Commentary

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: A Victim of its Own Success?

Middle East In Focus

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Almost six months after mass protests toppled the Mubarak regime, it is still unclear what the future holds for Egypt. Editorials and commentary from the country and the region have reflected over the last few days on political tensions, as well as recent revelations about previously undisclosed contacts between the U.S. government and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s main opposition party. Many have also focused on the ongoing skirmishes between protesters and security forces.

Reflecting on these developments, the editorial in The Peninsula remarks, “Egypt is still struggling with its revolution. Yesterday, clashes between protesters and security forces engulfed Cairo once again, which the media described as the fiercest street battles since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Dozens were injured. Obviously, a large number of Egyptians are disappointed at the slow pace of reforms since the fall of Mubarak. There is a deep sense of hurt that the new military administration…is unresponsive to their demands, and both their action and inaction on a number of issues show them to be more aligned with the Mubarak regime than with the people. The new rulers are denying this, but their words haven’t consoled the people. Protesters have taken to the streets several times calling for immediate implementation of reforms.”

However, as noted, the fight for the future of Egypt is not taking place only in the streets. Capitalizing on its organizational strength, the Muslim Brotherhood has tried to assert itself as a consequential actor in Egyptian politics. Amr el-Shobaki, writing for Al Masry al Youm, identifies some of the strengths that make the Brotherhood a formidable organization: “Internally, the Brotherhood is characterized by generational and intellectual diversity. The group adopts a comprehensive vision of Islam based on a flexible political and intellectual framework.... The Brotherhood’s strength is not just a matter of organizational prowess or tactical experience; it derives from the fact that the group expresses a domestic project, albeit in the language of religion.... Unless Egypt can produce a civilian political current born out of domestic political, economic and cultural concerns, the Brotherhood will continue to be the chief political power in Egypt.”

This apparent strength is beginning to raise some red flags for those concerned that the Brotherhood might be too powerful for the good of the country. Ramadan Kader asserts in the Egyptian Gazette, “Apparently intoxicated by the windfall they gained in the wake of the popular revolt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, the Islamists are seen calling the shots for other political powers. They insist on monopolizing the political scene and have no qualms about branding their opponents as mavericks, if not enemies of God.... The Islamists may currently be the strongest and most influential power on the chaotic Egyptian scene. However, they should stop patronizing their rivals and bear in mind the fact that the New Egypt should be built by each and every Egyptian, regardless of his or her ideological and religious leanings. The seismic collapse of the once-mammoth Mubarak party should be a lesson for us all.”

Yet, there are signs that the much-vaunted internal cohesion of the organization might be coming under immense pressure from within the group. Amira Howeidy noted in the weekly Egyptian paper Al Ahram, “Alluding to the Muslim Brotherhood as Egypt's ‘most organized’ political force might soon become a redundant cliché. The 83-year-old organization is metamorphosing — some might say disintegrating — into five political parties. It is a far cry from the Islamist group that has, since 1948, survived repeated attempts by the state to weaken it while retaining, on the surface at least, its monolithic structure.... In post-revolution Egypt the Ikhwan (Brothers) [are] no longer simply the Gamaa (Organization).... Officially approved on 6 June, it is led by three ex- members of the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau. Soon it could be joined by four other parties spawned by the group: Al-Nahda (Renaissance), Al-Riyada (Pioneer), Haraket Al-Salam Wal-Tanmiya (Movement for Peace and Development) and the youth-led Al-Tayar Al-Masri (Egyptian Current).”

Cited in an Associated Press report published on Al Arabiya, “Hossam Tamam, an Egyptian expert on Islamic groups, said that the cracks within the Muslim Brotherhood will ultimately weaken the group. ‘They are the ones who will be the losers,’ he said. ‘Al-Riyada is very significant because they are the reformists within the group who were isolated for so long. For the first time, we see an Islamic group that doesn't identify itself through Islamic Sharia. This is very important,’ he said. ‘The group will face a historical moment if it doesn't revise its ideas,’ he said, adding that the rapid defections are directly related to the action the group took against Mr. Abul-Fottouh.”

But the proliferation of new Muslim Brotherhood offshoots that might dilute their share of the vote in the upcoming elections is not the only cause for concern.  Recent statements from the U.S. government reveal that contacts between the United States and the MB have been going on for some time, predating the fall of the Mubarak regime. In a statement posted on the MB news portal Ikhwan Web, “Dr. Mahmoud Ghazlan, media spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, welcomed the statement by the U.S. government about communicating with the Muslim Brotherhood, stating that it was open to mature, respectful and open dialogue. Ghazlan further clarified the MB response in the following points: There has been no formal dialogue between the US and the Muslim Brotherhood as a group in the past. Previous dialogue had only taken place between few officials from the U.S. Embassy and MB parliamentarians, including Dr. Mohamed Saad Katatni, former head of the MB parliamentary bloc, in their capacities as representatives of the Egyptian people, not the MB.”

But not everyone buys the explanation, and there are already signs of backlash. Commenting on the significance of the revelation, Tariq Alhomayed writes on Asharq Alawsat, “It is clear that it is an old relationship, and it was revealed yesterday that Washington and the Brotherhood have indeed been communicating. Yet here is the bottom line; the communication took place not after the fall of Mubarak, but before.... [W]e must point out that they are the proponents of the slogan ‘Islam is the solution;’ while today we see that the slogan in practice is ‘power is the solution.’ Thus today we should not consider the slogans of the Brotherhood, whether in Egypt or elsewhere, but rather their plans for the future of Egypt, or our other nations….We all know that mere slogans will not protect the people from hunger, and now the facts tell us that the proponents of Islamic slogans are negotiating with the Americans, and have been for years.”

On the pages of the same newspaper, Mohammed Hassan Shabaan sees the development as a test for the group, underlining the fact that “Dr. Rifat al-Said, leader of the left-wing National Progressive Unionist Grouping Party [NPUG], warned the Muslim Brotherhood against opening up to Washington, telling Asharq Al-Awsat, ‘Every time the Muslim Brotherhood has tried to engage in alliance with tyranny under the pretext that necessity knows no law, its fingers were burned.’… The expected rapprochement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the US, which is trying to establish a foothold in post-Mubarak Egypt, is a test for the group.”


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