Unfinished Business

Charles Tripp

  • BuyThe Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement by Carrie Rosefsky Wickham
    Princeton, 345 pp, £19.95, July 2013, ISBN 978 0 691 14940 0

In April, members of the Egyptian Kefaya (‘enough’) movement and others who had been active in 2011 in the uprising to unseat Hosni Mubarak started a grassroots protest movement called Tamarod (‘rebellion’). Their goal was to collect the signatures of as many Egyptian citizens as possible for a petition demanding the resignation of Mohamed Morsi, to be followed by new presidential elections. Morsi entered office in June 2012 as the first democratically elected head of state in Egyptian history. However, less than a year into his four-year term he had managed to antagonise not only those who had never voted for him but even many who had.

The success of the signature campaign seems to have taken its organisers by surprise; it soon became clear that they might gather more than 13.2 million names – the number of votes that Morsi achieved in the second round of the presidential elections. Tamarod felt emboldened to call for massive peaceful protests across the country on 30 June, the first anniversary of Morsi’s inauguration. Claiming by then to have collected 22 million signatures – a claim disputed by many, not all of them Morsi supporters – Tamarod nevertheless succeeded in bringing out millions of Egyptians onto the streets of the country’s main cities, in what has been called the largest political demonstration in history. In Cairo alone, the protests appear to have been larger than those that had so spectacularly helped to bring down Mubarak in February 2011. For the campaign organisers this was fitting: as one of them stated, ‘our vision is not a new revolution; our vision encompasses a bigger wave of the January Revolution.’ In other words, they saw themselves as continuing the unfinished business of 2011. For many Egyptians this message clearly resonated, frustrated and angered as they were by the failure of the new government to live up to expectations.

To the delight of many, and the fury of others, after only three days of mass demonstrations the chief of staff of the armed forces and minister of defence, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, intervened. He claimed that the scale of the protests gave the armed forces a popular mandate to depose Morsi, suspend the constitution, dismiss the government and appoint an interim administration led by the head of the Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, now acting president. Demonstration and counter-demonstration followed as Morsi’s supporters and opponents mobilised on the streets of Cairo and other cities. Supporters of the former president have been confronted with army units prepared to use lethal force against them; hundreds have died.

These dramatic events have all occurred since Carrie Rosefsky Wickham completed her impressive book. Her account of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political trajectory ends soon after the seeming high point of the election of its candidate to the Egyptian presidency. But in the final pages she identifies the dilemmas that he would face as president. These arose not merely from the almost impossible task of trying to satisfy all the contradictory expectations that had emerged in the wake of Mubarak’s overthrow. Equally important, Morsi, as a leader of the Brotherhood, faced the difficulty of trying to present himself and being seen to act as a leader of all Egyptians.

Why this should have been such a problem is one of Wickham’s main themes as she traces the Brotherhood’s emergence and development through Egypt’s modern history. Building on her outstanding earlier book Mobilising Islam: Religion, Activism and Social Change in Egypt (2002), she sets out here to understand the nature of the Brotherhood itself, its inner workings, the development of its ideology and its relationships with other political forces and with the state authorities. In particular, she assesses the effects of taking part in electoral politics on an organisation that has had to exist unofficially, unlicensed and often illegally for much of the past eighty years.

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