not sideline the use of force, only regulate it. The Brotherhood are pragmatists.

So what is Ammar Fayed? A very particular viewpoint within the Brotherhood that has won pride of place at an esteemed think tank. It may or may not be their dominant viewpoint, but it is insight into their world, provided the analysis is viewed within the possibility of propaganda.

In this Brookings is providing a very valuable service. It is allowing Islamists to speak into the academic discussion about Islamism. As long as it is properly introduced, I hope there will be more.

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