The election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, as the president of Egypt seemed to signal a promising future for an organization that was banned for the nearly six decades leading up to the January 25th Revolution.
Yet a year after his election, the Egyptian military removed Mohamed Morsi from power, arrested prominent leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood and initiated a violent crackdown on the former president’s supporters. With many of the group’s leaders either imprisoned or on the run, the rank and file members of the Muslim Brotherhood appear more detached and marginalized than ever. Moreover, a recent court ruling bnned the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliated groups, a move which may force the group underground. The Muslim Brotherhood must choose its next moves very carefully as they are at a critical point in which they can either reorganize into a cohesive political entity or return to the murky future of an underground organization. At the same time, the Egyptian military must allow the Muslim Brotherhood to either transform themselves into a more effective political force or fail on their own accord.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Political Islam
While the Muslim Brotherhood was not initially intended to be a political organization, the group’s transition into the political realm was inevitable. Hassan Al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 as a youth club that stressed moral and social reform within the religious framework of Islam. Greatly concerned by what he viewed as the increasing Westernization of Egypt, Banna believed that a return to Islamic values was necessary to counter Western secularism in Egypt. The group did not remain a purely religious organization, however, but rather quickly became involved in Egyptian politics. The Muslim Brotherhood supported the Free Officers Movement of 1952, served as members of parliament during the Mubarak era, and most recently won the presidency and a large number of parliamentary seats following the January 25th Revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood’s gravitation towards politics is unsurprising considering that the political sphere gave the group another outlet to promote Islamic principles.
A closer look at the group’s ideology further demonstrates why the Muslim Brotherhood’s transition into politics was inevitable. Hassan Al-Banna wrote, “We believe the provision of Islam and its teachings are all inclusive, encompassing the affairs of the people in this world and the hereafter. And those who think that these teachings are concerning only with the spiritual or ritualistic aspects are mistaken in this beliief because Islam is a faith and a ritual, a nation and a nationality, a religion and a state, spirit and deed, holy text and sword…The Glorious Quran…considers (these things) to be the core of Islam and its essence.” Banna’s all-encompassing understanding of Islam extended to all spheres of human activity. In this respect, politics offered another avenue to influence the hearts and minds of more Egyptians.
Perhaps the most interesting piece of the above passage is Banna’s assertion that Islam is “a religion and a state”, a view which completely rejects the notion of a separation between mosque and state. This conception of Islam clarifies why the Muslim Brotherhood fielded a candidate in the 2012 presidential elections and then sought to codify Sharia in the new constitution. Moreover, these actions by the Muslim Brotherhood are actually in keeping with the group’s ideology and do not represent a secret Islamization scheme as many have suggested. The Muslim Brotherhood was very candid about their Islamic agenda, and the majority of Egyptians who participated in the 2012 elections voted for Mohamed Morsi in light of this ideology. The Muslim Brotherhood will continue to exert influence over Egyptian politics, either by working with the state or against it. The main question then becomes: how do you encourage constructive political participation?
The Dangers of Marginalization
Overwhelming historical evidence suggests that banning the Muslim Brotherhood and marginalizing its members will only exacerbate the political crises in Egypt. In 1952, the Muslim Brotherhood supported the Free Officers Movement and consequent July 23rd Revolution which removed King Farouk from power. Two and a half years later, the Revolutionary Command Council repaid that support by officially banning the Muslim Brotherhood, thus forcing it to operate as an underground organization. The Muslim Brotherhood likewise participated in the January 25th Revolution which removed former President Hosni Mubarak. Two and a half years later, the military once again intervened and removed former President Mohamed Morsi. With ongoing discussions and lawsuits threatening to ban the group, history appears all but ready to repeat itself. Given the Muslim Brotherhood’s past relationship with the Egyptian military, it is unlikely that the group will trust the military establishment for a third time. It appears equally unlikely that the group will be inclined to work with an interim government appointed by the military.
This historic parallel illustrates that a departure from, rather than repetition of, the military’s tactics for dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood is long overdue. First, the process of banning the group and marginalizing its supporters will not rid Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead, the Egyptian state’s former ban on the group revealed that the Muslim Brotherhood thrived underground. As an underground organization, the group was relieved of the tough duties associated with governance. In return, it amassed popular support by providing services like education, food, and fuel that the state was unable to offer to many segments of the population. Given the grave economic situation facing Egypt today, forcing the Muslim Brotherhood underground may actually put them in a better situation to regain popular support while escaping responsibility for insurmountable economic and political problems on a state level.
Second, banning the group and imprisoning leaders also runs the risk of creating martyrs. Eamonn Gearon, a professor of North African politics and history at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), explained, “How far the Egyptian military authorities are willing to go in their attempts to have the group outlawed and its membership imprisoned remains to be seen. A similar plan has been tried in the past and found wanting because such a policy provided ‘martyrs’ for the group. One example of this phenomenon would be Sayyid Qutb, a Muslim Brotherhood member who is still regarded an exemplar. Qutb’s execution convinced the 14-year-old Ayman al-Zawahiri of the rightness of fighting against the state, and look where that took us.” Gearon’s example demonstrates the inherent danger posed by creating martyrs and providing them with a platform to influence future extremists like the current leader of al-Qaeda.
Third, forcing the group underground without many of its leaders removes organizational accountability and encourages the formation of fringe groups. Most of the arrested leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood maintain the group’s commitment to peaceful protests to achieve political demands, a claim which has been rightfully questioned by many observers. Regardless of the validity of the leadership’s claims, the presence of an active leadership at least gives the group structure and accountability. On the other hand, imprisoning Muslim Brotherhood leaders affords more extremist elements within the group the freedom to act unilaterally. Professor Gearon noted, “The group is regarded by a majority of Muslims who are non-members as a fringe organization, one that is not in line with Muslim orthodoxy.” For this very reason, steps should be taken to move the organization away from the fringes and towards the center—not farther into the margins.
The Freedom to Fail
Decision makers in Egypt must recognize that the Muslim Brotherhood will continue to exist as a political force in Egypt. Only after these decision makers understand the group’s ideology and political goals can they begin to constructively harness the political support that the group enjoys. The alternative is to resort to the former tactics used by the military to obstruct the group’s political ambitions. Yet sixty years of these tactics created a situation in which the organization gained enough support to win the first (mostly) free and fair presidential elections in Egyptian history. Moreover, the military’s tactics created martyrs who continue to influence extremists both within the organization and other terrorist groups.
Ineffectual political institutions must be allowed to fail so that they can be recycled or replaced by the public. The best case scenario would have been Morsi’s removal through elections after four years of failed governance — a likely scenario after the results of Morsi’s first year in office. Given that such an option is no longer on the table, the military and interim government should take steps to bring the Muslim Brotherhood back into the folds of Egyptian political life. An easy first step would be releasing the group’s imprisoned leaders. The harder steps will involve convincing the organization to return to politics after what they consider to be multiple instances of betrayal.
The military’s removal of former President Mohamed Morsi gave the Muslim Brotherhood another chance to succeed when they could have been left to fail. The Muslim Brotherhood needs to be given the chance to truly fail in politics rather than be forced to quit the scene on the pretext of failure. Who knows, the group may even abandon dictatorial politics for a more moderate platform if given the opportunity. The Muslim Brotherhood’s future remains unclear, but it is clear to this observer that the well-known moderateness of the Egyptian public will be more effective than military strong-arming in making that future a constructive one.
By Robert Mogielnieki