Stacher on the Brothers and the Wars

Friend of the blog and academic Joshua Stacher, who focuses on authoritarianism, Islamist movements and other fun things (and thus knows a lot about Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brothers) has a new piece out in Middle East Report. It's about the Brothers' behavior during the Gaza war, and more widely the diverse theories about the divisions that may or may not exist within the group. He argues that the havioc wrought on the region by the Bush administration, and its encouragement of Israeli adventurism such as Operation Cast Lead, has weakened the credibility of "pragmatists" among the Brothers who sought a less confrontational approach with the West than is the usual staple of the movement, which after all was founded as an anti-colonial project:

The Gaza war was an enabler of the anti-engagement trend among the Brothers. It bolstered the credibility of the group’s more conservative leaders when they lobby the base that the pragmatic wing’s participatory spirit has led the Brothers to a dead end, where they are just as powerless to affect Egyptian foreign policy as they were when underground. Instead of contesting the regime in the widest domain possible, the conservatives argue that the Brothers should prioritize peaceful “resistance” to the US-Israeli military order, in solidarity with those who have taken up arms against it.


He also criticizes the generational approach to explaining rifts among the Brothers, taking to task Egyptian analyst Khalil al-Anani who developed in his book "The Muslim Brothers: Gerontocracy Racing Against Time" (loose translation of the Arabic al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun: Shukhukha Tussari3 al-Zaman) a theory of four generations fighting it out. (Personally I think al-Anani deserves more credit - his view is more nuanced than this.)

Instead, Josh says a division according to political orientation, notably pragamatist politicians vs. conservative ideologues, may be more useful. I like his take on the General Guide being a CEO rather than an eminence grise and emphasis on consensus that has kept the group together. He also looks at another rift, that of "peasants vs. city slickers" that helps explain different attitudes and the conservative bent of the mostly Delta-based bulk of the movement, as well as possible class explanations for the divisions, since many of the leaders are after all middle-class professionals.

I have differences with Josh over his analysis - for instance, it's not clear to me that Essam al-Erian is perennially losing entry into the Guidance Council because he is too "moderate" rather than because he has annoyed many with his dilettantism and frequent media appearances claiming to represent the MB on controversial issues. But this piece shows how complex a movement the Egyptian Muslim Brothers are, and that no single framework of analysis is in itself convincing: the MB is a big tent no less diverse than, say, the Republican Party (and no less likely to shift ideologically over time, as the Republicans have from the party of Lincoln into the current morass). Most importantly, it is another important reminder of the crucial importance regional developments can have in the internal developments of political movements and the role they play within their societies. In this turbulent Middle East of ours, it is good to be reminded that things change - sometimes very fast.