“The Brotherhood is clearly ready for elections now – it’s been ready for 10 years – whereas the newer secular parties who could not participate in the political process under Mubarak are not.
The above quotation from journalist Ashraf Khalil encapsulates the prevailing wisdom regarding the likely outcome of early elections in Egypt. Although on some levels, Khalil is clearly correct, pronouncements such as this reveal just as much about the beliefs and assumptions of the speaker as about the reality of the situation.
On the one hand, the past 3 decades have certainly left the Brotherhood in a better position than fledgeling liberal parties to contest elections. During the Mubarak era, it was the only political grouping able to maintain a consistently high level of organisaional capacity. In 2005, for example, it delivered 88 ‘independent’ candidates to parliament, becoming by far the largest opposition bloc in the legislature. Over the years, its leadership has amassed a greater deal of institutional knowledge than the upper echelons of other parties, especially those in the diverse ‘youth movement’ that is still finding its feet in the political realities of the new Egypt.
However, I can’t help but feel that supporters of the ‘constitution first’ (discussed in my last post) campaign are overstating the strength of the Brotherhood and other Islamist organisations.
Cohesion of the Muslim Brotherhood
During Mubarak’s rule, the Muslim Brotherhood were indeed the largest opposition grouping. Yet they have never been a legal political party. This technicality has had implications for the strategies its membership had to adopt in order to win votes, seeking specific ways to engage with voters in each locale.
The Brotherhood has not been an internally cohesive organisation for decades. Over the years, its programme has been dynamic and reactive, adapting to political developments both in Egypt and abroad. This strategy of adopting a relatively fluid position was successful in building support but it also pushed the organisation along the road to an identity crisis. As Maha Abdulrahman argued back in February, the early days of the revolution only hastened this moment of reckoning. In casting the membership net wider, their ability to harness specific political grievances had grown narrower:
Its constituency has grown beyond its leaders expectations – ‘grown’ not in the sense of size but in the sense of variety. The MB’s base is not homogeneous, including workers, students, many in the upwardly mobile middle-class, etc. As such the leadership cannot now convincingly claim to represent its own constituency.
Under Mubarak, the Brotherhood’s internal ideological fissures were – to the outside, at least – relatively contained. Since his departure, the pressure that pushed its diverse membership together has faded, bringing internal disputes to the fore.
In addition, the formation of the Freedom and Justice Party – the legal incarnation of the Brotherhood’s political aspirations – has exposed intergenerational rifts within the organisation. Divergent ideas from younger members regarding ideology, tactics and internal structure have been met with relative intransigence from the Brotherhood’s upper echelons, unused to such challenges.
These fault lines became even more apparent on Tuesday when a group of young Brotherhood members announced the formation of a separate political party . The establishment of Hizb Al-Tayyar Al-Masry (Egyptian Current Party) represents an act of defiance that could well deepen the generational split.
The more active organisational role undertaken by some of the younger members has highlighted the potential for new political approaches. A good example can be found in the Egyptian Current Party’s manifesto, according to al-Masry al-Youm:
Unlike most other Islamist parties, [its] manifesto does not mention Islamic sharia as its frame of reference; it only refers to the Arab Islamic civilization. “We cannot refer to the Islamic sharia because this is not an Islamist party, and it is not a party for the Muslim Brotherhood youth,” said Mohamed Shams, a 24-year-old co-founder of the party. “Not all founders belong to the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Whilst the ECP’s approach cannot be taken to represent the preferences of a diverse Islamist movement, the above quotation does illustrate the spectrum of political positioning to be found among the ranks (or former ranks) of the Muslim Brotherhood. Far from being the behmouth that some ‘constitution first’ advocates would have it believed to be, the organisation is also encountering its own set of obstacles in the wake of the Revolution. Just because the Brotherhood is home to a greater concentration of institutional knowledge doesn’t mean it isn’t struggling.
The sentiments of the new public sphere
For the first time in decades, Egypt’s public sphere is charactarised by a process of genuine political contestation. In this environment, we should not fall into the trap of believing that those arguments that fit with our own sensibilities are necessarily neutral. Yes, most ‘consitution first’ proponents genuinely believe that immediate elections would be unfair to those parties that have not yet had time to organise. But on the other hand, the people on this side of the argument also have their own views on who should win the at the ballot box, and if they’re arguing for postponement, it’s unlikely that this is the Brotherhood. In overstating the strength of the Islamist parties which, as I have argued, are also struggling organisationally, then these assumptions should not go unquestioned.