Egypt’s presidency: The revolution within the Ikhwan

Despite wide criticism, the EMB along with its political arm – the FJP – ups the ante on the presidential elections.

The candidacy of Khairat al-Shater may be primarily aimed against that of Omar Suleiman [EPA]

Exeter, United Kingdom – Regardless of the widespread cacophony, the decision by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (EMB) to contest the presidency is calculated to stop a “quiet coup” by the country’s top brass.

The revolution within the EMB is no less important than the January 25 uprising that ousted Mubarak. Despite wide criticism, the EMB along with its political arm – the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – ups the ante on the presidential elections.

By settling on an EMB presidential nominee, the Ikhwan have not only raised political stakes, but also the value of contestation, even if the nomination of Khairat al-Shater may not be devoid of risks.

What is the crux of this new dynamic and what is the significance of al-Shater’s nomination?

From evolution to revolution?

Only for a brief hiatus since its inception in 1928 have al-Banna’s society of brethren veered off the path of their preferred two-fold praxis of evolutionary and non-confrontational politics. That was during the 1960s-70s when the ideas of Sayyid Qutb developed a manhaj or framework of political change in which education (tarbiyah) and martial resistance formed its two extremes. That is, a twin modus operandi comprising both evolutionary and revolutionary routes for change.

Inside Story – The Brotherhood’s quest for the presidency

All of that was changed by Hassan Al-Hudaybi’s 1977 seminal treatise “du’at la quadat” (Preachers not judges). The book restored “wasatiyyah” (centrist politics) to its former place in the Ikhwani curriculum, originally designed by the EMB’s founder, Imam Hassan Al-Banna.

Four of the EMB’s General Guides I was privileged to interview – as part of an ongoing longitudinal investigation into the brethren’s conception of democracy begun in 1992 – confirm that the du’at la qudat” ethos to be integral to the overall political imaginary of the Ikhwan. They all respect Sayyid Qutb’s prodigious intellect, but view his input into political change (dubbed “radical” in most scholarly narratives) to be the exception not the rule.

This is where the Ikhwan are today: in the midst of a post-Qutbist moment. They are embracing centrist politics and totally discarding Qutbist ideology.

This explosion of centrist politics by civic Islamism no doubt disappoints the apologists of “radicalisation” theses that have for some time doubted the discourse, much less the praxis, of Islamists. A long list of neo-Orientalists and Euro-American policymakers reveals the prevalence of scepticism of the ability of the EMB, among other Islamists, to engage with democratic politics. 

The brand of civic Islamism emerging in Egypt today is post-Qutbist. It discards all notion of violent change; professes political participation as an act of faith; and tolerates coalitional politics with non-Islamists, including secularists and non-Muslims.

However, one difference stands out. To say that the EMB shuns violence does not mean it has not renounced its longstanding policy of non-confrontation with the powers that be. Likewise, its preference for gradualism may be today ceding to a quasi-revolutionary modus operandi in the current historical juncture.

Revolutionary EMB

There is a specific context for reading why the EMB is diluting Al-Banna’s text – the tenets on which the society of brethren was founded in the 1920s.

The holistic view of a totalising organisation that multi-tasks as a charity, sports club, a community of like-minded and pious devotees is subject to the most profound changes in nearly 85 years. The EMB today has branched out into many different fields, including the worlds of finance, partyism, transnational activism, Pan-Islamism, Pan-Arabism, Palestinian politics, satellite TV, social networking, fund-raising and global lobbying.

The context of the January 25 revolution adds another impulse for a more liberal interpretation of Al-Banna’s original “transcript” founding the EMB. Note Al-Banna himself believed in elections and even contested them in the 1940s.

To stick to gradualism and non-confrontational politics in a secular authoritarian order not of their design is one thing, a necessity demanded by the quest for survival in an era where Islamism was political anathema and Islamists were enemies of the state – within Egypt and without.

So to try their hands at confrontational politics and drop gradualism, in an emergent revolutionary juncture, would be capitulation to an old identity in which passivity wrapped the Ikhwan in stigma and enigma. In the new polity, confrontational and revolutionary posture is a matter of necessity. If the Ikhwan did not adjust, they would risk, once again, confinement in and to a political space and order not of their doing and not to their advantage.

The breakthrough they are given by the January 25 revolution is an opportunity for political visibility, self-mastery and leadership. The EMB is a project that has for a long time awaited such an opening – to seize it is paramount to reification of the single vision that has held its ground and outlived the vagaries and exclusionary politics of colonialism, secular nationalism, socialism, dynastic authoritarianism, and biased and short-sighted Western democracy promotion in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab Middle East (AME).

The candidacy of al-Shater

Nominating and officiating Khairat al-Shater’s candidacy for the presidency, must be understood in this context. The candidacy of al-Shater – his surname literally means the skillful – epitomises political dextrousness, with the EMB deftly putting to use two-pronged political strategy of confronting the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), but through democratic contest – legal means.

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Here the Ikhwan excel: mimicking the SCAF’s own strategy of confronting the revolution from the outset by contesting (the new revolutionary legitimacy) through various “legal” means, including the November 2011 aborted supra-constitutional articles “authored” by former deputy Prime Minister Ali Al-Silimi. The articles aimed to rubber-stamp a status for the army (á la Turque) above the law, undermining democratic principles of checks and balances, accountability and transparency.

Until recently, the Ikhwan were broadly painted with the brush of complicity with the SCAF, which was to an extent correct. The thinking that prevailed amongst the Ikwan early in the transition period was to deploy deference towards Field Marshal Tantawi & co. as a means to an end: to ease Mubarak’s top generals into smooth and final exit from politics. To this end, even the idea of impunity for those generals guilty of corruption or other misdeeds from the Mubarak period seemed to be favoured by the Ikhwan. For them, such an end justified the means.  

Except for one thing, the SCAF had plans of its own. What the Ikhwan planned to be political minimalism aimed at easing the army back into the barracks and out of politics, might have been on the SCAF’s radar as a tactic to comatose an entire revolution and ease the new polity into playing second fiddle to the army. The aborted Al-Silimi para-constitutional articles might have been the first balloon floated by the army to test the tolerance of relics (fulul) from the ancient regime by the new polity and Egypt’s public opinion.

Al-Shater’s presidential candidacy is “deployed” not only because the Ikhwan have changed hearts about their desire for the presidency, but also, importantly, it functions more as a vow of challenge against the SCAF. The SCAF has tamed the formidable brethren long enough to recharge their batteries to fight back against the prospect of being stripped of political and economic privileges unquestioned for 60 years.

For the SCAF, this might still be a “red line”. The armed forces have been one of the constant political pivots of the post-Free officers’ State, procuring more than presidents to nationalist politics at home, and geo-strategic arrangements and alliances abroad.

The Ikhwan have reacted not because the SCAF has reverted to playing dirty politics in the lead-up to the process of constitution-framing by the messy Constituent Assembly:

  1. Wooing liberal and secular forces that feel threatened by the prospect of a new order dominated by EMB and the Salafists;
  2. Using scare tactics in relation to article two of the 1971 constitution about the Islamic identity of the state and source of legislation; and
  3. Seeking, through legal means, a quasi “bill of rights”, constituting a national security apparatus that would give the generals the kind of constitutional safeguards against civilian encroachment in their “business” and a channel for forcing their hand in political affairs.

With the imminent presidential candidacy of Mubarak’s former intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, the SCAF might have already executed its “quiet coup”. Not only was he part of the cabal that actively undermined the Ikhwan, but he is also in his own right a formidable candidate with strong chances of success. The candidacy of al-Shater may be primarily aimed against that of Suleiman.

Opportunities and perils?

The EMB’s new orientation will be masterful only if the SCAF does not end up snatching the presidency in a few months down the road. If Suleiman, whose military background makes him close to the SCAF, emerges victorious, then al-Shater’s candidacy will be too little too late.

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Al-Shater is on every front a formidable match to Suleiman, Ahmed Shafiq or Amr Mussa – all establishment candidates, but in varying degrees. Anti-Islamist Suleiman would spell danger for the Ikhwan’s new orientation to prevail.

The Ikhwan’s new tactic, a blend of confrontational politics and revolutionary praxis, will lend al-Shater’s candidacy some credence only if it reverts to a shelved-off plan to seek a nationalist non-partisan figure to run with Khairat on a joint “ticket” – there is Mohamed El-Baradei, the revolution’s youth, figures from the Coptic community, and leading female figures who were visible during the revolution.

Al-Shater – disciplined and a human abacus who knows how to make money for the Ikhwan and the businesses he ran – may not on his own be enough of a firewall against titanic figures from the ranks of fulul  which SCAF may be grooming and counting on to maintain its status.

If a Shafiq, a Mussa, or quite likely a Suleiman wins the presidency, the risk of al-Shater’s candidacy will be confirmed as divisive of the Islamist vote, not to mention the consensus within the FJP and the EMB. It will also have undermined, in my view, the candidacy of the one figure who has what it takes to stand between the SCAF and the success of their “quiet coup”, Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh.

Above all else, failure to win the presidency will have been the result of the EMB not knowing in which game of Egypt’s mushrooming majalis (councils: National Assembly, Shura Council, SCAF, Constituent Assembly) to invest most cunning and guile.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).