Banning the Brotherhood and the end of the beginning of Egypt’s revolution

Even though the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood is a set back for democracy in Egypt, the journey has just begun.

"Who exactly is going to take over providing health services and education to the millions of people the Brotherhood serves? The Egyptian government? Not likely," writes Professor LeVine [EPA]

The banning of the Muslim Brotherhood may have a certain historical logic, considering the group was banned for the vast majority of its ninety-year existence. But the rationality for imposing the ban in the present day, and what it says about Egypt’s near term future, are much harder to figure out.

Whatever one’s position on the military’s ouster of Morsi, it’s hard to disagree with Carrie Wickham’s sentiment in her September 24 Guardian column, that “the Brotherhood’s achilles heel was not its embrace of ideological extremism but a reluctance to accept other social and political forces as equals, and to initiate confidence-building measures needed to earn their goodwill and trust.”

But the truth was that its unwillingness and even inability to accept other groups as equals or work with them for the common good is an equally dangerous form of extremism as the religious conservatism with which the movement has, in many ways inaccurately, been branded. This extremism, however, is one that infects all power-hungry, autocratic and corrupt political organisations and movements, in Egypt none more so than the military.

Indeed, in suspending the entirety of the Brotherhood’s operations, including its vast social service network that has served as a lifeline for millions of Egyptians for many decades is an act of extremism by the Egyptian deep state (of which the judiciary, despite some well-deserved praise for relative independence against the worst excesses of the old and present regimes, is still essentially a part) that might just prove its ultimate undoing.

Filling the void 

Who exactly is going to take over providing health services and education to the millions of people the Brotherhood serves? The Egyptian government? Not likely, since it doesn’t have the money, will or infrastructure to serve the Egyptian population more broadly, never mind pick up the slack for all those the Brotherhood has taken care of.

Similarly, no other social group or movement has the institutional and professional bases to do so. So no matter what anyone promises, the likelihood is that if this ban is not merely a short term move to scare the Brotherhood or gain access to all its data and networks in order better to monitor and control it, then these people will be without the services provided by the Brotherhood for a long time to come.

They will blame the military, and this will only increase well of anger against it among the rank and file of the Brotherhood, and everyone attached to it or who sees the impact of the loss of these services.

In this sense it’s hard to see how the military and deep state gain long term if this ban is upheld and is instituted. First, the ban is out of proportion to any crimes the already jailed leaders of the movement might—or rather, will likely—be convicted. It might appeal to hard-core anti-Brotherhood supporters of the (people’s) coup, but it it only adds to the impression that the deep state is trying to crush the only movement that managed to gain a measure of real political power versus it. This will dampen any sense of movement towards democracy when new elections and a new constitution are in place, which will in turn weaken the legitimacy of the new, or renewed order that emerges.

Accepting the veneer of the Mubarak years 

One could argue that this is in fact the goal of the entire process we have witnessed—to so weaken the people’s belief in the possibility of a real democratic transition that they lose faith in politics, given up whatever remains of the revolutionary ideals that emerged with the January 25 revolution, and resign to a return to the massively corrupt, authoritarian and inegalitarian system of the late Mubarak years, overlaid with the cheap veneer of a semi-democratic electoral system.

That is what Josh Hersh plausibly argues in his most recent New Yorker column, where he attempts to determine if the banning represents the final nail in the coffin of the revolution. But I think in fact that opposite is more likely to be the case. The banning represents exactly the kind of arrogant over-reach that characterised the months before the eruption of the revolution, when the brazen vote rigging and unusually high level of government violence associated with the fall 2010 parliamentary elections led many Egyptians friends to remark explicitly that an explosion was coming.

This shouldn’t suggest that this intensified repression will ultimately aid the Brotherhood’s return to social and/or political power. The self-inflicted damage of its year in power along with the level of repression visited upon it by the government might well push it to the margins of political and perhaps even social life for the coming future.

But it does go a long way towards putting the lie to claims of a democratic transition process, a realisation that will grow stronger if (more likely, as) the economic malaise, and with it the hardships of the mass of Egyptians, continues without an end in sight. At the same time, the ongoing attempts to attack and repress non-Brotherhood critics of the coup from among the revolutionary forces will not succeed in rebuilding the wall of fear whose erosion and then crumbling in the last years of the ’00s made the January 25 revolution not merely possible, but inevitable.

With that wall gone, the same people motivated by Tamarrod to “rebel” against the Brotherhood will return to the streets once the new system is unmistakably revealed to be the old system, or its kissing cousin. The deep desire for dignity, social justice, and freedom won’t simply disappear, even if today it seems so many Egyptians have become cynical about politics. This is because in fact most Egyptians have yet to become politically engaged in any meaningful sense.

Growing political awareness of the periphery 

At a just completed conference sponsored by the Nordic Society for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University several graduate researchers reported on their detailed field work with Egyptian workers, unionists, farmers, and fishermen outside the main urban areas. What they reveal is a level of complexity and growing political self-awareness (even when its not clothed in overtly political activism) that will constitute a long term threat to the system’s survival that far exceeds that allegedly posed by the Brotherhood if the system can’t produce real improvements in their lives in the near future. 

And these are precisely the groups that the grass roots revolutionary activists have long viewed as the most important to reach, and are working, however slowly and imperfectly, to empower. Their potential also gives life to the argument made by many on the Left that allowing their two primary adversaries, the Brotherhood and the military, fight each other is in fact in the long term interests of a revolutionary politics. In this regard, it might seem like the Deep State has scored a major victory with the ouster of Morsi and the potential dismantling of the Brotherhood, but in the end, such action might wind up helping other social forces that cannot so easily be trampled upon or diverted next time they take to the streets.

Let’s remember that in 1791, three years into the French Revolution, the monarchy hadn’t even been abolished yet, Louis XVI’s head had not been severed from his body, and the Terror had yet even to be imagined in any meaningful sense. The reality is most likely that Egyptian revolution is not over; it’s barely gotten going. We can only hope that however long it takes, it escapes the mass violence that has doomed so many revolutions before it, and those like Syria’s, that erupted in good measure in response to the initial success and inspiration of Tahrir.

Mark LeVine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh. His book Heavy Metal Islam, which focused on “rock and resistance and the struggle for soul” in the evolving music scene of the Middle East and North Africa, was published in 2008. 

Follow him on Twitter: @culturejamming