The Middle East Channel

The Brotherhood’s bind

With the start of the trial of Egypt’s deposed President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters are intent on pursuing a strategy of defiance and protest. Facing a wave of multifaceted and, at times, brutal repression, the leadership has determined that the protest movement is its only tool of leverage to cope with ...


With the start of the trial of Egypt’s deposed President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters are intent on pursuing a strategy of defiance and protest. Facing a wave of multifaceted and, at times, brutal repression, the leadership has determined that the protest movement is its only tool of leverage to cope with the unprecedented challenge from the military-led political order. But this strategy is, in the end, myopic and counterproductive. While it might help preserve the integrity of the Brotherhood as an organization, it will not produce significant results beyond the Brotherhood’s committed and resilient base of support.

The Brotherhood may have embarked on its current strategy out of instinct, a pure reaction to the military crackdown that began in July. Months later, however, with the implications of their choices clear, the Brothers have stayed the course; we now must interpret their maneuvers as the result of a conscious choice rather than the fog of coup and transition. Two telling implications cause the most alarm. First, by focusing on protests that alienate most Egyptians, the Brotherhood has clearly chosen to concentrate on its zealous inner circle of membership and committed core of support, rather than attempt to contest Egyptian public opinion in any broad manner — suggesting an organization that prefers to return underground rather than evolve into a diverse, constituent-based political movement. Second, by sticking with their call for a full restoration despite the widespread rejection of the Brotherhood’s term in power, the Brothers are knowingly empowering the radicals who have already begun a campaign of intimidation, violence, and assassination. Perhaps these radicals are fellow travelers rather than Brotherhood members, as the organization says, but the Brotherhood has actively justified rather than condemned the nascent insurgency. This soft embrace of a violent fringe will tar the Brotherhood for years to come. 

At root, the Brothers lack the moral authority to sustain a broad-based movement of non-violent protest. Because of its incendiary rhetoric and the spin-off violence that inevitably accompanies this protest movement, the Muslim Brotherhood will further alienate and isolate itself from the political mainstream. Regardless of its actual involvement in violence, and to date there is no significant evidence of its operational involvement, the organization will be associated with any resulting terrorism and sectarian attacks. The violence, which has become a near-daily phenomenon throughout the country, has hardened attitudes about the Brotherhood. Even for some who are willing to deal at a level of dispassionate analytical nuance, the Ikhwan is seen to share ultimate goals with more militant actors and to have created an enabling environment that those actors have sought to exploit.  

Further instability will not bolster the popular standing of the Muslim Brotherhood. As opposed to curbing the reach of the military-backed interim authorities, its current tactics will isolate the organization further from Egyptian society and provide greater popular support for repression. Egyptians of otherwise diverse opinions and backgrounds appear overwhelmingly united in their rejection of the politics of street protest after nearly three tumultuous and disruptive years.

While the rhetoric of the Brotherhood since the collapse of the civilian-led political process has helped maintain organizational coherence and the morale of cadres, it has negatively shaped popular discourse about the group and its intentions. The Brotherhood’s rhetoric has often been inflamed and incendiary, with lurid references to death and martyrdom. In his final speech prior to the July 3 military coup, Morsi declared that "[t]he price of preserving legitimacy is my life." Such declarations were seen, then and now, as implicit threats in the event of a military intervention. Following Morsi’s ouster, the rhetoric of the Muslim Brotherhood-led sit-ins escalated and helped cement popular suspicions of the Brotherhood and its intentions. This was exacerbated by the high-profile participation of more hardline Islamists, including former militants, who were given a platform during the Rabaa al-Adaweya sit-in. When the convicted terrorist turned Gama’a al-Islamiyya party leader, Assem Abdel Maged, took to the Rabaa stage and proclaimed that "[w]e will fight for elected legitimacy and for Islam," his words were understood by many as a call to violence. The head of the Salafi al-Nour party, Younes Makhyoun, went so far as to denounce what he described as a "type of rapprochement" between the Brotherhood and "jihadist groups."  

Deepening this predicament is a propagandizing and dishonest media, including both state and private outlets, which has and will amplify and distort current realities to great effect. The enemies of the Ikhwan have sowed added distrust of the organization, buttressed by the Brotherhood’s loaded rhetoric and the undeniable acts of persistent violence, which are routinely attributed to the Brotherhood. In this sense, current tactics are a godsend for the eradicateurs of the reinvigorated security state. At the moment, escalation is a dead-end.

In private settings, some members of the Muslim Brotherhood are willing to concede that Morsi will not be returning to the presidential palace. However, they assume that the threat of persistent instability will be useful leverage against the state and will stymie political and economic progress. They further assume that any resulting repression will galvanize popular sympathy and solidarity with their cause.

This is a fundamental misreading of the current center of gravity of Egyptian politics. Beyond the unique circumstances facing the Brotherhood, the prospect of open-ended protests is one that is alienating for much of Egyptian society, regardless of the identity of the participants. This repeatedly complicated the political prospects of the country’s non-Islamist opposition, particularly the activist class, prior to the military ouster of Morsi in July. This was vividly on display in the summer of 2011, when activists sought to rekindle the protest movement that had been eclipsed by the prosaic and limited universe of party politics and electioneering — all proceeding within an unreformed institutional setting. Activists sought to reanimate the protest movement with an open-ended sit-in in Tahrir Square that infuriated many citizens, who perceived this quixotic venture as an attempt at obstruction and subversion. With people eager to restore a semblance of normalcy and security, the disruptive presence of protests was an easy target of popular anger, fuelled by the increasing turbulence of the transition and the deteriorating material circumstances of most. As opposed to high principle, large swathes of the society were much more consumed with grinding quotidian considerations. One key difference between the revolutionary youth of 2011 and the Brotherhood today is that the Brotherhood has a coherent animating ideology — which, truth be told, alarms many Egyptians, even of a conservative and religious temperament.   

While the turbulence and economic deterioration of that period helped erode some public confidence in the Egypt’s interim military rulers, it also helped destroy much public goodwill with regard to youth activism and the politics of mobilization. Extrapolating from that experience to the present, the near-inevitable economic deterioration and the persistent instability and violence will have a much greater negative impact on the Muslim Brotherhood-led protest movement than on the institution of the military, which retains high degrees of credibility. Perhaps the Brothe
rhood believes it can thwart today’s military-led regime as it was thwarted during its year in power; but the Brothers are delusional if they think that scattered polarizing protests and a few bombings can accomplish as much as did an entire bureaucracy in rebellion.

The overall trajectory of events suggests that Egypt’s near-term will not be hospitable for any protest movement, not simply the Muslim Brotherhood. The turn toward authoritarian tendencies has been fuelled by the failures of the truncated post-Mubarak transition, and the space for dissent has narrowed considerably. This next phase of Egypt’s ill-fated transition will not be decided in the streets.

The Brotherhood has always believed that it and the military are the only two credible organizational players in the country. Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood has also assumed that it represents the authentic voice of the society and is the natural representative of its politics. Yet that approach ignores the complicated dynamics and preferences of much of Egyptian society. It is an approach that does not account for the fluidity of political allegiance and the non-ideological outlook of a majority of Egyptian citizens.  

Reassessing these stances and fundamentally recalibrating current tactics and strategy is a difficult proposition, particularly in light of the disproportionate state violence it has faced and the unbending wave of repression that continues. The Brotherhood believes that its current stance will protect the integrity of the organization and motivate its base. It also clearly believes that retooling its approach would be tantamount to surrender and would infuriate its zealous core of support with little tangible gain likely.

The path away from this blinkered approach is dependent on some level of reciprocation from the interim authorities. While talk of reconciliation and inclusive political processes is fantastical in the near term, pathways for the reintegration of the Brotherhood currently need to be left open. Foreclosing such possibilities will ensure a continuation of some version of the status quo, which will not produce tangible political, economic, or security improvements. Insistence on zero sum outcomes, a persistent flaw of Egypt’s post-Mubarak politics, will produce zero-sum responses.

Admittedly, the possibility for reconsideration on both sides of the divide is only likely sometime in the future. However, progress will also require Brotherhood reconsideration of its role in creating the country’s political crisis and forthright acknowledgement of its mistakes — and the animating hubris that drove them. It will also entail public recognition of the country’s changed circumstances. Despite their very legitimate grievances, without such introspection the foreseeable future of the Brothers, along with that of the country itself, will be a bleak one.

Michael Wahid Hanna is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. Follow him on Twitter: @mwhanna1.

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