Why the Brotherhood disappoints

As many of you know, there was a Muslim Brotherhood organized protest on Wednesday evening, with one of the bigger turnouts we've seen in a while in Cairo (turnouts in the governorates--the areas of Egypt outside of Cairo--tend to be higher, especially when Brotherhood-led). Although some say there were as many as 5,000 people there, I don't think there were more than 1,500. But that's besides the point. This demonstration was meant to be the first one organized by Islamists since the 3,000 or so who protested in Cairo last March (again, in the governorates there have been other demos, but the dynamic there is very different for reasons I'll keep for another post).

This latest protest was disappointing for many reasons. Although it was largely meant to be a face-saving protest to show that the Brotherhood was not intimidated by the massive waves of arrests of its members that took place two months ago, it really underscored their fundamental weakness in the current political crisis. Here's why.

First, prominent Brothers like Essam Al Erian, a "middle generation" member who was elected to parliament, spent the second half of the 1990s in jail and is #2 in the Doctors' Syndicate, had boasted a few months ago about a million-man march that would show the Brothers' true force. The number of people who made on Wednesday night was pathetic by their own standard, even if it was more than the movements that campaign under the Kifaya slogan usually bring out. I am not blaming this on Al Erian, although he does have a big mouth. Al Erian is currently in jail (it's been three months now) and while most other detainees have been released, his temporary detention without charges keeps being renewed. The Brotherhood has largely failed to campaign on his behalf (presumably because he is too much of a firebrand for the cautious leadership), even though this would have been the perfect occasion. Hell, even Human Rights Watch is campaigning for his release. The poor turnout was partly due to the fact that the entire demo was entirely coordinated with the security forces, which reportedly asked that no more than 10,000 people attend. They also forced a change of location from Abdin Square to the Lawyers' Syndicate, a venue that is much easier to control because you can easily cut off the street there. So on this they caved in.

Second, the Brotherhood failed not only to raise issues such as Al Erian's incarceration, but also did not venture beyond the tried old slogans such as "Islam is the solution" and "With our blood, with our soul, we'll sacrifice ourselves for you O Islam." Pretty much any Kifaya demo has more exciting slogans, and their recent shift to focusing on single issues (last week unemployment, this week corruption) is a rather clever development in its tactics. But not only did the Brotherhood show lack of imagination, but they also tried to control what other protesters that they had invited (from the leftist-dominated Kifaya-related movements). One Hamla activist told me there that when they began to shout slogans against Hosni and Gamal Mubarak, the Brothers told them to stay quiet and began to shout their generic Islamist crap. Eventually, the demo split in two and the leftists went to shout their own slogans at the nearby Journalists' Syndicate). It was frankly pathetic and a clear example of why the Brotherhood is failing to rally other groups to its "national alliance." The authoritarian streak in the way they behave (Islamist demonstrators are incredibly disciplined and well-behaved) is worlds apart from the chaotic, occasionally out-of-control and spontaneous nature of the youngest Kifaya offshoots, particularly the youth group Shebab Min Agl Al Tagheer. Speaking of which, I thought this poster was rather good:

Shebab poster

The Washington Post's Anthony Shadid has a good story on the splits in the demo.

For an illustration of the Islamist vs. leftist tension, I thought this was rather good:

Lawyers' Syndicate

Nasser, whose portrait was hung from the Lawyers' Syndicate, is the person he Brotherhood loves to hate (with justification: he put more Brothers in jail than anyone else). It must have been put there by a leftist who wanted to send out a message.

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The demo largely confirms what the Arabic press here is gossiping about--that the Brotherhood has made its deal with the government and will concentrate on the parliamentary elections, where it hopes to make a large advance. In the 1980s, independent candidates representing the Brotherhood managed to get around 80-90 seats. They may get their chance again. In fact, with around that number the regime would have a much more convincing argument that the Brothers are a threat. A strategy to let them in but limit their influence makes sense at this juncture, and perhaps they could even allow a bill or two that pleases the Islamists to be passed--for instance something like banning beauty pageants, a populist conservative issue that the Brotherhood MPs regularly bring up in parliament and that probably has cross-party support anyways. (On the right is a completely gratuitous shot of Mariam George, Miss Egypt 2005. Sorry for the Aardvarkism.)

If this scenario is correct, I think it poses something of a medium to long term threat to the prospect of political integration for Egypt's Islamist movement. First, by getting into bed with the regime, the Brotherhood's current leadership will alienate some of its followers, who will either defect for movements like Al Wasat or, possibly, something more extreme. There have been rumors, notably in the Iraqi press, of an ultra-conservative faction of the Brotherhood having forged an alliance with the Sunni insurgency in Iraq and reforging links with Egyptian mujahideen in Iraq who have previous links to the Gamaa Islamiya and Islamic Jihad. I have no idea how credible this is, but if true it points to a radicalization of elements of a group that officially rejected violence (at least domestically) in the 1970s. At some point, under the right circumstances (such as an increasingly tense situation at home, like what might be caused by the now widely expected post-election crackdown that could take place in a few months), this could become a serious problem. The regime's inability or unwillingness to take reform seriously only exacerbates matters, as will its involvement in the Gaza withdrawal and any future Fatah-Hamas-Israel conflict.

In short: to what extent will the young and angry part of the Brotherhood--the part that looks at Kifaya and wished it had the courage to do the same--keep on following the cautious and conciliatory approach of the elderly leadership? And what future for a Brotherhood that decides to follow the principle of wilayat al amr and give its support to a leader that keeps imprisoning its members--lately in the biggest crackdown on any political group since 1954?

Bonus fun pic:

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.