The current protests in Egypt raise important questions on the possible role of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the post-Mubarak period. Hitherto the Muslim Brotherhood has played a relatively secondary role in the protests, and allowed ElBaradei and the youth movements to take the lead. Nevertheless, speculation about the organization continues to occupy the western media. Does the organization have the potential to play a considerable political part after the departure of Mubarak? And if so, is the fear in Washington and other western capitals justified that this might lead to a “very reactionary form of religious autocracy”, as Middle East Peace envoy Tony Blair suggested?
The Muslim Brotherhood was erected in 1928 and is therefore clearly not a newcomer to the Egyptian political stage. The movement was originally transnational, and inspired spin-offs all over the region, ranging from Hamas to the more moderate government co-opted Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. Despite a government ban on political participation that has lasted for the past decades, the organization has succeeded in developing into the most important, most well organized opposition movement of the country. Its well developed religious networks spread all throughout Egypt, and its social programs tackling communal problems neglected by the government succeeds in attracting support among a broad cross section of the Egyptian population.
It is difficult to establish to what degree the relative popularity of the movement is based on its popular social-economic agenda and to what degree on its Islamic message. As was shown by the willingness of the Lebanese shi’a community to embrace Hezbollah and drop support for the secular Amal movement, a social-economic agenda combined with effective solutions goes a long way in gaining support from a desperate population.
Under Mubarak the Muslim Brotherhood continues to be an important player in Egypt. In the parliamentary elections of 2005, MPs affiliated with the movement gained 88 seats, making the Muslim Brotherhood the most important opposition force in parliament. In the recent general elections of 2010, which are widely believed to be rigged, the Muslim Brotherhood won just one single seat. Despite this exclusion on the national stage, the movement continues to be active in more liberalized political platforms, such as the elections for syndicates and universities, where it gained large support from influential syndicates, such as the lawyers’ syndicate.
Although the Muslim Brotherhood did not take the lead in the current protests, the organization has the potential to strongly gain influence in the power struggle, which will follow in the post-revolution period. Currently the protests are without a clear leadership. Organizations from different ideological backgrounds focus on the one goal of convincing Mubarak to leave office sooner than the end of his term, paying only little attention to the post-Mubarak agenda. Although almost all movements have pledged their allegiance to ‘democracy’, there are large differences between democracy Muslim Brotherhood-style and democracy as ElBaradei, the Wafd party or al-Ghad envision it. This lack of a clear view on the post-revolution phase is a breeding ground for power struggles in the transitional period that will follow his departure.
To navigate this crucial period, Islamic organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood are considerably better positioned than their secular adversaries. The religious branch provides its political counterpart with grass root support and organizational strength. Contrary to its political branch, there was only so much the Egyptian government could do to suppress these religious local branches over the years without creating public outrage. The organization succeeded to gain a foothold in key cities and can mostly count on the support of rural, more conservative, communities as well. Its wide-spread religious networks and its strong organizational structure, provide it with a head start at a moment that other oppositional forces are still setting up shop. An example of this scenario was the Iranian Revolution in 1979, where Khomeini succeeded in eliminating the secular and more moderate Islamic rivals for power. It is therefore very well possible, that the Muslim Brotherhood will continue to be an important player in the new Egypt, even though she is not at the forefront of the current demonstrations.
Next to a disadvantage in the short term, the lack of organization among secular opposition parties in comparison to the more organized religiously oriented parties has important ramifications in the long term too. Electoral gains in this first crucial election will allow the parties in power to establish a beneficial power structure for the long term. This is based on the fact that the frameworks for Egypt’s new democracy will require considerable changes in the state’s electoral and governance system, which will be drafted in this first period. Since states often endeavor to organize elections as soon as possible following a revolution or a fall of government, the better organized, more affluent religious political parties have an important advantage.
However, fear that these developments will result in a pseudo-Islamic state ruled by the Brotherhood, as Tony Blair suggested, is exaggerated and does not reflect reality.
Firstly, popular support of the movement should not be overstated. As is clear from the above it is hard to determine to what degree the Muslim Brotherhood’s support is truly based on its religious message. Even in the highly unlikely case that all popular support for the organization would be religiously and ideologically supported, the movement would still represent a minority of the population. Mubarak’s regime has had every intention to inflate the importance of the movement and their agenda in the past, and estimates on the level of support the movement draws are therefore to be viewed with suspicion. An especially sore point is the question whether the movement will be able to exploit Egypt’s massive youth bulge. The leadership of the organization its leadership is of a much older generation, and the organization already struggles with internal tensions between the younger and older generations.
Secondly, the minority status of the movement means that it will require the political support of other parties if it wants to play a significant part in either the opposition or the government itself. There is however still a large measure of distrust against the movement among potential allies such as the Wafd party, Kifaya and the ruling National Democratic Party, preventing stronger cooperation efforts. These parties distrust the movements goals and its dedication to the electoral protests, and accuse the movement of free riding on their opposition efforts, a cry also heard during the latest protests in which the Brotherhood initially did not participate. If these parties would enter an alliance with the movement, they are likely to moderate the more extreme proposals by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Thirdly, the Muslim Brotherhood has proved itself to be a trustworthy political partner, and has shown respect for the democratic process. It has, for instance, a longstanding history of rejecting the use of violence and of participating in the political process. In parliament the Muslim Brotherhood opposition were the most active opposition party, widely using the few oversight instruments available to exert control on government proceedings. Even now, the organization has promised it will subject itself to the will of the Egyptian people both during the protests and in the transitional phase.
Fourthly, the movement has experienced a change in leadership and in strategy from December 2009 onwards. This development was brought about by increased repression since 2005, which led to a perception that the movement was under siege and needed to reassess its priorities. The new Guide of the movement, the relatively unknown Muhammad Badi’, strongly believes in the old formula that societal change can not be implement through a political top-down process, but needs to be built one soul at the time through a painstakingly slow process of educating the masses.
The new leadership puts therefore more emphasis on the religious instead of political activities of the movement, and attributes less attention to electoral participation and contacts with external partners. In practice, the shifts in leadership and strategy have led to a situation, in which the top level of the organization is currently ideologically and structurally less well-positioned to exploit the current events. Nevertheless, the latest signs show that even this more politics-averse leadership will still want to make use of the unique window of opportunity the possible ouster of Mubarak may create.
Although it is important to point out the socialization process the movement experienced in its political development, there are also signs of alarming developments. The organization, which regards the implementation of the sharia as one of her key goals, has not yet succeeded in finding a modus vivendi between sharia and a functioning ‘civil state’. Lately, there is even a slight deterioration in the relatively liberal and tolerant stance of the movement.
This deterioration is visible in several areas, such as the influence of religion on governance, and minority and women rights. The organization suggested the creation of a judicial council of religious clerics, who would have veto power over new laws, which is a clear departure of their previous stance in which the Supreme Court was viewed as the most influential legislative institution of the state.
According to the Muslim Brotherhood, members of the Christian Coptic community (in addition to women) should not be eligible for high state offices, such as the presidency. It also suggested that alcohol should be completely prohibited, and the level of punishment for offences in the areas of alcohol use, gambling or adultery should be increased, should be raised to include whippings. In addition, its MPs issued drafts for legislation prohibiting performances by female artists, next to arguing in favor of allowing female circumcision in the case of ‘medical necessity’.
The influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, its ability to rejuvenate, and its survival skills should not be underestimated. An Islamic take-over is unlikely to happen, if the history of the movement and its support base are taken into account. However, it is clear that the role of the Muslim Brotherhood society in general is likely to remain significant in a post-Mubarak Egypt.