North Africa, West Asia

Bleak prospects for the Muslim Brotherhood

Maged Mandour

The main obstacle facing Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is arguably not physical repression, but the urgent need for self-rehabilitation.


Maged Mandour
7 July 2015
2012 anti-Muslim Brotherhood protest in Cairo. Shawkan/Demotix. All rights reserved.

2012 anti-Muslim Brotherhood protest in Cairo. Shawkan/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The mass protest resulting in the military coup that toppled Mohamed Morsi celebrated its second anniversary on 30 June. Two months later that year, the sit-in of Muslim Brotherhood Morsi-supporters was violently dispersed, with security forces massacring hundreds of mostly peaceful protesters. The event has been described as a crime against humanity and one of the biggest massacres in modern history.

A campaign of mass repression the likes of which Egypt has never seen followed. Not only has there been a quantitative increase in the use of physical repression, but also a qualitative change in the techniques used.

The Muslim Brotherhood, once considered the most powerful opposition group within Egyptian polity, has been subjected to physical and ideological repression and campaigns to turn them into the ‘bogeyman’. Even though the vilification of the Brotherhood began decades prior to the Egyptian revolt, they had partially shed this image before the toppling of Mubarak by participating in loose alliances with other secular opposition groups. After 2011, they became a mainstream political party.

So what is the current position of the Brotherhood within Egyptian polity? And how has it dealt with this mass repression?

The social composition of the Brotherhood

Looking at voting patterns from 2011 to 2013, one can easily conclude that the Brotherhood was genuinely a national movement with a large base of support across the country. This comes as no surprise, considering the mass appeal of their Islamist message and their financing and operation of a parallel welfare state to compensate for previous governments' failings.

The Brotherhood’s power was mainly concentrated in rural areas, especially the south and urban peripheries. Their electoral performance was comparatively weaker in large urban centres, especially Cairo.

On the other hand, a number of scholars who study the Brotherhood have espoused the bourgeois nature of the group. This makes itself evident in the composition of its leadership, which includes wealthy businessmen, such as Hassan Malik and Khairat El Shater. There is also a strong petty rural bourgeoisie element in the leadership, including the deposed president Morsi, who was a provincial university professor.

Based on this, one could argue that the Brotherhood is a movement representing the aspirations of the rural petty bourgeoisie, with the goal of sharing power with the regime. This might partially explain the antipathy the urban middle class has towards the group.

The Brotherhood had an interesting approach; socially conservative with a neoliberal economic outlook. This economic outlook, encouraged by the crony capitalist leadership, placed the Brotherhood as a natural ally to the regime, which preferred them to other movements that demanded the democratisation of the economic and political spheres.

The Brotherhood’s goal was limited to a small opening in the political system—namely free elections—as this would allow them to dominate in office with minimal changes in the social and economic spheres.

The Brotherhood and the regime prior to 2013

The social composition of the Brotherhood, with its conservative ideology as well as Nasser’s crackdown in the 1960s, pushed them towards a conciliatory approach. They acted as the ‘illiberal’ or ‘tamed opposition,’ used to crowd out other opposition movements that were seen as more threatening by the regime. Traditionally, this was the once powerful Egyptian left.

This, however, does not mean that the Brotherhood were not subjected to bouts of repression and arrest; on the contrary, this happened on a regular basis. However, the goal was to tame them and ‘keep them in line’, as they were needed as a stabiliser in moments of crisis. This is exactly what happened after 2011, until Morsi's ouster.

One could argue that the Brotherhood’s goal was a power sharing deal with the military, where the military’s massive economic empire would remain untouched in exchange for the MB becoming the civilian face of the regime. The Brotherhood had wanted to play this role since 1952. However, the military used the Brotherhood to regain full control. The MB strategy was an abysmal failure, as we can now see.

The Brotherhood strategy in dealing with the current crisis

The leadership of the Brotherhood is facing pressure from all sides. The regime, unlike the old days, seems to be unwilling to reach a compromise for the simple reason that their legitimacy depends on their existence as a menacing force, especially for the urban middle classes.

The Egyptian urban middle classes are socially isolated and have a fear of the rural classes, who are the tradtional power base of the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood represents all that is backward and "oriental" to this class threatening their more secular ways of living. However, the bulwark against this is the military. This fear, especially after the coup, is being trumped by the regime and used to solidify support for repression.

Some might argue that this is the same tactic used by Mubarak, however, this argument ignores the notion that the legitimacy of the Mubarak regime was not based on rejection of the Islamists, rather on notions of ‘stability’, ‘economic progress’ and ironically ‘democratisation’. The fear of the Brotherhood played a marginal role, mainly in the confines of the upper classes. 

Reaching a compromise would in effect depolarise the political system and destroy the support enjoyed by the current regime, as it is strongly dependent on anti-Brotherhood hysteria to remain in power. The traditional role they played is no longer an option.

Additionally, the Brotherhood is facing pressure from within, especially from younger members who are having to live through the highest levels of repression the group has ever seen. These younger members are more inclined to use active resistance techniques with the goal of overthrowing rather than negotiating with the regime. 

This pressure, if left unheeded, can easily split the movement. Radical forces from within the Brotherhood will start to form and split into competing groups.

After their 2014 internal elections, a number of younger members were appointed to leadership positions and this is when they formed the “Revolutionary Path”. This indicates that the Brotherhood is responding to pressure from the rank and file for a more active policy to confront, rather than accommodate the regime.

The Brotherhood has been left with no choice but to take an active oppositional stance against the regime in order to avoid an internal split. This stance is contributing to the polarisation of the political system, which is in turn bolstering the legitimacy of the regime as the protector of stability.

On the other hand, prior to 2011 the Brotherhood was part of a loose front of oppositional movements that had varying ideologies. It is now the political pariah. After the Brotherhood played an active role in crowding out the anti-regime protest movements, and violently repressed protests against Morsi, the relationship between the Brotherhood and any oppositional movement has been damaged beyond repair.

This, combined with their inability to recant their old practises out of fear of a possible internal backlash, has made any possible cooperation with them political suicide for other political movements. This explains the somewhat delusional proclamation made by the Brotherhood every few weeks about imaginary mass protests against the regime. The goal of this rhetoric is to sustain the morale of their supporters, and reduce their sense of isolation.

Their final option could be armed opposition, but this would turn them into a jihadist group, which is highly unlikely. If the Brotherhood were to adopt this approach, their credentials as a mainstream opposition movement would be tarnished beyond repair, and the only way to take control of the state would be through armed confrontation. In essence, this would end the viability of the Brotherhood as a mainstream political force within the Egyptian polity and eliminate any potential international support.

Moreover, this option would discredit the current leadership, who have historically favoured a non-confrontational approach. This leadership would need to be replaced by a more radical current. Thus, the incumbent leadership would resist this option, which would result in a split within the ranks.

Based on this one could argue that the Brotherhood has a rather limited set of options. They have no choice but to continue their obstructionist policy, which might include some violent tactics, in order to maintain group cohesion. They will have to play their cards in a way that will ensure their short-term political survival in the hopes of broader societal unrest in the future. However, this policy will strengthen the ideological base for mass repression, which is based on fear of the Brotherhood.

The recent assassination of the Egyptian general prosecutor, and the statement made by President Sisi where he called for new more “efficient” laws, signals a possible increase in repression, and possibly mass executions.

This increase in repression will increase internal pressure on the Brotherhood, possibly leading to splits within the group. Based on the above analysis, one could argue that the cohesion of the group is the main bulwark against even more widespread violence. As such, the increase in repression is bound to have the opposite effect.

The future of the Brotherhood looks very bleak to say the least. Their main obstacle is not physical repression, but rather the urgent need for self-rehabilitation. In other words, their old game of cooperating with the regime against the opposition is no longer an option. They need to broaden their appeal to other segments of society that go beyond their core constituency. This would require a complete ideological and organisational overhaul; a process that might take years, if not decades, and could potentially lead to a considerable loss of support from their traditional bases. In conclusion, if the Brotherhood wish to overcome this crises, they will have to start learning from their experiences in the past.

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