The Ikhwan Complex

The future of the Muslim Brotherhood is dependent on the fate of reform. Omayma Abdel-Latif reviews the findings of a soon to be published study

Asking what the future holds for the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition movement, is tantamount to asking what it holds for the whole of Egypt, given the centrality of the movement in the battle for political and social reform. And at a time when there appears to be yet another crackdown on the group — the latest round took place last week when nine Muslim Brotherhood members were detained — the question could not come at a more pertinent time.

Smear campaigns in pro-state newspapers, recent statements by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif in which he disclosed that the government was unhappy with the way the 88 Brotherhood People’s Assembly members operated as a bloc, as well as the wide reporting of controversial statements made by the movement’s supreme guide, led one prominent Al-Ahram columnist to suggest that the regime suffers from “an Ikhwan complex”.

A new study, written by Amr Al-Chobaki of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and due to be released soon, suggests that the survival of the Brotherhood as a politically viable movement ultimately rests on the result of the battle for political reform currently being waged.

The study sets out to assess the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in shaping the current wave of political dissent and to gauge where exactly it stands in the political arena.

The study, says its author, is an attempt to measure the group’s political and social clout away from “much hyped media reports and exaggeration”.

“It seeks to assess the real potential of the group and measure its ability to transform itself into a political and partisan entity should the political system begin a serious process of democratic and political reform.”

While Al-Chobaki argues that the transformation of the Brotherhood from a religious movement into a politically viable entity rests primarily on whether the political system can successfully reform itself, he also describes the process whereby the Muslim Brotherhood has consolidated an image for itself as the most organised and influential opposition group today despite decades of oppression and political exclusion.

“The fact that the Brotherhood has survived despite the crises that have befallen it is an indication of its strength,” he says.

But the future survival of the movement, Al-Chobaki argues, may well come to hinge on its willingness, or otherwise, to make a clear separation between the religious and the political.

“The group will eventually have to decide whether it wants to be a political civil entity that strives to reach power through peaceful means, respecting the rules of democracy, or whether it will continue to project itself as a movement whose primary goal is to preach Islamic mores and tenets and which sees the route to power not through presenting a well-defined political programme but a moral platform.”

Al-Chobaki notes that recent years have seen few changes in the way the Brotherhood operates even though “the political gained ground in its public discourse at the expense of the religious”. As a consequence it remains difficult to determine to what extent the Brotherhood does perceive itself as a purely political movement.

The movements continued blurring of the religious and political realms are interpreted by Al-Chobaki as a survival tactic.

“During the 2005 parliamentary elections,” he says, “politics overrode ideology. They showed organisational skill and exhibited an ability to provide services and present themselves as an alternative to governmental chaos and the official opposition parties.”

One useful focus of the study is on the internal dynamics of recruitment, decision- making and the oft mentioned generational conflict within the movement. This helps dispel the veil of secrecy that has surrounded the group’s composition and activities, sometimes making it appear more like a secret society or a cult than a political group. He addresses the composition of the group, its hierarchy, recruitment policies and the kind of activities in which group members are involved at length.

While he praises the group’s ability to survive, Al-Chobaki also notes that recent changes to the political scene have presented it with a challenge in terms of adapting itself in a way capable of keeping up with new developments. Not that he sees any possibility of the group disintegrating in the foreseeable future, despite never- ending media reports about a clash between the old and new guard, for “the Brotherhood retains the ability to embrace all the contradictions and tensions which result from the generational gap that exists.”

While criticising the group for failing to present a viable and well defined political programme Al-Chobaki sees what he describes as its “discourse of generalities” to be one more facet of its survival strategy.

“Unfortunately the failure to separate the religious from the social or political has in turn led to a failure to address many of the crucial questions regarding the nature of the state they aspire to and their relationship with other political powers.”

On the future of the Brotherhood Al-Chobaki posits four possible scenarios.

Should the status quo remain as is, “the movement will continue to identify itself as a religio-political group, recruiting members on a religious basis, and remain outlawed… the regime under Mubarak will not change its policy vis-à-vis the group.”

The Brotherhood, as a consequence, will continue to project an image of itself as the victim of an oppressive security machine.

The second scenario, which he terms “un-constructive chaos”, involves a deterioration in the political situation to the point where the Brotherhood seizes the opportunity and takes power. “This scenario is the least likely to happen, simply because the Brotherhood does not seek to take over through violent means, and would be unwilling to abandon the utopian project of reinstating the Caliphate and liberating Palestine.”

The third scenario suggests a partial integration of Islamists within the political process. Al-Chobaki predicts that Al-Wasat Party — whose founding members are defectors from the Brotherhood — will be licensed, a move which the government hopes will weaken the Brotherhood.

The fourth scenario is dependent on the complete integration of the Brotherhood in the democratic reform process which will finally lead to the emergence of a democratic Islamist current upholding the values of citizenship, human rights and the civil state.

“This remains the ideal scenario for the political and democratic evolution of Egypt, furnishing the ideal circumstances for a quiet transition from an authoritarian regime to a democratic one.”

No democratic process, writes Al-Chobaki, can be considered complete if Islamist movements are excluded. Integrating the Brothers and Islamists into the political process, he argues, would put the political back into the body politic. Excluding them — as is the case now — means the death of politics.


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