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The Muslim Brotherhood's Long Game
ERIC TRAGER is the Next Generation Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.See more by this author
In the 18 months since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood has risen swiftly from the cave to the castle. It founded the now-dominant Freedom and Justice Party last April, won a massive plurality in the winter parliamentary elections, and, last week, celebrated as its candidate, Mohamed Morsi, won Egypt's presidential elections. After 84 years of using its nationwide social services networks to build an Islamic state in Egypt from the ground up, the Brotherhood is, for the first time, poised to shape Egyptian society from the top down.
There is, however, a catch: most of the Brotherhood's gains exist in name only. In early June, a court order invalidated the parliamentary elections and dissolved the Brotherhood-dominated parliament. Then, just prior to the second round of the presidential elections, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued a constitutional declaration that seized executive authority from the presidency, ultimately rendering Morsi a mostly powerless figure.
But after weeks of mounting tension with the SCAF, including mass demonstrations against the junta's power grab, the Brotherhood is dialing things down. It fears that agitating for more authority now could foment unrest and alienate a deeply divided public. It is also wary of what happened in Algeria in 1991, when the country's military-backed government responded to the electoral victory of an Islamist party with a harsh crackdown that culminated in civil war. To avoid further violence and cement its place in Egyptian politics, the Brotherhood now hopes to create a period of calm in the short run so that it can act more assertively in the future.
To begin with, the Brotherhood is attempting to forge a unified front with Egypt's other political parties. It began these efforts a week before the announcement of Morsi's victory to dissuade the SCAF from rigging the elections for Mubarak-era candidate Ahmed Shafik. During two days of intense negotiations, Morsi met with a wide spectrum of political groups and activists, promising to name a woman and a Christian as vice presidents and to appoint a cabinet that would not be dominated by the Brotherhood. Brotherhood leaders have used this agreement to prove that they intend to build a representative government. "We are standing with all political powers for the same demands," Brotherhood parliamentarian Khaled Deeb told me.