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How the Brotherhood Bungled It



By Elf Habib

July 19, 2013

The only option for organisations like the Brotherhood thus is to stick to the ballot but not to take the victory as an absolute authority to impose their own views but forge instead a broader consensus and reconciliation

The ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president in Egypt, as a result of the protracted, pervasive and paralysing public protests, has almost irreparably shattered the image, stature, competence, credibility and future of the fundamentalist Muslim organisations to grasp, manage and respond to the intricate impulses, aspirations and realities in the emerging pluralistic societies. The failure of the Brotherhood in maintaining its rule is actually far more instructive as this order served as a pioneering precursor to scores of similar other movements that mushroomed in various Muslim countries including the obscurantist cabals like the Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan. The Ennahda in Tunisia, AKD in Turkey and the PJD in Morocco are also somewhat similar to it in their origin and perception. The organisation founded in1928 initially supported the army’s revolt to topple the monarchy, hoping to eclipse them or at least manipulating a meaningful power sharing with them. Frustrated in this ambition, they began to sabotage their authority through arson and disruption, provoking severe retaliation in return and enduring incarcerations, torture and even some executions. Gradually however, they embraced the peaceful means afforded by the dictatorship.

Its cadres and the cognate bands in various countries modelled after them are actually highly regimented, influenced mostly by movements like Nazism that roiled Europe after the First World War. Like the superiority of various races and their right to reign rooted in these movements, the Brotherhood builders evidently also believed in the superiority, finality and infallibility of Islam and its future to sweep the world.

But a robust resolve, devotion, discipline and strategy for its spread and ascent had to be ingrained and proliferated. What they failed to realise was that despite the most steadfast passion of the enthusiasts of various faiths and their struggle and sacrifices, the world has passed the phase of religious states and governments. Egypt, like most other multi-faith societies, also yearned for a pluralist and secular system, stipulating explicitly equal rights, participation and privileges to its citizens irrespective of their caste, creed or colour. Parties like the Brotherhood that tend to take dominant advantage of the accessible avenues and opportunities merely on the basis of their better organisation, discipline and outreach raise even more concern and rivalries among the segments not aligned to them. Yet they almost entirely ignored these realities and rushed to grab all that was almost explicitly denied to them.

The Brotherhood was, for instance, neither the catalyst nor the driver for the desire for democracy and the agitation that initially erupted at Tahrir Square, as they were mostly stirred and spurred by the liberals and the general masses disenchanted with the dictatorship, craving for social justice and basic necessities. Yet the Brothers, buoyed by their long entrenched organisation, expertise and resources to mobilise their cadres, manoeuvred a dominant role in the movement, particularly after the elections were announced. The liberals, despite their élan to fire imaginations for a new spring, lacked the experience, efficiency and the mechanism for electioneering essential to transform their tumult into the ballot count. Confronting them was also a cunningly coined Brotherhood pronouncement to pursue an all-inclusive democratic process respecting and bridging dissent to synthesise a broad spectrum set up.

The overture was further strengthened as they avoided an election alliance with the ultra-fundamentalist Salafis and helped them control the Council that was to frame the new constitution. Their vague pronouncements not to contest the presidential elections were also rather overoptimistically construed as a gesture of wider collaboration by surrendering this significant slot to other stakeholders.

Yet they fielded Morsi who became president by securing about half of the 32 percent votes that were cast during the election. The grim statistics of a lower turnout and the tiny edge apparently rang the alarm bells of wider disapproval of the Brotherhood during the nascent democratic intricacies and necessitated a broad based participation with liberal and secular swaths opposed to their obscurantist version of Islam. But spurning the exigency of a broader reconciliation, they rather rallied the ultraconservative Salafis and rushed through to finalise the constitution containing several discriminatory and controversial clauses and alienating the forces that had inspired and imbibed the spirit of a new stimulating future. The masses were even more disillusioned by the worsening economic malaise.

Morsi and the Brotherhood ironically even failed to learn from Ennahda in Tunisia, which despite its electoral victory not only included several liberal and secular protagonists in its government but has even tacitly shelved some controversial religious amendments to the constitution preferring instead an accelerated focus on economic and commercial improvement.

The Brotherhood defied any such suggestions by its army as well as by some western leaders until of course the protesters had reached a point of no return. They similarly also could not comprehend the popular trends in Turkey that ruled also by a similar Islamist party since 2002, was another poignant pointer to the perilous reaction against their reversion to political Islam. The Turks had supported integration with the European Union, revising over 300 clauses in the criminal codes, rescinding even the punishments for adultery, so fervently flaunted by the fundamentalists. Yet the concern against some religious strictures like banning alcoholic drinks and tinkering with their secular traditions together with some other grouch triggered the turmoil at Taksim Square, which like an ominous replay of the Tahrir Square was feared to scuttle AKD rule.

The Brotherhood and its sympathisers across the Muslim world, unfortunately, mostly refute these realities and blame western conspiracies for the crisis and also for the economic quagmire. This is yet another naïve, characteristic extremist illusion that the world must go on supporting them despite their desperate bid to build their outmoded utopias denigrating, dividing and alienating even their own denizens, who somehow differ with them merely in their faith or in its interpretation.

Some analysts even in the west likewise have also argued that axing an elected Brotherhood government may force them to conclude that their policies somehow cannot be realised through the democratic dispensations but only through an armed crusade. This could be a highly catastrophic and counterproductive reversal because the Brotherhood actually adopted a peaceful course after the bitter failure of a long stretch of their subversive exploits. Militancy and terrorism spill blood swamp the socioeconomic surge and swallow the generations but can never create stable, peaceful and participatory polities eliciting confidence, harmonious collaboration and happiness. The only option for organisations like the Brotherhood thus is to stick to the ballot but not to take the victory as an absolute authority to impose their own views but forge instead a broader consensus and reconciliation.

Elf Habib is an academic and freelance columnist.