Did We Get the Muslim Brotherhood Wrong?

* This post originally appeared on ForeignPolicy.com, April 10, 2013.

The deterioration of Egyptian politics has spurred an intense, often vitriolic polarization between Islamists and their rivals that has increasingly spilled over into analytical disputes. Some principled liberals who once supported the Muslim Brotherhood against the Mubarak regime’s repression have recanted. Longtime critics of the Islamists view themselves as vindicated and demand that Americans, including me, apologize for getting the Brotherhood wrong. As one prominent Egyptian blogger recently put it, “are you ready to apologize for at least 5 years of promoting the MB as fluffy Democrats to everyone? ARE YOU?”

So, should we apologize? Did we get the Brotherhood wrong? Not really. The academic consensus about the Brotherhood got most of the big things right about that organization … at least as it existed prior to the 2011 Egyptian revolution. U.S. analysists and academics correctly identified the major strands in its ideological development and internal factional struggles, its electoral prowess, its conflicts with al Qaeda and hard-line Salafis, and the tension between its democratic ambitions and its illiberal aspirations. And liberals who defended the Brotherhood against the Mubarak regime’s torture and repression were unquestionably right to do so — indeed, I would regard defending the human rights and political participation of a group with which one disagrees as a litmus test for liberalism.

But getting the pre-2011 period right doesn’t let us off the hook for what has come since. How one felt about questions of the Brotherhood’s ability to be democratic in the past has nothing to do with the urgency of holding it to those commitments today. Giving the group the chance to participate fully in the democratic process does not mean giving it a pass on bad behavior once it is in power — or letting it off the hook for abuses of pluralism, tolerance, or universal values.  That’s why I would like to see Egypt’s electoral process continue, and for the Brotherhood to be punished at the ballot box for their manifest failures.

So what did we say about the Brotherhood, and what did they get wrong or right? I wouldn’t presume to speak for a diverse academic community that disagrees about many important things, but some broad themes do emerge from a decade of literature. For one, most academics viewed the Brotherhood of the 2000s as a democratic actor but not a liberal one. That’s an important distinction. By the late 2000s, the Brotherhood had a nearly two-decade track record of participation in national, professional, and student elections. It had developed an elaborate ideological justification for not just the acceptability but the necessity of democratic procedure. When it lost elections, such as in the professional associations, it peacefully surrendered power (and, ironically given current debates, it was willing to boycott when it saw the rules stacked against it). By 2007, it seemed to me that there was nothing more the Brotherhood could have done to demonstrate its commitment to democratic procedures in the absence of the actual opportunity to win elections and govern. I think that was right.

And of course it had developed a well-honed electoral machine ready for use whenever the opportunity presented itself.  Nobody in the academic community doubted that the Brotherhood would do well in the first wave of elections. Academics also pegged public support for the Brotherhood at about 20 percent, not far off the 25 percent Mohammed Morsy managed in the first round of the presidential election. They correctly identified the organizational advantages the Brotherhood would have in early elections, which would allow them to significantly overperform that baseline of support against new, less-organized opponents.

The Brotherhood’s commitment to democratic procedures never really translated into a commitment to democratic or liberal norms, however. It always struggled with the obvious tension between its commitment to sharia (Islamic law) and its participation in democratic elections. Not being able to win allowed the Brothers to avoid confronting this yawning gap, even if they frequently found themselves enmeshed in public controversies over their true intentions — for instance, with the release of a draft political party platform in 2007 that hinted at the creation of a state committee to review legislation for compliance with sharia and a rejection of a female or non-Muslim president.  As for liberalism, nobody ever doubted the obvious point that this was an Islamist movement with deeply socially conservative values and priorities. The real question was over their willingness to tolerate different points of view — and there, deep skepticism remained the rule across the academic community.

The academic community also saw it as important to distinguish the Muslim Brotherhood from the al Qaeda strands of extremist Salafi-jihadism that were the focus of the “war on terror.” The Brotherhood had a different ideology, a different conception of its place within the broader Egyptian public, a different strategic vision, a different social constituency, a different view of controversial concepts such as jahiliyya and takfir, a different view of the legitimacy of violence. Brotherhood and Salafi-jihadist figures argued with each other constantly, denouncing each other over ideology and tactics. Lumping together the Brotherhood with al Qaeda would have been a major analytical error with serious policy consequences. Academics helped to sort out such confusion, and were right.

I also played some role in drawing attention to a new group of young Muslim Brothers who were blogging, getting involved in anti-Mubarak activism, and opening up public discussion of the Brotherhood. They always represented a small group, far more open-minded and pragmatic than the majority of their peers, and many of them ultimately left the Brotherhood. But they were a real phenomenon, important at the time. I remember being attacked at the time for casting these individuals as “bloggers” rather than as a Brotherhood propaganda campaign. But the performance of the individuals I profiled over the last few years speaks for itself: For example, Ibrahim al-Houdaiby has become an influential intellectual, Abdel Rahman Mansour was one of the secret administrators of the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page, Mostafa Naggar become a spokesman for Mohammed el-Baradei’s National Association for Change and won a seat in Parliament, and Sondos Asem became part of the @Ikhwanweb Twitter team. But it’s also true that most were forced out of an organization that frowned upon such independence.

But getting the Brotherhood’s pre-2011 ideology and behavior basically right is no cause for comfort given the dizzying and disturbing developments since the revolution. It has become clear that the Brotherhood was more profoundly shaped by its inability to actually win power than has generally been recognized. Almost every aspect of its organization, ideology, and strategy was shaped by the limits Mubarak placed upon it. The revolution removed those boundaries — and the Brotherhood has struggled badly to adapt. Its erratic, incompetent, and often incomprehensibly alienating behavior since the revolution comes in part from having utterly lost its bearings in a new institutional environment. The chance to rule forced it to confront a whole range of contradictions that Mubarak’s domination had allowed the group to finesse.

The greatest surprise in the Brotherhood’s post-2011 performance has been its simple incompetence. The Brotherhood’s behavior in power and in the post-revolutionary environment more broadly has been appalling, strategically inept, and enormously destructive of the broader social consensus. It is rightly blamed for much of the social polarization and institutional dysfunction that has plagued Egypt’s transition. It has alienated most of those who once gave it the benefit of the doubt, from Salafis on its Islamist flank to liberals to revolutionaries. I recall sitting in Deputy Supreme Guide Khairet al-Shater’s office in late 2011 being shown what appeared to be comprehensive, detailed plans for economic development and institutional reform. It seemed plausible at that point that a Brotherhood government would quickly get things moving again and establish itself as a centrist Islamist majority party, like Turkey’s ruling AK Party. Yet it has utterly failed to do so. What went wrong?

One part of the answer lies in something else the academics got right: factional politics inside the Brotherhood. Put simply, the years immediately preceding the Egyptian revolution had produced a Brotherhood leadership and organization almost uniquely poorly adapted to the challenges of a democratic transition. The regime cracked down hard on the Brotherhood following its electoral success in 2005, arresting a wide range of its leaders (including currently prominent personalities such as Morsy and Shater), confiscating its financial assets, and launching intense media propaganda campaigns.

This took a toll on the internal balance of power inside the Brotherhood as advocates of political participation found themselves on the defensive against the more conservative faction, which preferred to focus on social outreach and religious affairs. In 2008, conservatives were declared the winners in all five seats being contested in by-elections to replace empty seats on the Brotherhood’s highest official body, the Guidance Council; reformists cried foul. The next year, in new elections to the council again marred by serious procedural violations, the most prominent reformist member, Abdel Monem Abou el-Fotouh, and a key intermediary between the factions, Mohammed Habib, lost their long-held seats. Supreme Guide Mohammed Mehdi Akef, an old-guard conservative who had nonetheless maintained a careful balance between the factions, later stepped down and was replaced by little-known conservative Mohammed Badie. Over the next few years, a number of leading members of the reformist faction left the Brotherhood or were excluded from positions of influence.

When the revolution broke out, then, the Brotherhood had already driven away many of its most politically savvy and ideologically moderate leaders. Its leadership had become dominated by cautious, paranoid, and ideologically rigid conservatives who had little experience at building cross-ideological partnerships or making democratic compromises. One-time reformists such as Essam el-Erian and Mohammed el-Beltagy had made their peace with conservative domination and commanded little influence on the movement’s strategy. It is fascinating to imagine how the Brotherhood might have handled the revolution and its aftermath if the dominant personalities on the Guidance Bureau had been Abou el-Fotouh and Habib rather than Shater and Badie — but we’ll never know.

A second part of the answer, I believe, lies in the genuine confusion the revolution produced at every level within the organization. Every part of the Brotherhood’s ideology, strategy, and organization had been shaped by the simple reality that victory was not an option.  The Brotherhood wasn’t ready when that changed. It has proven unable and unwilling to effectively engage with other trends, and its clumsy rhetoric and behavior has fueled sectarianism, social fragmentation, economic uncertainty, and street violence. The thuggery of some of its cadres reflects either a loss of control at the local level or an inflammatory, reckless strategic choice — neither of which reflects well. Its decision to seek the presidency after vowing not to do so stands as perhaps its most devastatingly poor decision — one that shattered confidence in its commitments and made the group responsible for the failed governance it now faces.

This confusion extends to their broader political strategy. Prior to 2011, the group had generally engaged in a strategy of self-restraint. I recall then Deputy Supreme Guide Mohammed Habib telling me in 2009 that the biggest mistake the Brotherhood had made in 2005 was in winning 88 seats. By doing too well, the brothers had frightened the Mubarak regime and triggered a nasty crackdown.  Winning wasn’t necessary to the Brotherhood, since they viewed participation in elections as its own reward, an opportunity to reach out to voters and spread their ideas (a lesson today’s Egyptian liberals could stand to learn).  Their decision to abandon such self-restraint after Mubarak’s fall has disastrously fueled fears that they seek full domination, concerns which they have done little to assuage.

A final part of the answer probably lies in the peculiar mix of paranoia and arrogance that permeates the organization. The Brotherhood clearly feels itself to be embattled on all sides, facing existential threats from abroad and at home, battling entrenched hostility in state institutions and political opponents willing to burn Egypt to prevent its success. It is equally clearly utterly unable to appreciate how it appears to others, how its domination might appear threatening and its rhetoric inflammatory. This fits well with the life experience of the old guard that dominates the Guidance Bureau … but is the worst possible combination for Egypt’s turbulent, contentious and unpredictable new political sphere.

I don’t think Western academics need to apologize for getting the Brotherhood wrong. Nor do I think the United States has been wrong to work with an elected Brotherhood government or to insist on adherence to democratic procedures. It would be tragic if we now succumbed to anti-Islamist propaganda or paranoia or threw away the hard-earned analytical progress of the last decade because of the current political maelstrom. But both academics and policymakers need to recognize that the lessons of the past no longer apply so cleanly, and that many of the analytical conclusions developed during the Mubarak years are obsolete. The Brotherhood has changed as much as Egypt has changed, and so must we.

Marc Lynch is  professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and director of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is an editor of ForeignPolicy.com’s Middle East Channel.

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