Evolve or Expire

The Coming Clash Within the Muslim Brotherhood

A Morsi supporter during a solidarity march in Sanaa, August 15, 2013.
A Morsi supporter during a solidarity march in Sanaa, August 15, 2013. (Mohamed al-Sayaghi / Courtesy Reuters)

No matter how much blood is shed on the streets of Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will neither be eradicated nor opt for exile. Sooner or later, the pillars of the Egyptian state, led by the military and the Brotherhood, and with it large sections of the country’s Islamist movement, will reach some sort of modus operandi. It will prove shaky. There will be periods of turmoil, and the order will almost certainly break down from time to time on its path toward stability. And along the way, the only truly existential threat to the Muslim Brotherhood will come from within.

The story starts in the late 1990s, when a new generation of Islamist leaders, most of them with business and entrepreneurial backgrounds, started gradually replacing the Muslim Brotherhood’s older, theologically trained cohort, which had dominated the group for the previous half century. The new leadership brought significant changes to the Brotherhood, not least to its rhetoric. Gone were the theologically rich publications and sermons that positioned the group as the choice of the pious. Instead, socioeconomic programs and development became the order of the day. The leaders’ argument was that the Brotherhood, which has extensive experience creating and managing a wide-reaching service infrastructure, was the best-positioned political force to lead Egypt’s economy and society out of the desert.

The Brotherhood’s political strategy also witnessed a major change. The new leadership emphasized its allegiance to the Egyptian state, as opposed to the Islamic ummah (nation). Whenever possible, its rhetoric underscored its commitment to democracy -- not just through participating in and respecting the outcomes of elections but in abiding by the crucial democratic principles of respect for minority rights and civil and political freedoms.

The Brotherhood’s positioning paid off when it secured over 40 percent of the seats in Egypt’s parliamentary elections in December 2011 and January 2012 and, six months later, won Egypt’s first free presidential election. For the first time in decades, it seemed that effectiveness would be coupled with legitimacy in Egyptian politics. But that moment was fleeting, and the economic challenges proved more taxing than the Brotherhood expected. Over time, it became abundantly clear that the group lacked the experience to manage a delicate political and economic transformation.

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