Backing into the future

Backing into the future

It has been 80 years since Hassan El-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood. During this period, the organisation evolved from a small community association based in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia to an international movement traversing the Islamic world with a distinct theological and ideological school, off of which have branched a host of other Islamist movements of varying shades from liberal to militant.

Despite its considerable age and experience, the “mother” organisation in Egypt appears in desperate need of a “corrective revolution” in order to revitalise itself politically and ideologically. However, if such revitalisation is to succeed, the Muslim Brotherhood must first engage in an earnest and courageous process of introspection that takes stock of the entire Brotherhood experience.

Fortunately, circumstances are conducive to such a process. For one, the Egyptian political participation season, inaugurated in 2005, has come to a resounding close with the tragedies and sobering aftermath of the recent municipal elections. More importantly, however, Egyptian society is undergoing a number of compelling social, cultural and religious changes to which the Muslim Brotherhood needs to bring a new perspective.

When the Muslim Brotherhood embarked on its first comprehensive reform initiative four years ago, in March 2004, it seemed that the movement”s political pendulum had begun to swing towards participatory politics. Nevertheless, one still detected a strong scent of the pragmatic: the new effervescence in the electoral climate and roiling pressures for change offered a historic opportunity for the Brotherhood to score unprecedented political gains. And, indeed, it did, as was reflected in the 2005 legislative elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood experienced a burst of energy during this period, developed its abilities to mobilise and exhibited a new and unfamiliar boldness that took the ruling regime by surprise, taking to the streets again for the first time in 50 years. The audacity was short-lived, for they quickly backed down in the face of a brutal clampdown on their rank and file. Yet to some, that rapid capitulation seemed odd at a time when the whole of society was seething against the regime and its policies (the Muslim Brotherhood has not participated in any of the mass protest strikes staged since).

If the Muslim Brotherhood is to engage in a serious process of introspection, it must come to grips with three central issues. The first is its ideological and political ambiguity and wavering, which have come to be salient traits of the Brotherhood mentality. Such traits have their roots in the Muslim Brotherhood”s many rigid and anachronistic religious positions that hamper the development of its religious discourse, which remains mired in the duplication and the exaltation of the theological and legalistic pronouncements of the ancients.

The opinions of Maroudi (974-1058) on authority, the nature of the state and its religious grounding, and the theological speculations of other such Muslim jurists, from which the Muslim Brotherhood derives so many of its stances, may have suited their times, but can no longer be said to suit ours. Surely Muslim Brotherhood theorists can bring to bear more of the various acknowledged methods of theological argument, such as analogy, discretion and inference, to contemporary issues, instead of clinging to that habit of literally copying handed down pronouncements with little attempt to tune them to current conditions, a habit that makes them seem closer to Salafi movements than to a progressive political force with an Islamic frame of reference.

But not only are Muslim Brotherhood theorists rigid literalists in their theological speculations, they are also selective with regard to which jurists or theologians they will appeal to. Without logical reason, they turn up their noses at anything that hints at the novel, such as the ideas and opinions of such prominent contemporary Islamic thinkers as Youssef El-Qardawi, Mohamed Selim Al-Awa, Tareq El-Bishri and the Sudanese thinker Hassan Al-Turabi (and especially his earlier works). They also fear borrowing any of the progressive notions from other contemporary Islamist movements, notably the Justice and Development Party in Morocco and the Nahda (Awakening) Movement in Tunisia. They plead different circumstances and contexts.

It is thus only natural that many of the Muslim Brotherhood”s political positions have stirred considerable confusion and controversy over their way of thinking, their religious perspective and their ability to adapt (to the lack of which some cite the platform of the Muslim Brotherhood”s proposed political party as testimony). I believe that the rigid theological mentality of the Muslim Brotherhood can be attributed to two main factors. The first is that its leaders fear that if they embark on an innovative theological and jurisprudential experience they will jeopardise the unity of their movement and their popular appeal. The second is that they have no programmes of their own for theological/juristic formation, a considerable shortcoming in an organisation that draws its backbone from academic and professional circles. This together with the fact that the religious scholars that set the Muslim Brotherhood”s doctrines are, as mentioned above, imitators and not innovators, presents a dilemma for a movement that has one foot in religious proselytising and the other in the political game.

The second issue that the Muslim Brotherhood must tackle is its organisational structure, which is an old and rusty machine that needs a major overhaul. This fact is not altered by the movement”s well-known ability to organise and mobilise its ranks, which is a characteristic common to most closed underground societies. The chief reason why this organisation has been able to remain as powerful and cohesive as it has for so many decades resides in the psychological and ideological solidity of its membership base. But this trait has begun to recede under the pressure of the enormous changes that are sweeping Egyptian society and that facilitate the reformulation of ideas and fluctuating loyalties. The phenomenon is particularly evident in the generation gap in the organisation that some of its members are desperately trying to stifle while others are disdainfully shrugging off or pretending does not exist.

This phenomenon points to another that the organisation urgently needs to address, which is that rigid set of hierarchical values that has contributed to mummifying not only internal organisational relationships but also the Muslim Brotherhood mindset. The organisation is in dire need of structural breathing space or institutional relaxation so as to be able to re- assimilate people into its machinery on the basis of such premises as freedom and participation as opposed to blind loyalty and obedience. The first step towards this end is to amend regulations that govern internal hierarchical relations and activities so as to provide for a modicum of flexibility and to open some windows to fresh air in the form of dynamic thinkers and new ideas.

The third issue the Muslim Brotherhood needs to address is its communicative skills, which is to say its ability to reach out to the masses. Some will protest that the Muslim Brothers are famous for the grassroots contacts they have developed through various networking and social work activities. Yet this is not precisely what I mean. Rather, I am referring to the substance of the “message” conveyed by the medium. Are they communicating with the public in order to mobilise it behind their political/theological project, or is it in order to win popular support for their ideas and causes while simultaneously addressing the problems of the people and developing their own ideas and rhetoric accordingly? In other words, is the channel of communication one-way and its purpose purely functional, or two-way and its purpose developmental? I strongly suspect the former. The Muslim Brotherhood”s attitude towards the public is akin to that of the shepherd towards his flock: they are the “deliverers” who will steer errant society back to the path of salvation.

It is interesting that, whereas the Brotherhood”s mission as originally formulated by Hassan El-Banna was to change society in a way that would build the movement and propel it towards the fulfilment of its project for change, the Muslim Brotherhood”s leadership today appears to be intellectually and theologically chasing after society. Thus, for example, that leadership refuses to alter its positions on Copts and women for fear of alienating that large segment of conservative society that is resistant to change. So who is leading who when you have a Muslim Brotherhood leadership that refuses to alter its theological and ideological outlook for fear of a drop in its popularity ratings?

The Muslim Brotherhood”s situation may have been ideal in a stagnant society. But that is by far not the case in Egypt today when the thrust of intellectual and generational activity is propelling the social value system towards openness, dynamism and vitality, qualities compared to which the Muslim Brotherhood will appear a fossil. Compounding the chances of such an outcome is the emergence of rivals who are now performing the same social service functions that the Muslim Brotherhood had monopolised for decades, and with the added benefit that these societies are not expecting political returns for their services.

As for the intellectual and political elites in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have little interest in communicating with them at all, which signifies that it has yet to learn from its oft-repeated mistakes. The examples are many, but it is sufficient here to note that since its major victory in the 2005 legislative elections, the Muslim Brotherhood has made no serious attempt to reach out to other players in the political arena, thus forfeiting a unique opportunity to build a truly national coalition that could have stood a chance of breaking the ruling regime”s hold on political power. As a consequence, too, the Muslim Brotherhood was easy prey when the ruling authorities decided to strike back.

No one belittles the magnitude of the difficulties and hardships the regime has made for the Muslim Brotherhood, which constitute an impediment to the organisation”s progress. Much historical evidence testifies to the Muslim Brotherhood”s persistence and will to survive, qualities that should encourage that much needed process of reassessment so that it can readjust the orientation of its compass. Of course, the organisation can probably go on living exactly as it is for the next 80 years. However, it will increasingly find itself cut off from a society that is moving rapidly forward while it and its leaders continue to pace in circles.

The writer is a political analyst with Al-Siyasa Al-Dawliya magazine published by Al-Ahram.