Note: On September 23, the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters issued a preliminary injunction ordering the shutdown of the Brotherhood. Yet, dissolving or legally banning the group will have only a very partial effect in practice. As long as the Brotherhood maintains its core constituency of supporters, networks, and ideological believers, it can survive intact as a social movement and organization despite its official illegal status as it did for decades under Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood faces a tremendously difficult but crucial choice about what role it will try to play in Egypt’s political future. The organization is reeling from the stunning reversal of power it experienced this summer, when massive popular protests against the serious governance failures of the government led by then president Mohamed Morsi, a senior Brotherhood figure, prompted the Egyptian military to overthrow Morsi and install a caretaker government. Since then, the new authorities have killed more than 1,000 Brotherhood members, brought criminal charges against Morsi, and jailed most of the rest of the Brotherhood’s senior leadership. But despite being under political siege, the Brotherhood remains a significant actor in Egypt. What role it decides to play will have a major impact on Egypt’s still highly uncertain new political path.
Since Morsi was driven from power in July, the Brotherhood has been reluctant to concede defeat. It has staged a series of protests aimed at reinstating the former government, trying to motivate grassroots supporters with messages of defiance while simultaneously sending out more conciliatory messages to the international community. The Brotherhood’s future strategy remains difficult to predict, particularly with the arrest of the organization’s top leaders, which has left the Brotherhood paralyzed and indecisive. A deep-reaching positive transformation of the organization, entailing changes in ideology, tactics, and goals, would be necessary for it to become a full player in what many Egyptians still hope for: a genuinely democratic Egyptian political system.Yet such a transformation appears unlikely given the current situation. Instead, three alternative scenarios present themselves: accommodation and integration; a turn to sustained, large-scale violence; and continued protest and attempted regime delegitimization. Blunders by the transitional government have muddied the waters and paradoxically helped the Brotherhood even as state security services are coming down so hard on it.
Constraints on a Possible Positive Transformation
An Imagined but Improbable Ideal
Brotherhood policies, discourse, and political tactics since the 2011 uprising that toppled then president Hosni Mubarak have raised serious questions about the organization’s authoritarian leanings and the clear danger these tendencies pose to national identity, unity, security, and democracy. Comprehensive ideological and organizational changes are therefore necessary if the Brotherhood is to play a productive role in a democratic Egyptian future.
An ideal starting point in such a process of change would be for the Brotherhood to acknowledge its poor record of governance, which alienated so much of the country. It could then acknowledge the need for and pursue the separation of politics and proselytizing; organizational and financial restructuring; and a commitment to the national consensus—if there is any—on the value of citizenship, pluralism, and human rights.
Such a positive transformative path would be the best avenue for the Brotherhood to reassume its position as a center-right political actor with the potential to contribute to the consolidation of democracy in Egypt. But the problem is that this ideal scenario assumes the Brotherhood to be exactly what it has so painfully proved itself not to be. Its established solidarity networks in many parts of Egyptian society—predominantly based on religious mobilization, identity politics, and the Brotherhood’s closed, hierarchical organization—have transformed into power-hungry networks. These networks capitalize on religious and social linkages to solicit blind, grassroots support for the leadership in its clashes with those forces it deems enemies of the Brotherhood, the Islamic movement, and the Islamic identity of Egypt. Brotherhood policies pursued while Morsi was in power were forced to conform to the character of these organizational networks and their ideology.
The Brotherhood is not a “moderate” Islamist movement that can be further moderated and democratized via inclusion. Instead, it has shown itself to be an assertive, even reckless movement, invested in Islamist ideology and dominated by an entrenched leadership structure. It has demonstrated a tendency to maintain multiple public discourses in an attempt to reconcile irreconcilable sets of political vocabulary. The soft-spoken English-speaking Brotherhood cadres who communicate with Western diplomats and analysts and propagate lofty statements about the compatibility of Brotherhood objectives with liberal democracy are not exactly representative of the real Muslim Brotherhood.
To truly understand the Brotherhood, one should examine the movement at the grassroots level, in the small towns and rural areas across the Delta and Upper Egypt—the organization’s real power base and the constituency that its leaders represent. At this level, the Brotherhood does not support pro-democracy rhetoric. Instead, it is more aligned with Salafist religious interpretations and understandings of the organization’s mission and goals as expressed by Sayyid Qutb, the renowned Muslim Brotherhood intellectual of the 1950s and early 1960s. Qutb was instrumental in advancing the notion of “organization first,” which suggests that the Islamist cause is inherently connected with the creation and sustenance of the Muslim Brotherhood society as an exclusive representation of Islam.
Intellectually and culturally, the Brotherhood encompasses different schools of Islamic thought, some of which are more open-minded and reformist than others. But based on the Brotherhood’s doctrinal literature and actual behavior, it is clear that the core of the organization centers on an ideology of an “Islamist state,” “Islamic transnationalism,” or “Paxa Islamica” and on notions of a government based on God’s sovereignty instead of the people’s sovereignty.
Members of the Brotherhood are thus not the sort of Middle Eastern version of Christian democrats imagined by some Western political analysts—that is, they are not center-right actors who pursue their religiously rooted social and cultural conservatism within the confines of liberal democracy. To live at all comfortably within such confines, the Brotherhood would have to undertake major changes in its ideology, particularly its notions of national identity, citizenship, religious freedom, gender equality, and popular sovereignty. As long as it remains unwilling and unable to assume this responsibility, it will not morph into the “Islamic democrats” model. Some might argue that time is a key factor here, but wrong beginnings never lead to the right finales, and the Brotherhood’s short-lived tenure in power was full of wrong beginnings.
Pragmatic but Not Moderate
Contemporary Islamists have no clear theory of the state that can be translated into politics (most likely the result of a lack of such a theory in the Islamic tradition). As a result, the Brotherhood’s policies while in power exhibited a certain flexibility and openness to pragmatism, at least on some issues. Examples of pragmatism included the recognition of the peace treaty with Israel after forty years of fierce opposition, the cultivation of working relationships with Western countries despite a history of anti-Western diatribes, and the tendency to neglect the cause of instituting Islamic sharia in government policies and legislation, to the dismay of the other Islamists, most notably the Salafists. For instance, Brotherhood members in the parliament opposed the authority of premier Islamic religious institution al-Azhar in determining the correctness of the new “Sukuk” financial law, describing al-Azhar’s involvement as abhorred “theocracy.”
However, such pragmatism should not be understood as a sign of moderation or open-mindedness on the road to adopting liberal democracy. Confusing pragmatism for moderation is a trap for analysts searching a bit too hard for the Brotherhood’s democratic potential. Members of the Brotherhood might not be the staunchest advocates of the Islamization of society and laws through the application of sharia (unlike the Salafists, for example), but to conclude that they are committed to secular democracy would be a mistake. The Brotherhood is committed to the creation of an Islamic state, understood as the modern state under the authoritarian domination of the Islamist group par excellence—that is, the Muslim Brotherhood society. The Brotherhood selectively adopts references to both Islamic sharia and the values of liberal democracy, most importantly electoral processes, in the pursuit of this ideological objective.
The Brotherhood’s organizational structure also makes it unlikely to adopt a moderate approach. The group is neither a political party nor a social association. Over its eighty-year existence, the Brotherhood has developed into a closed and self-interested hierarchical society organized along Bolshevik-style lines of command and control. The Brotherhood sees itself as a countersociety, entitled to represent the people and lead them into a new world, replacing the existing, modern state with a new one under Brotherhood domination. According to the Qutbist notion of “organization first,” anything is permissible if it is necessary to the Brotherhood and its society.
Under the thirty-year reign of Mubarak, this society fell under the command of a generation of leaders heavily influenced by Qutb’s ideas (this includes the key leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, the group’s top decisionmaking authority, and even Morsi himself). Under those leaders, the organization was knit together not only by the bonds of ideology and identity but also through networks of common interests: business and economic ties, personal and familial relationships, and regional loyalties. The Brotherhood developed transnational connections, loyalties, and interests.
These networks are not conducive to the democratization of the Brotherhood. This process would involve not only the democratization of institutional decisionmaking within the group’s authoritative bodies but also the transformation of its internal mechanisms of identification, inference, mobilization, financial machinations, recruitment, promotion, loyalties, and identity formation, which are all designed to form a closed, self-centered social taifa (sect) within Egyptian society.
The organizational character of the Brotherhood, consistent with its ideological blueprint, led it to betray the hopes for democratic national transformation on the part of the Egyptian revolutionaries who rallied en masse to oust Mubarak. At the same time, the Brotherhood alienated the interests of the old regime. Hence, it earned the enmity of both the dreamers of a new, democratic Egypt and the pillars of the old Egypt.
Given these realities of its ideological and organizational character, ideal transformation of the Brotherhood is not a plausible scenario. So what are its options in the current, highly charged, and conflictive political environment? Three possible scenarios present themselves.
The Accommodation Scenario: Compromising for Inclusion and Integration
The first potential scenario would involve an agreement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the interim Egyptian government that would incorporate the organization into the new political process. This would preserve the Brotherhood as a political actor in Egyptian politics and leave its financial assets and social capital relatively intact. For this to happen, the Brotherhood would have to acquiesce to facts that render a return to the status it enjoyed before Morsi’s ouster impossible. It would admit political defeat and call off its protest activities. In return, the government would halt its repression, release Brotherhood prisoners, unfreeze Brotherhood assets, allow for Islamist media to reopen, and halt the cleansing of Brotherhood elements from the civil service and government bureaucracy, particularly from Brotherhood power bases in religious institutions (including the ministry in charge of religious endowments, preachers, and prayer leaders) and in the Ministries of Education, Health, and Interior and Municipalities. The Brotherhood would also be allowed to participate in the political process, including the new parliamentary and presidential elections.
Essential to this scenario would be the Brotherhood’s acceptance of certain key terms of inclusion:
- Endorsement of the new political rules of the game, determined by consensus, in which the Brotherhood would not have a veto over major features of a new system—that is, “participation but not hegemony.”
- Conformity with the redlines concerning tolerance and respect for Egypt’s diverse national identity (one of the key reasons the military intervened during the protests that resulted in Morsi’s fall was a concern about the Brotherhood’s behavior while in power, which was irresponsible, sectarian, and divisive and could have ignited civil strife in the country).
- More than a cosmetic commitment to the values of liberal democracy, including participatory citizenship, political pluralism, and respect for political and civil rights. This implies considerable changes in the organizational structure of the Brotherhood as well as in the legal and institutional status of its political activities.
The regime might be interested in making such a deal with the Brotherhood. Mass-based movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, with a significant constituency and decades-long existence, cannot be eliminated by sheer force. Governments in most countries faced with insurgent or protest movements enjoying at least some popular base have resolved their issues at the negotiation table. After weeks of violent confrontations, it has become obvious that brute force cannot compel the Brotherhood to surrender.
Moreover, the regime might actively benefit from having the Brotherhood as a player in a newly reconstituted system. The Egyptian state under former presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak was a beneficiary of the Brotherhood’s identity politics, which helpfully overshadowed issues of failed democratization, social justice, and economic development that were awkward for the state. Brotherhood politics—and Islamist politics more broadly—have always been a factor of confusion and division in the opposition, which has helped weaken the state’s opponents. And authoritarian regimes in Egypt were more comfortable with debates over secularization versus Islamization than debates about the democratization of state institutions, civil-military relations, public accountability and transparency, equitable and sustainable economic development, or anticorruption measures.
The Brotherhood also has many regional and international interests that are too complicated to be easily ignored by the regime. And public fear of political Islam has been and always will be useful in attempts to justify authoritarianism. As a result, the regime might be interested in maintaining the political participation of the Brotherhood and Islamists in the future but checking their power and keeping them under control. Political Islam is acceptable, just as long as the Islamists fall in line.
Despite its potential benefits to both sides, the accommodation scenario is still problematic. At this point, the Brotherhood will only strike a deal on the condition that certain prenegotiation confidence-building measures are taken—mainly the release of arrested leaders and the reopening of Islamist television channels. The regime—at least key elements in its security and military institutions—would almost certainly be highly reluctant to offer this pardon. It would at least insist on bringing some of the Brotherhood’s leaders who are responsible for criminal or terrorist acts to justice in order to justify its recent crackdown.
The hidden message here is that if the Brotherhood wants be reintegrated into national politics, it should undertake major leadership changes. Old leaders cannot do business with the military and the state anymore. In addition, the inclusion and reintegration of the Brotherhood might lose popular backing if the pace of violence continues to accelerate, whether in the Sinai Peninsula, a hotbed of Islamist activity that has become more violent of late, or in the rest of Egypt.
No less importantly, whether or not the “moderate” Brotherhood leaders who are capable of initiating negotiations with the regime are actually representative of the organization remains an open question. The media generally identifies two senior Brotherhood leaders as possible interlocutors: Mohamed Ali Beshr and Amr Darrag. In reality, neither enjoys considerable organizational clout. Although Beshr is a member of the Guidance Bureau, he is reportedly a member of the Brotherhood’s “reformist” faction, a group of moderate Muslim Brothers that has failed to garner substantial power within the organization over the last few years. Darrag is not even a member of the Guidance Bureau. His position in the Brotherhood’s main political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, and the appointment he held in Morsi’s now-dissolved cabinet are meaningless when it comes to decisionmaking power within the organization. Darrag himself denies any connections to the group’s decisionmaking bodies, including the Guidance Bureau, Shura Council (the Brotherhood’s parliament), and administrative bureaus. Therefore, whether they are representative enough of the Brotherhood’s organizational mainstream is highly debatable. In addition, internal power wrangling might be another possible explanation of any negotiators’ motives. In other words, it might be more of an internal factional competition in which Brotherhood members are maneuvering to fill the leadership vacuum and less of a sincere initiative to adopt a moderate course and resolve the national crisis.
Furthermore, the notion of making a deal with the regime without fulfilling the Brotherhood’s declared objective of reinstating the “legitimate president” might be political suicide for the group, as it risks breaking the organization’s unity. Brotherhood supporters have been mobilized on the basis of identity and ideology since Morsi issued a series of controversial presidential decrees and constitutional declarations in November 2012 that split the nation. Slogans calling for the reinstatement of the legitimate and democratically elected president are enlisted by the Brotherhood mainly to appeal to international audiences. Much of the domestic propaganda targeting Brotherhood members and the Islamist grassroots emphasizes the religious and ideological character of the political conflict in Egypt in order to boost morale and resonate with the grassroots worldview.
Pro-Morsi demonstrators in a forty-day-long protest in eastern Cairo known as the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in frequently used slogans claiming that the regime’s repression is not about the Muslim Brotherhood or Morsi but rather about Islam itself—it is a war against Islam. Not just Brotherhood supporters but the whole Islamist bloc (except for the Salafist al-Nour Party) coalesced around the Brotherhood as a result of existential fears that all Islamists would be excluded. As one religious man who came from the rural Beheira Governorate to participate in the sit-in put it, “I am here at the sit-in because I am afraid that if Morsi is gone, then the new ruler will forbid prayer and force my wife to take off her veil. I also fear that any bearded man will be arbitrarily arrested and rounded up by the regime’s police.”
These fears are arguably justified based on the sensationalist, anti-Islamist diatribes in state and private media in addition to the increasing social and public hostility toward Islamists in the public space, especially in the big cities. Any sudden shift by Brotherhood leaders would immediately tarnish the leadership’s credibility in the eyes of grassroots supporters. Intragroup solidarity remains a high priority for the Brotherhood, primarily because of its methods of organization and its ideology.
Institutional Resistance to Change
Assuming there are prudent, democratic interlocutors who are truly interested in mediating a settlement with the regime, such as Beshr and Darrag, can they really command the organization’s support? The answer, most likely, is no, given that most of the key positions in the group’s decisionmaking bodies, including the Guidance Bureau, the Shura Council, and administrative units, are occupied by individuals completely loyal to the Brotherhood’s incumbent leadership and tied to it through a multilayered network of business, familial, occupational, personal, and ideological connections.
Furthermore, the Brotherhood’s leadership has masterfully employed existential fears of regime repression among the group’s members to deter any serious call for self-critique or internal revision. Brotherhood leaders have so far adamantly refused to admit their grave mistakes and betrayal of the causes of revolution and democratization. The best they can concede, based on the dovish Darrag’s statement to the media, is to support the viewpoint that the only mistake the Brotherhood made while in power was underestimating the power of the Egyptian “deep state” and its capacity to spoil the political process. Darrag believes that the Brotherhood should have adopted a “more revolutionary strategy” in order to cleanse the state. But he expresses no regrets about the authoritarian constitution, the exclusionary political process, or the divisive policies put in place by the Brotherhood while in power. Moreover, even if Brotherhood leaders admit to grave mistakes during their rule, as long as the regime continues its repressive policies against the organization, the time will not be right to critique these leaders or hold them accountable for their shortcomings and wrong deeds. Therefore, internal Brotherhood fragmentation and secession will remain highly unlikely.
Nevertheless, even if some interlocutors can hypothetically solicit a degree of support—and hence start creating a real moderate faction within the Brotherhood—this scenario presents an invitation for the breakdown of the Brotherhood’s organizational unity. As long as there are no comprehensive transformations of the group’s ideology and mission, the recalcitrant Brotherhood mass will not accept these moderates’ offers of settlement on the regime’s terms, which will be depicted as an unpalatable act of treachery. The Brotherhood might come to a historical end, and more radical groups might emerge to the right of the Brotherhood, attracting its disgruntled former supporters. So, the first scenario, which is the resolution preferred by the United States and the European Union, is highly problematic and unlikely, at least in the short run.
The Violence Scenario: Algeria (or Syria) Redux
Egypt could also descend into full-scale violence or, as analysts like to call it, the “Algerian scenario,” in reference to the decade-long bloody confrontation between the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and the military regime in Algeria. This conflict erupted after the military staged a coup and canceled the parliamentary election results in 1992, usurping the FIS’s electoral win and banning it from politics altogether. Syria illustrates another version of this scenario: military confrontation between the army and rebels, many of whom are Islamists, leading to the fragmentation of the army along sectarian and ideological lines.
Horrific though it looks to most from the outside, such a path might stir the imagination of some of the more radically inclined members of the Brotherhood, who might view it as their best option in the face of the Egyptian military’s evidently superior capacity for force. This fact explains the Muslim Brotherhood’s rhetoric against the military after Morsi’s ouster. Reportedly, speakers at the Rabaa sit-in recounted baseless stories of defections within the military in protest of Defense Minister General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s decision to overthrow Morsi. Also, Brotherhood media mouthpieces spread many rumors about defections from the Egyptian Third Army in the city of Suez and the house arrests of several army generals unhappy with Sisi’s decisions. One of the stories mentioned the name of General Mohamed al-Assar, a key member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that temporarily ruled the country after Mubarak’s fall and the liaison of armament operations in the Egyptian army.
There are some factors pushing Egypt toward the violence scenario. They include the unprecedented political polarization that has divided the country since Morsi’s controversial decisions in November 2012; the apocalyptic, zero-sum-game mentality among Brotherhood leaders; and the resurgence and spread over the last two and a half years of takfiri, Islamist discourse in which one Muslim accuses another of apostasy and calls for excommunication. In addition, the warlike Brotherhood propaganda at the Rabaa sit-in (such as vows of “defending Morsi’s legitimacy over their dead bodies” and other rhetoric of religious zeal) added more fuel to the fire.
It is hard to exaggerate the rage among Islamists that stemmed from regime-perpetrated massacres to disperse pro-Morsi protesters at the Rabaa sit-in and another sit-in at al-Nahda Square on August 14 as well as the subsequent bloody repression of pro-Morsi demonstrations and marches. Those actions vindicated the extremists’ claims that efforts to establish peaceful politics are futile and that the anti-Islamist regime is exclusivist and keen on exterminating the Islamists altogether, a situation that renders violence the only feasible option. Other logistical factors that support the emergence of this violence scenario include the weakening of the Egyptian police since the 2011 uprising that overthrew Mubarak and the spread of weapons smuggled across the Libyan border in the wake of that country’s own 2011 revolution.
The cycle of violence that has been sweeping the country since November 2012 thus reached its height on and just after August 14, leaving a death toll of over 1,600 people. There are many reports of Islamist-led attacks on Coptic churches, police stations, and anti-Morsi neighborhoods, in addition to some armed pro-Morsi marches and a failed assassination attempt on the interior minister on September 5, which utilized car bombs reminiscent of al-Qaeda tactics.
In addition, violence has swelled in the Sinai, which is rendered almost uncontrollable by favorable mountainous topography, popular support for domestic takfiri radicals and jihadist Islamists (a manifestation of Sinai residents’ resentment of their endless marginalization by the Egyptian state) and cross-border fertilization with Salafist-jihadist groups in the Gaza Strip.
Limits of Violence
Nevertheless, Islamist violence may have reached its logistical and social limitations. First of all, violence on a large scale requires a large number of people willing to execute it and a social base willing to support it. Small pockets of disaffected, radical Islamists are not enough. Furthermore, unlike in Algeria in the 1990s, topographical conditions favorable to armed insurgency do not exist in Egypt. The country also lacks a clearly proviolence social constituency large enough to provide shelter and support for fighters.
Increasing social hostility to Islamism in general and to Islamist-driven violence in particular can isolate the politics of violence and further erode public support. While radical Islamic groups in Egypt waged an armed confrontation with the state in the 1980s and 1990s, it is important to recall that during that period the public remained either sympathetic to the Islamists or opposed to them but not motivated enough to throw its weight behind the government. This time the violent Islamists will face opposition from both the state and society (or at least wide segments of society), as demonstrated by the continuous street battles between Islamists and the Egyptian public in residential areas, popular neighborhoods, public squares, and marketplaces across different cities and towns in the months since November 2012.
The Syrian scenario is also unlikely. It is hard to believe that the Egyptian army can split along sectarian, political, or ideological lines like its counterpart in Syria.
The violence scenario, if it materialized, could arguably involve more low-intensity violence, limited to specific activities and locales. It might take the form of street conflicts between Islamists and anti-Islamist individuals in different urban neighborhoods. Street violence between common people and politicized actors has been a recurrent pattern since the early days of the transitional period. Many residents consider any politicized marches through their neighborhoods to be a transgression into their territory. Friction and clashes have occurred as a result, increasing in recent weeks, and are now focused on Brotherhood marches. Yet such low-intensity violence would likely fall short of anything like the Algerian or Syrian cases.
So both the accommodation scenario and the violence scenario are improbable. This leaves only one other possible outcome—a continuation of the status quo.
The Continued Protest Scenario: Attempting to Delegitimize the Government
Under this third scenario, the Muslim Brotherhood would dismiss any calls for political accommodation and integration and make no concessions. The group would put forward its own narrative of the usurped legitimacy of the rightfully elected president and the unlawful character of the current regime. Declared objectives would include the reinstatement of the elected president, the suspended 2012 constitution, and the dissolved Shura Council, the upper house of the Egyptian parliament. The Brotherhood would try to insist that any negotiated settlement of the crisis take place only once the previously elected institutions were reinstated. The Brotherhood would refuse to participate in the new political process, including the constitutional amendments and the parliamentary and presidential electoral processes. Instead, it would resort to the tactics of mobilization, proselytization, and propaganda that it used during the Mubarak era in defiance of its official exclusion.
The Brotherhood’s main aim would be delegitimizing the new political process, which it would dub “exclusionary,” “nonpluralist,” “undemocratic,” and most importantly “anti-Islamist.” It would organize regular protest activities, such as weekly demonstrations, marches, and rallies, and would engage in propaganda warfare through the media and online networks. This approach might be enough to preserve the unity of the Brotherhood as an organization. It would fit with the zero-sum-game mentality and apocalyptic nature of the group’s recent discourse.
This approach has been the Brotherhood’s preferred option since the start of the current crisis that began with the mass demonstrations against Morsi. It was in essence the group’s approach even before Morsi’s overthrow. The headstrong Brotherhood refused to make any concessions to the opposition (most importantly, the call for new presidential elections), knowing that its intransigence in the face of the mounting public anger would invite either a civil war or a military coup. The Brotherhood successfully employed multiple discourses to counter this resistance. Religious and ideological rhetoric was used to appease the grassroots and strengthen the ideological identity and solidarity of the group. At the same time, references to democracy, political legitimacy, and peaceful anti-coup struggle were aimed at winning the hearts of the non-Islamist potential sympathizers within Egypt and internationally.
The Brotherhood considers this option to be justified in light of the exclusionary measures taken by the caretaker government and the state security institutions. It also calculates that this option has some chance of success in terms of strengthening its hand over time. First, despite the regime crackdown—which has mostly targeted the first and second tiers of the organization’s leadership—the logistics of Brotherhood operation (particularly the centralization of decisionmaking and the decentralization of decision implementation and execution) allow room for the delegation of responsibilities to the local administrative units at the middle and lower echelons of the organization in extraordinary situations like this one.
Second, and more substantively, the Brotherhood knows that it is too big and too visible to be ignored. Its social constituencies are a force to be reckoned with, and their exclusion would be extremely costly and for all practical purposes impossible. Any new democratic politics in Egypt must accommodate Islamists (provided, of course, that the Islamist actors are rational enough to reach an understanding).
Additionally, the Brotherhood reasons that destabilizing the country as long as possible might shift the balance of power in its favor. The group’s line of thought is clear-cut: as the crisis situation is drawn out, things might change. For example, the extended crisis might cultivate more favorable public opinion toward the Brotherhood. People might become increasingly discontent with the way the regime runs things, and they might become sympathetic toward the mass casualties inflicted on Islamists by the regime. In addition, changing regional and international contexts might lead to a push for the ruling Egyptian government to accommodate the Brotherhood.
Furthermore, fractures within the anti-Morsi camp over the “democratic” credentials of the caretaker government—on questions of economy, human rights, constitutional amendments, and the approach to the “Islamist threat”—might further weaken the current regime. Noticeably, rifts between pro-change democratic forces and old-regime authoritarian forces within the interim government are becoming increasingly apparent.
Transitional Period Blunders
The current regime has exhibited some managerial shortcomings during the transitional period since Morsi’s ouster. It has made three major blunders, and these missteps could not have been more beneficial to the Muslim Brotherhood.
First, the caretaker government failed to make a serious break with the prerevolutionary Mubarak era. It did not deliver a clear-cut message that the revolution that ousted Morsi is a continuation of the January 25, 2011, revolution that overthrew Mubarak and not a negation of it. Recurrent repressive and unlawful behavior by security forces in their confrontation with the Brotherhood, while accepted by many people eager to get rid of the Islamist threat as fast as possible, was also opposed by few but outspoken actors, including staunch anti-Brotherhood politicians, journalists, and human rights activists. Furthermore, there is a flagrant, provocative pro-Mubarak bias prevalent in much of the public and private media, which is now occupied by figures associated with the old Mubarak regime (better known in Egyptian political parlance as floul). This has raised concerns among many people who detested Mubarakism as much as they opposed the Brotherhood regime.
As a result, when the Brotherhood claims that Morsi’s overthrow was a step in a master plan of reconsolidating the Mubarak regime, it might sound reasonable to many people. At the very least, Egyptians might believe that what is happening does not bode well for their expectations for the country’s democratic transition.
Second, the interim government laid out a road map for Egypt’s democratic transition that has proved quite controversial. Many people have qualms with the sequence of the process. The road map calls for holding presidential elections at the commencement of the transition process rather than at its beginning, though the merits of such a move are debatable. It certainly did not answer the demand of the anti-Morsi uprising for early presidential elections. In addition, the constitutional amendment process and the far-from-democratic content of some of the amendments introduced by the interim government were unsatisfactory in the eyes of many who took to the streets to overthrow Morsi and his government.
Third, the caretaker regime arguably misstepped in managing relations with the Islamists. There is debate about whether the use of violence in dispersing the Brotherhood sit-ins in Rabaa and al-Nahda Square was necessary (or, for that matter, whether the dispersal itself was necessary). Many wonder whether the violent dispersal of the sit-ins really inflicted the most “minimal costs” possible given the well-known incompetency and brutality of the Egyptian police force. Some people argue that, for all the negative consequences of the sit-ins, ignoring the demonstrations while expediting the political road map would have been a better option than violent dispersal (or at least it would have been the lesser of the two evils). The regime’s violence gave the Brotherhood the gifts it hoped for: the ability to portray itself as a martyr and a full-scale bloody confrontation that could preserve the unity of the group, earn it some domestic empathy, and further destabilize the country.
The fierce anti-Islamist propaganda in the state and private media, the mass arrests of Brotherhood figures, and the closure of Islamist media channels helped mobilize all Islamists and even much of the conservative religious population around the Brotherhood and Morsi’s cause. The vast majority of Islamists would have identified with this cause no matter what had happened, thanks to the influence of ideology and identity, but other conservative and religious individuals who do not necessarily identify with the organizations of political Islam in general could have been neutralized through a more reasonable, softer media discourse. But such a discourse did not materialize. The first rule of successful political warfare is to isolate your enemy and not to furnish him with more supporters who otherwise could have been neutralized.
The persistence of difficulties that plagued Morsi’s regime may also cause trouble for the interim government and benefit the Brotherhood. It is well-known that Egypt’s poor economy, declining state performance (including its nearly defunct public services), and increasingly unruly and disobedient society had negative repercussions for Morsi’s regime. They generated public anger against the regime’s incompetence. Yet now, the Brotherhood believes it can turn these elements of Egyptian life back in its favor. The economy is not likely to improve in the short or medium term, thanks to its structural crises. Political instability is also wreaking havoc. The regime benefits from foreign cash pouring in from Gulf countries that might provide it with some leeway, but not for that long. Moreover, Egyptian society will not become easier to govern without the introduction of democratic changes in state-society relations and reforms in state institutions. In all likelihood, such reforms will not be undertaken given the current balance of power in the regime. The social and political crises are therefore likely to continue. This time, however, it will be the caretaker government, and the old state institution at its core, that pays for them.
Odds of Success
The Brotherhood’s odds under the continued protest scenario are not terrible. In fact, the group can already claim that it has made headway through the troubled waters of the last month. The organization is arguably (at least in the minds of some Brotherhood activists) in a much better tactical position than when protests against Morsi began or even than when he was ousted, when public sympathy for Morsi’s cause was at its lowest and the faith in the interim regime’s transitional road map was at its zenith. The biggest problem with this scenario is its extremely risky nature. The pursuit of this option would risk losing the political gains the Brotherhood has made since Mubarak’s fall: official recognition, political participation, and power sharing. Such gains could be partially sustained if the accommodation scenario were to be embraced.
The bet the Brotherhood would be making with the continued protest scenario is that it can achieve longer-term gains, such as exhausting the transitional regime until it surrenders to the Brotherhood’s conditions, if it accepts certain near-term tactical forfeits. However, a complete defeat on the part of the military and the state is likely impossible as well. Ironically, the continued protest scenario in the long run may morph into a modified version of the accommodation option as the maximum that the Brotherhood can gain given the current balance of power.
Predicting the Brotherhood’s Path
It is hard to forecast the Brotherhood’s future decisions right now given the roiling uncertainties of Egypt’s current situation. The real strategic choice for the Muslim Brotherhood is between a scenario of accommodation and one of continued protest. The violence scenario is not an exclusive one; the country could descend into violence even as the Brotherhood pursues either of the two other scenarios. The continued protest option is the de facto scenario and will likely remain so for some time.
Each of the three scenarios has its positives, negatives, and limitations. Whether the Brotherhood will stay the course or adopt other options, particularly the accommodation scenario, depends on several factors. The changing domestic political and economic conditions, the caretaker regime’s ability to expedite political processes in a democratic and inclusive way alongside security operations, the success of the transitional road map, and the evolving political crisis in the country will all affect the outcome. So too will the ability of the Brotherhood to embark on the comprehensive ideological, doctrinal, and organizational transformations necessary for any democratic politics that can earn the trust of the people, heal the wounds of the previous period, and contribute to the creation of a new democratic state in Egypt.
The scope of such reforms is far beyond the capacity of the Muslim Brotherhood movement to accept given its current ideology, identity, mandate, leaders, and organization. If these reforms are put into action, the door will be open for a “post-Brotherhood” new Islamist political environment or even post-Islamist environment altogether. This is a development that the Brotherhood unequivocally rejects, and therein lies the key problem.
Correction: An earlier version of this article made reference to 1,000 Brotherhood leaders. It has been corrected to members.