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

Evolve or Expire

The Coming Clash Within the Muslim Brotherhood

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.

Still, the anger against the Brotherhood was more fierce and intense than economic mismanagement would warrant. Millions of Egyptians, especially in the country’s intelligentsia, media, and middle class, believed that the Brotherhood was systematically working to Islamicize the state and the society. President Mohamed Morsi’s own pronouncements exacerbated these fears -- his November 2012 declaration that gave his decisions complete immunity from any supervision and the rushed and exclusive process through which the December 2012 constitution was drafted and ratified certainly didn’t help -- as did the simultaneous rise of political Islam in other Arab countries.

In other corners of the region where Islam is almost the sole defining social characteristic, Islamization might not have been so problematic. Islamist parties could have become just one force among many in a plural political milieu. But in Egypt, the notion clashed with the very old, rich, and deeply entrenched Egyptian national identity: a blend of Arabism, Mediterraneanism, Levantenism, Christianism, pharoahism, and a unique type of Islamism that has adapted, over centuries, to the tranquil and laid back life of the country’s agrarian society. For many Egyptians, including the leaders of several influential state institutions, fighting the Brotherhood has thus become a struggle to defend Egyptianness.

For others, the battle against the Brotherhood was more about preserving their own prerogatives. And here, economics did play a role. The Brotherhood’s coming to power heralded a conspicuous attempt at transforming Egypt’s political economy. New economic players, with links to Islamic movements within Egypt and the Gulf, seemed to be rapidly increasingly their market shares in the banking, construction, real estate, transport, retail, and other sectors. That threatened financial power centers which have, for decades (and especially in the last ten years of President Mubarak’s rule), commanded a dominant and highly lucrative position in the Egyptian economy.

Another factor fuelling anger against the Brotherhood was its organizational structure. The group’s strict and disciplined hierarchy had, over the past half century, allowed it to withstand successive (and at times brutal) attacks from successive Egyptian regimes. But the hirearchy became a handicap when the group came to power. Simply put, there was no room for both the sprawling and influential administrative arms of the Egyptian state and the sprawling and powerful administrative arms of the Brotherhood, which continued to behave autonomously.

The result of all of this is well known. Now the organization must choose one of three paths.

First, it can decide to stick to the dominant thinking of the last ten or 15 years -- that the Muslim Brotherhood is best placed to determine Egypt’s socioeconomic future. This would not necessarily entail continuing or escalating the current confrontation. The dust would eventually settle, and the Brotherhood would likely arrive at some sort of modus vivendi with the state. But, by refusing to evolve its thinking, the group would be papering over the problems that fuelled the masses’ anger against its rule and that led to Morsi’s ouster. In this scenario, even if the group managed to navigate the current crisis, it would be destined to irrelevance.

The second choice is doing the exact opposite. The group’s existing leadership, or a new cadre of younger leaders, can pause and take stock. They might realize that the real existential threat lies not in the current confrontation but in the way that their own operating style has antagonized large sections of the population, including pious people who were considered natural constituencies of the group. Over time, the leadership could push forward revolutionary change in both the group’s thinking and in its organizational structure. One option might be diluting the independent bureaucratic structure and focusing the group’s strength, efforts, and funding on the Freedom and Justice Party (or a new party). That would effectively overhaul the group’s political operations in a way that the largest segments of the society and the most powerful state institutions could accept.

In this scenario, the Muslim Brotherhood would have to evolve almost beyond recognition. Turkey’s own Freedom and Justice Party (AKP) went through something similar in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Given the Brotherhood’s history and the current crisis in Egypt, such a transformation would likely be more difficult -- but would have a much wider impact than the AKP’s a decade ago.

The third course is a mix of the first and the second options. In this scenario, the group would undergo a painful internal struggle between those who want to give in to victimhood and respond with violence and those who realize that it is time to move on. The result would almost certainly be the fragmentation of the Brotherhood into two (or more) separate groups. This would not be the first time that the group was torn in half. After the decisive blow that President Gamal Abdel Nasser dealt the Brotherhood in the 1950s, which forced the group underground and into exile, the organization effectively splintered between the operational arm that retained its focus on Egypt and the spin-offs that gradually developed a very different thinking and set out to establish a footprint abroad. This time around, such a split would allow parts of the Brotherhood to evolve their thinking and operational structure, which would help them gradually rebuild their constituencies, especially among Egypt’s colossal lower middle class. Other parts, the ones that refused to budge or that opted for violence, would eventually be left out in the cold. All this, in turn, would help redefine Arab political Islam.

It is difficult to imagine that all of the Brotherhood’s circles -- and the emerging forces within its young members -- will remain united behind a single strategy. Existential threats strain traditional command structures and stir creativity. It is likely that various factions within the Muslim Brotherhood would decide to adopt different courses of action. The real question would be what strategy the majority of the youngest members would align behind. The coming months will see violence and vacillation, but the third option is the most likely in the medium and long term.   

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