Egypt: The triumph of Hassan Al-Banna

Morsi’s victory crowns decades of struggle for an Egypt which has sought modernisation since Muhammad Ali’s reign.

Morsi speech
Mohamed Morsi's victory marks the triumph of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna [EPA]

Dr Mohamed Morsi’s victory is special for two reasons. It marks the triumph of Imam Hassan Al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder, first ideologue and leader. And it represents the onset of a new cycle in Egyptian and Arab politics more generally.

For this reason, never before has the Arab Middle East (AME) faced as stark a break with the past. Egypt is once again, and deservedly, poised to reclaim the mantle of leadership in the AME.

Indeed, Morsi inaugurates an experiment in democratic rule. All previous Egyptian strongmen owed their rule to the sword – from Muhammad Ali Pasha (1805-1849) through Muhammad Naguib (Egypt’s first president, 1953-54) to Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011).

For the first time in Egyptian and Arab political history, genuinely multi-candidate presidential elections, not managed top-down, yielded a result in which candidates did not receive more than 90 per cent of the vote, as they had in the past. Morsi is Egypt’s new president, and the biggest comfort in all of this is that his rival, Ahmed Shafiq, accepted the result, which was unprecedentedly close.

More importantly, Morsi will not be president for more than 10 years, much less 20 or more like his predecessors, the “officer-Pashas” of Egyptian politics, since Nasser took over from Naguib in 1954.

The victory is a welcome boon for the Arab Spring, which no sooner had it sprung than its detractors, both Arab and Western, began a cacophony over an “Arab Winter”. Legitimacy is reshaping the decaying tyrannical Arab order, and while it is not easy to cultivate the institutions and the laws of a durable Arab Spring, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, bound by territorial contiguity, can add value to the dawn of a new Arab renaissance in North Africa.

Like the ousters of the three countries’ dictators, along with subsequent steps along a two-pronged democratic-revolutionary track, Morsi’s victory – in what is a visibly free and fair contest – represents a particularly significant moment that has been in the offing for 84 years.

The Brotherhood’s role

No understanding of Morsi’s victory and his ascension to political prominence today is complete without linking it to the Muslim Brotherhood movement (in Arabic, “Al-Ikhwan“) begun by Al-Banna. Al-Ikhwan’s method, practice and thought did not appear overnight. They are the gift of cumulative learning, including from errors of judgement and victimisation by successive national-secular regimes.

As in Turkey, where the ruling Justice and Development Party’s origins may be traced to the Gülen Movement, in Egypt Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party derives its weight from the Ikhwan’s historical pedigree as a school of thought championing an Islamic method and motivated by civic engagement, gradual construction of society, a participatory ethos favouring non-confrontation, and global outreach.

 Mohamed Morsi sworn in as Egypt’s president

Morsi’s victory crowns decades of struggle for an Egypt which has since Muhammad Ali’s reign sought modernisation by mimicking the French, or Europeans in general.

Al-Banna, in one sense, stands for a worldview in which the comprehensiveness of Islam is the logos of imagining morality, community and polity. His project and call have finally triumphed.

What has triumphed is not only its grab for power enabled through democratic means, a game Al-Banna’s heirs have perfected through sacrifice, dedication, tenacity, and social and political engagement. Rather, and more importantly, Al-Banna triumphs as a visionary who valourises the role and relevance of loyalty to Islam as alternative mediums for pursuing self-actualisation.

From Muhammad Ali through Nasser to Bourguiba – and from Tantawi to Khair Al-Din Pasha – modernisation has been cemented, if not reduced, to a template of relative Western mimicry. Al-Banna reopens the Islamic repertoire in search of a brand of modernity that never accepts separate realms for God and for Caesar. “Islam is the solution” as advertised in the standard slogan of the 1970s and 1980s is not an itinerary for fanaticism – as Western academy and security apparatuses have tended to oversimplify.

Rather, the phrase was intended to be a roadmap for organising politics, in which “God is great” levels the playing field among mortals. The sanctity of life is conferred by God and humans cannot deny them to each other.

No one can assume the Ikhwan will dominate politics indefinitely in the new Egypt. However, for now the school founded by Al-Banna has proven its worth in Egyptian politics.

As with Morsi’s victory, Al-Banna can now rest in the knowledge that the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte’s doomed 1798 expedition to Egypt no longer menace his beloved country. There is an anti-colonial context to Al-Banna’s thought. He participated in the 1919 Revolution, just as Morsi and his compatriots have been party to the 2011 uprising.

Moreover, 84 years after he founded the Ikhwan, modern-day resisters of all walks of life and of all political colours have prevailed over injustice, helping his society to showcase how his vision fares in practice.  

Al-Banna’s indigenous school

As a project steeped in Islamic reform and revivalism, Al-Banna’s project focuses the search for indigeneity within an Islamic framework. This framework is methodical, founded on a gradualist construction of the individual Muslim, the family, community or jama’ah, and ending up with government as the last stage in binding Muslims to God through a covenant that obeys immutable values as well as mutable dimensions concerning worldly affairs.

Morsi’s presidential programme of nahda, or renaissance, is inspired by Al-Banna’s method, in which godly and popular sovereignty, the mutable and immutable, the individual and the community, and the worldly and other-worldly seek harmony through the creative tension necessitated by change of time and space.

Al-Banna, like Ibn Khaldun, appreciates the value of association in its entirety. Al-Banna is a different type of preacher. He combines the sound pedagogical techniques of a school along with the civic morality of a grassroots activist. He grasped the politics of space and acted accordingly, giving sermons from coffee-houses when more traditional religious preachers would choose the mosque.

Al-Banna was sensitive to language and knew how to calibrate his speech to the ordinary folk he sought to recruit to build youth clubs, social and religious associations, schools, clinics and charity organisations. The glue he provided to bind them together on their quasi-“missionary” endeavour was his moral teachings, which he premised on Islamic notions of piety, compassion, discipline, hard work, charity and mutual obligation.

Through Islam, Al-Banna taught his companions to seek answers through local and indigenous moral, social, religious and political intellectual resources. His aim was to inspire them to imbibe and live up to Islam’s morals and laws as the answer to the ways of the colonials.

The quest for nahda

It is the norms of association, indigeneity, gradualism and non-confrontation within Islam’s terms of reference that animate the Ikhwan today. Morsi’s victory is no small measure owed to the ideals preached by Al-Banna more than 80 years ago. However, Al-Banna’s heirs today face their first test as power-holders – even if without much parliamentary oversight and under the watchful guise of a powerful military bureaucracy.

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The Ikhwan have come a long way. They have tested how to bind theory and practice, ideal and reality, and ultimately individual, family, and society with the values of Islam. Today, however, they enter a new phase in which they test and will be tested by binding the last circle in the chain of a Muslim-imagined community, government to religion.

It is a test that cannot be expected to be easy. Al-Banna’s method resonated with fundamental principles such as understanding, trust, sacrifice, brotherhood, resoluteness, perseverance and action. They will matter today as they did when they were first articulated at the beginning of the 20th century.

Ultimately, however, for Morsi to close the serious gap between theory and practice, a lacuna in Muslim governance and a high demand across much Arab geography littered with tyrannical rulers, he will require a level of leadership that has not been experienced by Egyptians for a long time. To succeed in his quest for renaissance, his job will be to help the moral compass needle swing first toward common national objectives – and only secondly towards more narrow partisan ideals. Of these, solving issues of social justice, bread, transportation and jobs, as envisaged in his agenda of his first hundred days in office, sound like a step in the right direction.

The “Morsi-metre” set up by young Egyptians to track his delivery on promises made during his campaign has begun the count. Thus his soon-to-be advisers and he must keep in mind that he will be monitored, unlike his predecessors, by resisters who are not politicians and whose grasp of the public square ethos is today no less influential than institutional checks and balances.

His interest in office or partisan politics must not exceed his interest in their politics of social justice.

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).