Regarding the Brotherhood

Ever since the beginning of the uprising in Egypt, I have been urged to address the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood. I have not done so to make a point: it just was not that important in the phase that just ended, leading to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. There were more urgent matters at hand, and the alarmism over the Brotherhood we see in many publications was largely silly.

They were not a part of the uprising's beginning, distancing themselves from it initially, and while the Ikhwan youth ended up being a key part of the Tahrir coordinating committee, this is different then the leadership having a key role. Indeed, the Youth and leadership parted at various points over the last week, and I have been told that at one point the Youth refused a direct order from the leadership to move away from tanks (which they, along with others, were blocking by lying underneath them.) Only a few days ago the Ikhwan Youth were telling me that their solidarity with the other youth groups in Tahrir was more important than a leadership they've had problems with fir five years. And, when the MB was given an unprecedented offer by the teetering regime of a seat around the negotiation table, it joined in when others — include all the Tahrir groups and ElBaradei's National Association for Change — refused. I don't agree with some people's view that the new Egyptian political reality irrelevant, but like other opposition groups it will have to account — internally and to the public — for its initial hesitation. Personally, there is little doubt in my mind that the MB leadership would have cut a deal with the regime if it thought it could get away with it.

That being said, the issue of the Brotherhood is important for Egypt's future, and there is plenty for some people to be concerned about. The MB is quite well placed to take advantage of a political opening in Egypt, with its track record at electoral canvassing, a decent national organization with a robust administrative framework, a well-known message and many reputable personalities. As Helena Cobban notes, it is also perhaps the political force in Egypt with the best PR, domestically and internationally, having placed two op-eds into the major American papers today: 

PR is not everything, though. These two men, al-Erian and Abou el-Fotouh, are the image the MB wants to give to the outside world: accomplished professionals, great syndicate organizers, and people who describe themselves as "reformists." In Abou el-Fotouh's case, he deserves this accolade — he has a track record of intellectual integrity and openness. But he could not keep himself on the Guidance Council in the last elections, which tells you a lot about his position within the MB. Al-Erian, after years of being ignored because a) he speaks too much and b) he wanted it too much, was elected to the Guidance Council in what appeared to be a deal with the conservative leadership. Al-Erian is a great political operative, but one whose values are flexible to say the least. Having interviewed him many times, I have often wonders whether he believes in what he says and how much it is shared by others in the MB.

The MB is a big tent, it includes people with a lot of different views. The whole sad episode of its draft program a few years ago showed that there are strong disagreements within the organization on doctrine, and in the last two years a growing disagreement on methods, notably whether it was worth paying the price of political participation when the movement's core aim is the Islamization of society from below. Its swing back in an ultra-conservative direction after the opening that took place under the innovative if haphazard leadership of General Guide Muhammad Akef was largely a reaction, and perhaps a concession, to the regime. The Egyptian revolution that has just taken place will also have an impact on leadership and rank-and-file, particularly since they have a shot at their political activity being legitimized and legalized for the first time.

But that does not mean it will be easily able to resolve the debates that have raged over the last few years. In my opinion, the MB should be made to register as a civil society group and provide information as to its financing. Should — as I hope — partisan life in Egypt be reformed and the obstacles to political party formation removed, its political wing will be able to form a party. Hopefully they might form several parties, with perhaps some joining forces with the Wasat movement and others forming a more conservative party. Likewise reformed Gamaa Islamiya members will be able to form a party, or perhaps join other formations. That's assuming — and it's a big if at this point — that the ban on religious parties the regime had imposed is lifted. Most likely, some sort of compromise will be found: a new national consensus that can leave room for Islamist politicians and also address the quite understandable fears many have about Islamists reaching power. I also hope that part of this trade-off is a secular constitution, although that's unlikely. A lot will depend on the new red lines that emerge from the army, and the extent to which the transition process progresses smoothly.

As it stands, the Muslim Brotherhood is one of the most intellectually un-evolved major Islamist movements in the Arab world. Practically everyone of its offshoots has devised mechanisms for separating proselytization and politics, and has had the opportunity of having a richer intellectual debate about it means to be an Islamists in the 21st century. The MB, like most opposition groups in Egypt, took on some of the attributes of the regime: sclerosis, gerontocracy, authoritarian tendencies, lack of vision, and more. They were taken by surprise by Kifaya in 2005 and by the revolt in 2011. Their major advance in recent years was their public attachment to democracy and pluralism, but that was when it seemed like a distant possibility. They now need to reassess and more clearly communicate what they stand for in post-25 January Egypt. There will have to be a lot of house-cleaning.