This time five years ago, crowds swelled, regimes shook and the Muslim Brotherhood stood poised to become the biggest winners of the Arab uprisings. Long a force on the ground, the Brotherhood soon translated that strength into political power in regimes across the Middle East. But parliaments and presidencies proved tougher to navigate than opposition — and now the Islamist ideological project is trapped between the roiling violence of the Islamic State and the stultifying oppression of revived autocracy. Protesting has become a means and an end. Meanwhile, the Islamic State’s explicit rejection of politics in favor of brutal violence looms as a potent alternative model for those disgruntled by a lack of progress.
Still smarting from a harsh crackdown that ran through the 2010 legislative elections, the Brotherhood officially joined the Jan. 25 uprising only once it tipped against then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. As the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took control, the Brotherhood was among those pushing hardest for early elections, betting that their existing grass-roots networks gave them an edge over their less-organized competitors. Their bet seemingly paid off, as the Brotherhood ran off an impressive string of victories in constitutional referendums and parliamentary and presidential elections. Yet this political domination crested in the summer of 2013, when Egypt’s military ousted the Brotherhood and set about reestablishing its hold over the country.
There are a number of efforts underway to use these events to revisit and rethink what we knew about Islamist groups and consider what we got wrong. At least in the case of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, what these past five years have driven home to me is the extent to which their mission has become politicized, in the sense that electoral participation and success is their organizing principle. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s founder, Hasan al-Banna, famously described the Brotherhood as “a Salafiyya message, a Sunni way, a Sufi truth, a political organization, an athletic group, a cultural-educational union, an economic company and a social idea.” But amid the tumult of the Arab uprisings, this broad, societal mission telescoped into a narrow, electoral one.
Early on, the Brotherhood tried to create a firewall, separating a party striving for power from a movement dedicated to social change. While in theory the Freedom and Justice Party was supposedly independent from the movement, in practice the two were indistinguishable: leadership and membership overlapped, messaging aligned and resources merged.
This politicization was a movement-wide phenomenon, but two examples from the realm of social-service provision illustrate what it meant in a daily context. Prior to the uprisings, the Brotherhood had been wary of explicitly leveraging their wide network of charities for political gain (indeed it was against the law). But this changed after Mubarak fell, as the Brotherhood bent their entire social-service network to the purpose of turning out and persuading voters. While this met with some resistance, particularly from those activists who were wary of squandering their hard-earned social capital for fleeting political gains, the pull of politics proved too strong.
Two examples capture this point. First, in most hospitals in Egypt, one receives a ticket and then waits until a doctor is available. In one of the Brotherhood’s hospitals I visited, there was a life-size campaign sticker of the Freedom and Justice Party’s leader Mohamed Morsi’s face placed on the ticket window at eye level, creating for visitors the effect of receiving care from Morsi himself. Second, in early 2013, Egyptians witnessed a massive social-service project, “Together We Build Egypt,” under the combined auspices of the FJP and the Brotherhood. Despite denials, the campaign effectively erased any line between the group’s social and charitable endeavors and their political ambitions. Volunteers clad in FJP vests swarmed across the country, while under FJP and Brotherhood banners, Egyptians crowded to receive sharply discounted and free medical care from party personnel.
This mobilization was the stuff of pure politics, and the Brotherhood was great at it. Indeed, in the immediate context of 2011-2013 Egypt it would have been more exceptional if the Brotherhood had resisted the urge to leverage all its assets for electoral success. But this politicization raised fundamental questions about what, exactly, the Muslim Brotherhood represented, and how it was different from alternatives. For the Brotherhood, the explicit politicization of all corners of the movement suggested a shortcut around the gradualist, bottom-up process of Islamization that al-Banna had laid out. And for Egyptians, if receiving medical care from the Brotherhood came with expectations of electoral support, then the Brotherhood became basically indistinguishable from its political competitors (who did the same thing, just not as well).
Repeated political successes allowed the group to avoid confronting these questions, but the events surrounding the summer 2013 military coup forced a reckoning. By the time the military presented the Brotherhood with an ultimatum, the group had effectively backed themselves into a corner. After framing each election or referendum as a crisis requiring mobilization of not just the political party but the entire movement, it was effectively impossible to concede that that harvest was little more than a bargaining chip. Politics had monopolized the mission of the organization, and the party had overwhelmed the movement. In the moment of crisis, the Brotherhood calculated that it was worth risking the movement to save the party, and in the end they lost both.
The reverberations of this decision are likely to echo for years. Most immediately, the Brotherhood’s entire religious and social service network is slowly being uprooted, in part because it played such a demonstrable role in the group’s political success. The intellectual consequences are no less serious. The Brotherhood still remains unable to articulate a raison d’etre beyond continued street protest in support of a return to the status quo ante: that Morsi be reinstated, the military return to the barracks, and that Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and his comrades be held accountable. The Brotherhood is effectively in a holding pattern because they cannot articulate the movement’s mission without reference to electoral politics. Protesting has become a means and an end.
What does this all mean for how we study the Brotherhood? Avi Spiegel makes the point that academic researchers should do more to conceptualize and measure Islamist “success” without reference to electoral politics. I think this is a worthy goal and that there is much work to do on this point. But we should also beware the opposite — automatically assuming that there exist realms of Islamist activism that can be detached from the influence of politics. As we extend and revisit our pre-Arab-uprising understanding of Islamists, it is worth keeping in mind the extent to which the Brotherhood acted like a normal political party.
Among the revelations of the past five years has been the extent to which the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has allowed, if not encouraged, an electoral logic to pervade all corners of the movement. An irony, of course, is that the group’s commitment to electoral politics was a serious question prior to the uprisings. But now the Brotherhood, and the academic researchers who study them, will have to puzzle over what political Islam means when the political is disallowed.
Steven Brooke is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Middle East Initiative of the Harvard Kennedy School and an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Louisville.
This piece is part of a series of reflections on the Arab uprisings after five years.