Unfinished Business

Charles Tripp

  • The 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.

Wickham appears to be fighting two battles. One is with the dead hand of a certain kind of political science, much in evidence in the United States, where the quantitative is favoured over the qualitative – or, in the sometimes baffling jargon of the field, big N trumps little n – since it allegedly produces more ‘scientific’ results. Her refutation of this approach is respectful but devastating, and the best evidence for it lies in her own fine-grained, historically rich analysis, in which she demonstrates a cultural and linguistic familiarity with her subject born of nearly 25 years of study.

Wickham’s other, and principal, purpose is to issue a riposte to all those who characterise the Brotherhood as monolithic, intent on implementing a predetermined agenda, immune to change and, in the view of some, sinister players of a long political game. These are the charges currently levelled at the organisation by its opponents in Egypt and invoked to justify exceptionally repressive measures against its supporters. But as Wickham’s account clearly shows, the reality is a good deal more complex. Her long acquaintance with the organisation and its history, the depth and great range of the interviews she has carried out over the years, as well as the sources she has covered, allow her to return a more balanced response.

She sees the Muslim Brotherhood above all as a political organisation, subject to the logic of ambition, division, decay and transformation that marks all such associations. This may seem obvious, but in some studies of the Brotherhood, it is depicted as sui generis because the ideas to which it adheres are Islamic. Others have characterised it as anti-systemic, opposed not only to representative government but to the very framework of politics formed by the territorial nation-state. Oddly, the famous slogan used from time to time by the Brotherhood (and others), ‘Islam din wa-dawla’ (Islam is religion and state), has been taken by some to indicate an eternal and uncompromising truth about its – and Muslims’ – ideas concerning the seamless integration of the worldly with the otherworldly. Yet of course this is merely a slogan, a political artefact that makes sense in some contexts but is meaningless in others.

Wickham cuts through all this to explore the ways in which Muslim Brothers, as leaders and followers, became actively engaged in Egypt’s political struggles, and the ways in which these struggles shaped them, their ideas and their strategies. Whatever else Hasan al-Banna, the movement’s founder, may have been, he was also a political chancer, seeking opportunities to advance his cause. In this the Brotherhood was no different from any of the extra-parliamentary organisations operating in Egypt before 1952. Thereafter, it had to accommodate itself to an increasingly authoritarian political system. Many Muslim Brothers were subjected to appalling treatment at the hands of the security forces. Some questioned the leadership’s strategies and were concerned about their likely outcomes. It was not surprising that when a modest political opening took place after the mid-1970s a variety of views should have emerged within the Brotherhood about the wisdom of taking part in an institutional set-up that was likely to make use of them rather than vice versa.

For thirty years the Mubarak government took a ‘stop-go’ approach to dealing with the Brotherhood, alternating repression with tacit licensing of its participation in political life. It was during this period that the Brotherhood’s present leadership emerged, often at the cost of splits and defections from its ranks, indicating the difficulty of trying to maintain ideological coherence while making the most of new opportunities. Wickham examines the ways in which participation in electoral politics helped to bring new cadres to the fore, shaping their views on some key aspects of the organisation’s policies. There may have been broad agreement about the need to bring the law of Egypt more closely into line with the Islamic sharia and to ensure that public life in Egypt was informed by Islamic values, but as always there were differences of interpretation. Above all, there was the perennial question of what the Brotherhood’s attitude should be towards those who interpreted the sharia differently or who chose not to follow the sharia at all in their private or public lives. This in turn raised the question of who within the organisation had the right to determine what the Brotherhood’s line should be. These issues repeatedly led to splits, sometimes causing dissenting members to leave, unwilling to tolerate the hold of an older and often more conservative leadership.

The question was not whether the Brotherhood should participate in Egypt’s political life: it already did. Indeed, it saw itself, and was certainly seen by the ruling authorities, as an important player in Egyptian public life, whether this took the form of standing for election in the professional syndicates or in parliament, or simply continuing with its educational mission and welfare projects. But a younger generation of Muslim Brothers brought something new from their involvement in electoral politics: an understanding of coalition building and a realisation that if they were to seek alliances, it would be necessary to compromise. They also began to question the hierarchical and undemocratic internal organisation of the Brotherhood itself. Many of these debates were conducted behind closed doors (a frustration for Wickham and other researchers), allowing the Brotherhood’s leadership to present a façade of unanimity as misleading and opaque as its famous slogan ‘Islam huwa al-hall’ (Islam is the solution).

In the mid-1990s some of these fractures became explicit with the formation of the Wasat (‘centre’) party by reformist members of the Brotherhood. Subsequently other would-be reformers were either expelled or simply left. Leaving wasn’t easy. As Wickham shows, before someone can become a full member of the Brotherhood they have to pass through several stages, winning approval from the hierarchy only after a prolonged period of testing and assessment. The effect, according to some of the more poignant testimonies in the book, is that a member’s entire life becomes bounded by the Brotherhood: their circle of acquaintance is largely restricted to fellow members, which often also determines their choice of marriage partner, and the implications for individuals in deciding to leave, or in finding themselves expelled, can be devastating.

The result has been to prolong the tenure and influence of those whom Wickham calls the ‘old guard’, such as the present Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie, and to promote the younger ‘conservative pragmatists’, such as Morsi and Khairat al-Shatir, who were happy to play a role in Egyptian politics and in the neoliberal institutions of its capitalist economy. Indeed they were keen advocates of parliamentary democracy, government accountability and the free market. That Morsi and al-Shatir hold such beliefs is undoubtedly a result of their own experiences in Egyptian public life, but it is also a powerful indictment of the repressive, authoritarian crony capitalism of Mubarak’s regime. Even so, they had no sympathy with the reformist agenda when it came to the policies and the internal organisation of the Brotherhood.

This became very marked in the years before the 2011 uprisings and even more so in the years that followed. A new generation of young reformers had emerged, some of them the children of prominent Brotherhood members, others fired up by its Islamic values. They comprised the youth wing that was so active in 2011, working well with their secular corevolutionaries and increasingly impatient with an older generation that seemed reluctant to join this extraordinary moment in Egyptian history. Unease about the conservatism and the isolation of the leadership became even sharper as a result of the lack of consultation that attended the formation of the Freedom and Justice Party to represent the Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections. The difficulties of negotiating this new political terrain were also apparent in the muddle over the eventual nomination of a Brotherhood candidate for the 2012 presidential elections. Having expelled Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh for putting himself forward, the leadership did a U-turn and put up al-Shatir, whose disqualification by the Presidential Election Commission paved the way for Morsi, leader of the FJP, to stand.

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Such episodes sharpen our understanding of the dilemmas facing the Brotherhood – dilemmas illustrated only too vividly by the dramatic and violent events of the past few weeks. By presenting itself as the principal voice of Islam, the Brotherhood has infuriated Egyptians who believe that they have just as strong an understanding of Islam and see no reason to accept the Brotherhood’s authority. The will to develop, propagate and enforce – at least within the confines of the organisation – a particular way of being Muslim has outraged many. It has created an unlikely coalition that includes disillusioned members of the Brotherhood, the traditional hierarchy of Egypt’s learned clerisy, and the salafi political parties (most notably the Nour Party), as well as those who believe that a political organisation has no business telling people how to be Muslim. All have endorsed Morsi’s overthrow.

The Brotherhood’s other dilemma stems from its decision to participate indirectly through the FJP. One of the charges repeatedly levelled against Morsi and the FJP by the millions who took to the streets at the end of June was that they were the front for an unaccountable and sinister organisation that cared little for Egypt and more for its pan-Islamic ideals. Whatever protestations Morsi and others have made about having the interests of Egypt and the Egyptians at heart, they were dismissed as a smokescreen for an organisation that set its dawa, or mission, higher than the Egyptian national interest. This was clearly part of a polemic to justify Morsi’s removal. Nevertheless, the tenacious belief that Morsi and the FJP were answerable not to the Egyptian public but to the Supreme Guide and the Guidance Bureau of the unelected Muslim Brotherhood seriously weakened their democratic legitimacy. It was one of Morsi’s failings during his year in office that he did little to disabuse people of this notion. On the contrary, the tone of his pronouncements, the issues in which he chose to involve himself, his attitude towards public criticism and even satire, as well as his authoritarian behaviour, appeared to underline his role as spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood rather than as president of all Egyptians.

All these tensions are well captured in Wickham’s account of the Muslim Brotherhood’s trajectory. As she wrote in 2012 (though her words are just as relevant now), ‘What does it strive to be? A missionary organisation that seeks to remake society in its own image, or a group content to be one voice among many, on an equal footing, that respects the rights of individuals who do not share its vision to answer to their own conscience?’ In the present crisis, the chances are that such reflection will be drowned out by fury at the action taken against the Brotherhood, its elected representatives and its supporters. Throughout her account Wickham argues persuasively that the organisation’s consistent response to systematic repression has been to close down internal debate about its purposes and to reinforce a conservative hierarchy that clings to a defensive posture. This is the exact opposite of the course of action urged by the reformist wing, which has only deepened the polarisation in Egyptian society for which the Brotherhood is by no means wholly responsible. But it is a position aptly summed up in mid-August in the words of one of its supporters camped out at the Rabia al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo days before the state of emergency: ‘I have been here for 28 days and will stay until I die as the issue is now about religion not politics. We want Islam, they want liberalism.’