The Islamist Conundrum

The Islamist Conundrum

The elections within the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan for its Shura Council in March and the elections for the central bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in June drew the attention of observers of political Islam. All were struck by what appeared to be a victory of hardliners over moderates in both elections. Indeed, the positions of Hamam Said and his followers on domestic and foreign policy issues in Jordan are considerably more hawkish than those of his predecessor as head of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood branch Salem Falahat. Similarly, with perhaps one exception (People”s Assembly member and head of the Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary bloc Mohamed Saad Al-Katatni), the newly elected members of the Muslim Brotherhood central bureau in Egypt are not known for their reformist tendencies. This said, I believe that an examination of the conservative-moderate dichotomy might offer insight into the internal dynamics of the Muslim Brotherhood groups.

In all socio-political movements, including those with a religious-ideological frame of reference, there will be divergent points of view, the internal interplay around which generally gives rise to a dominant trend that sets the compass for the movement”s strategies and agendas and the means for carrying them out. The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and Egypt are no exception to this rule, to which testify recent internal elections in both groups. That these elections or other mechanisms weakened the position of the moderate reformist wings within the groups does nothing to diminish the naturalness of this internal process as long as two conditions are met: freedom to choose, and the integrity of the elections. In this regard, all evidence suggests that the elections met these conditions, which does considerable credit to both groups, especially in view of the general political environment in these countries in which electoral fraud is so prevalent.

Many religious and ideological movements are structurally biased against the moderate and reform camps within them, which accounts for their marginalization and limited influence. This applies as much to the radical left- wing and the religious right-wing movements in the West as it does to Islamists. As a rule, a clear majority within the hierarchies and memberships of such movements are drawn to more rigid or conservative stances and are often repelled by appeals to flexibility or reform, which they regard as unacceptable compromises on principles that have over time become imprinted in the collective consciousness of the group as immutable tenets. In this regard, too, it is little wonder that the most vociferous wielders of the banner “Islam is the solution” and the staunchest proponents of the centrality of Sharia law to any governing system are more popular than moderates who advocate for a middle ground with the regime and with non- religious opposition forces. Nor does it come as a surprise that the Muslim Brotherhood”s public in Jordan is more inclined to a hard-line rhetoric that regards political participation as a waste of the group”s time and energies and a way to divert it from its true aims, whether these aims are the total Islamicisation of society or the liberation of Palestine “from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean”.

Only moments of rapid transition in the political environment, when new opportunities or challenges present themselves to religiously or ideologically inspired movements, are capable of altering the marginalized status of moderates and enabling them to attain a degree of parity with conservative camps. Jordan passed through an extended phase of this sort from the return to “democratic neutrality” in 1989 to 2005, and Egypt experienced a similar albeit shorter window of opportunity from 2004 to 2005. In both cases, moderates and reformists gradually broadened their scope of influence and succeeded in translating this into a series of policies and practices that prioritized participation in the political process and consensus making with political forces in society. Unfortunately, the Jordanian and Egyptian regimes” departure from political relaxation over the past two years, and their reversion to authoritarian policies and security clampdowns that seemed to target Brotherhood doves with as much vehemence as they did hawks, propelled conservatives once more to the fore and gave renewed credence, in the mind of the Brotherhood”s supporters, to staunch anti-compromise stances. Put otherwise, what is happening today within the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood and its Egyptian counterpart cannot but be, at one level, integrally related to the restrictive political surroundings that shape certain contours for their actions. The authoritarianism and repressiveness of state regimes inevitably reproduce their unyielding essence in the opposition, religious or otherwise, and propel opposition leaderships to toughen their stances in an attempt to solidify ranks, erect defences and safeguard the coherence of their movements.

In the Jordanian case, the conservative-moderate dichotomy in the Muslim Brotherhood is complicated by an additional factor, which is the Palestinian-Trans-Jordan dichotomy, and the perpetual struggle between the two camps — moderates and hawks — over setting the movement”s priorities (advancing the Palestinian cause versus political and social change in Jordan). Nevertheless, as far as participation in the political process is concerned, the organizational and ideological dynamics within the Jordanian Brotherhood are similar to those in its Egyptian peer. Whereas conservatives in both are sceptical of the value of political participation and are all the more reluctant at times of sustained government repression to adopt compromise positions that they fear might alienate large portions of their popular base, moderates continue to emphasize the need for political participation as a key means of promoting reform, even if the rules of play are unfair and the returns poor. Today, conservatives tend to swing back and forth between rejecting political participation outright until the rules of play change and grudging acceptance of some present conditions. Moderates, meanwhile, continue to cling to the principle of unconditional engagement in the political process; however, they lack the influence to see their view become a fixed principle and goal for their organizations.

It is unfortunate that the domination by conservative camps of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and Egypt offers ruling regimes there a perpetual excuse for suppressing these movements. The authorities can merely point to the Muslim Brotherhood leaderships” rejectionist stances and their refusal to respect the rules of the political game. Simultaneously, the conservatives” scepticism towards the mechanisms of political participation and their obsession with protecting their organization are draining their political efficacy and casting a shadow on their ability to serve the greater public good at a very tense and delicate moment in this period of social transition whose most salient traits are repression, corruption and discontent.