The future of Egyptian democracy:

Political Islam becomes less political

posted by Nathan J. Brown

For the past few years, much of the scholarly literature on Islamist movements has danced around the “participation/moderation” idea: that participation in democratic politics tends to moderate the ideology and positions of Islamists. I choose my term deliberately. When I say “danced around” I do not mean that scholars have endorsed its automatic applicability; far from it. Most have eschewed the vague term “moderation,” but even those who have used it have tried to give it specificity. And they have noted that the “participation” in question has generally been in non-democratic systems, so that a generalization culled from scholarship on political party behavior in democratic electoral systems (one that has plenty of qualifications and exceptions attached) is unlikely to be transferable to elections in which the existing regime will not allow itself to lose.

But while avoiding any simple “participation/moderation” argument, scholars were drawn to the idea that the ideology and behavior of Islamist movements could shift in response to changes in the political environment in which they operated. In short, they directed their attention away from how Islamists changed politics and instead focused on how politics changes Islamists.

Such change might be slow, incomplete, and uneven. But it comes, especially for those movements that are large and dedicated to comprehensive social and political reform (most notably the Muslim Brotherhood). Such movements change precisely because they are committed to engagement with the broader society. By contrast, those that take some measures to cut themselves off to form communities based on their understanding of correct practice and doctrine (often Salafi in approach) or who take on the burden of jihad (activity far from the realm of normal politics) might be a bit less sensitive to changes in their political environment. But those that pride themselves on being part of, and responsive to, the societies in which they lived naturally respond to changes in that society.

Even so, such Islamists often remained ambivalent about molding themselves too much to their political environment for two reasons. First, they insisted that theirs were comprehensive movements with an agenda that was not merely about politics. Second, they noted that the political environment was often treacherous.

So respond the Islamists did, but their gradually growing emphasis on political participation was always uncertain. They did not always respond quickly or surely, showing great caution before changing their ideas, platforms, or organizational commitments. Indeed, some within the movements, especially those schooled in periods of greater repression, tended to view opportunities warily. And when, in 2011, events moved so quickly that movements felt called upon to seize opportunities, they proved a bit unsteady, sometimes reacting with excessive suspicion and sometimes rushing in too quickly.

In Egypt in January 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood famously hesitated before committing itself to the revolutionary mobilization—and then sent its foot soldiers to Tahrir Square while some of its leaders negotiated with the tottering regime. The leadership decided to form a political party in order to contest parliamentary elections. It initially disavowed a majority and said it would not seek the presidency. But the coalition the Brotherhood led fell just short of half the parliament; when it found out in 2012 that the parliament was powerless and threatened with dissolution, it reached for the presidency instead. And when Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood’s candidate, won that office but found it denuded of authority by the military high command, he rearranged that high command and took authority right back.

Each decision may have made sense, but the collective effect was stunning. A movement that had insisted that it would follow its traditional “participation, not domination” formula even after Hosni Mubarak fell found that it had taken every step along the road to ruling the country. The partially political movement was now all about governing. For all the irony of its moves, the Brotherhood’s decision to re-emphasize politics seemed to pay off handsomely in the eyes of external observers.

But the Brotherhood leadership was a bit more guarded, always looking over its shoulder. Yes, it took considerable pride in its ability to do well in electoral terms. Leaders felt vindicated that they represented the society. But they also began to feel besieged by a hostile state apparatus and cultural elite, even as they piled up victory after victory at the polls. In January 2013, a friend in the Brotherhood told me that the mood within the movement was that it was 1965 all over again (referring to perhaps the harshest year in the Brotherhood’s experience of official repression), neglecting to mention that the presidency was no longer in the hands of Gamal Abdel Nasser but in Mohamed Morsi’s instead. In June 2013, a Brotherhood leader told me darkly that he had no regrets about any of the measures the movement had taken: “Not only would we do it again, we will do it again if necessary.”

A few days after I heard that indication of grim determination, the Brotherhood was ousted from power by a combination of mass protest and military action. And how has the Brotherhood reacted? Yes, it has once more responded to its political environment, but there are increasing signs that it has decided to strike a pose outside of the formal political system. It is clear now that the leadership has absorbed a bitter lesson indeed from the experiences of the past year, and that the powerful nature of that experience—of the brutal defeat of the Brotherhood’s political project—combined with the organization’s tight and inward-looking structure now suggest we need to peer a bit more inside the movement than we have had to in the past few years.

In an inelegant and unglamorous metaphor, I have suggested that the Brotherhood behaves a bit like a toothpaste tube whose shape is remolded in reaction to external pressure; I now think the events of the past year have frozen that tube in such a manner that the next generation of Brotherhood members and of Egyptian citizens may pay dearly (and unfortunately quite steadily) for it. The Brotherhood is now making calculations according to something other than the logic imposed by a desire to return to the political maneuverings of the past two decades.

Of course, the organization’s own structure and worldview have always informed the way that it perceives—and reacts to—the political environment. At present, both the external environment and the movement’s own impulses and organization combine to push the Brotherhood strongly in the direction of further withdrawal and even paranoia, based on the combination of harsh repression; social ostracism; organizational involution (if Clifford Geertz’s term about Indonesian farming can be modified and deployed in a very different context); a sense of being cheated; and long-term optimism that God and the people will eventually reward the righteous.

In several conversations, I have been told harrowing stories from those present at the pro-Morsi demonstrations in Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya or other sites. They carried bodies, watched friends be shot, and witnessed wanton bloodshed. The use of a four-fingered signal (referring to al-Rabaa, which means “four”) suggests that August 14, 2013 was a defining moment for the Brotherhood, one that is still now being deeply imprinted in the organization’s collective memory. To make matters worse, the movement is suffering not merely from political repression but also from social ostracism. The hatred for the Brotherhood expressed by so many in Egyptian public life is overwhelming and likely unprecedented.

In short, the collective memory of martyrdom so prominent in the movement now is one it simply does not share with most of the society. Those who have studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would likely find such unshared sense of trauma familiar territory, but it is a new experience for the Brotherhood and a troubling one for Egyptian society. It is now undeniable that the Brotherhood now has a deep problem not only with the rulers but also with the people it seeks to lead and guide.

The Brotherhood’s organizational structure—one that served it well in semiauthoritarian times in the past and in the cascade of post-January 25 elections—is now likely to accentuate the turn inwards. That structure, based on very tight personal bonds—invoking a “family” metaphor—will likely, in the current repressive period, lead to a great deal of organizational involution. Brotherhood members will fall back on each other, recruitment will be difficult, and bonds of trust and discipline will be more tightly drawn. These features, which made the Brotherhood a formidable organization but also one difficult for any system, much less a semiauthoritarian or aspiring democratic one, to integrate, are likely to be more prominent in the coming years. The organization will emerge leaner and meaner from this experience.

But the Brotherhood has always fostered among its members a sense of long-term optimism, based on an encouraging attitude that God has taught righteousness so that the righteous will ultimately triumph. I do not mean to say that the Brotherhood thrives on being oppressed—I think its members are very much suffering now and not at all enjoying the current moment. But the bitterness is joined with a faith that those who follow a path based on higher truths will not always have to wait for the next world for their reward. A strong sense of serene inner conviction coupled with a pressing sense of grievance is a heady brew.

Yes, the movement is withdrawing into itself, but it is not directing its members to pull back from society; it is behaving like an angry but active outsider. Most likely the movement will play something of a spoiler role as a hulking hostile presence outside of formal politics, a useful bogeyman for Egypt’s cruel security apparatus, and an axis of division within a society that has always had an exaggerated sense of its own homogeneity and few tools or mechanisms for handling deep differences.

My analysis here has shifted from the general to the Egyptian but there are good reasons to hesitate before making such a shift so quickly. Different countries have had remarkably different experiences and what has happened in Egypt will not easily replicate itself elsewhere. But it has already affected thinking throughout Islamist circles everywhere. It has inspired some governments to move against Islamists and has made some Islamists reevaluate their surroundings. Political Islam is hardly dead, but the movements that lead Islamism into the formal political process are likely to be just a little bit more leery of that path almost everywhere—and perhaps totally shut out of it in Egypt.

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2 Responses to “Political Islam becomes less political”

  1. avatar Michael Xender says:

    “The hatred for the Brotherhood expressed by so many in Egyptian public life is overwhelming and likely unprecedented.”

    According to whom? Lamis Hadidi? The Cairo elite hated the MB even before they have won the parliamentary election. If the MB were hated the people behind the coup would have chosen to compete in the parliamentary elections instead of massacres. Nobody is citing any statistics with regard to the popularity of the MB.

  2. avatar Carl Stoneham says:

    Michael, can you point to anti-Britherhood protests at any time in the past 50 years that reached the scale of those this past summer? Can you point to a widespread outcry among the Egyptian citizenry over the current treatment of the Brotherhood? No. We’re talking prima facie evidence here, but in the event you can’t trust your eyes, look around. The statistics are there, just waiting for you to find it.

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