Now that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is standing trial and the ruling military junta has promised free and fair presidential elections after an interim phase, the long-repressed Muslim Brotherhood thinks its moment may have arrived. It has been the most popular and best-organized opposition group in Egypt for decades, so it seems to follow that it should win more votes than anyone else even if it doesn’t win an outright majority.
Yet the Brothers didn’t make “the revolution”, as people both inside Egypt and beyond like to call what happened in Cairo this past winter. No one movement did. And now that the Islamists are no longer locked in a dialectical struggle with a one-man regime (Mubarak’s National Democratic Party no longer even exists), they are beginning to crack into factions. The political geometry of that cracking process is very interesting, possibly quite consequential, and altogether surprising to most non-native observers.
During Mubarak’s era, the Brotherhood was the only credible opposition group, since all other alternatives were successfully repressed. It was not only by far the best organized, it was the only opposition that had much of an organization to speak of. A few token liberal parties existed on the margins, but they were no more viable than the Green or Libertarian parties in the United States. Had they shown signs of being more than that, the government would have put a stop to them one way or another. Egypt effectively had two parties, even though one was nominally banned and suppressed; now it has upwards of forty. Dozens have mushroomed since Mubarak’s removal from the palace in February, and some seemed primed to do well in the November 28 election for a new parliament. The new parties span the ideological spectrum, with socialist and labor parties on the Left, the Free Egypt Party on the free-market Right, and the Justice Party in the center. The Muslim Brotherhood, on Egypt’s religious right, is now but a single choice among many.
Mohammad Adel is a former Brotherhood member who worked for years as a writer for the organization’s website. He recently quit and threw in with the April 6 labor movement instead. His former Islamist comrades, he says a bit optimistically in a tent erected in downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square, “aren’t going to do well in the upcoming elections. Most of the votes they received in past elections were protest votes against Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) rather than votes for the Muslim Brotherhood. Now that the NDP has been dissolved, they don’t have that base to fall back on.”
What he didn't see coming—what hardly anybody saw coming—was that the even more extreme totalitarian Salafist movement, which springs from al-Qaeda, would siphon off more of the Brotherhood's votes than the liberal parties. While the Brothers won only 40 percent in the first round of voting, a smaller percentage than in more liberal Tunisia, the Salafists picked up a chilling 25 percent of the vote.
Adel isn’t the only other former Brotherhood member around. A substantial number from the younger cohort are quitting. “The Muslim Brotherhood bloggers that have been writing for them since 2006 have all resigned”, says Adel as he swats away flies in his tent. “All of them except one.” One of the reasons, he observes, is that the radical Islamists are purging their moderates. “The Muslim Brotherhood kicked out a bunch of people who were responsible for organizing university groups for the last twelve years, so a lot of their power is lost. They’re in a state of fear. They’re fighting with other groups for control of the street.”
American-born Egyptian journalist Yasmin El-Rifae smiles when she hears this. “It’s the opposite of what everyone thought was going to happen”, she says. Her Egyptian-born colleague Mohamed abd Al-Raouf also thinks the Brothers are taking a serious hit now that they no longer have the regime as their only foil and must compete with a range of new parties. “They lost an enemy”, he says. “But now they’re creating a new one: Western-oriented media organizations that criticize the Islamist movement. They say anyone who criticizes the Muslim Brotherhood is part of a conspiracy. It’s useful for them to say this...even though it’s bullshit.”
Ezzedine Choukri, professor of political science at the American University of Cairo and the Secretary General of the Supreme Council for Culture, thinks this analysis is accurate but incomplete. “The Muslim Brothers themselves are splintering”, he says calmly and surely in his office near Cairo’s grand opera house. “Not only do they have competitors among the liberals because there’s a new space for them to operate, but the Brothers are dissolving into two or three distinct camps.” He isn’t sure how the splintering process is working, exactly, partly because the organization is somewhat opaque, but also because the splintering isn’t yet complete.
Three main elements, though, can already be identified. The first is the old hard core that predates the 1970s. The second consists of those who joined up in college and took the Brotherhood’s ideas into civil society and professional organizations. The third is the youth. It is the younger members—those who are technologically savvy and have more exposure to Western and other foreign ideas—who are most likely to leave.
None of the political parties in Egypt have had a chance to mature properly, partly because, aside from the Brotherhood, they are all new. And yet the Brothers haven’t matured properly either, even though they’ve been around since Hassan al-Banna founded the organization in 1928. They’ve been underground at least since the Nasser era, and underground is no place to grow. “They have been shielded from scrutiny for a very long time”, Choukri says,
under Nasser, under Sadat, and then under Mubarak, because they were banned. There was almost no chance that they would form a government or be part of a government. That allowed them to stick exclusively to their rhetoric and be evasive. Now . . . they have to answer more complete questions about what they would do with the ministries of culture and education and about their foreign policy. And the more they are pushed to give answers, the more their constituency shrinks.
The Egyptian intellectual Tarek Heggy, author of The Arab Cocoon and The Arab Mind Bound, thinks the Brothers might paradoxically have been less popular today had Mubarak engaged instead of suppressed them. “He didn’t handle them properly”, he says:
He handled them only with a stick, and you can’t handle Islamism only with a stick in your hand. I would have exposed them to open debate. I would have let all Egyptians know that their ultimate objective is power, the caliph system, and the implementation of Islamic law. I would have made sure that more women, more liberals, and more Christians knew exactly what would happen to them under the Muslim Brotherhood.
Even so, plenty of Egyptian women, Christians, liberals and moderate Muslims are suspicious of them already. “I am allergic to the Muslim Brothers”, says a liberal activist at a café near Tahrir Square while scratching at his arm as though he has hives. “Some of them chased me around the square and called me a kuffar”, or infidel.
Most Egyptians are apolitical and don’t trust any party or movement, including the activists who brought down Mubarak. They are mostly concerned with daily hardscrabble survival, a task that has gotten even harder since this past February. Egypt is shockingly poor—and not just by Western standards, but also by Arab standards. Millions of Cairenes live in ramshackle apartments and houses without reliable trash collection or running water. Thousands are so poor they live in shanties in a graveyard called the City of the Dead. Huge areas of Alexandria, one of the great cities of the ancient world, reek of the universal slum stench, that gag-inducing cocktail of rotting garbage and sewage. As many as 40 percent of Egyptians live on less than two dollars a day.
The country’s crushing poverty helps the Islamists in some ways. For decades the Muslim Brotherhood has been doing an extraordinary amount of charity work for Egypt’s vast underclass, while the cold-hearted military regime—whose highest-ranking officers have made literally billions from their own privately owned low-wage industries—left them to rot on the rim of financial oblivion. Gratitude, however, doesn’t always translate into votes. The Brotherhood’s shopworn slogan, “Islam is the solution”, must now compete seriously with the socialist promise of redistribution, the Free Egypt Party’s desire to grow the economy, and the centrist Justice Party’s campaign for “social justice.”
If the Muslim Brotherhood is losing and purging its moderates, then what remains must be less politically moderate than it used to be—to steal an analogy from another time and place, less Menshevik, more Bolshevik. Mohammad Adel thinks the Brotherhood is now more extreme even than Hamas:
Hamas is more liberal, and more willing to cooperate with other movements than the Muslim Brotherhood is. The Brotherhood thinks dealing with anyone who is a former member . . . or someone from other movements and parties, is like dealing with an infidel.
The Brotherhood is more moderate than Hamas, though, at least in how it behaves. The organization does not even have guns, let alone suicide-bomb vests and rockets. Egyptian politics—unlike Lebanese, Iraqi, Yemeni and now both Libyan and Syrian politics—has not been militarized. Yet the group’s leaders can’t bring themselves to condemn terrorist attacks carried out by Hamas. “Hamas was elected in a democratic process that your former President Jimmy Carter witnessed”, says senior Brotherhood official Esam El-Erian, “but you neglect everything and call them terrorists. They are fighters for liberty. Their land is occupied by the real terrorists.” With regard to September 11, the Brotherhood’s condemnation of the atrocities is inflected by barely concealed insinuations that the U.S. government, rather than al-Qaeda, is responsible for them—a nearly universal meme in Egypt. “The victims and their families”, El-Erian says, “will face everyone who keeps silent and protects the real people who were behind this and have drawn a curtain over the truth.”
El-Erian does, however, say he and his organization want to supplant Egypt’s current military regime with a democracy. “We have been struggling for freedom and independence for a long time”, he asserts;
ever since we were occupied by the British in 1882. During this period we had two big attempts to build a democratic state. Both failed. One was a good attempt after the big revolution in 1919. We had a liberal life, a parliament, and a constitution, but the monarchy stopped everything. Then we had a military coup in 1952. . . . [W]hen the military rules, you can forget about having a democracy.
Hala Mustafa thinks El-Erian is being disingenuous. She is the editor of Democracy magazine, published by the Al-Ahram Foundation, and has suffered harassment at the hands of the state’s intelligence and security forces for years for her outspoken views. As a liberal she opposes radical Islamists just as much as she opposes the secular military regime. The Brotherhood, she says, defines “freedom” and “democracy” very differently than Westerners do, and she believes this should be taken into account when men like El-Erian position themselves as champions of democracy. “I heard one of them just the other day referring to individual rights”, she says,
but in a very backward way. He thinks Islam already has all rights for everybody and that we have to respect that. He thinks this is freedom, but it’s completely different from any liberal concept of freedom. The Muslim Brotherhood is against individual freedom not just for women and Christians, but also for Muslims and men.
Abdul-Jalil al-Sharnouby agrees that the Brotherhood has an extremist agenda. And he should know, because until a few months ago he served as the editor-in-chief of the Brotherhood’s website, www.ikhwanonline.com. He has been growing slowly more liberal over the past few years, and he finally had enough when the Brotherhood leadership forced him to publish a press release condemning the activists in Tahrir Square as traitors. “If the Brotherhood in its current state takes power”, he says,
it will be a serious crisis. There will be a mixing of what is religious and what is political. We have to give credit to what happened on the 25th of January. We accomplished a feat that ensures that no one will ever rule Egypt again the way the pharaohs did. No one in the Brotherhood understand this, though, because they did not create the revolution. The Brotherhood as it exists now wants to come to power and rule the way Hosni Mubarak did.
This is no fanciful accusation. Consider that on July 31, hundreds of thousands of activists from the Muslim Brotherhood and the even more radical Salafist movement seized control of Tahrir Square through sheer numbers and drove the broad and generally “liberal” coalition away from the temporary structures they had erected for a three-week-long sit-in.
There is little doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood is losing appeal among Egyptians. The question that remains is whether a more radical but less popular incarnation of the Egyptian Brotherhood can actually come to power. The answer is not as straightforward as it might seem, because the ballot box may not be the only route to the palace.
The Muslim Brotherhood was, of course, just as much opposed to Mubarak’s regime as the liberals. The previous government oppressed both more or less equally most of the time, but the Egyptian military was content to allow the Brotherhood a little more elbow room than the rest to enable its repression of more left-wing elements. The Brothers today are conducting their own parallel revolution, not alongside but separate from and even hostile to the one waged by the liberals that brought the former government down. And as before, the Brotherhood’s relationship with the Army is not clear-cut. In the fullness of time the Brotherhood may reach a tacit alliance with the Army in hopes of outmaneuvering it from the rear through the progressive radical Islamicization of Egyptian society. Stranger things have happened in Egypt.
No one can possibly know how all this will shake out. Predicting specific events in the Middle East is a mug’s game. We can’t know what the Islamists will do with a parliamentary majority. We don’t even know yet how much power the military junta will let the next Egyptian president and parliament have. Three things, however, are coming into focus: The liberals have been empowered and are a stronger force than they were; the Islamists have fewer supporters but are more ideologically hard-line than before; and the Army retains both its power and its knack for divide-and-rule political tactics, with Egyptian characteristics. The sphinx is smiling.