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Brothers unbanned

Mansoor Mirza on the Muslim Brotherhood

April 11, 2011
7 min read

Western governments, including the US, Britain and the EU, responded to the protests in Egypt with predictable nervousness, despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s low-key participation in the uprising. For decades, Mubarak had been a staunch western ally and underpinned US strategy in the Middle East. Because of his willingness to maintain the siege of Gaza, to support the longer-term US policy of keeping peace with Israel and to lead the way in isolating Iran, the dictatorial nature of his regime was quietly ignored.

US vice president Joe Biden called him ‘an important regional ally’, while Tony Blair, now Middle East envoy, described him as a ‘force for good’ – a phrase even he must recall with embarrassment today. Mubarak was also useful to the west in suppressing domestic opposition groups such as the Brotherhood that might have taken a more critical view of Egypt’s regional role and upset the finely balanced status quo.

Origins of the Muslim Brotherhood

Established in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, a schoolteacher from the town of Ismailia, north of the Suez canal, the movement’s early purpose was twofold – to revive Islam and make it compatible with the modern world, and to encourage Muslims to oppose European imperialism.

Profoundly influenced by the 19th- and early 20th-century decline of Islam and the extension of European power in Muslim lands, the Brotherhood’s early leadership and ideologues sought liberation and independence from colonial powers and at the same time warned against the expansionism of Italian fascism in Libya and the anti-semitism of German Nazism.

The movement’s early popularity – it was thought to have had as many as 500,000 members by the end of the 1940s – was based on a range of local and regional issues. Political opposition in the aftermath of Egypt’s successful 1919 revolution (where independence from Britain was secured) remained weak, with the dominant Wafd Party severely restricting its scope and potential.

In addition, inequality and corruption were rife and the economy lacked the capacity to employ a growing secular urban middle class, a situation not too dissimilar from Egypt today. Coupled with this were the pressures of regional insecurity, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of a new Jewish state.

With growing tensions and the narrowing of political space, members of the movement frequently called for violent confrontation with the state. Mostly these were resisted, but there were notable exceptions.

For instance, the Brotherhood’s early leadership ruled that armed struggle was justified in Palestine to halt Zionist expansionism. The movement’s paramilitary wing, established in the 1930s, was responsible for numerous attacks in this period, including the assassination in 1948 of the Egyptian prime minister Mahmoud Nokrashy.

But from the early 1970s the Brotherhood has consistently rejected the use of violence and strengthened its social and charitable activities throughout Egypt.

Charitable activities and sharia

Although the Brotherhood has existed for more than 80 years, it is difficult to pin down what the movement will represent in the post-Mubarak era. For much of its existence, it has provided essential social services such as basic healthcare and education to the poor across the country, something that successive Egyptian governments have failed to do adequately.

Many consider this aspect of the movement’s charitable work, which has led to long-lasting and strong grass-roots attachments, to be the foundation of its political strength. Despite being banned, the Brotherhood’s success in the 2005 parliamentary elections, where its members were forced to campaign as independent candidates but nevertheless won 88 seats, is a clear indication of its electoral strength and popular mass appeal.

But on key policy issues such as the imposition of sharia law, there is no clear direction. Some of the movement’s leadership insist on its reintroduction in Egypt. But these calls are being forcefully drowned out by younger, more reformist elements who are growing increasingly influential and dominant.

Ordinary Egyptians, too, show very little enthusiasm for sharia law, with no noticeable demand for the revival of Egypt’s sharia courts, which were closed down in the 1950s. In a more democratic Egypt with genuine political pluralism, imposing such an unpopular measure would surely have devastating electoral consequences.

Conservatives versus reformists

The deep internal divisions within the Brotherhood also make it difficult to predict the movement’s future direction. When the current leader, Muhammad Badi, was elected in 2008, the growing reformist wing within the organisation was deeply disappointed.

Badi and the Brotherhood’s conservative faction are seen as outdated and increasingly out of touch with ordinary Egyptians and the new political realities. On Badi’s election, the movement’s deputy leader and one of the Brotherhood’s leading reformists, Muhammad Habib, resigned in protest, accusing the old guard of manipulating the process and putting the ‘future of the movement at stake’.

Reformists such as Habib criticise the old guard for paying too much attention to maintaining internal cohesion at the expense of greater transparency, and not pressing hard enough for political change. Indeed, the initial reaction of the movement to the demonstrations in Egypt when they began in late January was to distance itself from the protests and to opt for a typically non-confrontational approach to the regime. In what was a major victory for the reformists, who advocate greater cooperation with Egypt’s fragile secular opposition, the Brotherhood quickly changed its position and backed the uprising, calling it a ‘people’s revolution’ and supporting its secular foundations.

Senior figures within the Brotherhood have recently announced that they are working on a ‘party platform’, a document setting out the movement’s political position and aims.

When the Brotherhood released its last party platform in 2007 the exercise was a disaster. It misjudged the public mood and alienated senior figures within the Brotherhood and many outside the movement. After the document was widely criticised, it was shelved and has not seen the light of day since. The episode suggests that, while conservatives still exist within the Brotherhood, its younger reformist element is increasingly significant, with the organisation more aware of public opinion.

Immediate challenges ahead

Whether or not the Brotherhood comes to dominate the new Egypt remains to be seen and will depend on a number of complex factors. As ever, the army will play a decisive role and may not be willing to relinquish power just yet. Mubarak may have gone, but right now the army remains firmly in control.

The internal divisions within the Brotherhood, and how these get resolved, will be key – and will determine whether the movement can appeal to a wider audience outside of its traditional support base of practising lower-middle class Muslims.

The west will have a role to play. After supporting a brutal, dictatorial regime that denied its people basic human rights, freedom and dignity for three decades, it – and particularly the US and Britain – has a profound responsibility to the Egyptian people and a significant moral debt to pay.

The US could exert significant influence on the Egyptian military. Using its US$1.3 billion annual military aid package to Egypt, the US must insist on the army’s withdrawal from Egypt’s political arena and the implementation of genuine civilian rule.

Stopping the billions of dollars of military aid to Egypt and transferring this immediately into genuine development aid would be an important first step in supporting Egypt through what is likely to be a difficult and uncertain transition.

But aid packages from the US and other western governments notoriously come with conditions that ultimately seek to protect their own vast economic interests. So while important for the development of civil society in Egypt, western aid will likely come with demands that Egypt remains on its existing neoliberal economic path, exacerbating economic inequality throughout the country and failing to meet the aspirations of the protesters.

Much will rest on whether the millions of protesters and their leaders who courageously forced Mubarak from power are able to unite and build a strong secular opposition, able to compete for power and offer Egyptians genuine political choice.

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