The Green, Green Arab Summer: II
The magnitude of Western self-deception and ignorance about the future of Egypt was exemplified by a feature article in The Washington Post last week (Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood could be unraveling, July 7). The influence and organizational abilities of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) have raised fears in the West and among Egypt’s secular and liberal groups that democracy may end with an Islamic state, the Post says, but the movement, “long considered the only viable opposition to Hosni Mubarak, has struggled to adapt to the new political landscape that has emerged since his ouster in February”:
[T]he Muslim Brotherhood is facing dissension within its ranks, as reformers push for a more open system of choosing leaders and political candidates. The movement’s leadership appeared to be dragged into the mass protests that forced Mubarak from office, and young Brotherhood members who joined the uprising say the organization is still too slow to react to the sentiments of the masses. Amid the strains, some within the movement who have been calling for change are slowly splitting off from the Brotherhood’s new Freedom and Justice Party … [T]he cracks in the organization’s usually monolithic structure suggest that the movement may be unraveling.
In the same vein The Los Angeles Times (“Muslim Brotherhood showing cracks in its solidarity,” July 5) interpreted the expulsion of five leaders of the Brotherhood’s youth wing as a sign that “Egypt’s most potent political force is unwilling to tolerate dissent within its ranks” and that “the Brotherhood's ideological and organizational rigidity, which buttressed it against decades of persecution by former President Hosni Mubarak, may be cracking as its young members yearn for wider political and religious freedoms in a new Egypt.”
All this is nonsense. There is no split between the Brotherhood’s freedom-loving young democrats and the cautious and ageing old guard. There is rock-solid consensus among the MB elders, however, not to allow a bunch of overzealous hotheads on the margins of the movement to rock the boat which is steadily sailing in the Islamist direction. The MB leadership knows what it is doing and it is good at it. It has already succeeded in maginalizing the avant-garde of the January revolution, the liberal, pro-Western, tweeting secularists. Its next step is to cement a power-sharing arrangement with the military. Writing in Al-Arabiya’s English edition, Dar al Hayat’s columnist Husam Itani accurately summed up the Ikwani (Brothers’) strategy on July 10. Five months after Mubarak’s fall there is a stalemate designed to erode the revolution’s gains, he says. The absence of a clear vision for the future of the country, the confused performance of the judiciary and public administration, the uncertain security position and the continuation of the old practices characterize Egypt during this transitory phase:
Today, the two most organized parties in Egypt are the army and the Muslim Brotherhood and [neither] wants the end of this stage, after they came to savor the taste of wide prerogatives which are still—truth be said—far away from any legislative or legal control… [B]oth sides have been in the same trench since the referendum over the constitutional amendments in March.
The unannounced alliance between the army and the MB secures to the former the right to exercise discreet control over Egypt’s political and economic life after the transitional phase, in exchange for concessions to the Muslim Brotherhood in the area of social, cultural and educational policies. Thos changes will have the potential to change the character of the nation more profoundly than any package of liberalizing economic measures or trials of former officials for corruption and embezzlement. The formula is not new, Itani concludes: “Arab modern history is filled with models of alliances in which power was divided between groups that wanted to maintain their own interests” at the expense of the majority of the citizens.
This is an eminently Leninist formula and it makes sense. If you are the only powerful party, like the Bolsheviks in Petrograd in November 1917 or Muhammad in Medina two years after the Hijra, you grab all power at once and terrorize everyone into submission. If you are not, like Recep Tayyip Erdogan after winning the Turkish general election for the first time back in early 2002, you make incremental gains, you consolidate them before cutting another slice, you conceal your ultimate objectives, and you gradually weaken your chief rival—in his case the Turkish army—until the growing imbalance enables you to deliver the coup de grace. This is the model the MB in Egypt intends to emulate.
Apprehensive of the army’s response to an outright MB victory, the group’s leadership does not want to wield too much formal power after the September election. It is able to capture an outright majority but does not want to do so, because the army—groomed in the Nasserist tradition of secular nationalism—is still too powerful. This alone explains the apparent paradox that the Brotherhood is fielding candidates in only one-half of all electoral districts and has refrained from naming a presidential candidate of its own. Its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP)—founded in the immediate aftermath of Mubarak’s fall in February, formally launched on the last day of April and officially legalized in early June—is clearly modeled on Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
To their Egyptian brethren Turkey’s ruling Islamists, now finally triumphant, offer a ready-made and eminently successful strategic model for the years ahead. The timetable and mechanics may differ but the objectives do not. On current form it is an even bet that the Islamic Republic of Egypt, in substance if not in name, will come into being within three to five years.