An expert's point of view on a current event.

Morsy and the Muslims

Is Egypt’s government getting more Islamist?

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Many Americans — and many Egyptians — are souring on the Muslim Brotherhood. Some are rather smugly saying, "I told you so." From the American and Arab liberal perspectives, the Brotherhood seems run by hyper-charged Islamists bent on imposing their will on the Egyptian people. Like most things in politics, though, it depends on what exactly you’re comparing them to. More than two years into the Arab revolts, Islamists are weighing the virtues of moving more aggressively to implement their agenda versus the benefits of proceeding cautiously in an attempt to placate their critics and opponents.

There is little doubt that the Brotherhood has veered to the right. The real debate within the group is whether they’ve veered far enough. With Egypt as polarized as ever, the country’s largest Islamist movement has effectively given up on reaching out to liberals and leftists, focusing instead on closing ranks and rallying its base. During the presidential race, Khairat al-Shater, the Brotherhood’s original candidate, chose a Salafi-leaning council of scholars for his first campaign event, where he affirmed that the application of sharia law was his ultimate goal and that he would form a committee of scholars to help parliament achieve that goal. After Shater’s disqualification, Mohammed Morsy — a weaker, less convincing candidate — doubled down on Shater’s back-to-basics message. "Needless to say," Morsy said, "[I am] currently the only contender who offers a clearly Islamic project."

After winning the presidency, Morsy took a brief stab at rising above his partisan origins. But the tragic events of Dec. 4, when anti-Brotherhood protesters and government supporters clashed outside the presidential palace, rendered such efforts moot. The violence of that night — provoked by the Brotherhood when it called on supporters to confront protesters — claimed "martyrs" on both sides. For many in the opposition, this was the point of no return — blood had been spilled.

For the Brotherhood, it had much the same effect. As one Brotherhood official told me, "there was a return to the mentality of mihna [inquisition]" after that day. The subsequent months saw the presidential office hiring a steady stream of Brotherhood members. The Brothers had no one to turn to — not even the Salafis — but each other.

Insularity and Islamization, however, are not the same thing. Beyond the rhetoric and the posturing, Morsy and the Brotherhood remain the calculating gradualists that they had always been. Despite considerable legislative and executive powers, they have passed almost no "Islamic" legislation, with the exception of a law on Islamic bonds, which angered ultra-conservative Salafis more than it did liberals.

Islamization is not something you do on the fly. The Brotherhood’s priorities, for now, are rather simple — to survive and get to the next elections. In the midst of an existential struggle, all the organization’s resources have been directed toward ensuring Morsy does not fall and take the Brotherhood down with him.

The Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), do not act like your traditional ruling party. Conditioned by more than 80 years in opposition, they still see themselves as fighting an array of enemies — but this time, they are fighting them from the top of the state rather than the bottom. "Just because Mohamed Morsy is paranoid doesn’t mean he doesn’t have enemies," reads the headline of an article by Middle East scholar Nathan Brown.

One can debate to what extent Islamists’ persecution complex is based on imagined threats. However, it draws on one very real event that was arguably the worst of the transition’s "original sins" — the dissolution of the country’s first democratically elected parliament. The judiciary’s move, based on a legal technicality, confirmed the Islamists’ longstanding fear: 20 years after Algeria’s aborted elections plunged the country into civil war, winning elections — in Egypt’s case, five elections in total — wasn’t enough.

More problematically, the court’s dissolution of the legislative branch created an institutional logjam at the top of the state. In the absence of parliament, legislative powers were passed on to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, then to President Morsy, and then, finally, to an upper house of parliament that was never supposed to have that authority in the first place. Without a legitimate legislative authority, the passing of laws slowed to a trickle. It meant that there was no real body which could serve as a focal point for debate, for resolving political disputes, and for containing the country’s worsening polarization.

Meanwhile, Morsy’s loyalists were waging an internal battle to gain control of the executive branch. Those who have worked in the presidential office paint a picture of a hollowed out institution with barely so much as a skeleton staff. According to one senior Morsy advisor, its wireless network was initially unsecured and could be accessed outside palace grounds. As the  advisor recounted, "When we first got in, they gave us handwritten notes rather than proper permits [for entry]. What does that tell you?"

To be sure, this narrative of protracted institutional warfare serves the Brotherhood well, allowing it to deflect criticisms for its manifest failures in government. It also allows Islamists to portray themselves as the true democrats, who won power legitimately but find themselves prevented from wielding it. But that it is convenient does not make it entirely false: Egypt does, in fact, suffer from a bloated, corrupt bureaucracy, one replete with Mubarak-era deputy ministers and undersecretaries who feel threatened by new governing elites.

While those outside the Islamist fold argue that Morsy has overreached in power, Muslim Brotherhood officials often make the opposite argument — that the president has been too deferential to the state, and that he should use his appointment powers more aggressively. They point to the fact that less than a quarter of the 35 cabinet ministers were from the Brotherhood during the first nine months of Morsy’s presidency, and that the prime minister, Hisham Qandil, is an unremarkable Mubarak-era technocrat. Even after a controversial May 7 cabinet reshuffle, which was roundly condemned by the opposition for increasing Muslim Brotherhood representation, less than a third of ministers hail from the movement.

After the palace clashes in December, Morsy increasingly brought Brotherhood officials into the presidential office (most were independently wealthy and chose not to draw on government salaries, which are capped at extremely low levels). But as one senior Brotherhood official noted, "the new people he brings on get entrenched very quickly in the bureaucracy."

Morsy — described by those close to him as "doing things by the book" — decided to work within the state apparatus rather than fight it, at least at first. His goal was to slowly solidify power and to gradually wrest some control from the bureaucracy: The longer Morsy stayed in power, the thinking went, the more state institutions would accept and respect him. Whether Morsy is the right person
to manage such a delicate balancing act is another matter.

In person, Morsy is inelegant and underwhelming — but he also exudes a roughness and stubbornness that suggests he is far from the pushover his opponents imagine him to be. To be sure, he consults and coordinates with the Brotherhood’s deputy general guide, Khairat al-Shater, and other Brotherhood leaders. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Morsy is a mere receptacle for whatever the powerful and admittedly shadowy Shater might desire. Morsy needs the Brotherhood, now more than ever, but the Brotherhood cannot afford for Morsy to fail (or fall).

This mutual dependence gives each party considerable negotiating power. A Brotherhood member who has worked with both Morsy and Shater calls the latter the "revolutionary," presumably in contrast to Morsy’s modest, workmanlike attitude and deficit in strategic thinking. For his admirers and detractors alike, Shater is a towering figure. He is pragmatic as well as ambitious, qualities that lend themselves to confusion over the precise nature of his ultimate aims. 

These qualities have also long defined the Brotherhood, which was born as an organization that sought nothing less than the transformation of society and the individual. As Essam al-Haddad, now Morsy’s national security advisor, defined it to me once, the Brotherhood is a "social change movement in order to bring people closer to their beliefs." As innocuous as this might sound, changing people’s beliefs is no small undertaking. If that’s the end, however vague and undefined, then what about the means? How quickly can you go?

In both Egypt and Tunisia, Islamists are now openly debating these very questions. In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda movement quickly found that, despite a landslide election victory in 2011, secular parties and a vibrant civil society would resist any attempts at "Islamization," particularly when it came to writing the country’s new constitution. After considerable internal debate last year, Ennahda decided to withdraw several proposed clauses, including one that would enshrine sharia as a "source among sources" of legislation.

Yet despite its care to avoid overreach, the party was accused all the same of harboring a radical agenda. In a recent trip to Tunisia, the prominent secular intellectual Neila Sellini summed up the sentiment. "We know them," she told me. "We live with them. You don’t really know what they’re about. You fall for the double discourse!" She had a point: The West wanted Ennahda to be more moderate than it actually was.

Ennahda‘s ideological concessions, public reassurances, and watered down declarations of intent did not have their intended effect. Party leader Rachid Ghannouchi’s enemies demonized him as a sort of Manchurian candidate — it was his pretensions to moderation that made him so dangerous. Meanwhile, his supporters wondered if "moderation" was worth all the trouble. Many Tunisians voted for Ennahda because it was an Islamist party. That, for them, was the point. They wanted sharia to play a larger role in politics, and grew disappointed each time Ennahda backed down.

It was this frustration that Sheikh Habib Ellouze — one of the movement’s leading "conservatives" — hoped to channel. When I sat down with him on the margins of a tense parliamentary session after the assassination of secular politician Chokri Belaid, he insisted that everyone in the party shared the same commitment to sharia. "All of us believe in banning alcohol one day," he told me. "What we disagree on is how best to present and express our Islamic ideas." 

When many in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood looked at Ennahda, their critique was similar to that of Ellouze. Here was an Islamist movement that had become obsessed with appeasing everyone — secularists, the old regime, the international community — but their own supporters. What was the point of making concession after concession when your opponents would hate you all the same? As one senior FJP official remarked, "Ghannouchi tried to please everyone so no one is pleased. He would say things that even [Egyptian liberal leader] Mohamed ElBaradei wouldn’t say, like how Tunisia’s personal status code was part of the overall framework of sharia."

"But did it help him get more popularity?" the FJP official asked. "Every time he makes concessions, they’re not happy; they want more; and it angers his own supporters."

Tunisia, for all its problems, is generally seen as the closest thing the Arab Spring had to a success story. One reason is that Tunisia — unlike Egypt — has been able to take its time. The drafting of Tunisia’s new constitution has been a slow, even excruciating process. But slowness is the price of consensus. Once the process is completed, Tunisians will be able to point to a constitutional document that enjoys broad support across the political and ideological spectrum.

But, again, some in the Brotherhood and the FJP had a different way of looking at it. Remarkably, one FJP leader I spoke to argued that Egypt’s transitional process should have gone even faster than it did: "We should have finished everything by December 2011, so as to not allow the old regime to gain strength." Indeed, the Brotherhood seems to take pride in the fact that Egypt’s transition is nearing its end. There is a constitution that was approved by referendum, they say; there is an elected president, Egypt’s first; and by the end of the year, there will be an elected parliament with a prime minister from the largest party (presumably the FJP).

But for all its paranoid sprinting through Egypt’s transition, the Brotherhood is still thinking in stages. Islamists in opposition weren’t the same as Islamists during a political transition — and Islamists during a transition wouldn’t be quite the same as Islamists securely in power. This is precisely what worries so many critics of the Brotherhood: What would the organization and its supporters do if they could?

These are the sorts of unanswerable questions that make substantive dialogue so difficult in a place like Egypt. Some Islamist parties, such as Ennahda, are more willing to come to terms with liberal democracy than others. But all of them, by definition, are at least somewhat illiberal.

To a considerable degree, Islamist illiberalism has been voluntarily suppressed — so far. There is nothing explicitly "Islamist" about the draft Tunisian constitution. Egypt’s constitution, meanwhile, is a testament to mediocrity, but it is almost certainly not what Islamists had in mind when they were dreaming up the "Islamic state." Of course, it is still early days: Conservatives within the Islamist fold tell their impatient base to wait, that the application of sharia may not be possible now, but it will be in the future (and that the future, God willing, is theirs). Meanwhile, liberals descend into alarmism because they can sense that latent ambition. On this, and little else, they seem to agree. It is a sobering thought: The real ideological battles haven’t really started yet.

Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow in Brookings’ Center for Middle East Policy and the author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World.