The Muslim Brotherhood's New Challenges

By Hassan Mneimneh

Until now, the revolutionary changes witnessed in Egypt appear not to have disrupted the processes that the transatlantic alliance views as most vital. Egypt's political transition remains orderly; its commitments to its international obligations, including the Peace Treaty with Israel, remain solid; and there has been no evidence of its intention of exporting Islamism, Iranian Revolution-style. Indeed, inside Egypt, it is hard to locate any sign of Islamist triumphalism. The Islamists, it seems, understand that their victory is not one for their ideology. Yet, this apparent equilibrium is precarious, and can be disrupted by both alarmism and complacency.

At face value, the ascent of Muhammad Mursi, a leading figure of the Muslim Brotherhood, to the presidency of Egypt ought to be viewed as a momentous victory, and a major milestone in the history of the country and the movement. While Egypt boasts seven millennia of history as a nation-state, Mursi is its first head of state elected in free and fair elections. Founded in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has been ostracized and persecuted for many decades before gaining the credibility and public support that allowed its candidate to win the title of president. Yet, this political rags-to-riches story overshadows the political maneuvers and circumstances that made this rise possible. Furthermore, the exact powers of the presidency remain ill-defined, and are severely checked by the over-riding force of the military.

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The revolution of January 25, 2011 that ultimately resulted in the presidency of Mursi was neither ignited nor led by the Muslim Brotherhood. The young, progressive, often liberal, protestors whose energy brought an end to the autocracy of Hosni Mubarak lacked the organizational structure to properly compete in the subsequent phases. The revolutionary momentum was instead ushered by the military establishment into a transition that satisfies some of the demands of the protestors, while ensuring that the military's interests and influence are protected. In the process, deep schisms were revealed in Egypt's political culture between segments of the population yearning for change and others fearing the chaos that it might entail, as well as between those expecting the change to unfold within the framework of universal values and those attempting to root it in religious legacy. While the Muslim Brotherhood had historically been the champion of the latter view, its ideological stands are today challenged both from the right (by the Salafist movement, itself facing serious bifurcations), and from the left (by hybrid propositions attempting a fusion between religion and liberalism). Even internally, the Brotherhood faces often overlapping doctrinal, generational, and regional tensions through which the authority of the dogmatic old guard is contested by pragmatic decentralizing currents.

The choice of Muhammad Mursi as the Brotherhood's nominee was informed by these challenges. A respected leading figure of the movement, Mursi was nonetheless not its front-runner, but was instead thrust forward by circumstances and compromises. Some feared that Mursi would diligently enable the Brotherhood's leadership to assume a stealth role of custodianship over the political process. This leadership had already broken successive public promises: not to aim for a majority in parliament (which it did, and came close to achieving), not to monopolize the formation of the constitutional committee (which it attempted), and not to seek the presidency (which it succeeded in securing, albeit with a slim margin).

Brotherhood leaders have ready explanations for their repeated course changes. What their detractors portray as abject deceit, they describe as honest reconsiderations in a murky political environment that might otherwise stunt their fair representation. In fact, the Brotherhood has duly displayed its lack of savvy in navigating a political process in which it is indeed a novice. The external and internal pressures to which the Brotherhood is subjected seem to have pushed the organization to a consistently reactive, often impulsive, mode of behavior. While its behavior may improve with practice, the belief that they seek an organizational stranglehold over the Egyptian presidency may be unwarranted.

While Egypt has undoubtedly taken a historic turn in the past few months, its democratic revolution is far from settled. Instead, it seems today to be in the custody of two competing primary actors - the military establishment and the Muslim Brotherhood - neither of which is a natural proponent of liberal democracy, but neither of which is able to secure the country entirely on its own terms. It is through this stalemate that secondary actors have the opportunity to widen the space for an evolutionary transition to democracy. This process is evidently an internal Egyptian one; a multi-level engagement of all parties by the transatlantic alliance is however an important component to reduce the volatility of a high-stake process for Egypt, the region, and the world.

Hassan Mneimneh is Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.


© 2012, German Marshall Fund of the United States

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