Western policymakers are concerned about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere. But this could mean the end of the Muslim Brotherhood, at least as we know it, and the beginning of a new phase of political Islamism that is more democratic.
In this Friday, March 9, 2012 photo, Egyptian Presidential hopeful Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a Muslim Brotherhood figure, talks under a giant billboard showing his picture during a conference in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt officially started on Saturday the process of holding its first-ever free presidential elections, with the door opening for candidates to submit their applications. Politicians from the era of deposed president Hosni Mubarak, ex-military officers, and moderate and hardline Islamists are expected to become the front-runners in a vote that is scheduled to start May 23.
The results of the parliamentary election in Egypt surprised some commentators – they expected the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) to do well, but not quite so well. In the end, the final tally saw them with 47 percent of the parliamentary seats; impressive, of course, for any group. But these results do not necessarily bode well for the direction of the MB’s dominant leadership. Moreover, we need to be cautious about jumping to conclusions, instead of assuming that Egypt is turning Islamist. On the contrary, these results could very well result in a changed Brotherhood for good, with repercussions for the MB worldwide.
The MB was founded in Egypt, and the Egyptian experience with political Islamism has been highly influential across the world. The MB in Egypt led to the MB in Syria, in Tunisia, across the Arab region, further beyond in other Muslim majority societies, and also in non-Muslim societies where Muslims are a demographic minority.
The uprising against Mubarak in Egypt eventually led to the MB changing from being an opposition movement on the margins of political life, to becoming the most powerful actor in the newly elected Egyptian parliament.
It is the MB that provided the first parliamentary speaker in a post-Mubarak parliament – and it is likely to play a significant role for the foreseeable future. Further beyond Egypt, other MB movements have received impressive shares of the vote in Tunisia and Morocco, where the movement has provided prime ministers in the last few months. It is clear that the Muslim Brotherhood views this as its time – after many years of waiting, they finally have a chance to effect change in policy and engage in state craft.
For the West, this is all disconcerting – political Islamism is not comfortable with the foreign policy of the United States in particular, and the West’s in general. Many fear that the success of the MB will lead to a curtailing of rights and freedoms, and an overtaking of the revolutions by Islamist takeovers. In Egypt, even within the MB, there have been tensions as well. The leadership insisted that any member who wanted to engage in politics had to do so subject to the diktat of its conservative leadership, to the point that any member who decided to join a political party other than the official MB one would be expelled.
But there is a background picture here that is being missed. The MB has risen in influence only due to the uprisings that took place against dictatorial regimes in the region, in events that are described by many on the ground as ‘dignity revolutions’ (thawrat al-karama). That dynamic of hope, rebellion and freedom is making an impact on the MB as well.
The MB is an 84 year old movement – which makes it a movement of some pedigree, and explains its grassroots presence across Egypt. At the same time, its size and longevity also makes it more of a chartered organization than a monolithic group. One of its more prominent critics, Ibrahim al-Houdaiby, the grandson of the second leader of the movement, considers there to be no less than four different schools of thought within the MB, which are widely different. While Mubarak’s rule encouraged the movement to remain cohesive in the face of outside threats, freedom after the 25th of January in Egypt does not. In defiance of the leadership, many have left the MB to start new political parties, particularly to join hands with non-Islamist supporters of the revolution. The youth of the MB spent 18 days in Tahrir Square as comrades in arms with their non-Islamist, secular, leftist and liberal compatriots to bring down Mubarak and begin a new Egypt. When the MB leadership divorced from the rest of the revolutionary forces by supporting the military’s timetable for a transition, many of those same MB youth refused to turn their backs on their fellow revolutionaries. As a result, many of them were expelled, as well as senior leadership figures.
Beyond the internal MB context, there is a wider Egyptian one. Gallup’s surveys show that Egyptians, for many months after the fall of Mubarak, were not supporters of the MB. As late as September 2011, only 16 percent of Egyptians expressed support for the MB’s official political party, with 36 percent undecided. In the weeks before the parliamentary election in December, a massive switch took place: Gallup surveys showed support jumped to 50 percent, and the undecided dropped to 11 percent, leading to a parliament where 45 percent of the seats are held by MB members.
At the same time, however, the same Gallup surveys found that Egyptians’ opinion were largely unchanged in terms of their views on key issues. When asked what the most important challenges or issues that the next government should address when it takes office, respondents in December referred mainly to employment/employing youth, the economy/cost of living increases, and security/stability. These were the three most important priorities for supporters of the most liberal party on the Egyptian political spectrum (the Free Egyptians Party), the most socially conservative one (Nour Party), and everyone in between.
All of this implies that Egyptians expect substantial policy-relevant actions from the MB – slogans, or symbolic measures aimed at ‘Islamizing’ the system, will not cut it. Islamism for much of its history (which only exists in the modern period), relied on being in opposition – where responsibility for policy was low, and thus accountability from the wider public was as well. That day is over.
For the first time in its history, the MB in Egypt cannot rely on external repression to justify a conservative, non-dynamic approach to politics and society. As it seeks to survive in this new environment, in order to respond to the real life challenges of governance, it is likely to change dramatically, or split up into different groups, all of whom will compete to win public approval, in an Egypt where that finally matters. The revolution in Egypt is likely to see a transformation of political Islamism, in its birthplace, in the years to come – and that promises to have ramifications for not just Egypt, but MB groups worldwide, and the relationship between Muslim societies and the West.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer is an expert on the MENA region, with experience at Gallup, the Brookings Institution and the UK Foreign Office. He writes here in a personal capacity.