The recent court ruling calling for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to be outlawed comes as no surprise. The move was expected since the removal of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3. The ruling reveals the current regime’s determination to exclude and undermine the Brotherhood. The crucial questions are whether the ruling will be harmful to the movement’s activities and network and to what extent it will affect the movement’s future.
But before delving into these queries, at least two legal points are worth mentioning. First, the ruling orders a "ban" on all of the Brotherhood’s activities and not a "dissolution" of its structure and network. The distinction is important, as with the former interpretation the Brotherhood can still operate and do business as usual but in a more cautious and secretive manner. It appears that the ruling aims at nothing more than putting more pressure on the Brotherhood. This is particularly evident considering that the ruling is silent on the fate of the Brotherhood’s political arm the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and thus does not clarify whether it would be banned.
Second, the court that issued the ruling, the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters, is not authorized to do so. The banning of religious parties, according to legal experts, comes under the jurisdiction of the Administrative Court. Ironically, the court statement, which is overtly political, outlaws the Brotherhood not because of its religious character but rather because of its political failure over the past year, which raises questions about its legal validity.
The court ruling is open to different interpretations. From the Brotherhood’s perspective, it is nothing more than another attempt by the state to eliminate the movement and hinder its continuing protests, which annoy the interim government. On the other hand, the pro-state camp believes that the verdict will end the Brotherhood and stop its protests. In all, the verdict entails many contradictions and reflects a sense of reluctance and divisions within the Egyptian establishment on whether or not to fully end the Brotherhood. Apart from being unclear on the future of the FJP, the ruling also disregards similar organizations that "use Islam as a cover" in the political arena, such as al-Dawa al-Salafiyya, the patron of the Salafi Nour Party. This ambivalence hurts the image of the interim government as well as the judiciary.
Regardless of this debate, the outlawing of the Brotherhood has a clear sense of déjà vu that could foreshadow the possible future of the movement under the ban. For more than six decades, the Brotherhood was officially outlawed but still operated clandestinely. Its members were hounded, repressed, and imprisoned. In spite of this repression the movement survived and reached power after the January 25, 2011 uprising. Moreover, the Brotherhood had a remarkable record of employing the ban to build its network, expand its constituency, and improve its image. Under former Presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, in spite of its illegality, the movement expanded massively and rebuilt its organization and structure after the crisis of the 1950s and 1960s. Moreover, the ban allowed the Brotherhood to infiltrate and dominate the social and religious spheres, including professional syndicates, universities, and charity organizations, where the state had little influence and presence.
Nevertheless, the most harmful aspect of the verdict against the Brotherhood lies in eliminating its economic power. The ruling calls for confiscating the "properties, money and assets of the movement and its members." This would not only affect the Brotherhood’s activism it would also hurt its social network and hamper its charity activities. Indeed, the Brotherhood presides over an empire of schools, hospitals, and charity organizations that have been built over decades. The verdict gives the military-backed government sweeping powers to seize and dismantle this empire. However, this would not be an easy task. Apart from the well-known Brotherhood business tycoons such as Khairat el-Shater and Hassan Malek, the Brotherhood’s money and assets are rooted in a primitive and informal network of small businesses and commercial activities that rarely deals with the state’s financial institutions such as banks, the stock market, or financial corporations. This network long operated outside of state supervision and control. Because of its clandestine character, even many ordinary members within the Brotherhood do not know the extent of the movement’s businesses and assets or who owns what in the organization.
With the Muslim Brotherhood used to operating underground and with many of its assets out of the reach of the government, the ban may not be as damaging to the organization as one might initially think. Yet the ruling raises many questions about the paths the movement’s members might pursue. With thousands of ideologically committed members being marginalized and estranged, the ban could push some young Brothers into radicalization by eroding their faith in politics and democracy. And it could strengthen the position of hard-liners, such as Mahmoud Ezzat, Mahmoud Hussein, and Mahmoud Ghozlan, who strongly believe in the secretive and underground activities of the organization, at the expense of members who might seek a more transparent political and public role for the Brotherhood, such as Mohammed Ali Beshr and Amr Darrag.
Moreover, the ban and the attempt to crush the movement also allow the Brotherhood to continue branding itself as the "victim." The ruling gives the Brotherhood a golden opportunity to save face and continue its state of denial as to its own role in the July 3 coup. In contrast, allowing the Brothers to stay in the political arena and participate in elections would not only pull them away from their enclave but also hold them accountable for their actions. Further, if the pro-government media’s claim about the declining popularity of the Brotherhood is true, it would be an ideal time for the anti-Brotherhood parties to defeat it politically.
The future of the Brotherhood should not be decided by a court ruling or a political decision from an appointed government, but rather by integrating Brotherhood members and leadership into Egypt’s political process. Only then will the movement be forced to confront its actions and perhaps admit and revise its mistakes from the past year.
Khalil al-Anani is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. His forthcoming book is Unpacking the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity and Politics (tentative title). He can be reached at: email@example.com and @Khalilalanani.