It has been a momentous two months for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The regime that had contained, harassed, and repressed it for so long crumbled. The movement’s leaders and rank-and-file members were released from confinement. One of the most prominent beneficiaries of the former regime’s electoral fraud even apologized for stealing a Brotherhood member’s parliamentary seat. The country’s interim military rulers appointed a Brotherhood lawyer—one of those released from prison—to the small committee charged with patching up Egypt’s constitutional framework. And the Brotherhood’s support for the March 19 referendum on constitutional amendments contributed to its landslide victory.

To be sure, the Brotherhood’s emergence is not quite complete and its precise position in Egypt’s political life remains uncertain. In all sorts of ways, the movement continues to live in some grey zones. In introducing `Isam al-`Aryan, a prominent Brotherhood spokesman, an Egyptian television anchor sounded confused—was he a leader of a banned movement, a formerly banned movement, a political party, or something else? The Brotherhood’s relationships with other political forces are still guarded; old suspicions quickly re-emerged when the movement endorsed a constitutional referendum that most other political actors opposed. 

Domestically, the Brotherhood is resented for its seemingly favorable treatment by the military rulers, even though the movement’s direct contacts with the junta are almost nil. Internationally, although the regime that discouraged any contact between movement leaders and diplomats may have fallen, the contacts have been sparse nonetheless (and, in the case of the United States, virtually non-existent as of this writing).  

The Brotherhood’s famously cautious and dithering leadership is faced with a rapidly changing environment. Notoriously reluctant to commit itself; accustomed to resolving internal divisions by taking sometimes vague and consensual positions; and desiring to act simultaneously in several spheres (religious, educational, charitable, personal, and political) without favoring any one at the expense of the other, the movement’s leadership is slowly grasping the new opportunities presented to it. 

In this commentary, I will examine three questions regarding the Brotherhood’s adaptation to Egypt’s emerging political environment, based in part on a series of interviews with movement leaders and youth activists:

  • How does the Brotherhood intend to go about organizing a political party?
  • More generally, how is the Brotherhood approaching the question of political participation?
  • How is the organization handling the emergence of a group of activist youth leaders, whose priorities and attitudes differ from those of its senior leadership?

Political Party

The Brotherhood has announced that it will form a political party; asked one of its senior leaders—Sa`d al-Katatni, the leader of its 2005-2010 parliamentary bloc and a member of its top decision-making body, the Guidance Bureau, to take the initial organizational steps; and selected a name, “Freedom and Justice.” While the Brotherhood has announced that it will not apply for legal recognition as long as the current restrictions are in place, those should be removed in the very near future. In the meantime, Brotherhood leaders do not consider Article 5 of the country’s suspended constitution, which bars religious parties, as a barrier to political participation, since they describe the party as “civil” in nature and open to non-Muslims.

It is less clear what practical steps are being taken beyond these highly visible ones. Al-Katatni told me that party building is not receiving much attention from other senior leaders at this point, but some other Brotherhood members suggested in interviews with me that the movement is opening up branch offices in the provinces.  

The movement as a whole insists that the party will have some autonomy from the main body of the movement—and al-Katatni has claimed in numerous interviews that his task is organizational only and that party members will select their own leaders. In interviews last week with other senior leaders, I found that they had not yet defined the precise relationship between movement and party, but there were indications the party may be kept on a fairly short leash. 

Voices within the movement who have suggested the Brotherhood should take a looser attitude—forming no party; allowing several parties to form; or simply allowing members to decide individually which party to support—have found little support at the leadership level. A suggestion by some leaders that individual members should be free to join other parties was rejected more forcefully. `Abd al-Min`am Abu al-Futuh, a prominent member of the “middle generation” of leaders, has been publicly skeptical of the idea of a single party tied closely to the movement, but he has been marginalized in decision making. The Brotherhood as a whole is drafting the platform for the party rather than allowing the nascent party to do it. Some activists complain that the movement is steering specific members into the party, essentially assigning the movement the task of choosing party members rather than allowing the party to exert its own control over the process.  

Is this important? Over the short term it may not be. But if the Brotherhood is to provide an organized base for those who wish to pursue its vision politically, many observers believe that a party subordinate to the movement will not be able to operate freely. Instead, they say, it will seek to protect broader movement interests. In a non-democratic setting, such a structure made sense. The movement could make only limited gains by entering politics and had much to lose should its political leadership become overly ambitious or threaten the position of jealous and suspicious rulers. 

But a movement operating in a fully democratic system should be free to form coalitions, make compromises, recast positions to appeal to more voters, and calibrate its actions more to the electoral cycle than to the generational focus its leaders claim to prefer. It is not clear that movement leaders have enough confidence in the system or sufficient willingness to see such politicking to allow such a party to emerge.

Political Participation

For all of its hopefulness about the future, the movement is showing strong signs of maintaining some of the practices and policies it developed for authoritarian settings. One reason for this is the leadership’s cautious and conservative nature. Another is a feeling that pushing too hard may backfire and that self-restraint in the electoral realm will reassure both domestic and international actors that the movement still seeks “participation, not domination.” Hamas’s electoral victory—and the resulting international crisis and domestic political collapse—still weighs heavily on Egyptian Brotherhood leaders.  

Indeed, in Hosni Mubarak’s last decade as president, Brotherhood leaders argued that a political system in which the only two choices were Islamists or the existing rulers was simply not in the movement’s interest. It left the Brotherhood isolated and kept other actors silent when the regime turned its full repressive tools against the Islamists. Greater political pluralism would be the best environment for the Brotherhood’s political activity, they concluded. 

Now the leadership is getting its wish—strong new political forces are emerging that are willing to deal with the Brotherhood as a normal political actor. But the new forces across the political spectrum are still inchoate, very unsure of themselves, and unwilling to discard their suspicions of Islamists. This is easy to understand. Genuine ideological and programmatic divisions exist between the Brotherhood and less religiously oriented political actors, and the gaps may grow significantly if normal democratic politics emerges.

To reassure others about its intentions, Brotherhood leaders have foresworn the presidency—but not the possibility of favoring an outside candidate—and have suggested they will not seek to win more than a third of the parliamentary seats. One movement leader—Khayrat al-Shatir—even speculated that the Brotherhood might follow such an approach for the next two or three electoral cycles, though he did not deny that it would eventually seek a majority in parliament. The Brotherhood has even offered some devices to support this approach, such as forming joint electoral lists with other movements and agreeing not to run candidates in specific districts if other movements agree to coordinate electoral efforts.  

What sort of Egypt does the Brotherhood seek to promote through political participation? For now, its agenda is largely limited to enacting political reform and ending corruption; it is not highlighting specifically Islamic elements in its program at the moment. Even for the constitutional reconstruction process, its explicit agenda focuses on the standard opposition program of the past decade: an independent judiciary; reduced presidential powers; stronger instruments of accountability; judicial monitoring of elections; and increased protection for political rights. 

Two major exceptions exist, and they are potentially divisive. First, the Brotherhood insists that it will not support a woman or a Christian for president—although it softened its stand by stating that the movement would accept such a president if he or she were legitimately elected through constitutional means. Second, the Brotherhood says it will reject any attempt to water down Article 2 of Egypt’s constitution, which proclaims “the principles of the Islamic shari`a” as “the chief source of legislation.” That article has had far more symbolic than legal effect to date, but the Brotherhood’s strong attachment to it has already led to some strained exchanges between Islamist and non-Islamist activists in public debates in Egypt. 

The Movement’s Young Turks

In recent years, the Brotherhood—always a movement with diverse tendencies within its ranks—has seen increasing signs of a generation gap. A group of younger activists—more brash, sometimes more liberal and, above all, more vocal than their elders—has publicly debated matters generally only discussed in private, such as the Brotherhood’s ideological positions and even its bylaws and elections. How is this trend likely to affect the movement in a more open political environment?

Already, some young members have made a tremendous impact. In the days before the January 25 demonstrations that led eventually to the revolution, a group of Brotherhood youth pressed the movement’s leaders to participate. Although they claim they did not expect the leadership to endorse the strike, these youth wanted to obtain their leaders’ blessing for their own participation. 

And indeed, the Brotherhood’s initial position was that its members were free to demonstrate as individuals but the movement as a whole would have no role. That was all the Brotherhood youth needed. After only a few days, the Brotherhood leaders saw both a strong popular reaction and a brutal but unsteady regime response, and decided to throw its weight behind the demonstrations. Elated youth leaders felt they had dragged their reluctant elders along. 

The combination of initial hesitation and eventual participation paid off handsomely for the Brotherhood. By holding back at first, the movement successfully conveyed to domestic and especially international audiences that it was not driving the Egyptian revolution. Then by participating in the demonstrations enthusiastically—but disavowing any Islamic agenda by summoning demonstrators to gather at both mosques and churches, as Egyptians did in the 1919 uprising against the British—the Brotherhood allayed some of the concerns of other political actors. The Brotherhood’s numbers and disciplines boosted the revolution’s chances and may even have been a critical factor leading to its surprising success.  

But the leadership’s decision to participate did not end the tension between its approach and that of the youth activists. This difference was most dramatically on display when then-Vice President Omar Suleiman attempted to open a dialogue of sorts with opposition actors—a move clearly intended to convey the false impression that there were viable negotiations heading toward an agreement over a set of regime concessions. By choosing to send some of the movement’s members to the meeting, the Brotherhood’s senior leaders seemed to fall into an old pattern of accepting any bones tossed to them by the rulers. A potential rift within the movement closed only when those who attended the meeting insisted they had conducted no negotiations and merely attended to present opposition demands. Further sessions were avoided.

The Brotherhood thus passed through a very risky period keeping its membership fundamentally intact and achieving almost unimaginable goals. But the differences between youth and senior leaders still pose a challenge for the movement. It is not a difference between moderates and radicals (though young leaders tend to be more liberal politically and even socially than their elders). Instead, there are a host of differences over the issues of a political party and the internal organization. 

Younger leaders are less wedded to the concept of a specific party and have even raised the idea that Brotherhood members should be free to join whichever party they want. Some are quite critical of the movement’s highly centralized nature; they often take a dim view of the senior leadership and view their current positions as tainted by imperfect internal elections held last year. Senior leaders retort that the elections were as sound as possible given the harsh security conditions that prevented open meetings.

But there is a deeper underlying difference between the youth leaders and their elders, one that is more cultural than ideological in nature. Older leaders tend to place a far higher value on hierarchy, internal discipline, patience, and unity of ranks. Most leaders are products of an age in which the Brotherhood underwent great trials, and they therefore tend to be cautious and a bit less open to external forces. It is worth noting that tremendous differences exist among senior leaders with regard to all of these tendencies, however. 

Younger leaders, on the other hand, are far more comfortable with broad coalitional politics. They tend to be far more open about internal matters, less risk-averse, and less deferential both to the organization as a whole and to its senior leaders. They see the Brotherhood as much more freewheeling and decentralized, a broad set of networks united by a common vision and general approach. As one younger activist told me, “The Guidance Bureau is only one part of the Brotherhood,” making it clear he did not consider it the most important part. If he wanted to contact like-minded fellow activists, he did not need to go through formal movement structures, but could simply use other forms of networking enabled by current communications technology.

Seen this way, the tensions within the movement are not likely to lead to anything like a schism—though individual members might leave in frustration or find themselves marginalized. Most youth activists are not pressing for new internal elections—though many would vote for a different kind of senior leadership when elections are eventually held. Older leaders have tried to maintain good relations with their younger members, and younger activists tend to talk of their elders less with burning resentment than with the indulgence that youth can sometimes find for seniors they believe to be out of touch.

Indeed, it is critical to avoid overstating both the depth of the division and even its connection with generational change. What I have referred to as “youth activists” or “young leaders” do not even pretend to speak for all members of their generation within the movement. For every young Brotherhood activist who sits before me relaxed and happy to engage in a freewheeling discussion about politics, religion, and internal issues, one can meet dozens who instead sit quietly in the background and demonstrate the deference, self-control, and polite nature more typical of how Brotherhood members typically interact with others. The majority of Brotherhood youth are likely quite content to allow their elders to speak for the movement as a whole.

But if the brash young activists of the movement are a bit unusual—especially when one leaves university campuses or the major cities of Cairo and Alexandria—they also have several assets that will help them affect the Brotherhood’s course. They match strategic vision with tactical expertise. They have new ideas, sophisticated political skills, and a lack of fear. Most of all, they have the respect and the cachet that comes from helping to pull off a revolution nobody thought possible.

Conclusion: Awkwardly Enjoying Democracy

According to one Egyptian press report, when Mohammed Badie, the movement’s General Guide, showed up to vote on March 19, he was forced by other voters to stand and wait at the end of a long line that his movement had helped generate. He put up with the inconvenience because ultimately a more democratic Egypt is a place where he and his fellow leaders, for all of their stodginess and hesitations, think they can thrive like never before.