The dawn of a new Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt
Young sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood seek more practical solutions to everyday problems like unemployment, not more outdated revolutionary rhetoric.
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September has seen the first major anti-government protests to erupt in Egypt since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was elected president in 2014, a year after he led a military coup against his presidential predecessor, the late Mohamed Morsi. Morsi, who hailed from the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned organisation that originated in Egypt in the 1920s and has since gone global, was ousted by Sisi after just one year in power following mass demonstrations against his rule. He himself had only come to be in charge after former strongman leader Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down amid the Arab Spring revolution that kicked off in 2010.
A decade ago, in the midst of the revolution that not only swept Egypt but also the Middle East and North Africa, one could be forgiven for believing that the Arab world was on the verge of being acquainted with a democratic transition that was to include all walks of life from society, including the hugely influential political Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, otherwise known as Ikhwanis.
Optimists saw the overthrowing of dictatorship regimes and military leaders as an overdue Arab declaration of independence from a political status quo that had been set up to appease the post-colonial world of western hegemony. For too long had the majority Sunni Muslim populations, who on the whole hold relatively conservative values, suffered silently at the hands of secular leaders, who punished any demonstration of Islamic principles that were not endorsed by the state. This meant tough limits and controls on expressions of religious solidarity with the global ummah, or Muslim community, as well as the suppression of theological objections to state policies.
The secularists and Ikhwanis were already on a collision course before the end of the colonial era. After the Ottoman Empire was carved up by Western imperialist nations — namely Britain, France and Italy — a difference of opinion arose regarding the future direction of the Muslim world. Some aspired to follow in the footsteps of the West by establishing secular nation-states. Others sought to revive the so-called golden age of Islam, continuing on the trajectory put in motion by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions in the 7th century. It was however the former camp that gained the most momentum, while the latter became so irrelevant to political discourse that the main debate in society became one of secular monarchists vs secular republicans.
Yet, as the Ikhwanis became more and more estranged, their attention-seeking methods became more and more radical. In Egypt, it was the republicans who gained the upper-hand when secular nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser replaced the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. With the monarchy out of the way and the Nasserists firmly in power, the Ikhwanis by de facto took the place of the main opposition. Thereafter ensued a surreal phase in which the Brotherhood, which was at the time advocating for an Islamic theocracy, had no choice but to play along according to the rules of a system they are intrinsically opposed to, which by its very design gave their secular opponents the advantage from the onset. The Ikhwanis, empowered by their loyalty to the traditional Islamic system that governed the Muslim world for over a millenium, felt an overwhelming sense of entitlement and legitimacy over their counterparts, who they viewed as imposters and puppets of foreign, and most importantly, non-Muslim imperialist powers.
Until the Yom Kippur war with Israel in 1973, however, there was some overlap between these two camps. They were both united in their opposition to Israel and their sense of affinity with the Palestinian cause. Nonetheless, Egypt’s defeat in the war meant that in 1978, Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat had to agree to the Camp David Accords, amounting to Cairo’s official recognition and establishment of diplomatic ties with Israel. Neither the secular nationalists nor the Ikhwanis were particularly happy with this outcome, but the Egyptian government bit the bullet and hesitantly embraced the new “cold peace” in the region. For the Ikhwanis, however, the attitude of the secular regime was even more proof of their treacherous intent towards the Muslim world, and more of a reason to continue fighting them until they were removed. In 1981, President Sadat was gunned down during a ceremony marking the end of the aforementioned war. The attack was blamed on the Brotherhood, which thereafter came under an evermore fierce crackdown.
The assassination of Sadat sent a message to all post-colonial leaders in the Muslim world, from the Arab monarchies and sheikdoms of the Gulf, to the socialist-nationalist Baathist regimes of Syria and Iraq. Even the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was reminded that besides resisting the Israeli occupation of Palestine, it also had to keep one eye on the Brotherhood and its affiliates. They all had a legitimate reason to fear the Ikhwanis, primarily due to the movement’s propagation of Tawheed al-Hakimiya (Oneness of God’s Rule), which states that any leader who rules according to a law other than that of God’s shariah is not a believer, and thus provides Muslims with the mandate to forcibly remove any leader who implements a legal system that contradicts the Qur’an and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. This belief was promoted by prominent Brotherhood member Sayyid Qutb, and to this day also fuels the ideology of other breakaway groups and offshoots such as Hamas and Hizb ul-Tahrir. These groups are also often referred to by more secular Arabs as Hizbis, which points to their blurring of lines between religious and political thought. Meanwhile, Madkhali Salafists, who dominate the religious scene in Saudi Arabia, often refer to these groups as being Takfiri or even Khawarij, meaning that they accuse other Muslims of being non-believers to usurp power from them, thus resulting in they themselves abandoning the fold of orthodox Islam.
For decades, the Muslim Brotherhood faced constant suppression at the hands of authoritarian leaders across the Arab and Muslim world, despite the movement’s popularity among the disenfranchised masses. However, in the year 2010, when the Arab Spring revolutions started, the Ikhwanis were presented with a golden opportunity to reinvent themselves and prove that they were ready to play ball. By that point, the Brotherhood already had a successful template to follow in the example of Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who himself hailed from a movement called Milli Gorus, which shares many similarities with the Brotherhood. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party was by all means at the time a modern, democratic and secular political party that had done wonders for the Turkish economy, all the while catering for the needs of a conservative Muslim society. It was something the Ikhwanis could aspire to and emulate, not just in Egypt, but also in Tunisia and Libya, where they were poised to make gains after the downfall of their respective dictatorships. But where the Brotherhood went wrong in Egypt was in their failure to imitate Erdogan’s domestic and foreign balancing act.
Almost as soon as Mohamed Morsi was elected president in 2013, Erdogan was invited to Cairo, where he was welcomed like some kind of Ottoman sultan. Not only did this antagonise Morsi’s domestic opposition, namely the secular nationalists who are paranoid about Egypt once again coming under Turkish control, it also left Israel feeling very exposed. Suddenly, the two most powerful Sunni Muslim nations in the region, with a combined population of 190 million, were joining forces. Morsi immediately opened Egypt’s border with Gaza, allowing weapons to reach Hamas militants through Sinai. He also allowed Iranian ships to pass through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean, further irking Israel, as well as Iran’s bitter rival Saudi Arabia. His behaviour did very little to reassure the concerns of other stakeholders in the region, and thus his ouster a year later came as no surprise.
Shortly after Sisi took charge, a crackdown began against Morsi’s supporters, and the Muslim Brotherhood was forced back into the shadows. Egypt’s relationship with Israel was reaffirmed and the border with Gaza was closed once again, with Hamas being cast aside as troublemakers. The entire senior leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood was put behind bars, while the movement’s social networks were dispersed, with some fleeing abroad, and others going into hiding. Even the acting head of the movement, Mahmoud Ezzat, was caught by Egyptian security forces in August after being on the run for seven years. Needless to say, however, the Brotherhood is a global organisation, so it is almost impossible to wipe it out completely. Nonetheless, Egypt, being the birthplace of the Brotherhood and home to around a quarter of the world’s Arab population, has always been the ideological heartland of the movement, as well as its central command base. Without its core, the movement is at risk of fragmenting. In fact, one could argue that this fragmentation has already started.
Shut out and shut down
With all avenues to political inclusion more or less blocked, some of the more moderate voices within the Brotherhood have been silenced. To be fair, it took many decades for the Brotherhood to take its place in the democratic process. On one hand, there was a reluctance from within the movement to become a participant in what it deemed to be a foreign-imposed, un-Islamic system. On the other hand, the system was for a long time controlled by regimes that did not want to see the Brotherhood become a participant. Yet, when the opportunity presented itself following the Arab Spring, the Brotherhood rose to the occasion and came out on top. Then, just as had happened in Algeria in 1991, the political Islamists saw their democratically-gained victory stolen from them. This only worked to embolden the more hardline Ikhwanis, who, without a healthy outlet to express their grievances, were more likely to turn to militancy and extremist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. The ongoing Islamist insurgency that broke out in the Sinai peninsula after Morsi’s ouster is a testament to this.
The Brotherhood also faces a split at the other end of the spectrum. Younger Egyptians who are sympathetic to the movement are beginning to grow disillusioned with its leadership. Their political tactics and revolutionary rhetoric have become archaic and obsolete, yielding little to nothing in the way of results. When the Brotherhood was first established in 1928 by Hassan al Banna, it was creating jobs, building hospitals, and providing education and training for young people. Today, however, the Brotherhood is struggling to address the everyday needs of young Egyptians who face widespread unemployment and poverty. The youth are in need of a much more pragmatic and results-orientated approach, and the promise of an Islamist government that will come along, wave a magic wand and somehow make everything better no longer resonates as much as it used to. The urbanised Egyptian youth of today are much more educated than their rural parents and grandparents, and are therefore less gullible to the populist methods that worked so well for the Brotherhood in earlier days. Young, religiously-inclined Egyptians are seeking new ways to express themselves and participate in a post-Brotherhood society to bring about contemporary solutions to contemporary problems. Without a well-grounded generation to take over from the movement’s aging and out-of-touch senior leaders, the Brotherhood is at risk of fizzling out all together within the next 10 years.
That being said, the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates still uphold some of their old relevance today, mainly outside of Egypt. Libya is a perfect example. Perhaps in a bid to avoid a repeat of the bloodshed and instability that occured in Egypt, the international community has sought to spearhead a more inclusive initiative in Libya by helping Libyans form a temporary transitional government that includes politicians from Ikhwani backgrounds. This didn’t quite go according to plan, as this government was considered by many Libyans to be foreign-imposed. Renegade commander Khalifa Haftar, a one-time loyalist of former strongman leader Muammar Ghaddafi, was also opposed to the Ikhwani elements in the Government of National Accord (GNA), claiming the it included “terrorists”. Having launched a massive offensive to bring down the government in Tripoli on behalf of Libya’s eastern-based rival government in Tobruk, Haftar irked the response of Turkey, which sent its troops to Tripoli to defend the besieged government there. As a result, Haftar’s offensive fell flat, and peace negotiations to end the conflict began. Like this, the Muslim Brotherhood secured for itself a platform to stand on and a voice within the Libyan democratic process, largely thanks to Turkey’s backing.
Dependency on Turkey
Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has been supporting Ikhwani groups across the Muslim world. Just as Ankara supported Morsi’s presidency in Egypt, it also condemned the coup that deposed him, and has had poor relations with Egypt ever since. Turkey is also fond of Tunisian politician and founder of the Islamist Ennahda Party, Rached al Ghannouchi. Likewise, Islamist groups in Syria, some of whom may have connections with the Muslim Brotherhood, also enjoy Turkey’s support. In Gaza, Muslim Brotherhood offshoot Hamas is on the receiving end of much spiritual and diplomatic support from Turkey, while in Sudan, former leader Omar al-Bashir, who was sympathetic to the Brotherhood, was also a Turkish ally before he was ousted last year.
Yet those opposed to the Ikhwanis also have their backers — namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have supported Sisi’s presidency in Egypt. They also send financial and military support to Haftar in Libya, as well as the new post-Bashir authorities in Sudan. When it comes to Syria, the UAE has re-established ties with the Assad regime in a move seemingly aimed at establishing a front against Turkey’s growing influence there. The UAE has also established ties with Israel, thus opening the door for other Muslim countries to do the same, such as Bahrain, Chad and Kosovo. This development has somewhat taken the steam out of Hamas, which has long prided itself on being a form of Islamic resistance against Israel. Hamas will find itself completely undermined if Muslim countries continue to establish ties with Israel, which would in turn affect Turkey’s standing too.
Another issue is that Ikhwani groups cannot depend on Turkey’s backing alone. Turkey may pack a good punch, as it did when defending Tripoli from Haftar’s forces, but in the long term it lacks the political and economic stability to be counted on as a reliable partner. Turkey was not able to save Morsi in 2013, the same way it was unable to save Bashir in 2019. Turkey’s intervention may have granted the UN-recognised Libyan government a lifeline, but it could not prevent Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s resignation in the face of mass protests, nor has it been able to exert enough influence to maintain its position as the main broker in the reconciliation process. Similarly, Turkey’s allies in Tunisia have been forced to give major concessions in power-sharing agreements with their political rivals. And, as Hamas backs down from its more hardline demands against Israel and its Palestinian rivals Fatah to secure its own relevance to regional developments, Turkey may find its hand weakened in Gaza as well. To top it all off, Turkey’s support for Ikhwani groups is seemingly based on the personality of President Erdogan, rather than long-term state policy. But with a wide range of domestic issues bringing down Erdogan’s popularity, there’s no guarantee he will be in power beyond the next election, or if his would-be successors will continue down his path.
Therefore, if the Ikhwanis are to survive, they may need to abandon the former tactics of the Muslim Brotherhood, if not abandon the organisation all together. The revolutionary rhetoric of the movement’s senior leadership has expired. Their progress over the decades has run out of fuel and come to a steady halt. The time is nigh for the younger generation of Ikhwanis to take charge and start participating in the democratic process as partners rather than ideological adversaries, and work together with their fellow countrymen to overcome the modern-day challenges that they all face.
As the latest demonstrations against Sisi have shown, there is still a huge feeling of discontent among the masses, who 10 years on from the Arab Spring, still express the same grievances. This time, instead of exploiting that public energy to make selfish gains at the expense of non-partisan issues, the Ikhwanis need to nurture it, and be prepared to give concessions to regain their place at the table. Without a strong, charismatic and outspoken challenger to Sisi’s one-man monopoly over the country, the Ikhwanis of Egypt may not be ready to implement Erdogan’s Turkish model of political Islam, but Ghannouchi’s Tunisian model might just work.
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