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Brotherhood activism and regime consolidation in Egypt

Supporters of Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi during a protest in Cairo on Feb. 14, 2014. The top of the placard reads “Our victory coming soon.” (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)
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This post is part of the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” symposium.

The Egyptian military’s July 3, 2013 deposition of President Mohamed Morsi triggered a wave of Muslim Brotherhood mobilization, and in these spaces a multifaceted internal debate over the future of Islamist activism has sprung up. However, the Brotherhood’s subsequent strategy of street protest also intertwines with larger processes of regime formation and consolidation that are currently underway in Egypt. Ironically, both the regime and the Brotherhood seem to judge the protests useful to help resolve issues that stretch beyond the specific regime-Brotherhood confrontation. On the one hand, the Brotherhood’s tight focus on protests demanding the reinstatement of Morsi helps the group maintain unity and forestall difficult internal debates. On the other, the regime exploits the Brotherhood’s street mobilization and civil society activism to justify a series of more and less violent interventions in Egyptian life. In practice, these efforts are serving to embed a more invasive police state than the one the Arab Spring protests so recently displaced.

A year-and-a-half out from the military coup that ended the term of Morsi, the Brotherhood has shown little sign of deviating from their strategy of continued protest. Their insistence on reinstating Morsi and returning to a pre-July 3 political system is puzzling, given that these demands are clear nonstarters for Egypt’s military regime. It is unclear if there is a better alternative for the Brotherhood. Both in terms of allowing the Brotherhood to generate advantages vis-à-vis the group’s ongoing conflict with the regime and to resolve internal contradictions, protest seems to offer the best of a generally bad array of options.

Whatever the initial strategy behind the Brotherhood’s adoption of street protest, the activity does seem to be generating a series of positive benefits that suggest its durability. In terms of their relationship with Egypt’s military government, so long as the Brotherhood continues to sustain human chains, rallies, sit-ins and other high-profile protest events, it keeps the possibility of an eventual bargain on the table. By demonstrating the organization’s strength, the Brotherhood is likely striving to convince the regime that they must be taken seriously, as an equal to be negotiated with rather than a minority to be exterminated. Further, as long as the Brotherhood embraces clamorous street activism, they serve to highlight the regime’s (and its western backers’) absurd pretense at a democratic transition.

In terms of the Brotherhood’s internal dynamics, sustaining risky activism increases morale, maintains connections between members of the network and imbues a sense of purpose in Brotherhood activism. Further, emphasizing protest seems to offer a type of “best response” to managing internal conflict. As Ibrahim el-Houdaiby has argued, the organization’s grass roots lean toward confrontation with a regime that has committed such violence against their compatriots. The leadership, meanwhile, cannot allow the group’s strategy to transform into out-and-out violent confrontation. A protest-centric strategy simultaneously satisfies, at least for the time being, the grass roots’ desire for street activism and confrontation, while preserving the possibility of later reintegration.

The outstanding question, of course, concerns the future path of the Brotherhood. While the equilibrium currently seems stable, the movement’s current disassociation limits the organizational barriers should clusters of members turn toward more violent activism. In other words, the organization’s official calls for non-violent resistance may simply not resonate with those Brothers on the front lines, bearing the brunt of the security services’ repression.

At the same time, there seem at least three strong arguments to be made for why the group will, eventually, reintegrate into Egyptian politics. First, the group has sunk a tremendous amount of intellectual energy into political contestation and will likely find it difficult to construct new avenues of societal engagement that neglect electoral mobilization. Second, from the regime’s perspective a scenario in which the Brotherhood participates in essentially uncompetitive elections would be ideal. It is telling, for example, that the regime’s key demand in negotiations seems to be that the Brotherhood field candidates for elections rather than boycott the proceedings.

Finally, the regime is steadily constricting the Brotherhood’s options for alternative forms of activism. For instance, there have been predictions that the Brotherhood’s future lies in refashioning itself as a social, religious or charitable association and retreating to interstices further from regime control. Yet it is unclear if there is anything to retreat to. The regime has already targeted the Brotherhood’s medical facilities, schools and community associations. In addition, the funds of prominent Brotherhood businessmen have been frozen. Now that those schools, medical facilities, community associations and entrepreneurial networks are under regime control, the ability of the Brotherhood to use activism in these realms to reach segments of Egyptian society will be sharply curtailed.

The Egyptian regime’s efforts to cow the Brotherhood are nested in much broader efforts to control and monitor sites that have served as areas of independent activism in the past. This process is best described as a re-corporatization, in which the new regime is tightening and fortifying the Gamal Abdel Nasser-era vertical relationships that had since loosened and frayed. For instance, one key effort is the passage of a draconian law extending state control over NGOs. This law, according to Human Rights Watch will “sound the death knell” for independent organizations in Egypt. An invasive new university law is tightening regime control over these redoubts of activism. A similar process is at work inside Egypt’s religious institutions. Amr Ezzat describes how:

The new ministry (of religious endowments) issued administrative decrees referring dozens of other imams to internal investigations, suspending or firing them, and revoking the licenses of thousands of preachers. The ministry took other draconian, unprecedented steps, such as unifying the topic of the Friday sermon in every mosque and declaring that all mosques would be brought under the ministry’s administrative control.

The above civil-society based efforts mark one, relatively less-violent, track of the regime’s strategy to control potential sites of independent activism. As Joshua Stacher has argued, however, there is a parallel process in which Egypt’s rulers are busy inscribing new patterns of coercion and violence into relations between regime and society. And just as regime efforts to control Brotherhood activism in the civic realm are part of a larger strategy to neutralize non-Islamist opposition there, the Brotherhood’s continued mobilization of supporters generates a constant justification for this type of violence against non-Islamist dissenters. For instance, the 2013 protest law, ostensibly passed to counter Islamist mobilization, soon became a key tool with which to take liberal activists off the streets. Or witness the regime’s efforts to stir up macabre episodes of “moral panic” to generate support for activist policing that, in reality, represses political and social discontent. So long as the regime retains the ability to link any public expressions of dissent to the Brotherhood – and rely on the media to buttress their narrative – they will possess a particularly effective tool for defusing opposition and cementing their own rule.

The Brotherhood’s strategy is fundamentally reactive, then, hostage to the more and less violent processes of regime formation and consolidation currently underway in Egypt. Yet it is important not to lose sight of how and why perpetuating of the status quo seems to benefit both parties. For the regime, the continuing existence of a protest movement as vibrant and extensive as the Brotherhood’s creates multiple opportunities for the use of violence. Critically, this violence is not targeted at the Brotherhood alone but directed more broadly, in order to inscribe a particular relationship between state and society, even stretching into the realm of private relations between individuals. The regime complements this violence by revitalizing corporatist relationships in the realm of religious institutions and NGO activism. For the Brotherhood, not only does sustained pro-Morsi/anti-coup mobilization place pressure of the Egyptian regime, it allows the organization to delay answering more painful and difficult questions about the organization and its goals going forward. For now, these demands seem to have generally retained their mobilizing potential inside the Brotherhood. So long as they remain relevant, the Brotherhood will be able to counteract centripetal forces: be they toward de-politicization or defection to other forms of activism- either Islamic or not- on one side, or violent activism on the other.

Steven Brooke is PhD candidate in political science at The University of Texas at Austin.