Playing in downtime
The Muslim Brotherhood habitually tries to capitalise on the “downtime” of transitional periods in Egyptian history. It asserted itself following the 1952 Revolution but failed to impose its demands on the Free Officers in spite of its close relationship with them, most notably Gamal Abdel-Nasser. It tried again towards the end of Anwar El-Sadat’s era, this time in order to obtain a licence that would legitimise its peculiar legal status. It failed in this bid as well. Most recently, it had another go in the form of a two-week long petition campaign that ostensibly collected 150,000 signatures on a declaration calling for change. It then hosted a conference that was reportedly attended by an array of opposition forces and that concluded with a closing statement that announced the formation of four committees charged with the task of studying the future of the political situation in Egypt.
What accounts for the latest surge of vitality in the Muslim Brotherhood? Clearly it is engaged in a “warm-up” exercise preparatory to the parliamentary elections in November. Over the past three decades, it has made it a tradition to mount such displays on the eve of an election. That the Brotherhood had its eye on the November polls when it launched the petition campaign is further substantiated by the fact that since the 2005 elections it succumbed to a long bout of lethargy and disinclination to take part in political demonstrations in spite of the relative upswing in political activism in Egypt over the past five years. The Brotherhood’s apathy cannot be entirely chalked up to government repression, as significant as that was.
At the same time, the Brotherhood must have realised that it needed to keep itself in the picture, especially given the rise of a new rival, the National Association for Change, which was founded at the beginning of this year, not to mention the high-profile presence of its founder, Mohamed El-Baradei. In fact, perhaps it was the threat of competition that prompted the Brotherhood not to joint the petition campaign that El-Baradei launched and, instead, to launch a similar one of its own. This would not be the first time the Brotherhood refused to merge with a broader front. On the eve of the 2005 elections it refused to nominate its parliamentary candidates beneath the banner of the National Coalition for Change, founded by the late Aziz Sidqi. One of the Brotherhood’s integral traits must be its determination to stay apart and stand out from other political players, even if they share the same political demands and concerns.
The Brotherhood must have also been keen to regain the confidence of Egyptian political forces following the attrition on it caused by the regime’s long campaign to isolate and weaken it. Even so, the petition campaign came rather late in the day, almost as an afterthought. The Brotherhood has not held a political assembly with other political forces over the past five years and made no serious attempt to form a national front against the “hereditary succession scenario”. True, the regime has succeeded, as usual, in dividing the opposition by luring its members with the prospect of parliamentary seats in the next elections (at the expense of seats that the Brotherhood currently occupies, of course) and by painting the Brotherhood as an opportunistic movement that seeks only to attain its own interests.
Finally, the petition campaign was also meant to counter the impression — voiced by many — that the Brotherhood had recoiled into a form of seclusion on the eve of its selection of a new supreme guide at the outset of the year. Not that there had ever been a question of the Brotherhood abandoning political involvement in order to focus more on proselytising and organisational activity. Rather the problem at the time resided in its philosophy and conditions for political involvement, which haven’t changed over the past four decades and which essentially are to keep itself alive as a populist mass movement and to defer internal change until all are subsumed under its umbrella.
The Brotherhood’s petition campaign, itself, begs many questions. Above all, why was it so set on having its own campaign beneath its familiar banner? If it truly aspired to democratise the political order in Egypt, why did it refuse to join the petition campaign launched by El-Baradei earlier this year? Why is it so determined to fragment the movement for change and work independently? It is little wonder that many have begun to doubt the sincerity of the Brotherhood’s commitment to the realisation of aspirations for change through a collective movement. One can not help but observe that the Brotherhood’s petition drive came in the wake of major losses Brotherhood candidates suffered in mid-term Shura Council elections in May. This fact lends additional weight to the notion that the petition drive was little more than a tactical move, rather than part of a consciously conceived broader strategy. It also helps explain the Brotherhood’s reluctance to come out in support of El-Baradei and the National Association for Change.
If the Brotherhood is thrilled to have collected so many signatures in less than two weeks, the next logical question is: Now what? Supposing that it collects five times this many signatures in the next few weeks, what does it plan to do? In other words, just because the Brotherhood gathered over 100,000 signatures (which is actually not all that many given the movement’s organisational capacities) will it be strong enough to transform these signatures from their virtual world to a reality on the ground? Of course not. The Brotherhood would never — especially under its new leadership — venture to turn its harvest of signatories into a mass demonstration calling for change. Such a demonstration would either turn into a protest against the damage inflicted on the Brotherhood leadership in the past few years or into a display of sympathy with the strikes and demonstrations undertaken by various occupational and youth groups during the past two years without eliciting a sign of sympathy from the Brotherhood.
Such are the ironies and paradoxes that have continually plagued the Brotherhood. In spite of its organisational weight and the ideological commitment of its members, it moves “like an elephant in a dark room”. It has no long-range vision and no charismatic leaders that would enable it, firstly, to win a symbolic national consensus and, secondly, to engineer the envisioned change in the enlightened civic manner that, for example, characterised the actions of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party in its bid for power 10 years ago. It seems that the Brotherhood is still prey to the complex of the 1950s and 1960s and is loathe to take the initiative of a “peaceful” confrontation with the regime for fear that this might threaten its own survival, which has become an aim in and of itself.
There remains an even more awkward question that the Brotherhood will have to face. If, as is most probable, the regime refuses to respond to the Brotherhood’s and other opposition forces’ demands for change, what will the Brotherhood do? Will it declare a phase of civil disobedience or even organise a token demonstration or two? Will it boycott the next elections? Neither of these scenarios is very likely. The Brotherhood is not used to thinking “outside the box”. Therefore, the chances of it taking well-considered steps that would throw off the calculations of the regime and compel the regime to make political concessions are very slim. Rather, the Brotherhood is in the habit of trapping itself in zero-sum games: either brutal confrontation with the regime or total silence and passivity. It would be well advised to seek a third way, for which there is available room, and towards this end it might seek inspiration from the many successful experiences of peaceful civic movements elsewhere in the world.
The Brotherhood’s petition drive appears to be another episode in the three-sided cat-and-mouse game between the Brotherhood, the opposition and the regime. The Brotherhood is unlikely to boycott the forthcoming elections in spite of its poor chances. One of the reasons for this is that it does not trust the other opposition parties to boycott the elections. Other opposition forces, meanwhile, are pretending to play on the side of the Brotherhood while secretly making pacts with the regime. The regime continues to control the strings, which is ironic given all the talk about its weakness and immanent demise.