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Islam and Politics ( 10 Nov 2013, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Islamic Movements: The Muslim Brotherhood - In Eclipse or In Transformation?


By Mahan Abedin

8 Nov 2013

The forceful removal of Mohammad Morsi and the crushing defeat inflicted on the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to have far-reaching national, regional and international repercussions, explains Mahan Abedin. This analytical report examines the impact of the Muslim Brotherhood's crushing defeat on the group's ideology and methodology against the backdrop of wider political, geopolitical and socio-economic developments.

The overthrow of former Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in early July was a pivotal moment in the history of Egypt and the wider region. Four months on, the ramifications of the military intervention are gradually unfolding, and in most cases to the detriment of the peaceful democratic development of Egypt and the wider North Africa region.

The central contention of this article is that the forceful removal of Mohammad Morsi and the crushing defeat inflicted on the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to have far-reaching national, regional and international repercussions. The upsurge in violence - both in the Sinai Peninsula and in Egypt proper - is the most dramatic consequence of the Muslim Brotherhood's sudden downfall, but the violence is likely to prove a mere footnote in the significant political and ideological shifts that are underway.

This article examines the impact of the Muslim Brotherhood's crushing defeat on the group's ideology and methodology against the backdrop of wider political, geopolitical and socio-economic developments. The focus of analysis is mainly on the core Muslim Brotherhood organisation and its affiliates in the region, however due to the nature of the issues at stake the impact on the wider constellation of Sunni Islamist elements cannot be ignored.

It is argued that whilst radicalisation and estrangement from the political process is a likely - albeit limited - short-term outcome, in the longer term the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated groups across the region will learn important lessons from this bitter experience and will likely re-engage with the political process in a smarter and less ambitious manner.

Failure in Governance

Founded in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood is steeped in a victimisation narrative and a martyrdom culture. In part, this reflects the movement's tortuous struggles with state repression, particularly at critical moments in the late 1940s, early 1950s, mid 1960s and the early 1980s. With the notable exception of the 1970s - when the movement was courted by former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as a counterweight to the left - the Muslim Brotherhood has been subjected to varying levels of governmental crackdown, ranging from the detention of key leaders and activists to the execution of its iconic figures. [1]

The modern Egyptian state's attitude to the Muslim Brotherhood is highly security-orientated which seeks to contain the movement with a view to its long-term exhaustion and eradication. This view is essentially informed by the Egyptian state's authoritarian nature which takes a dim view of any ideology that is a significant departure from the dominant state-sponsored Nasserist or neo-Nasserist doctrine. Viewed from this perspective, the Muslim Brotherhood (or Ikhwan Al-Muslimoon-Ikhwan for short), with its mature Islamic ideology, exceptional organisational skills and resilient social base is intrinsically subversive.

This is not to say that the authoritarian propensity of the Egyptian state, whose modern roots are intertwined with that of the powerful Egyptian military, is the sole reason for the repression that has been meted out to the Ikhwan over the past six decades. Indeed, critics of the Muslim Brotherhood maintain that the secretive nature of the core organisation, in addition to the ambiguity associated with the movement's official rhetoric, gives rise to profound doubt and mistrust on the part of some sections of Egyptian society as to the real motives and ultimate goals of the Ikhwan.

Furthermore, the objectives and full extent of the Ikhwan's functional nature is open to serious debate. Analysts draw attention to the elasticity of the movement in the words of its own founder, Hassan al-Banna, who allegedly described the Brotherhood as “a Salafi propaganda, a Sunni way, a Sufi reality, a political body, a sports group, a cultural association, an economic company, a social thought.” [2]

Historically, this expansive description of the movement has both been a source of strength and a weakness; strength in terms of securing supporters and defining and occupying new socio-economic and political spaces and a weakness in so far as it sets out ambiguous and over-ambitious goals.

It is this ambiguity and incomplete understanding that has defined the Muslim Brotherhood experience in the West. Whilst Muslim Brotherhood affiliated organisations in Western Europe and North America have played an important role in organising and representing Muslim minorities, and whilst they have almost invariably acted in a lawful and legitimate fashion, nevertheless they have failed to gain widespread and lasting recognition and respectability from the elites of the host countries. This is primarily due to the perceived gap between the movement's official rhetoric and its putative ultimate intentions.

The doublespeak associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in the West is encapsulated by the phenomenon of the Swiss-born grandson of the Ikhwan's founder Hassan al-Banna, one Tariq Ramadan, a successful Oxford-based academic whose views are believed to be close to the Brotherhood's. The controversy surrounding Ramadan have far less to do with his stated goal, namely to create a European identity for Muslims, than the perceived terms of this integration. [3] The anxiety espoused by some Western intellectuals centre on the fear that Ramadan - like the Brotherhood - aspires to introduce political Islam to the West by stealth.

Indeed, the fear of Islamisation by stealth - and the doublespeak that is associated with it - is the common thread that unites Egyptian secularists with their counterparts in the West. At a deeper level the confusion over the Brotherhood's goals and the movement's inability to set out its vision and programme in plain language underpins the Ikhwan's failure to make a successful transition from opposition to power.

Of course the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters might argue that the ambiguity surrounding some of their aims is a legacy of the long years of embattled opposition. In this era the Brothers had to carefully balance their rhetoric, indeed the full extent of their activities, with the struggle for survival against a formidable security regime intent on defeating them not in one dramatic episode of crushing repression but over a long period of precision strikes directed at the movement's leaders and key activists.

By the time of the victory of the Egyptian Revolution in February 2011, the Brotherhood appeared to have withstood this attrition warfare and was poised to enter Egyptian politics as a legal entity free from the old constraints, fears and anxieties. But the political landscape of post-revolutionary Egypt held both peril and promise for the Brothers. On the one hand the movement was now relatively free to pursue its missionary and political work in earnest, but on the other there was a real danger of the Brothers over-reaching and committing fatal mistakes in a uniquely difficult political environment.

Much has been said and written on the Brotherhood's mistakes in the period between February 2011 and June 2013 and the circumstances that propelled them toward a dramatic downfall on 3 July 2013. Broadly speaking, analysts tend to agree that the Brotherhood was successful in the first post-revolutionary year (2011-2012) precisely because it did not over-reach and was able to work with other groups to lay the foundations for a new Egyptian political society.

Taking a cue from Turkey's ruling Islamists, the Brothers launched the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in April 2011. The FJP won 235 seats out of 498 in the Egyptian parliamentary elections of November 2011. In June 2012 the FJP's candidate in the Egyptian presidential elections, Mohammad Morsi, narrowly defeated the old establishment's candidate Ahmed Shafiq in a bitterly contested election. For a while it seemed that the Brotherhood and its allies were poised to dominate post-Mubarak Egypt, perhaps even in the same grand manner that the African National Congress dominated post-apartheid South Africa from 1994 onwards.

It is at this high point that everything begins to unravel for the Brotherhood and again the analysts are agreed that the personality and inept leadership style of Mohammad Morsi - Egypt's first democratically elected president - was central to the Ikhwan's downfall.

In a speedy dash to consolidate power Morsi granted himself new legislative powers without adequate judicial oversight and in December 2012 he prematurely put a draft constitution to a referendum. The timing and manner of the introduction of the draft constitution was objectionable in so far as some of its clauses appeared to deepen the polarisation between secularists and Islamists in Egyptian society.

The ideological polarisation in Egyptian society reinforced widespread non-ideological criticism of the Morsi administration's perceived incompetence and its inability to address the country's economic malaise. By June 2013 there was a widespread perception in the country that the Morsi administration was simply not fit for purpose and consequently unable to govern Egypt. These sentiments - coupled with mass anti-Morsi demonstrations - emboldened the military to overthrow Morsi and to subsequently order a violent crackdown on the Brothers and their allies.

The flurry of analysis and appraisals following Morsi's ouster has failed to adequately account for two factors that were central to the Brotherhood's downfall. First, the Brotherhood was not operating in a genuinely revolutionary environment following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Unlike the classic revolutions of the 20th century, the Egyptian Revolution of January-February 2011 did not destroy the old order to remake the state from scratch.

Indeed, the so-called “deep state”, composed mostly of the security agencies and their allies in the media and wider civil society survived the upheaval of Mubarak's ouster virtually unscathed. In view of these agencies deep-rooted hatred of the Brotherhood and their decades-long quest to destroy the movement, it must be assumed that they played an important part in turning the political tide against the Ikhwan.

Second, the full extent and ramifications of political tensions and divisions within the Brotherhood have not been adequately explored. A new book by a Brotherhood dissenter, one Haitham Abu Khalil, argues that the struggle between reformists within the Ikhwan and the movement's traditionalists is at least of quarter of a century standing (beginning 1986), and it is a struggle in which the latter ultimately prevailed. [4]

Whilst Western analysts often identify the mild-mannered surgeon Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh as the iconic figure of the reformist tendency, Abu Khalil argues that the key figures in this faction were Ibrahim El-Zaafarany, Kamal El-Helbawy and Mokhtar Nouh. [5]

The iron grip of the traditionalists on the Ikhwan may well be the single most important factor behind the movement's inability to successfully make the transition from embattled opposition to a successful governing party. As the Muslim Brotherhood struggles against a new wave of repression - one whose scope and intensity is unprecedented in the past eight decades - it must at the same time conduct painful internal debates on the movement's precise nature, role and objectives.

The central question is whether the Brothers aspire to Islamicise society or to rule Egypt? This question goes right to the ideological and functional heart of the Ikhwan, which has from the outset modelled itself as both religious missionary movement and political organisation. Whilst these two roles are not mutually exclusive, they are not necessarily mutually reinforcing either.

In addition, the Brotherhood has to set out its vision for state and society in clearer terms and in a manner that removes malicious doubt and speculation on the so-called true intentions of the Ikhwan. Doing so requires tackling the thorny issue of the aspirational “Islamic state”, and more precisely the extent to which this state is close to modern democratic ideals or whether conversely it conforms to traditional models of the Islamic state, i.e. the Khilafah or Caliphate.

Re-Imagining Politics

The Muslim Brotherhood's decades-long quest for an Islamic state is the cornerstone of the movement's existence inasmuch as it defines how the bulk of its supporters and outside observers perceives the movement's ultimate intentions. The point of contention between the Brothers and their critics is not the existence of the aspiration per se, but the nature and scope of the Islamic state under consideration.

Whereas critics impute a wide range of authoritarian motives onto the Ikhwan, the Brothers themselves insist that their aspirational Islamic state is much less an Iranian-style theocracy than a democratic state that is informed and guided by Islamic principles and legislation.

To be precise the concept of the “Khilafa” or Caliphate still resonates with Brotherhood leaders and activists, but at an official level at least the Ikhwan leadership has embraced democratic principles and by extension the pluralistic politics that flows from it.

The real issue is how the Ikhwan as an entire movement (and not just as a political organisation in the form of the FJP) reconciles its embrace of competitive and pluralistic politics with its ideological goals. Whilst the Turkish experience of ideological retreat for the sake of lasting political gains is often evoked as an inspirational model, this is hardly a fitting analogy - let alone a model to emulate - in view of the vast cultural and political differences between Turkish and Arab Islamists.

One of the key problems with the Brother's aspirational Islamic state is that it is generic and ill-defined to the point of rendering it impervious to rational and goal-orientated political debate. This makes a resolution - especially a resolution in which the entire Brotherhood movement can give assent - all the more harder to achieve.

At the conceptual level, the Brotherhood is at a distinct disadvantage in relation to two other prominent forces in Sunni Islamism, namely the Salafis and the pan-Islamic intellectual party Hizbut Tahrir. The Salafis' model of an Islamic state is one where forensic theological scrutiny, juridical absolutism and religious devotion take pride of place, at the expense of political feasibility and desirability. By contrast, Hizbut Tahrir's model of the Islamic state is intensely political, as evidenced by the party's drawing up of a detailed constitution of their desired political system, the first of its kind in the Sunni Islamist community.

The significance of the religious dimension of this debate comes into sharp relief in view of the Brotherhood's escalating rivalry with Egypt's Salafi movement. Whilst Egypt's Salafis - in tandem with Salafis the world over - come in various shapes and stripes (with a sizeable group eschewing politics altogether), they have become increasingly organised and politicised in recent years, particularly after the ouster of Mubarak in early 2011.

The formation of the Al-Nour (Light) party in 2011 was a key moment in the development of Egypt's modern Salafi movement. Rooted in the Al-Daawa Al-Salafiya (the Salafi Call), arguably Egypt's largest Salafi grouping, Al-Nour is decidedly on the right of the Brotherhood both in terms of social and cultural conservatism as well as visible religious devotion and piety.

Notwithstanding its lack of political experience and organisation, Al-Nour, as part of a bloc with other Islamists and Salafis, made a dramatic entry into Egyptian politics by securing just over seven and half million votes in the 2011 parliamentary elections, which translated into 127 seats in a 498 member parliament. This was clear proof of the Salafis long-term political threat to the Muslim Brotherhood, not least in light of the fact that the Salafis had encroached on the constituency of the Brothers and secured their votes by appearing more Islamic than the Ikhwan.

The Salafis proven ability to politically outmanoeuvre the Ikhwan by being parasitic on the socio-cultural bases which the Brothers have painstakingly cultivated over decades, may well spur the Ikhwan to try to win over new supporters by broadening its constituency beyond the circles of religious zealotry. The expediency of this approach is reinforced by the bitter experience of the past months when large swathes of Egyptian public opinion abandoned the Brothers to their fate.

However, resisting the impulse to compete with the Salafis at the religious level will prove to be an intensely counter-intuitive exercise for the Ikhwan. It is worth noting that the Muslim Brotherhood sees itself as in part a quintessentially Salafi movement, and one which is dedicated to reconciling all social and cultural spheres with Islamic norms and values.

Re-imagining the political space requires the Brothers to critically appraise the kind of political outcomes that are produced by their religious ideology. More to the point, the Brothers need a keener understanding of the type and intensity of reaction which their world view, as presently expressed, elicits from their opponents. In light of the military intervention of 3 July and subsequent events, it is clear that in the foreseeable future at least neither the Egyptian military nor substantial strata of the civilian population will stomach the full-scale Islamisation of Egypt.

Regional and International Dimensions

The forceful removal of Egypt's Islamist government provoked noteworthy reactions from all interested parties and stakeholders. At the geopolitical level, Morsi's ouster threw up some surprisingly awkward posturing. For instance, the United States - which is not usually perceived as friendly to Islamists - was forced into the uncomfortable position of trying to balance its protest at Morsi's ouster with the geopolitical requirement of maintaining close ties to Egypt's military.

Meanwhile America's bitter foe in the region, the Islamic Republic of Iran, mildly protested Morsi's ouster. But in keeping with the complexity of the situation, Iran's only ally in the Arab world, Syria, which is embroiled in a civil war with militant Sunni Islamists and Jihadis, was publicly jubilant at the harsh treatment meted out to Egypt's Islamists, arguing that the failure of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt was tantamount to a failure of political Islam in general.

Declared positions and public posturing notwithstanding, there can be little doubt that the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt is a blow to Islamists of all stripes, including the Salafis, Hizbut Tahrir and across the sectarian divide even to pan-Islamic elements in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The only exception may be the Salafi Jihadis, who are irreconcilably and violently opposed to any form of pluralistic politics.

By winning elections and leading a government in the most important Arab country, the Muslim Brotherhood proved that democracy can not only accommodate Islamists, but that in fact it can be the most effective means of institutionalising Islamisation across all levels of state and society. The Brotherhood's unconstitutional ouster from power - and the crushing pressures which are being applied in the aftermath of the military intervention - must be a demoralising and depressive experience for all Islamists who are institutionally engaged in the political process.

Muslim Brotherhood affiliated and allied groups across North Africa and the Middle East bear the brunt of this difficult period. The revolutions which swept North Africa in late 2010 and 2011 propelled the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideological offspring to the forefront of power and politics in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. There are growing signs that the rapid political advance of the Brothers is being checked by an un-natural alliance between the old reactionary power elites and hardcore secular or more accurately anti-Islamist revolutionary elements.

It was precisely this awkward coalition which engineered the downfall of Morsi in Egypt. A grassroots protest movement styling itself as “Tamarod” (Rebellion) was formed in April with the stated goal of preparing the political ground for Morsi's removal. The mass street protests of late June and early July - which was organised in part by Tamarod activists - formed the immediate trigger for the military's intervention on 3 July, ostensibly to restore order and national cohesion.

In Tunisia, the birthplace of the so-called Arab Spring, a local version of “Tamarod” was launched in late June with the explicit aim of rolling back the political and institutional gains since the ouster of former leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011. It was reported that by early July the Tunisian Tamarod had collected over 200,000 signatures to press home its campaign of isolating the Islamist-led government. [6]

But the protest campaign has had mixed success in Tunisia, where the Al-Nahda movement - which can trace its ideological genealogy to the Muslim Brotherhood - has engaged in the art of politics and power in a much more skilful fashion than the Ikhwan in Egypt. Whilst Al-Nahda has appeased public pressure by acquiescing to the resignation of the government under its control, there is no realistic short-term prospect of a repeat of the Egyptian experience in Tunisia, where the army is institutionally weaker and far less entrenched in the fabric of society.

Beyond the community of Sunni Islamists and across the sectarian divide in Shia-dominated Iran, where an Islamic regime has held sway for nearly four decades, there has been a guarded reaction to the crushing blow inflicted on Sunni Islamists in Egypt. At an official level Iran registered a relatively mild protest at Morsi's ouster, calling it a “cause for concern”, whereas pan-Islamic elements with institutional reach in the Islamic Republic expressed more profound concern for the fate of Sunni Islamists.

In a roundtable held in Tehran in early October and entitled “dissecting the behavioural norms of the Muslim Brotherhood”, Iran's former ambassador to the Vatican and the man widely regarded as the Islamic Republic's foremost expert on the Ikhwan, Ayatollah Hadi Khosrowshahi, countered concerns on the Muslim Brotherhood's increasingly anti-Iranian posture by reminding the audience of the Ikhwan's support for the principles of Iran's Islamic Revolution. Moreover, Khosrowshahi, in tandem with other Iranian Islamic ideologues, relates the Ikhwan's downfall to their lack of governmental experience and the resulting failure to create a new political system. [7]

In conclusion, more than eighty five years after its founding, the Muslim Brotherhood stands at the most important crossroads of its prolific religious missionary and political life. Forced from power, at the point of being completely proscribed and stripped of all their assets, with hundreds of their most loyal members killed on the streets and with most of their leaders in prison, the Brothers are under crushing pressure.

Nevertheless, any notion of the Brotherhood's destruction is likely to prove illusory. The Muslim Brotherhood has a remarkable capacity to withstand pressure and to adapt to a repressive climate. There is no pressing reason to believe that the unprecedented intensity of the latest wave of repression will destroy the Brothers' patiently and carefully crafted organisational structures, let alone eradiate the movement's extensive social networks which penetrate to the deepest levels of Egyptian society.

The key question is not if or when the Brotherhood can recover, but under what conditions the Ikhwan leadership might consider rejoining the political process. In view of the escalating climate of repression, with the bulk of the Egyptian press and broadcasting media cheerleading the authorities' repressive measures against the Brothers, it is likely to be many months, if not years, before the Ikhwan can re-engage in national politics in earnest.

In addition, the deeply polarised mood on the streets militates against a speedy rapprochement with the authorities. The imprisoned Ikhwan leadership not only has to contend with intense hostility from substantial sections of Egyptian society, but more importantly they have to manage the disillusionment and frustration sweeping through their own ranks. Historically, the Ikhwan's ideological periphery has been vulnerable to radicalisation and estrangement, and this is a real possibility at this point.

Notwithstanding hostile local media coverage - which conflates militant actions by extremist groups in the Sinai Peninsula with Muslim Brotherhood led protests in mainland Egyptian cities - there is little realistic prospect of Brotherhood members and sympathisers resorting to arms in pursuit of their grievances. The challenge for the imprisoned Ikhwan leadership and key activists is to contain radicalisation to the margins, whilst allowing for a sufficient period of time to elapse before their negotiating position vis-à-vis the authorities strengthens.

At the regional level, unfolding events in Egypt are a stark reminder that the pace of change toward the direction of greater democracy, transparency and accountability in the Arab world is likely to be much slower than initially anticipated. The phenomenon known as the “Arab Spring” is proving to be less a revolutionary moment than a setback for the entrenched power elites in North Africa and the Middle East.

In terms of opposition to these power elites the Muslim Brotherhood, as the oldest and strongest grassroots social and political organisation in Egypt, maintains the capacity to be an effective player in the reform process both in its birthplace and across much of the Arab world. But to fulfil its potential the Brotherhood has to eschew awkward balancing acts for a more coherent and realistic template of political activism.

[1] The execution of the Brother's foremost ideologue Sayid Qutb in 1966 captures the essence of the movement's martyrdom narrative. The author of 24 books, most notably Milestones, Social Justice and In the Shade of the Quran, Qutb went on to enjoy considerable posthumous fame as one of the most influential Islamic thinkers of the modern era. On the other hand, Qutb stands accused of prescribing violence as a legitimate means of struggle against tyrannical rulers, and of intellectually and ideologically facilitating the emergence of Salafi-Jihadi organisations, including the notorious Al-Qaeda.

[2] P. Holtmann, “After the Fall: The Muslim Brotherhood's Post Coup Strategy”, Perspectives on Terrorism, October 2013. As appears on Ahmad Muhammad Shahuq, Kaifa yufakkir al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun, Khartoum: Dar al-Fikr, 1981, p. 71

[3] See for example Caroline Fourest's Brother Tariq: the Doublespeak of Tariq Ramadan, New York: Encounter Books, 2008.

[4] Haitham Abu Khalil, Ikhwan Islaheeyoun (Reformist Brothers), Cairo: Dar Dawwin, 2013.

[5] Aboul Fotouh contested the June 2012 presidential elections as an independent Islamist candidate but failed to reach the second round of voting despite securing 18% of the vote. In 2011 Aboul Fotouh had formally resigned his membership of the Brotherhood, a drastic move which underlined profound divisions between reformists and conservatives in the movement. He had been a member of the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau from 1987 to 2009. For deeper insights into Aboul Fotouh's thinking refer to the author's interview with the former Brotherhood leader, Islamism Digest ,Volume I, Issue I, August 2006.

[6] Al-Ahram Weekly, 9 July 2013,

[7] The roundtable was organised by a low profile organisation called the “Strategic Explanatory Think-tank”. During the event the following four issues related to the Muslim Brotherhood were put to discussion: 1) the Brothers' attitude to the West and America; 2) their position on Palestine and the “Zionist regime” (Israel); 3) the Brother's view on Islamic unity and proximity amongst Islamic religions (i.e. Sunni-Shia relations); 4) system development (i.e. eradicating the remnants of the “deep state”) and Sharia implementation. Besides Khosrowshahi, the other participants were Mohammad Ali Mohtadi and Seyed Hadi Seyed Afghahi. A transcript of the most important quotes at the roundtable can be accessed here:

Mahan Abedin is an academic and journalist specialising in Islamic affairs.