Guestview: Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is dead – long live the Freedom & Justice Party
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. H.A. Hellyer (@hahellyer) is a geo-strategic expert on the MENA region and Europe, with experience at Gallup, the Brookings Institution and Warwick University.
By H.A. Hellyer
The Muslim Brotherhood (MB), until after the Egyptian revolution began in 2011, was a civil society movement. It wasn’t founded as a militant movement for martial resistance, nor was it founded as a political movement in order to take power. It was founded out of a civil impulse to reform society, in an age when colonialisation had radically altered society in Egypt. As the decades ensued, the MB went through various phases, and produced many offshoots – but in the main, the MB remained a civic-based organisation in Egypt.
After the 25th of January, the MB leadership had a choice: transform the movement into a political party – or remain as a movement. The choice had not been possible before due to political repression – but the consequences of that decision has repercussions not only for the MB. That movement’s influence has spread far beyond its members, and even Egypt.
Its unthinkable that MB members, as Egyptians, would not enter into electoral politics post January 25. But the way in which the MB leadership would try to shepherd that entrance has ensured a slew of tensions. The MB could have simply stayed out of electoral politics as the MB, and allowed MB members to form parties on their own, as they saw fit. If they had, there could have been at least 4 political parties that emanated from the movement, based on the different trends that exist within the MB at present.
Instead, the MB leadership went for control – and demanded that if any MB member wanted to be involved in the electoral process, they could do so only as a member of the official MB party: the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Otherwise, they could expect expulsion.
It’s not clear if the MB leadership really understood what this meant. In all likelihood, they thought it would maintain the cohesion of the movement, which they had fought to keep during Mubarak’s years in power. But Mubarak’s presence was to the benefit of cohesion within the movement – a common enemy is usually what keeps disparate groups together, and the MB is nothing if not a group where different trends co-exist within it. When those different trends refused the dictates of the leadership (which is certainly aligned to a single trend), they found themselves outside of the movement.
When long-time member and influential reformist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh decided to stand for president, he was ejected for contravening the leadership’s decision. When younger members of the MB decided to join the ‘Egyptian Current Party’ with leftists and others, they were expelled. The absence of Mubarak’s repression had dual, mutually exclusive effects on the MB: it encouraged different trends to speak their minds and raise their voices, and spurred the leadership to clamp down on such independence with more vigour than ever before.
The MB has always benefited from two advantages. The first is its positive efforts on the ground, in terms of civil society activity. For decades, Egyptians have known the MB as the pious provider of social services, which delivered it immense social capital. This essentially is the reason behind the MB’s success in the first parliamentary elections after Mubarak – in an election where no political party was really known, social capital was easily converted into political capital. The second was the MB’s ability to claim, as a movement based on Islamism and religious symbolism, the moral high ground – far easier to do when it was the political underdog under a repressive regime. No-one can be left in any doubt that the MB was the Mubarak regime’s most significant target.
However, the FJP was not founded as a movement, nor as an opposition force: it was founded to govern. The underdog epitaph is no longer apt – the FJP got almost half of the vote in the parliamentary elections. But worse than that was the damage to their reputation as the honourable, pious choice, due to their regular political about faces. In the weeks after the uprising, the MB leadership was clear that they would seek only 30% of the parliamentary seats, in order to assuage domestic and international fears that they sought to grab power. That number kept changing, until it reaches 50% – without any real explanation.
Expelling different MB members who refused to toe the FJP line from the MB proper was met with some grumbling within the MB. But the worst blows to the reputation of the MB came in late March. The MB had said many times they would not stack the assembly vested with the authority of drafting Egypt’s first post-Mubarak constitution with MPs (which would mean an MB and Salafi majority). It then proceeded to ensure that half of the assembly was made up of MPs (mostly MB and Salafis), with much of the rest of the seats going to Islamist-leaning figures. The MB had said that they would not enter into alliances or coalitions with the more radical Salafi political forces – but the way in which the assembly was formed made it clear that there was close co-ordination between the two. Finally, nominating a presidential candidate from within the party (Khairat al-Shater), despite numerous pledges to the contrary over the past year, made it clear that the transformation of the MB was complete. The MB, a religiously inspired movement, was now a political, partisan party.
Some within the movement have already expressed their objections to the nomination, even while saying they will respect the majority’s decision. Some may still resign, as did the famous Kamal El-Helbawy, formerly the MB’s spokesman in Europe, due to the MB’s decision to field Shater. Other famous Islamists have also criticised the decision, including Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is considered to be perhaps the most influential religious personality of the historical MB movement. One should not expect a sharp divide too soon – but the disintegration of the MB is slowly underway. This was inevitable from the day that the movement leadership decided to impose a single political party upon its membership.
But what of MB members and sympathisers beyond Egypt – particularly within the West? For decades, the Islamist movement in North America and Europe has been active – not in a political sense, but in civil society. Many young Muslims of the West in the last 30 years found within the Islamist movement what they considered to be an authentically Muslim activism. They engaged in genuinely positive ways with society, much as the MB did within Egypt in terms of its welfare projects and other initiatives. Their demographically minority status meant that electoral activity had to be limited to involvement within predominantly non-Muslim political forces. Their activism was based on a sincere belief that the Islamist project’s ultimate aim was to bring good to people – not to seek power.
How will the political schemes of the Egyptian MB leadership affect their romanticism? Only time will tell – but the signs are interesting. In the midst of preparing this piece, a non-Arab supporter of the MB wrote to me: “I’ve reached a stage in my life that I’m cautious of anyone who claims religion gives them a monopoly on power. The Brotherhood may soon learn that what they covet, may bring them down.” That sentiment is not likely to go away.
The founder of the MB, Hasan al-Banna, had a disciple who migrated from Egypt and started a new civil society group. He openly declared once that as far as he was concerned, the death of al-Banna was the death of the MB. Anything beyond that was no longer MB, and that what ensued was almost a perversion of his ideas. One suspects that history will record that for many others who grew up within the MB, the milestone of its demise was the founding of the FJP.
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