One-way street

One-way street

The Muslim Brotherhood is looking increasingly outdated as it fumbles towards a political platform, Hossam Tammam*

The inevitable rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, so confidently predicted by many, now looks implausible. At a time when restrictions on Muslim Brotherhood activities are less than ever before, and when the group has demonstrated that it can put thousands of people on the streets seemingly at will, it looks, ironically, less effective than at any time in its recent history.


The release of Muslim Brotherhood members from prisons in the early 1970s did little to alleviate the group”s suspicion of the regime with which it thought, at some point, it would have a showdown. Throughout the decade the Muslim Brotherhood, which had effectively been disbanded by the Nasserist regime in 1954, worked to build its organisational strength, reinforcing its hierarchy while remaining inaccessible to state supervision. And while President Sadat refused to grant the Muslim Brotherhood legal status he permitted members to engage in politics. When Omar El-Telmissani, the group”s general guide in the 1970s, pressed the legal anomaly under which the group operated he received a curt reply from Sadat. He was told to file an application with the Ministry of Social Affairs.


The group was, at the time, led by men who had cut their teeth in the Muslim Brotherhood before the revolution. Mustafa Mashhur, Ahmed El-Malt, Hosni Abdel-Baqi, Kamal El-Sananiri, and Ahmed Hassanein all became members of the Guidance Office. By the end of the 1970s, the group had emerged as the strongest political organisation in Egypt, having absorbed within its ranks many of the Islamic groups that had appeared on the political scene in the Brotherhood”s absence. This was the period in which Abdel-Moneim Abul- Futuh, along with other former student leaders of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, joined.


The Muslim Brotherhood cared little for the regime”s approval and found, in its extra-legal status, a certain room for manoeuvre. And when Mubarak, whose first move as president was to invite all political leaders except those from the Muslim Brotherhood to a meeting, came to power the group stopped courting the regime altogether.


As an alternative to forming a legal party the Muslim Brotherhood fielded candidates jointly with other Egyptian political parties, and while some of the group”s members argued for the establishment of an independent party the Guidance Council demurred. The regime was opposed, and still is, to parties formed on a religious basis. When Abul-Ela Madi finally succeeded in putting together Al-Wasat Party he had to disassociate himself from the MB.


The Muslim Brotherhood continued to operate outside the law and while its leaders spoke of an Islamist approach to change they did so only in the vaguest terms. They were far more precise about their quest to build an efficient organisation, which in many ways mirrors the structure of the state. The Guidance Office is its cabinet and its administrative offices are equivalent to the governorates. The administrative boundaries of its branches are identical to those of the governorates and the Muslim Brotherhood can, on some levels, be viewed as a state within a state, minus an army or police force.


The group managed to infiltrate many state agencies, with the exception of the army and the security forces. These it gave a wide berth, wary of any head-on confrontation with the regime. Not that the group was not interested in power. On the contrary, the younger leaders of the group, the generation that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, had already formulated a plan that might allow them to control the state. The scheme, dubbed the Enablement Project, was uncovered in 1992, during a search of the offices of Al-Salsabil, a computer company. Details, found on computer discs, included steps that would allow the Brotherhood to take control of the state apparatus in a gradual and peaceful manner. Membership of the group, at the time, was estimated at anything between 100,000 and 500,000. Members paid monthly contributions to the group and attended weekly meetings. Recruitment was done in secret and the security apparatuses consistently failed to come up with a more reliable estimate of the group”s membership.


Throughout Mubarak”s time in office the regime has either suppressed the formation of new parties or manipulated existing ones. It was an approach that helped the Muslim Brotherhood, the only powerful group operating beyond the regime”s reach, establish itself as the only credible opposition to a regime intent on monopolising political life.


Recently, the regime”s grip on power has begun to loosen under external and internal pressures. The amendment of Article 76 signalled change, and many thought the Muslim Brotherhood would benefit. When, on 27 March, the group took to the streets most commentators thought they were witnessing only the beginning of the Brotherhood”s mobilisation. But this was not to be. The Muslim Brotherhood soon showed itself as outdated as the regime it was seeking to challenge.


The Brotherhood took to the streets long after Kifaya (the Egyptian Movement for Change) had organised its first demonstration on 12 December 2004, begging the question as to why the organisation was so slow to embrace public protest.


One possible answer is that the Brotherhood”s sheer size, though sometimes an asset, can also be a liability. The group”s leadership was reluctant to stage demonstrations and only agreed to do so when it was embarrassed by the success of the much smaller Kifaya. Its excursion onto the streets, though, was short-lived. The group has not organised any street protests since the police detained hundreds of its leaders, including spokesman Essam El-Erian, in early May. Abdel-Moneim Abul-Futuh, in a recent interview with Al-Masri Al-Yawm, suggested that the mass arrests had made a serious impact on the organisation and that the cost of confronting the government was too high for even the Brotherhood to pay.


The Muslim Brotherhood has also to face up to the fact that the Islamic movement is not what it used to be. In the 1970s and 1980s the Muslim Brotherhood was at the forefront of the Islamic tide that was sweeping Egypt and the Arab world. Its agenda was simple — the creation of an Islamic state — and captured the hearts and minds of many. For the poor it was a battle for social justice. For the middle classes it was a moral call and a shot at power. But this was not to last long. As the group became more engaged in politics it lost its revolutionary zeal, offering programmes that are not radically different from those of other opposition groups.


Most Brotherhood members are drawn from the middle classes. The group, despite its involvement in charity, has been reluctant to recruit from among the poor. In terms of economic policy the group tends to be liberal. As the Egyptian bourgeoisie turned towards religion so the religious scene became increasingly bourgeois. New preachers have appeared on the scene pandering to a middle class audience while the Muslim Brotherhood”s recent initiative, the Reform Agenda released in March 2004, hardly mentions the poor.


The Egyptian bourgeoisie may flirt with the Muslim Brotherhood but the flirtation is unlikely to lead anywhere. The middle classes have come up with its own preachers, the likes of Amr Khaled, whose religiosity is less rigid than that of the Brotherhood. The country”s middle classes may be interested in religion but they are not particularly interested in politics. Why support the Muslim Brotherhood when they can choose the more liberal Al-Wasat Party, or even Kifaya?


Even within the organisation”s ranks coherence seems to be lacking. The group is finding it hard to come up with a clearly defined political agenda and when Essam El-Erian contemplated running for presidency the Muslim Brotherhood was in two minds about it. Discipline within the group is said to be disintegrating. The Muslim Brotherhood may yet take to the streets again. The problem is, it does not know where to go from there.


* The writer is a journalist and specialist in Islamic movements.