Brotherhood Party; Future Scenarios
For the first time in its nearly 80-year history, the Muslim Brotherhood wants to create a political party. It has even released a platform document, which has been publicised recently in the press. Regardless of whether the Islamist organisation will actually succeed in its establishing a party, its production of a prospectus for a political party is, in itself, a tangible step towards its transformation into a civil political entity, suggesting that we may be on the threshold of a new era in the history of the movement.
On the one hand, the Muslim Brotherhood party platform (in the preliminary form that currently exists) is a natural extension of the changes that have taken place since the Brotherhood launched its famous reform initiative on 3 March, 2004. During this period, which saw the participation of Brotherhood members in parliamentary elections (to the People”s Assembly in 2005 and Shura Council in 2007), the political and organisational performance of the Brotherhood progressed so remarkably that developments in this regard occupied the lion”s share of news on domestic political affairs.
On the other hand, the release of the political party prospectus, even in its preliminary draft form, represents a qualitative shift in the Brotherhood”s thinking. Merely to have gone this far indicates a readiness on the part of the movement to restructure itself on the basis of political and organisational criteria radically different to those that have long determined its current structures. If and when this prospectus takes its final form it will be the first official document to testify to the Brotherhood”s determination to follow through on this process. Brotherhood declarations of intent to establish a political party date to the mid-1980s, but never before has this intent been officially corroborated in document form.
Moreover, the complexities and sensitivities of the current situation aside, this document will form a tangible basis upon which the Brotherhood can be questioned with regard to its political motives. Clearly the organisation will have to prepare itself to handle this additional burden, which is why one presumes that Brotherhood officials are taking great pains to introduce what they believe are the necessary modifications and refinements to the document.
Finally, it will constitute a concrete standard for measuring the evolution of the ideological thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. All too often has its response to contemporary social and political issues stumbled against rigid theological barriers, which is a primary reason why it has come to lag far behind many of its offshoots in other parts of the Islamic world that have exercised considerable ingenuity in order to surmount such barriers and transform themselves into dynamic political forces operating within democratic civil society frameworks. Indeed, a carefully considered and drafted party prospectus, when and if it assumes its final form, may galvanise the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt into bringing its rhetoric, behaviour and handling of political issues into line with one text and with contemporary social and political demands, which would ultimately work to the benefit of all.
In spite of the foregoing, the party prospectus, in its current form, raises a number of crucial problems. With regard to timing, it is unfortunate that it should have been unveiled at this particular juncture in the fluctuating relationship between the Brotherhood and the state, when the pendulum has swung sharply towards increasing tension and mutual suspicion. As a result, many question the motives behind the Brotherhood”s decision to announce its intention to form a political party at this time. Instead of a signal of the organisation”s intent to change, they interpret it as a tactical ploy intended to shift the ground of the contest with the regime and, simultaneously, to cajole the regime into easing pressure on the Brotherhood”s rank and file. Their suspicions are borne out by the fact that the Brotherhood made four attempts to form a party before this, all against a similar backdrop of Brotherhood-government tension and all proving little more than smokescreens.
The Muslim Brotherhood”s first declaration of intent to form a political party took place in 1986, with the proposed Shura Party. It tried again in the early 1990s and, again, in 1995, under the banner of “Reform”. The latter drive, spearheaded by Abdel-Moneim Abul-Futuh, a member of the Brotherhood”s politburo, was announced shortly before the arrest and trial before a military tribunal of the so-called “Group of 82”. The fourth attempt, bearing the name Wasat (Center) Party, began about 10 years ago following the partial disassociation of a segment of younger members from the Brotherhood. What, if anything, distinguishes this, the fifth attempt, from its predecessors?
Those who are asking themselves this question wonder how serious the Brotherhood is this time. If it is, what precisely are the aims it hopes to accomplish through a political party? Is it to attain power within the framework of a democratic system, as is the case with political parties elsewhere in the world? Or is the party merely intended as a springboard for catapulting the Islamist organisation into a position from which it can exercise what it regards as its religious calling: proselytising and establishing the Islamic state? Or does the whole thing just boil down to another statement to the press by Muslim Brotherhood leaders, outlining the way they perceive the current situation and how they stand accordingly?
Such questions, in turn, bring to the fore an array of issues. In the event that it does form a political party, will the Muslim Brotherhood dismantle its existing hierarchy and reshape itself, in its entirety, into a political entity of an entirely different order in terms of its organisational and value structures? Or will the existing hierarchy remain in place and simply sprout a political party, creating in effect a two-headed body in the manner of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood? In the event of the latter, which of the two heads will have the final say?
Would the Muslim Brotherhood even be able to sustain the political costs of creating or transforming itself into a political party? There is little doubt that the price would be heavy. There is already considerable division within the organisation over whether or not to form a party. A large segment of the leadership believes that the bid is futile to begin with on the grounds that the party would never receive official authorisation. At a more strategic level, many fear that political party activity would come at the expense of the Brotherhood”s missionary functions and that this would result in the erosion of its vast grassroots support. For these and other reasons, for many of the Muslim Brotherhood elders, the very notion of a political party conjures up the spectre of internal divisions and loss of cohesion. That the leadership is split between conservatives and pragmatists over whether to press forward with the formation of a political party is almost impossible to miss. If the debate were to come to a head, there is little doubt which of the two camps would prevail. The conservatives generally dominate at all levels of the organisation”s hierarchy. But the division extends through the larger base of Brotherhood members, many of whom fear that political activity will supersede the religious guidance role of the organisation and others of whom have no faith in, or have little understanding of, politics in the public civil sphere and prefer the greater manoeuvrability afforded by continued underground activity. In contrast to these, an important segment of the membership can rightfully boast a more sophisticated political acumen, and these are keen to engage in public affairs through a political party entity, an aspiration that has derived considerable encouragement from the experiences of Islamist parties in Morocco and Turkey. Such disparity in opinion across the organisation”s membership base compounds the urgency of resolving the question of whether or not to form a political party.
But creating a political party also involves a major internal ethical reorientation. If the Muslim Brotherhood re- establishes itself on the basis of a civil entity, as opposed to the essentially religious entity it has been since its foundation in the 1930s, it will have to contend with at least four major obstacles. First, it will have to revise its criteria for recruitment, membership and indoctrination. One of the most obvious questions that will be put to the Brotherhood is whether its political party will be open to Copts and, if so, what conditions of membership will apply to them? Will they be required to subscribe to all facets of the party”s ideology? Will they have equal opportunity for advancement through party ranks, including the right to vie for party leadership? Clearly such questions are purely academic, but in theory at least, the Brotherhood will be expected to furnish answers.
Second, it will have to set aside a whole gamut of values associated with the secrecy that has customarily veiled its mechanisms for hierarchical advancement and decision-making, replacing these with such values as transparency and performance-based criteria for advancement.
Third, the values and behaviour associated with leader worship must be deconstructed and a new set of values connected with the right to differ and the constructive exchange of ideas, unhampered by the threat of being demonised on the basis of an absolutist perception of right and wrong. For this to occur there must also be a radical shift in attitude towards party membership. Instead of being mere “cogs in the machine”, party members must be afforded value as individuals within the group, and their collective welfare must be regarded as being of higher importance than the welfare of the organisation itself.
At a broader moral level, the Muslim Brotherhood as a political party, will be closely scrutinised for its attitudes towards a panoply of controversial issues, not least of which are its positions on public governance (as pertains, specifically, to the right of women and Copts to hold public office), international relations, the economy (especially with regards to tourism) and various aspects of trade and finance. At this juncture, at least, the Brotherhood appears unlikely to alter its position on public governance, which, in turn, casts a shadow over the Brotherhood”s attitude towards democracy in general. A similar red line appears to persist in the Brotherhood”s perception towards foreign relations and international agreements. With a foreign policy rhetoric still tainted by antiquated religious-ideological terms and concepts, it is difficult to imagine the Brotherhood handling foreign policy issues and relations with “the other” in a constructive and pragmatic manner. On economic issues, too, the Brotherhood clearly needs to revise and clarify its thinking before presenting the nation with any economic platform. But perhaps the most serious challenge before the Brotherhood”s leadership, in this regard, will be to revise its attitude towards how a political party promotes its ideas on these or any other subject. So far, the leadership still clings to the notion that a political party is no more than a form of leverage, a vehicle for outmanoeuvring other political forces in order to extract “deals” on certain issues. This at least is the impression one gets from the responses of certain Brotherhood leaders to the question as to whether the movement is capable of producing a democratic political platform.
If the Muslim Brotherhood truly wants to transform itself into a political party, one envisions the following possibilities. The first is a complete transformation, with the preservation, perhaps, of a religious philanthropic society that will continue to perform the Brotherhood”s traditional social and economic functions but that will have no organic relationship with the party. This possibility has some support from what we might term the reformist camp in the Brotherhood.
The second possibility is the “two-headed” scenario, whereby the party and the Muslim Brotherhood in its current form coexist. Most likely, this would be regarded as a temporary exigency, lasting until Egypt, as a whole, undergoes full democratisation, at which point the Brotherhood would deem it safe to transform itself in its entirety into a political party.
The third solution, which seems to have garnished the support of the majority of the conservative leadership, is to sustain the party as an integral part of the Brotherhood indefinitely. Practically, however, this solution begs a number of questions. What exactly will be the organisational relationship between the two parts? Will the party become an extension of the Brotherhood”s proselytising activities or will the organisation take a backseat, giving the party leadership the necessary autonomy to pursue a political agenda while it confines itself to its conventional socio-economic functions? And what of membership and promotional criteria, not to mention matters of ideological indoctrination? Again, in this scenario in particular, the Coptic question looms large.
Perhaps the ideal way out of this predicament is for the Muslim Brotherhood to first undergo a transitional phase in which it transforms itself into a civil society organisation and undergoes the ideological and organisational restructuring needed to prepare its members to take part in a political party in accordance with the rules and principles of a democratic society. As things stand, however, the solution will remain “ideal” until Egypt undergoes a sufficiently substantial process of democratisation to ensure that constitutional and legal guarantees are in place for all to participate freely in national political life.
* The writer is a political analyst with Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
This article was published at Al-Ahram Wekly at: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2007/862/op1.htm