Muslim Brotherhood debates

There are a number of very interesting debates going on about the Muslim Brotherhood right now.  No, not the silly ones from my comment section – those are garden variety foolishness, not really worth engaging.   While I don’t have a lot of time today (accursed real work and real life intrudes!), let me flag a few of them (and also be sure to check out Helena Cobban’s interviews with Essam el-Erian and Abdel Monem Abou el-Fattouh, from which she kindly posted long excerpts ).  I’m still processing a fascinating 20 page “response to the supreme guide of the Ikhwan over his criticisms of al-Qaeda” which was posted to the al-Tajdeed forum two days ago, so I’ll hold off on that one for now. 

First, I’ve already noted the debates in Egypt about the proposal floated by MB Supreme Guide Mohamed Mehdi Akef to al-Masry al-Yom about the possibility of forming a political party which would be formally distinct from the dawa organization.   This isn’t totally new, of course – there have been internal MB proponents of such a party for decades (1984 is the first instance that I can recall off hand) – but Akef’s reported embrace of its does seem significant since he is at least technically from the older generation (he’s 78) and not from the famous “middle generation” of MB activists and thinkers.   

It’s hard to know what will come of it.  The entire thrust of the Egyptian regime’s domestic agenda right now is to combat the MB’s political weight, not because it represents a security threat but because it represents a political threat to the NDP.  This begins, of course, with the extraordinary crackdown on the organization (including the arrest of hundreds of its members and alleged members (was it only two years ago that Erian announced that no MB were in prison for the first time since 1995?), the resort to military tribunals, the confiscation of their assets and freezing of their bank accounts, and so forth).  It also includes a sustained media campaign against the MB, which has had some success – the al-Azhar milita story was a propaganda coup for the regime, whatever the truth behind it (al-Masry al-Yom has published lengthy excerpts from the case against them, if you’re interested), and there has been a lot more.  Finally, there are proposed legal and constitutional changes, such as the current proposal which would effectively ban independents from running – while also maintaining the regime’s iron grip on the licensing of parties, thereby preventing the MB from either going legit as a party or running candidates as independents as they did in 2005.   Several prominent Egyptian politicians and intellectuals (including some not known for their sympathy with the Ikhwan) have told me that they are all for the MB being allowed to form a party since it would expose its real weakness, but that does not seem to be the regime’s opinion right now.  MB leaders have been loudly defending the organization against the regime’s offensive, and even arguing publicly that the arrest of Akef himself would not cripple the organization.   I suppose we might soon find out.

Second, Robert Leiken and Steve Brooke try in the current Foreign Affairs to respark a debate about the virtues of engaging with the Muslim Brotherhood. They do a good job of highlighting the great variation among the MB branches in different countries, which have generally evolved in response to local political conditions and over which the central MB organization has very, very little control. Leiken and Brooke are good on the political side of the MB, including its general pragmatism and ability to play by the democratic rules, though a bit weaker on the social and cultural side.   It all depends on which battle the “West” is trying to fight – if the battle is to push democratic reforms, the MB is actually  a potential partner, but if the battle is to spread liberal ideas then it isn’t.   To flesh out the question, you might check out Ken Silverstein’s fascinating “Parties of God” in the current issue of Harpers (sadly not on line).   Also, definitely check out Josh Stacher and Samer Shehata’s recent MERIP piece on the Brotherhood in Parliament, and the exchange between three Carnegie scholars (Nathan Brown, Amr Hamzawy, and Marina Ottoway) and a number of Islamist (including Abou el-Fattouh, one of the most open-minded of the MB leaders) over the “gray zones” in Islamist political discourse:  application of the sharia, violence, political pluralism, individual freedoms, minorities, and women’s rights.

Finally, by far the most interesting debate about the Ikhwan in the Muslim world right now is definitely the one provoked by a  controversial article by the Kuwaiti Islamist Abdullah al-Nefisi which has been taken as a call to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood, because it has become a burden on the Islamist cause (a good summary and discussion in English can be found in this widely reprinted piece by Mishari Zaydi).  Nefisi has real clout among Islamists (he’s popular on some jihadi forums, and in fact I first saw his piece discussed on one of the jihadi forums, before it got picked up by the mainstream Arab media) and has long been critical of the Muslim Brotherhood (I remember a piece of his from some 15 years ago complaining about it).   Still, it is interesting for the controversy it has provoked.

The article is actually about Qatar, which like many Gulf countries took in a good number of MB refugees from Nasser’s repression in the 1950s (including Yusuf al-Qaradawi, most famously).   From 1960-1980, he writes, Qatar lived through a period of great Islamist intellectual activity and organization.   One of the key differences was that the Qatari Muslim Brothers had no real conflict with the state, in sharp contrast with the Egyptian experience.  Internal disagreements within the Ikhwan began to emerge – which then led to the question of whether a state like Qatar, which tolerated the Islamist trend, needed an organization like the MB at all.   The MB, they suggested, was just a legacy of the Egyptian experience with no real role in a place like Qatar.  Over the next decade they produced a major two part study (the second part never published), with many concluding that the MB organization had been frozen by dogma, lost direction, and failed to adapt.  In 1999 – according to Nefisi – they decided to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood organization in Qatar.   Many people committed to Islamist ideas remained, of course, and continued to work for their agenda, but without the MB framework.    At the end, the really controversial part, Nefisi suggests that even in Egypt the MB had outlived its purpose, that Egypt in 2006 was not Egypt in 1928 and new organizations and ideas were necessary for the new era.   Better to recreate the MB as a “trend” rather than an “organization,” to adapt to these new challenges. 

Some long-time internal critics of the Muslim Brotherhood jumped on Nefisi’s essay to advance their own complaints about its internal hierarchy, obsessions with secrecy, rigidity, dogma and so forth. Zaydi interprets it like this:

it indicates that the MB’s pure political action, which it regards as a kind of jihad and religious duty, is in fact a worldly activity that has failed and that this long exhausting journey, which started around a century ago when it was launched by the first guide in Ismailia, has reached its final stop. But this does not mean the end of the notion of politicized Islam, perhaps in order to preserve this notion that has been weighed down by the MB’s heritage to the extent of failure. Because of all of that, individuals and intellectuals affiliated with political Islam such as al Nafisi called for getting rid of some of the load to keep the ship afloat—the Islamist salvation ship. We have no idea about the nature and essence of al Nafisi’s proposed solution to transform into a “current” although he tried hard to explain the concept. But this does not prevent one from saying that what was said signals a long awaited moment of recognition.

Mohamed Abu Roman, in al-Ghad, describes Nefisi’s piece as mere “thinking out loud”, but still an important piece of Islamist self-criticism.  The Muslim Brotherhood does not avoid internal debate because of an obsession with internal unity, writes Abu Roman, but rather because of the self-interest of an old guard which fears for its organizational power, and a justified fear that airing internal complaints will provide fuel for the propaganda campaigns constantly being waged against them.  Abu Roman also points out that the MB really is more than a ’trend’, pointing to its dawa activities and its vast social welfare sector in many Arab countries which have made it a powerful popular trend and not just a small, closed secret society.      Also from Jordan, Hilmi al-Asmar, a former editor of the Muslim Brotherhood’s weekly newspaper al-Sabil, writing in al-Dustour called Nefisi’s ideas “strange” and just another attempt to abort or contain the Islamist movement and marginalize it.   In response to Nefisi’s complaint that the MB has become a servant of the state without realizing it, Asmar argues that the MB’s dawa has always aimed at working within the state to reform society, while rejecting Qutb’s ideas of isolating the Islamic movement from the state and society.   Of course this means some level of cooperation with the ruling regimes – but this should be seen as a sign of strength, not weakness or failure.   He holds up Jordan as an example of the success of this strategy of working within the state instead of against it. 

That’s only a small sample of the debate sparked by Nefisi’s article.  What does the MB Central think?  Well, Deputy Guide Mohamed Habib had no comment for Mishari Zaydi, but Essam el-Erian is scheduled to talk about it on MBC tonight so perhaps we’ll have a transcript soon!  Anyway, maybe I’ll have time to write about all this later.  But for now it’s enough just to point out the interesting debates going on about and within the MB and the Islamist movement.

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