The Muslim Brotherhood dilemma: where to go from here?

The Brotherhood needs to rethink its strategy if it wants to be an actor of change.

There is hope yet for the Brotherhood to survive and not be relegated to the sidelines of history [Reuters]

The arrest, at the end of October, of Essam el-Erian, a senior leader in Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, places in prison a near totality of the most outspoken Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leaders. They join the thousands of low and middle ranking MB members who are lucky enough to be alive, instead of being killed like hundreds of others, in the military’s and security forces’ vengeful violence that have occurred since the military coup of July 3. 

The on-going brutal crackdown on the Brotherhood in Egypt is the lowest point of a breath-taking political parable that, since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, rocketed the MB from prison to palace and then back to prison. Not surprisingly, much of the debate in and on Egypt now revolves around finding an explanation for these tumultuous events and what to expect for this 85-year-old, mainstream Islamist movement, which remains, in spite of everything, the main organised civilian political force in the country.

As an outsider with a background in history, I tend to look more at structural changes rather than everyday politics, and it strikes me as no coincidence that the target of such ruthless state repression is the main organised mass actor on the Egyptian scene, after the demise of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. 

Why it failed

MB and its Freedom and Justice political offshoot, are widely accused today of being inherently authoritarian, arrogant and most of all, incompetent. This is certainly true and many examples prove it, though it is equally true that their “civil” political rivals (mainly liberal and left-wing parties and organisations) are no less so. The only difference lies in the fact that the latter groups do not have a true popular constituency to begin with, and do not pose – at least for the time being – any serious challenge to the authoritarian state. The result of these civil forces’ actions, though, be they intentional or not, will most likely push the country towards a much more authoritarian, arrogant and incompetent regime than the one endured during Morsi’s short presidency.

Time will tell where the responsibilities lie as the details of the power struggle, inside and outside the state, during Morsi’s presidency, are revealed. However, even in this highly volatile and polarised situation, it is undeniable that the MB government was systematically – if not always coherently – curbed and boycotted by unreformed authoritarian state structures and institutions, the so called “deep” state.

Brotherhood should search for a different strategy relying more on its popular component and opting for a radicalisation of its political-economic programme. As unlikely as this may be, it would be the only way for the MB to spearhead the revolt by providing a framework for popular forces and fulfil, with a bolder strategy, the country’s rising popular expectations.

No one with even the most superficial knowledge of the Egyptian Leviathan state, could ever think that any newcomer, even the accommodating conservative counter-elite of the MB, would be welcome. The Brothers, thus, while tasked to govern the country, were in fact engaging in a fierce battle for the control of the state and for political survival. With the country in complete disarray, it was relatively easy for the state’s elite to foment an anti-Brotherhood climax and to turn the MB into the scapegoat for all the country’s woes.

The Brothers made many mistakes, but clearly they cannot be judged simply on the basis of their actions while in power. What they can be judged on is to have paired up with the wrong side since the start. As before, with Gamal Abdel Nasser (1952-54), Anwar Sadat (first half of the 70s) and Mubarak (80s), the Brothers brought democratic legitimacy to the regime, and kept searching for a compromise even when things were deteriorating. In 2011, they acted as a stabilising force, abandoning the street and approving the political transition as designed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). But, just like before, they were rapidly kicked-off the plate once the time was ripe and their services were no longer required.

What lies behind this recurrent losing strategy – political short-sightedness, longing for power, or a too gradualist and reformist approach to change? It’s probably a mix of these factors as with all complex organisations with a dominant position. Our take however, is that the Brotherhood leaders’ prevalent strategy, after the ousting of Mubarak did not aim to change Egypt’s political and socio-economic status quo, however gradually. Rather, the main objective was to incorporate the “pious bourgeoisie” into the country’s ruling elites and re-establish elite dominion on a far firmer ground, thus ending the anomaly of Islamist exclusion. The Brotherhood’s inclusion seemed also to have gained US approval, providing the Islamists delivered good (neo-liberal) economic governance and did not cross red lines on sensitive strategic issues.

Which way out of the storm?

The MB is not a stranger to serious waves of repression, and history has already proven the capability of this political, but also, or maybe mainly, socio-religious movement, to survive dire times. For the time being, and notwithstanding the current, almost unprecedented crackdown, the MB remains the main organised political actor in the country as the continuing unrest, in spite of repression, demonstrates.  

On the other side, the regime is far from being consolidated, and all of the country’s acute problems persist or are even exacerbated after almost three years of political instability. If we listen to the supporters of “the revolutionary process” idea, we are only at the beginning of a radical renewal of politics in the Arab world that started with the popular uprising in 2011, but that could linger, with ups and downs, for years or even decades to come. For once, the engine for this process of change does not lie in the elites or foreign actors, but in the people largely spontaneously protesting the failure of the post-independence development model or, better, its more recent neo-liberal twist.  

What will the MB do in this context? Most of the debates on its current options focus on a possible radicalisation of the movement. However, the violence/non-violence dilemma that immediately comes to mind does not seem to be the point. The existence of an MB armed faction, the so-called “secret apparatus”, was only an asterisk linked to the de-colonisation process. The MB has long ago consolidated its reformist non-violent approach. Instead, the real debate should revolve around two opposite courses of action.

The first is the possibility for the Brotherhood to be co-opted again, should the current coalition disintegrate. Or, the Brotherhood could search for a different strategy relying more on its popular component and opting for a radicalisation of its political-economic programme. As unlikely as this may be, it would be the only way for the MB to spearhead the revolt by providing a framework for popular forces, and fulfil, with a bolder strategy, the country’s rising popular expectations. It might be the last chance for this distinguished movement not to be slowly relegated to the sidelines of history.

Dr Daniela Pioppi, is associate senior fellow at the Mediterranean and Middle East Programme of the International Affairs Institute (IAI, Rome) and temporary research fellow at the University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’.