The Muslim Brotherhood (MB), until after the Egyptian revolution began in 2011, was a civil society movement. Then, the leadership had a choice: transform the movement into a political party - or not. The consequences of that decision have repercussions for the MB’s future - but also on wider Egyptian political life, and Muslim communities worldwide.
Inevitably, MB members would enter into electoral politics after the 25th of January - but the way in which the movement did ensured internal organizational tension. Electoral politics means taking difficult choices, in ways that a social movement can avoid having to do. Just forming a party was going to have advantages and disadvantages - but the MB leadership insisted that any MB member who wanted to be involved in electoral politics could only be involved in the Freedom & Justice Party (FJP). Otherwise, they would be expelled.
This was a clear message from the leadership: the MB movement was no longer a movement. It was a government-in-waiting - and would consider any dissent accordingly. When long-time member and influential reformist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh decided to stand for president, he was ejected for contravening the leadership’s decision. While within the MB, there were several different ideological trends that coexisted during Mubarak’s era, the formation of the FJP meant that at least in political affairs, no plurality could be entertained.
The MB made the decision to become a political party to attain power - and there may be a price. The MB was founded in response to a religious impulse, and it spawned other groups in the Arab world, as well as within Muslim communities further afield. The underlying assumption behind the MB’s popularity globally has been its ability to claim the moral high ground - which was easier when it was the underdog under a repressive regime. The FJP was not founded as a movement or an opposition force: it was founded to govern. In one sense, the MB has been successful; they have the lion’s share of seats in both houses of parliament, dominate the new constitutional assembly, and may well take the presidency. They are on their way to attaining power, a lot quicker than many assumed possible.
But at what cost to their reputation? At the outset of the revolution, the MB insisted they would field candidates for only 30 percent of the parliamentary seats, so as not to give the impression they were looking to grab power. Within weeks, that number steadily increased, until it became 50 percent - without any real explanation provided. Expelling Aboul Fotouh and others certainly cost the MB leadership some popularity within the MB itself; but the real signs came after the MB entered parliament. It had previously made assurances that it would not enter into alliances with the Salafi forces in parliament - but collaboration took place in order to assure a predominantly Islamist constitutional assembly. The latest sign, which was the FJP’s reneging on their pledge to the Egyptian public not to field a presidential nominee by advocating Khairat al-Shater, was only the latest, if most blatant, sign of the transformation of the MB from a religiously inspired movement, into a partisan political party.
But all of these moves were entirely in keeping with the impulse of the FJP: it was not created as the result of the revolution as a revolutionary force, but was brought into being by the absence of Mubarak’s repression. The question now is what consequences will this have? Already, the MB is feeling tension from within - although it is unclear if that will lead to a real split in the short term. Some within the movement have already expressed their objections to the nomination, even while saying they will respect the majority’s decision. Some may still resign, as did the famous Kamal El-Helbawy due to the MB’s decision to field Shater. Other famous Islamists have also criticized the decision, including Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is considered to be perhaps the most influential religious personality of the historical MB movement.
Outside of the movement, the MB has lost a good deal of its moral credibility among Egyptians - but it may take a great deal more time before that actually impinges upon its voter share, if it can deliver in policy. It will still have to contend then, however, with the perception that the MB (an unelected body) actually runs the FJP - which is clear when it is the MB leadership who decided on the nomination of Shater, not the FJP nominal ruling body. In fact, the ruling body of the FJP rejected it.
Yet, consequences remain beyond Egypt. The Syrian Brotherhood, for example, is poised to play a role in whatever happens in Syria, and, as a result of the Egyptian MB’s political tactics, they may find their own credibility damaged. Already some of them are discreetly complaining. Islam places great value on the upholding of contracts and pledges, but opponents to the MB can easily claim that this precept was put to one side in the pursuit of power. The Tunisian Nahda Party has been far more delicate, but it is inevitable that their opponents within and without Tunisia will point to the mother movement in Egypt to attack their credibility as well. More generally, the opponents of the Islamist movement worldwide, whether Muslim or not, are likely to use the political maneuvers of the Egyptian MB to claim that the Islamist project is, in itself, unethical. Islamophobes and others have already thrown the smear of ‘doubletalk’ at Muslims generally around the world - the accusation will now find new ammunition to use, whether unfairly or not.
Herein lies the final geographic consequence. For decades, the Islamist movement in North America and Europe has been active - not in a political sense, but in civil society. Many young Muslims of the West at the turn of the century found within the Islamist movement what they considered to be an authentically Muslim activism - and engaged in genuinely positive ways with society, much as the MB did within Egypt in terms of its welfare projects and other initiatives. Their demographically minor status meant that electoral activity had to be limited to involvement within predominantly non-Muslim political forces. Their activism was based on a sincere belief that the Islamist project’s ultimate aim was to bring good to people - not to seek power. How will the political schemes of the Egyptian MB leadership affect their romanticism? Only time will tell.
The founder of the MB, Hasan al-Banna, had a disciple who migrated from Egypt and started a new civil society group. He openly declared once that as far as he was concerned, the death of al-Banna was the death of the MB - that anything beyond that was no longer MB, and that what ensued was almost a perversion of his ideas. One suspects that history will record that for many others who grew up within the MB, the milestone of its demise was the founding of the FJP.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer is an expert on the MENA region, with experience at Gallup, Warwick University & the Brookings Institution. Twitter: @hahellyer