The future of Egyptian democracy:

Three observations on religion, politics, and the Muslim Brotherhood

posted by Atef Said

In the following essay I would like to offer three observations about the use of religion in politics in Egypt in the aftermath of the ousting of president Mohamed Morsi, and about the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)—the oldest and most important Islamic organization in Egypt—particularly on how the group became targeted by the current military government in Egypt.

Religion and Politics

The first of these observations is that despite the end of Morsi/MB rule in Egypt, debates about secularism and religion (and its place in politics) will continue. The Egyptian military, security, and intelligence apparatuses have framed the current state of affairs as a war on terror and identified the MB as the central target of this war. When the Egyptian government declared the MB to be a terrorist group on December 26, 2013, it essentially gave authorities carte blanche to hunt down MB members, despite the fact that the decision lacked any clear legal or constitutional basis. Since then, official discourse has sought to contrast “moderate” Islam with the Muslim Brotherhood’s conservative or fundamentalist Islam. Such efforts have been buttressed by sharia scholars in the institution of al-Azhar and former grand mufti Ali Gomaa declaring that the MB is “outside the Muslim faith” (Khareg al-mela). In a leaked interview with the Minster of Defense, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi explicitly described the government’s job as eliminating Islamic extremists and saving moderate Islam, and further called for Islamic reformation. This is the same narrative that supporters of the current regime emphasize: Sisi saved what they say is the moderate Islam in Egypt. Such is the sway of this narrative conflating a war on terror and a war on religion that even when the MB and its advocates attempt to contest it, they do so within its terms, describing Sisi’s war against the MB as a war against Islam.

The irony, of course, is that authorities have hardly banished religion from the realm of politics. Consider the role of the Salafi al-Nour party in the political scene. The party participated in the planning meetings that led to Morsi’s ouster, and though the new constitution declares that religiously-based political parties will be banned in Egypt, I doubt this will affect the al-Nour party. The military has used al-Nour for its own ends, at least during the coup and also during the constitution-writing process. By “used,” I mean that the military used the presence of the party to claim that the current war on the MB is not necessarily a war against Islamic parties. But al-Nour itself is invested in becoming the party that speaks for political Islamists in Egypt; the relationship is one of mutual benefit. Thus, it participated in the coalition that supported the military coup. One can also look to the clerks that have come out in support of Sisi’s campaign for presidency. Some have used explicitly religious discourse in their endorsements, such as a recent description of Sisi by an al-Azhar scholar as a “messenger from God.” Finally, religion remains woven into the constitution in complicated ways. During the meetings of the constitutional assembly, there were heated discussions about the fate of Articles 4 and 219 of the 2012 Constitution, put into force under MB rule. The first article was seen by many liberals as establishing a sort of theocratic rule that gave al-Azhar constitutional power to interpret and apply sharia law in Egypt, while the second article privileged a very narrow, fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam. The latter article has since been eradicated, but the first remains in place (now Article 7 in the new constitution). The very fact that the liberal-dominated constitutional assembly was able to make only this modest change reveals the complicated, and often opposing, pressures at play. The revised constitution is thus neither secular nor religious, but a compromise that attempts to balance the interests of the military, the Salafis, and the liberal members of the assembly.

The Muslim Brotherhood and electoral politics

My second observation concerns the future participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in parliamentary politics. Explicit participation will clearly be difficult now that the group has been classified as a terrorist group and the Freedom of Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, has been officially banned. On November 16, 2013, Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court issued its ruling, stating in its decision that “the ‘June 30th revolution’ showed that the party has no place in Egyptian political and legal reality.” The court also determined the FJP had been involved in violence and destructive practices in Egypt. It is worth noting that there were several cases submitted to the court requesting this ban, some by the leftist Al Tagammuparty and the other by Ahmed Al-Fadaly, a representative of a group called the “Independence Current” that is known to be close to Egyptian security circles.

Of course, one could argue that the MB was also banned under Mubarak but still found a way to participate in parliamentary politics. But the situation today is different in a number of ways. The first difference is that since the June 2013 protests and the military coup in July 2013, Egyptian society has been gripped by what I argue can only be described as anti-MB hysteria. There are many reasons for this hysteria, the most important of which are Egyptian frustrations and disappointment with the rule of the MB, and the presence of an intensive campaign by pro-military media propaganda to exploit those feelings and demonize the MB for all of Egypt’s ills (even dating back to the revolution). In this context, the MB is endangered not only politically, but also socially. Already there have been many clashes between MB members and the public during protests. Some critics have pointed out the illogicalness of blaming the Brotherhood for all the mistakes and violence that took place during the transitional period, but such voices remain in the minority and marginalized.

The second factor differentiating today’s context from that under Mubarak is the alienation and radicalization of MB youth, in particular, that has followed the excessive use of violence by the authorities at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque sit-in of pro-Morsi supporters on August 14, 2013, where at least 1000 protesters were killed. The incident was described by Human Rights Watch as the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history. Beyond its horrifying physical effects, the violence also served to disillusion MB members. Some members and many Islamists have started to express their distrust of democracy, stating they would instead use radical means to bring change in Egypt, especially after the coup on July 3, 2013. The group has returned underground, and many of their youth have become skeptical of politics. These are simply general observations at this point; rigorous research is needed to determine how widespread such attitudes are, but the danger is that MB youth may no longer see elections and parliamentary politics as relevant or effective. MB youth have traditionally provided the human resources that enact the campaigns of their leaders, but with many of those leaders now jailed and the youth expressing contempt for the political game, the future participation of the MB in electoral politics is very much in question, at least at the moment.

The third issue is that MB has not deviated from its entrenched patterns of political activity and its rigid organizational structure, likely preventing it from participating in parliamentary politics in the near future. Scholars have noted that, despite the massive political upheavals that have taken place in Egypt since the revolution—including the Brotherhood’s own rise and fall—the MB has continued to operate in the same way. Hierarchy is the defining feature of the organization, with the Guiding Office controlling all decision-making from the top down. The MB is by no means a simple entity and more research is needed to map the relationship between the MB in Egypt and its international branches in particular, but my point, nonetheless, is that the MB practices politics in a very specific and rigid way. Its modus operandi has been to work with, rather than against, the regime. Its preferred tactic has never been to openly clash with the authorities, but to negotiate with them. And likewise, the ideal election situation, from the MB perspective, has never been fair and open elections, but elections in which it is allowed to participate and coordinate with the regime. The irony, of course, is that the military never wanted a genuine open democracy either. Its ideal democratic situation is a conditional democracy in which its interests are protected. In short, it is unlikely the MB will participate in any elections explicitly without sorting out its relationship with the military first. And as many observers in Egypt argue, it seems that the MB is mainly doing nothing but protesting in the streets, and that these protests are starting to carry more harsh and radical slogans against the regime, something they have never done in the past. But the main goal of these protests from the MB leadership’ viewpoint is to impose some stipulations or have some leverage when they are back to negotiate with the regime.

A point of clarification is needed here. When I say “explicit” participation, I mean to differentiate the open running of a MB candidate or platform from the sort of “soft politics” that the MB may well continue in the near future—e.g., striking deals with or supporting amenable parties or political candidates. The MB seems to view protesting in the streets as a main strategy for now, as some scholars suggested recently. In this sense, I totally agree with Nathan Brown’s suggestion that the MB–well as political Islam in Egypt- will become less political. But “less political” here, as he rightly argues, means not participating in the formal political process for the moment. Instead, “[m]ost 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.” In sum, MB will continue being an influential element in the political scene in Egypt, despite not participating in formal politics in the near future.

Beyond the Politics of Blame: New Theoretical Framework is needed

My last observation concerns the need for new theoretical framework(s) to understand the Muslim Brotherhood, and indeed Egyptian politics in general. In a November 2013 opinion piece for Al Jazeera, Daniela Pioppi stated: “The Brothers made many mistakes, but clearly they cannot be judged simply on the basis of their actions while in power.” I agree with this argument, and also appreciate Pioppi’s observation that while the MB are “inherently authoritarian, arrogant and most of all, incompetent,” this is no less true of “their ‘civil’ political rivals (mainly liberal and left-wing parties and organizations).” The latter statement overgeneralizes, but its basic thrust is valid. Too often, analyses in an increasingly polarized Egypt have tended to focus on a politics of simple blame of one side or another (usually the military or the MB) for the seeming failure of the transition to democracy. Yet, we need to take into account the complicated ways in which MB/military relations evolved over time, and situate these changes within the complex economic and social structure of each organization—structures that made both resistant to real change. The question is more urgent with the MB, given the fact that the military remains part of the core of the old power structure by default, while the MB is at least presumed to be otherwise. Also, we need to pay more attention to the revolutionary youth and other marginalized communities that continue to be left out of most analyses.

I propose that any new theoretical framework to study the MB should take into account what I see as four foundational paradoxes that shape the work of the group. The first of these is that the MB is both an organization and a movement. It is an organization in the sense that it has a clear organizing body with collective goals and a hierarchical structure, but it is also a movement in the sense that it is connected to and influential within a larger population targeted by its policies and goals. For example, while the organization seems to be under the control of the leadership, the movement is not. Membership is a very rigorous and long process, entailing indoctrination and practicing different scales of membership activities such as doing charity, preaching, and recruitment. The movement is built with complex actions of charity and mobilization. It is not as rigid as the organization. While there is overlap between the organization and the movement, each operates differently, in terms of leadership, decision-making, control, and structure. We need to take both the overlap and the differences into account when determining the meaning of their actions.

The second paradox is that the MB is a religio-political organization. Again, each side of the hyphen here involves different politics and requirements. How the group combines the two is a big question; it is simplistic (and naïve) to argue that the group is only one or the other.

The third paradox is that the group claims to be working to establish a democratic state, but at the same time, in the words of political scientist Ashraf El-Sherif, “the organization centers on an ideology of an ‘Islamist state,’ ‘Islamic transnationalism,’ or ‘Paxa Islamica’ and on notions of a government based on God’s sovereignty instead of the people’s sovereignty.” A democratic state must recognize and respect pluralism, but an Islamic state may simply mean totalitarianism, or at least a specific version of democracy based on religious ideals defined by clerics and MB leaders. My point here is not simply to take a side in the exhausted debate about Islam’s incompatibility with democracy. As sociologist Asef Bayat rightly suggests, the question assumes monolithic Islamic societies in relation to politics. My point is to look at how this question or paradox is justified and explained on the ground, and specifically here in the case of the MB.

The fourth paradox concerns the MB’s ideological behavior in terms of rigidity or flexibility. On the one hand, the MB is known to be a pragmatic group. I totally agree here with Ashraf El-Sherif that it is a common mistake to conflate being pragmatic with being moderate or open-minded. However, I do find a contradiction in the group’s efforts to be dogmatic and pragmatic at the same time. Specifically, I argue that the group is dogmatic internally and pragmatic externally. Many ex-members have been critical of this rigidity and have expressed concerns about the gap between the ways the MB talks to its members compared to its message to the public. As many analysts have noted, the group often crafts different framings of events for its English language websites and outlets compared to those in Arabic. The idea here is that the group sends “moderate” messages to the world via its English website, while using more sectarian and rigid language in its internal messages and communications in Arabic. (Indeed, the issue is sufficiently systematic that a group of journalists and activists has launched a website, in which they translate the news headlines and articles as they are posted in Arabic.) Recently, while the group and its members have been asserting that their goal is to restore the MB rule, and to “bring back Morsi to power,” their message to the regime and the world has been different. The latter entailed some flexibility and willingness to compromise, at least according to reports published about different deal-breakings between the MB and the regime. My point is not that the group is hypocritical. This is a simplistic and crude judgment that helps to explain nothing. Rather, I want to highlight the value of understanding how the group negotiates discrepancies between its internal narratives and its messages to the outside world. Simple frameworks cannot work in understanding a complex group like this. I totally agree with Khalil al-Anani, the expert on the MB, who stated recently:

The truth which many supporters of the deep state does not understand is that the MB has the organizational capacity, movement flexibility, psychological ability to live under exclusion and state repression for the longest time possible. The MB is not only a political party or a religious group; the MB is an ideological sponge and an elastic thinking machine. It is also a social movement, whose subjects we know very little about. (Comment on his Facebook from February 19, 2014, quoted here with his permission.)

It is not just in the Muslim Brotherhood that contradictions can exist; the realm of politics in general is full of them. Unless we develop new and sophisticated frameworks for understanding these paradoxes, there is little hope that we can better understand this important group in Egypt, and whether Egyptian politics will move beyond it.

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2 Responses to “Three observations on religion, politics, and the Muslim Brotherhood”

  1. An interesting article that highlights the present paradoxes and contradictions of Egyptian politics but shies away from taking sides, a difficult task in the current polarized atmosphere.

    I would, however, like the author to use his detailed knowledge of Egyptian society and wider Muslim world in a clearer way. For example, while talking about religion and politics in the current Egypt, he ignores the similarities of what is happening in Egypt now with what has happened under other authoritarian regimes in the past. What Sisi is doing is nothing new. Starting from Reza Shah Pahlevi of Iran (1925-41), authoritarian regimes have often posed as defender of moderate/real Islam against extremism (i.e. Islam of their enemies). They have often gotten endorsements from some religious authorities and Islam has remained part of constitutions/national identities. Other rulers that followed this trend were Afghanistan’s King Amanullah Khan (1919-29), Pakistan’s General Ayub Khan (1958-69), Iran’s Muhammad Reza Pahlevi (1941-79), Libya’s Qaddafi (1969-2011), Pakistan’s General Musharraf (1999-2008) and of course Egypt’s Nasser and Sadat.

    Nasser’s absence is particularly conspicuous as author is himself Egyptian and we can learn a lot about what is happening now to MB from what happened to MB under Nasser. The author’s second observation offers three reasons why politics were possible under Mubarak but are not possible under Sisi:
    • There is anti-MB hysteria
    • MB’s youth are alienated because of repression and may opt for violence instead of electoral politics
    • MB’s political participation under Mubarak was negotiated

    All three of these elements were present under Nasser in the late 1950s and 1960s. Supporters of General Sisi compare him to Nasser and while Sisi is different from Nasser (due to the absence of vision, ideology and other endearing features), he is a Nasser redux in terms of his relationship with MB. Nasser banned MB; used extreme repression against them; and courts under him sentenced hundreds of MB supporters to death, including Sayyid Qutb.

    The author is right to call for a new theoretical framework to analyze MB and its politics. This framework can learn from research on West European Communist parties. These “anti-system” parties faced all the four paradoxes that MB faces today:
    • West European Communist parties were both parties and movements as becoming a member had strict requirements and some negative consequences.
    • West European Communist parties were both ideological and political. Doctrinal purity regularly clashed with the reality of politics.
    • Communist ideology had some anti-democratic features so these parties were both for and against democracy. They were trying to bring a worker’s revolution while running in elections.
    • West European Communist parties were internally dogmatic but had a pragmatic behavior externally. Internal debate was not encouraged in these parties but their leaders were ready to form coalitions with other political parties.

    In When Victory Is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics, Nathan J. Brown further explores the contradictions in Islamist organizations and compares them with Communist and Green parties.

  2. avatar Sarah Gilkes says:

    Every political project is the product of a nation’s particular history, and an appreciation of this cultural context is required to comprehend the these political projects. In Egypt, the modern cultural history is one marked by a tension between a religious worldview, advocating for the public role of religion, and a secular worldview, advocating for a more limited role of religion in the public sphere. Since the ousting of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, the institutions acting out this tension between the religious worldview and the secular worldview have been the Muslim Brotherhood (both the organization and the movement, as Said correctly points out are two distinct entities) and the Egyptian state respectively.

    The current military regime’s secular political project is incredibly confused, unsure of where exactly religion will fall in the new political order. On December 26, 2013 the military regime, led by Sisi, declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and banned them from any organized political involvement. Despite a lack of constitutional or legal basis for this move, the regime framed the declaration as a necessary move to protect moderate Islam. Yet, as Said explains, official discourse contrasting moderate Islam and conservative or fundamentalist Islam has conflated the regime’s fight to eliminate terrorist activity with a comprehensive war on interpretations of Islam in competition with their own, official moderate stance.

    In the case of Egypt, the cultural history is one dominated by Islam. In this respect, it is not outside the bounds of a secular political project to seek to protect expressions of moderate religious belief that do not pose a threat to the well-being of the Egyptian population while taking a stance against all manifestations of terrorism. While this is likely the move the Sisi regime would like to be credited with making, the regime’s actions prevent this from being an accurate interpretation of the current moment in Egypt. There are two chief reasons for this. First, while the Sisi regime has proposed a ban on all religious political parties, Said suggests that because of their shared interests, the Salafi al-Nour party will likely maintain its prominent position within the political arena. The Sisi regime has expressly supported the party as a means to claim that the declaration against the Muslim Brotherhood is not a comprehensive war against Islam, but rather an attempt to eliminate terrorist activities. Yet this open support of one religious political party, particularly one opposed to the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood, complicates both the regime’s claim as well as the potential secular character of the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization. Further, the Salafi al-Nour party has arguably more conservative leanings than the Brotherhood, adding an additional element to this already complex political picture. Second, Article 7 of the new constitution—a carryover from the constitution of the Morsi regime—articulates that al-Azhar is the sole entity with the ability to interpret and apply shari’ah in Egypt. This provision allowing for the implementation of shari’ah would seem to be in tension with the Egyptian civil code, creating the possibility of overlap in which the debate over the role of religion within the political arena will have to be reopened.

    Consequently, Said has suggested, “The revised constitution is thus neither secular nor religious, but a compromise that attempts to balance the interests of the military, the Salafis, and the liberal members of the assembly.” I would contend that it is not the element of compromise that leads to tensions between the religious and the secular in Egypt. In fact, this compromise will likely ensure the creation of a political system cognizant of all interests. Rather, it is the unsettled debate over the proper role of religion in the public sphere and the resulting competing provisions that prevent real progress, in either the religious or the secular direction, from being made.

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