Regression Prompts Debate on Brotherhood’s Trajectory
Regression Prompts Debate on Brotherhood’s Trajectory
Friday, December 21,2007 11:10

The disputes over the platform highlight the limits to the movement"s political evolution and the dominant influence of conservative salafist forces. Key figures in the Brotherhood have recently portrayed it as a reformist movement, adopting a more democratic discourse, while advocates for engagement highlighted the positions of relatively moderate "Second Generation" pragmatists, like Abdel-Moneim Abul-Futuh, a member of the Maktab al-Irshad, or Guidance Bureau, and Essam al-Erian, head of the Brotherhood"s Political Committee, who have both argued for revising Islamist orthodoxy and pushed for the movement to become a political party.

The Brotherhood is "a moderate, mainstream movement that is capable of overshadowing radical ideologies," claims spokesman Aziz Fahmy. "Yet we are only able to do so effectively in an atmosphere of freedom." He complains that the regime has tried to prevent dialogue and engagement "by keeping the moderate leaders of the Brotherhood, such as Deputy Chairman Khayrat El Shater, behind bars."

Such claims are echoed by advocates of engagement with the Brotherhood for whom the draft platform needs to be understood in the context of a repressive state imposing constraints on the Islamists" political participation. "In such an uncertain environment", claims Carnegie"s Amr Hamzawy, "it is highly unlikely that nonviolent religious opposition movements open up to fully embrace democratic norms and principles."

But many observers find this unconvincing, arguing that the Brotherhood has long been the principal "incubator of jihadist ideology". The Brotherhood"s affiliates in the democratic West betray similar "ambiguities" in their approach to democratic values and institutions. Furthermore, as one recent analysis notes, adopting democratic positions "would not make the group any more prone to the arbitrary crackdowns it currently endures."

Reformists like Futuh and Gamal Hishmet publicly dissented from the contentious draft program, while Erian, Kheirat al-Shater, and several other leading pragmatists were in prison at the time the conservative faction drafted the platform. But it is increasingly evident that the Second Generation represents a small minority of relatively moderate reformists "battling with the dominant conservatives", namely the Salafists, orthodox traditionalists, and Qutbists, disciples of Sayed Qutb, the radical Islamists" inspiration. The new program confirms the dominance of the hard-line "Da"awa" tendency which is hostile to diluting the movement"s commitment to sharia and other fundamentalist tenets.

Furthermore, the group"s Supreme Guide (and what does that title tell you?), has shown little sign of revisionism or adherence to democratic values. "Islam preceded doctrines and ideologies devised by men," Muhammed Akef insisted earlier this year. "Islam and its values antedated the West by founding true democracy, exemplified by the Shura [the Caliphate"s advisory body]."

Internal debates and divisions over the platform have confirmed the strength of radical Salafist elements within the Brotherhood, particularly in the provinces. The reformists so often cited by western experts comprise only about 15 percent of the youth, according to one Brotherhood activist. "Reformists punch above their weight because they are intellectually engaged, take-charge personalities who have gained the confidence of the leadership, but the balance of the youth, mostly from the provinces, are salafis," notes an observer.

"Conservatives are the majority inside the group in general," confirmed a Brotherhood reformist blogger. He is skeptical that reformers will mobilize against the conservative turn. Internal critics will "follow whatever the supreme leader says, since the group"s membership is based upon listening and obedience" because of the organization"s Leninist-like party discipline.