Where do the Brothers go from here?

Where do the Brothers go from here?

 Suppose that a person with absolutely zero knowledge of Egyptian politics just arrived into the country. Inquiring about all the colorful electoral banners, they would be told that an election had just taken place in which the biggest opposition bloc, a conservative group called the Muslim Brotherhood, went from controlling 20 percent of parliament to losing all of its seats. That person would probably think that either Egyptian voters are strangely unpredictable or that the election was rigged.

These results are a challenge for the regime, in whose interest it was to maintain the illusion of gradual progress on political reform and plurality in Egyptian political life. This has, after all, been the message promoted by Gamal Mubarak and other NDP leaders since 2002, including the idea (borrowed from ex-President Anwar al-Sadat) that Egypt needs three strong parties: a centrist one (the NDP), a leftist one (presumably the Tagammu) and a rightist one (presumably the Wafd). The role that the Muslim Brotherhood played in this configuration was always ambiguous, since the regime has never wanted to concede to them the right to have a formal political role.

In practice, a different three-party configuration emerged, which included a hegemonic party (the NDP), an Islamist one (the Muslim Brotherhood) that supposedly represented a dangerous alternative but could easily be kept in check by repression, and a loose front of secular parties and individuals that could mostly be intimidated and controlled, in part because it shared the NDP’s fear of Islamists, and represented no credible alternative at all.

These elections have shattered that arrangement. The question now is whether they have done so definitively, an issue that concerns the Muslim Brotherhood first and foremost. By barring many of its candidates from registering and campaigning, the security forces have sent a message that they want no Muslim Brothers in official politics. The NDP, likewise, filed court orders to have Muslim Brothers disqualified because of their “membership in a banned organization,” thus sending a signal that the era of tolerating Muslim Brothers in parliament is over.

There is speculation that this is a temporary move to secure calm during what many believe is an imminent presidential succession. But what if it’s a more permanent re-arrangement of the political chessboard?

It was once standard journalistic boilerplate to describe the Egyptian Muslim Brothers as “banned but tolerated.” That oxymoronic passphrase encapsulated the group’s legal status–banned–as well as the reality that, in practice, the Brothers were allowed to have an office, run for elections, run charities, clinics and pharmacies, contest syndicate elections and generally participate in public life. In other words, that they were largely tolerated as long as they posed no real threat to the regime. Sometimes–as in the 2005 parliamentary elections–they were even given unusual leeway to compete, to better represent the “worse alternative” the regime painted them as to domestic elites and foreign backers.

This was for a long time a cozy arrangement for both sides, only interrupted now and again by the periodic crackdowns the regime would wage against up-and-coming Brotherhood figures. These would typically take place every five years, depriving the organization of its brightest new talent while keeping in place a generation of leaders–now mostly in their late 60s, 70s and even early 80s–that remembered the days when the organization was virtually wiped out. This generation, which took the credit for rebuilding the Brotherhood from scratch, laid the basis for a new organization to emerge. It dissociated itself from the more radical writings of Sayyid Qutb and the group’s past dalliance with violent radicalism in the 1950s and 1960s, while remaining faithful to the teachings of founder Hassan al-Banna and espusing non-violence. It became concerned first and foremost with the survival of Egypt’s second oldest political movement after the Wafd. The result was that the Brotherhood became politically cautious and ambiguous in its relationship with the regime.

It is understandable that the Muslim Brothers, even as they bore witness to fraud in the recent elections, are getting tired of playing punching ball. This is why there was a debate about not participating in the elections at all. But can the generation that rebuilt the Brotherhood also be the one that takes it beyond a role assigned by the regime?

Individual Muslim Brothers clearly have sympathies for the principles, and some of the personalities, of the secular opposition. There have even been a few successes in forming alliances based on principles that most Egyptians would agree with, though the organization as a whole has refrained from a more fundamental commitment to alliances. Part of this was because the Brotherhood felt that, as the largest opposition group, it deserved to lead the opposition. Part of it was also that the Brotherhood reasoned it was better to cut a deal with a regime firmly in control than a haphazard opposition coalition. But in these elections, the regime is signaling that it either isn’t interested in making deals anymore, or is unable to deliver on them.

The Brotherhood’s challenge is now to decide whether it wants to be a quietist religious movement, a banned political party lobbying the regime for a margin of toleration, or the conservative element of a national coalition fighting for greater democracy. Trying to be all three, as it has in recent years, is obviously not delivering great results.

Issandr El Amrani is a writer on Middle Eastern affairs. He blogs at www.arabist.net. His column appears every Tuesday.