The Middle East Channel

Old habits die hard!

Despite its stunning victory in the recent parliamentary elections, the image of the Muslim Brothers among revolutionary Egyptians is enormously shaking. The clashes between the movement’s youth, who went to Tahrir Square to celebrate the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, and the revolutionary activists, who protested against the military rule, reveals the widening gap between ...


Despite its stunning victory in the recent parliamentary elections, the image of the Muslim Brothers among revolutionary Egyptians is enormously shaking. The clashes between the movement’s youth, who went to Tahrir Square to celebrate the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, and the revolutionary activists, who protested against the military rule, reveals the widening gap between both groups. However, the problem is not that the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is less "revolutionary" than other parties but rather because it simply cannot be.

Since its inception some eight decades ago, the MB avoided revolution or comprehensive change and embraced a gradual, sometimes sluggish, reform policy. Hassan al-Banna, the founder and ideologue of the MB, abandoned the word "revolution" in all his tracts instead advocating reform (Islah). More importantly, the social construction of the movement’s members disavows radical change for the sake of gradual reform. The recruitment and socialization (tarbiyya) process, which every MB active member has to undergo, advocates steady and incremental reform of the self, society, and the state. Hence words like change, confrontation, clash, etc. seem alien to the MB’s leaders and cadres. More significantly, whereas the "bottom-up" approach, which was espoused by the MB for decades, entrenched its social presence, nevertheless, it aborted its boldness and confidence in facing the Egyptian state.

Indeed, the heavy legacy of repression and exclusion under Hosni Mubarak’s regime has made the MB an over-cautious and obsessed organization. Whilst the movement seeks to overcome this legacy, it seems unable to make a full rupture with its imbedded ramifications. True, the movement has supported the revolution since its outset; however, it never sought to initiate it or to end Mubarak’s regime through mass protests. The mere result of such a thinking pattern was that accommodation not confrontation has become a key strategy for the MB in dealing with those in power. However, in revolutionary moments such as Egypt is currently undergoing, this strategy appears pointless and may even backfire on the MB and erode its long-standing popularity.

Paradoxically, despite the outright majority attained by its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the MB is still thinking and acting as an opposition movement rather than a responsible power-holder. It seems reluctant to take full power over the country or as Nathan Brown aptly puts it, "the MB confronts its success." Hence the MB’s leaders are grappling with making the shift from long-standing repressed mentalities to those of statesmen, or as one of the MB’s defectors has told me "they need a psychological rehabilitation" before ruling the country.

However, the question is not how the MB’s leaders will rule the country but rather how will they legitimize and justify their power. The response of the MB’s leadership on the disputes with other forces provides a gloomy pattern. Strikingly, the statement the movement issued on Tahrir Square’s quarrel alarmed those who might disagree with its political stance. Whereas the movement should have apologized for its stark blunders over the past few months (e.g. disavowing Mohamed Mahmoud’s street events, condemning Tahrir protesters during the cabinet building clashes, frequently granting the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) legal and political immunity, etc.), it defied the mounting calls for an immediate transfer of power from the military to a civilian president. Ironically, the MB’s newly-issued newspaper al-hurriyya wal’adala reiterated the rhetoric of notorious public newspapers toward Tahrir’s protesters when it dubbed them "anarchists [who] seek to destabilize the country."

The conformity between the MB and the SCAF in dealing with the revolution comes as no surprise due to their mutual interests. The MB seeks to consolidate the extraordinary gains it attained since Mubarak’s disposal without risking its internal coherence. And the junta wants to maintain their unusual privileges without any civilian oversight. Clearly, both are exemplifying an obsolete mindset. They promote "reform" over "revolution," "stability" not "change," and "procedural" instead of "genuine" democracy. Not surprisingly, they are involved in negotiating, compromising, and brokering the future of the country behind the scene.

Nevertheless, the hoary leadership pattern of the MB impedes its attempt to replace Mubarak’s regime and to act as a ruling power. The MB needs to not only reshape and normalize its relationship with the state, society, and other political forces after decades of differentiation and operate as a "normal" political movement as opposed to a sub-state actor but more importantly to restructure its internal organization to fit with the new political environment in Egypt. Besides its controversial relationship with the FJP (which will likely discredit the party at some point), the MB’s internal structures suffer from inertia. There are ample examples in this regard. For instance, it was expected after the revolution that the MB would rebuild its main structures (e.g. The Guidance Bureau (maktab alirshad al’am), the General Shura Council (majlis al-Shura al’am), and Administrative Bureaus (al-Makatib al-Idariyya), to be based on more democratic and representative procedures. However, the movement maintained these structures and marginalized those who were appealing for change. Not surprisingly, many of the MB’s young activists are increasingly disenchanted and dissatisfied by the movement’s stagnation and the unwise political behavior of its leaders. As one of the young Brothers recently told me "the revolution has not yet shattered the movement’s old narratives." More ironically, even after lifting brutal surveillance and dissolving the State Security Apparatus (gihaz amnil dawla), the MB still practices its secrecy "habit" in running internal activities. The weekly and bi-monthly meetings of its micro-unites, the Family (al-usra) and the Branch (shu’ba), are convened clandestinely.

The FJP, so far, resembles its patron. It inherited the MB’s organizational and political tactics. The way the party has selected its General Secretary, Saad El-Katatni, to become the parliament speaker provides a striking example. Up until now, neither the MB’s grassroots nor the public knows how El-Katatni was chosen, who contested him, and how and when the selection process took place. The party did not issue a clear statement in this regard and none of its members asked. Unlike their Moroccan counterparts in the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), who held internal elections for governmental positions, the FJP is inclined to replicate the MB’s pattern in appointing positions, lacking in transparency and accountability. Thus, the underlying factor behind the party’s sweeping victory in the parliamentary elections should be attributed not to its revolutionary platform or liberal credentials but mainly because the social reservoir of its patron, the Muslim Brotherhood. Therefore, for Egypt to proceed toward a viable democracy, its new leading power (the MB) should be "revolutionized," otherwise nothing will change. However, old habits die hard!

Khalil al-Anani is a Scholar at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University and former visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute. He can be reached at

Khalil al-Anani is a Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC and an associate professor of political science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. Twitter: @Khalilalanani