The Middle East Channel

The Brotherhood revives its Mehna narrative

The removal of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi has opened a new chapter in the Muslim Brotherhood’s long-lasting anguish and ordeal (mehna). Brotherhood leaders and members are not only angry and irritated because they lost power through a military coup, but they have also developed grievances against the army and media as well as liberal and ...

MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images

The removal of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi has opened a new chapter in the Muslim Brotherhood’s long-lasting anguish and ordeal (mehna). Brotherhood leaders and members are not only angry and irritated because they lost power through a military coup, but they have also developed grievances against the army and media as well as liberal and secular opponents, which might last for years.

When I spoke with some Muslim Brotherhood (MB) members over the past week they showed a lot of bitterness toward Colonel Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, the army chief, who according to them has "betrayed" Morsi. Indeed, a few hours before Morsi’s ouster, a close advisor to him told me: "The military is in our pocket." Obviously, he was emphatically wrong. What was striking, at least to me, was that none of the people with whom I spoke have shown any regret or attribute any blame to their leaders over Morsi’s removal. 

However, the crucial question is: How do the MB leaders and members perceive the current crisis and what does it mean to the movement’s coherence and solidarity? Surprisingly, it does not seem that the Brotherhood leadership is very bothered or worried about the current confrontation with the army. Indeed, it’s quite the opposite. The movement leaders view this confrontation, at the minimal, as crucial to restore public support and safeguard its internal integration and coherence. It is the only way that the MB can dodge many disputes and divisions over who should be held accountable for the movement’s mistakes over the past year. Moreover, the Brotherhood’s history tells us that the movement thrives under repression. The movement expanded massively and gained political clout under former President Hosni Mubarak despite the systematic repression and exclusion of its members.

Ironically, since it came to power the MB has lost a lot of its credibility and appeal particularly after Morsi’s terrible mistakes over the past year. However, and unlike many might think, the current crackdown against MB leaders would do nothing but enhance their public support and improve their image. The MB has a remarkable record of playing the "victimization" card to broaden its social constituency and network. This was clear after the massacre last week in front of the Republic Guard building in Cairo, which left around 50 MB members dead and 435 injured. Over the past week, I’ve met with dozens of Egyptians who decided to join the MB’s sit-in in Rab’a El-Adawiyya in Nasr City. When I asked one of them why he was there, he forcefully answered: "to protect my vote and defend the oppressed [MB]." 

Moreover, the current media campaign that aims to demonize the MB, and portray them as "terrorists," seems useless and could be counterproductive. It provides the MB with a "free service" to increase its support and sympathy among the Egyptian public. Not surprisingly, many Islamists who aren’t affiliated with the MB have decided to join the protests against the military. Indeed, they fear if the MB lost this battle, they would be the next targets of the police state, which according to them, came back to life after the June 30 protests more powerful and hostile to Islamists. When I asked a member of Ansar Al-Sunna group, a purely religious movement with no interest in politics, why he joined the MB protests, his answer was: "to protect my religious freedom." Therefore, many of those who join the MB’s protests now are driven by fear of the return of Mubarak’s brutal state, which repressed them for three decades.

While the MB leadership realizes that reinstating Morsi is pure fantasy and unrealistic, the crucial question remains: why then they keep protesting? The answer is twofold: to avoid internal disputes, accountability, and maybe splits, and to ensure that the MB’s political and social activities would not be suspended in the future. For the MB, protesting is seen as the survival code at this stage. Moreover, protesting would secure the MB the media coverage it desperately needs in the light of the closure of its satellite channel, Misr 25, and other religious networks since the military coup on July 3.

During crisis time, the MB as a social and ideological movement tends to turn inward in order to maintain its unity and solidarity of members. It invokes that tribulation or mehna as a shield to protect the movement from divisions and splits. Indeed, it is the only way the MB could survive the current crisis. 

According to a senior MB leader, although the demand of reinstating Morsi might not seem realistic, it is crucial to secure members’ support for the leadership during these critical times. "Now we have a strong cause that could bind members and leaders together which could prevent internal quarrels and blame particularly among the youth," he said to me. The MB has extraordinary ability to morph anguish into a tool that keeps its structure and organization solid and effective. The more you press the MB, the less it can be prone to fragmentation and fissures.

Therefore, with time MB’s protesting in Rab’a El-Adawiyya square, turns to be a goal per se. It is a functioning mechanism that keeps members aligned with the movement’s leadership and cause. Moreover, any retreat could open the door for many questions within the MB: why the movement lost power quickly and disgracefully? Who from the movement’s leaders should be held accountable for this? And was it the correct decision to run for presidency in 2012 in the first place?  

In addition, keeping the protests and momentum in the streets could secure the MB a place in the future political game. The Brotherhood is still highly obsessed with the past, particularly the 1950s and 1960s when its leaders and members were hounded, arrested, tortured, and executed. MB members believe that if they left the squares they would lose an important card that could improve their position on the negotiation table with the military and the new order. In other words, the MB does not want to pay the price for its mistakes and still count on its mehna tactic. Not surprisingly, the MB rejects the political process and roadmap that was proposed by the military and the interim President Adly Mansour as it does not have any assurances about its political future.

It would be naïve to believe that the MB is finished or that political Islam in Egypt came to an end after the downfall of Morsi as some accounts are arguing. It is important to remember that Morsi’s regime has gone but its patron still exists. Moreover, the MB is more than a political party, it is a rooted social movement with a large and devoted constituency. And it still has the most well knit organization and structure in Egypt. Furthermore, the MB has a secret and underground network that can vividly operate and adapt with such an oppressive environment.

To sum up, it might be true that the political project of the MB was defeated when it fell short in addressing Egypt’s many problems, yet as a religious and social movement, the MB will remain as long as Egypt has a highly conservative and religious society.

Khalil al-Anani is a scholar of Middle East politics at the School of Government and International Relations at Durham University, UK. His forthcoming book is, Unpacking the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity and Politics (tentative title). He can be reached at: kalanani@gamil.com and on Twitter: @Khalilalanani. This essay is part of a special series on Islam in the Changing Middle East supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.

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