Five reforms the Muslim Brotherhood must undertake: lessons from the Egyptian Spring

By Muqtedar Khan, University of Delaware

*This memo was prepared for the “Islam and International Order” workshop co-hosted by POMEPS and the Transatlantic Academy, April 29-30, 2015.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders sentenced to death. Elections postponed. Thousands imprisoned. The headlines from Egypt are increasingly vexing for those who had hoped that the Arab Spring would bring democracy not just to Egypt but also to the entire region. The speed and savageness with which democracy, and perhaps even the hope for democracy, is being squashed in Egypt is harrowing to watch. The current crisis may cast a long shadow on how Egyptian and regional polities negotiate with endemic authoritarianism.. It will also profoundly impact how political Islam, especially in the Arab World, evolves.

Some commentators are forecasting the end of political Islam, but although it has been damaged by recent events in Egypt, political Islam may yet return if it can undergo reforms.

The experience of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has engendered intense animosity towards political Islam and has mobilized secular and liberal movements to confront political Islam elsewhere, as in Tunisia. However, Muslim appetite for Islam in the public sphere has not diminished. A heightened sense of victimhood and the perception that the world is against Islam will strengthen support and desire for political Islamic movements in many areas of the Muslim world. While the situation appears to be desperate for the Brotherhood, this is an excellent opportunity for a generational change in personnel and ideas. The Egyptian campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood is forcing a change in leadership, which may provide a useful chance for the movement to reconsider some of its ideas as well.

After the explosion of the Arab Spring, democracy was the only option people chose in the countries that experienced complete (Egypt, Tunisia, Libya) or partial (Morocco) change. Political legitimacy is now under the exclusive sovereignty of the concept of democracy; the aspirations of political Islamists for an Islamic state or caliphate have no currency with the masses whatsoever.

Therefore, the first major conceptual shift that Islamists must make is recognition of this reality. What people want is democracy; that much was clear from the early days of the Arab spring. The manner in which the Muslim Brotherhoods approached politics in Egypt made many observers question their sincerity. It appeared that they were committed to democracy only as long as it served their goal to acquire power. The Muslim Brotherhood seemed to be committed to a procedural form of democracy that enabled majoritarian rule without fully accepting political and religious pluralism.

Embracing democracy as a necessary inconvenience en route to power will only lead to political disaster, as witnessed in Egypt. Islamists need to recognize the global appeal of democracy and listen to the arguments of liberal Islamic thinkers, who have been contending that democracy is not only compatible with but also necessary to the establishment of healthy Islamic societies. Without embracing democracy in substance, recognizing its normative worth and integrating political ambitions with democratic principles that respect the rights and equality of all, political Islam may not find its way back into the circles of power.

The second shift that Islamists need to make is one from “Islamic identity” to “Islamic values.” For decades, Islam has been used to legitimize certain political and ideological choices. Islamic state, Islamic economy, Islamic identity and Islamic society have become catchwords to advance and promote a modern interpretation of Islam whose central goal is neither spiritual revival nor ethical struggle, but power. As Muslims coped with the devastating consequences of colonization and European imperialism, political Islam emerged to unite Muslims against both the West and an authoritarian and westernized ruling elite. One of the consequences of this development has been the reduction of the faith to an identity and an ideology. Rather than a set of values that constrain human choices, Islam is seen as a political ideology that unites a group in pursuit of power.

The power-centered nature of political Islam was unequivocally manifest in the post-Arab Spring politics of Egypt. The ease with which the Brotherhood abandoned its long-cherished goal of establishing an Islamic state in exchange for a leading role in a liberal democratic arrangement suggests that the group was more interested in power than principle. The desire for power was too tempting to be restrained by their long-held notions of Islam and sharia. These hypocritical maneuvers have not escaped notice. In order to regain their credibility as moral actors who wish to govern for the sake of justice rather than power, political Islamists need to once again understand that Islam is a faith and a reservoir of values, not an identity ready-made for political mobilization.

The third reform Islamists need to make is in their philosophical approach to the concept of the sharia and how they define an Islamic society. Early Muslim Brotherhood ideologues made the application of sharia a litmus test for an Islamic state. This idea was enshrined by the constitution passed by the Morsi regime in 2012 in a sectarian article that privileged the Sunni concept of fiqh (jurisprudence) over all other sources of law. It will be both organic and beneficial if Islamists seek to redevelop the corpus of Islamic law from all available Islamic sources in light of the needs of contemporary society, rather than merely putting in place a centuries-old understanding of these laws. A commitment to modernizing the body of fiqh literature that recognizes the importance of ijtihad and incorporates it in the structure of the polity will go a long way in convincing Muslims that Islamists are serious about living their faith rather than merely using it as a means to garner and mobilize support. Ijtihad is a tool in Islamic legal tradition that allows Muslims to advance independent thinking and judgment about issues on which Islamic sacred sources are silent.  As Muslims confront new challenges they must exercise more ijtihad to keep Islamic values and historical realities in synch.

The fourth change that Islamists may have to make is towards pragmatism and away from ideological dogmatism. The removal of Mohamed Morsi as president and subsequent events demonstrated that a wide array of political forces, both domestic and international, are aligned against the Muslim Brotherhood. If playing the victim is the only response that the Brotherhood offers to the current situation, the future of both political Islam and democracy in Egypt is bleak. However, if the Brotherhood reforms and replaces its leadership (much of which is in prison) with a younger generation more interested in the future than the past, rather than just protesting, then perhaps there is hope for both political Islam and democracy. There is an enduring demand for Islam to play a role in the public sphere; the only issue that remains is whether it will happen in concert or in conflict with democracy. Authoritarianism has no future. The current military government will have to transition eventually to some form of democracy, probably a hybrid authoritarian-democratic model. The Muslim Brothers can resist or facilitate this change: the choice is theirs.

The fifth change they need to make is to move away from sacred symbolism to ordinary outcomes. Islamists, in general, and the Brotherhood in Egypt, in particular, rely heavily on cultural jingoism and anti-Western sloganeering to gain support. One of the unpleasant outcomes of this identity-based appeal is the necessary demonization of the West, generating fear and often-proscriptive countermeasures. The marginalization and even harassment of religious minorities is the other natural outcome of identity-based jingoism. Lip service to sharia in speeches, manifestos and even constitutions is advanced as proof of new governance and success, while failure to rectify the economy or generate jobs is often blamed on a “foreign hand.” Islamist parties must realize that governance is about such mundane issues as jobs, the economy, traffic and educational institutions, not grandiose battles between good and evil. When Islamists start to garner support for providing good governance and not grand slogans, the chasm between the Islamist supporters and the rest will diminish, as it has in Turkey.

Finally, the Islamists need to work on their credibility, which the Muslim Brothers seemed to squander in a very short time in Egypt. Although their support remains robust in some quarters, they are unable to convince many that they are good for the people. Acting as an obstructionist force may only give the military justification to prolong authoritarian rule. From 2011 to 2013, the Brotherhood broke many of its political promises. They said they would not run a candidate for the post of president but then reneged on their promise. They vowed to build an inclusive government but then proceeded to consolidate power in various public institutions. They promised to respect democratic norms, but Morsi tried to place himself above checks and balances. The army exploited the fear that democracy was already lost in early July 2013 to further dismantle democracy.

While the scenario in Egypt today and much of the Arab World looks bleak, all is not lost. There is still hope for democratization, and political Islam will have to play an important role in facilitating it. However, in order to precipitate political reforms, Islamists themselves must first undergo change.

Muqtedar Khan is associate professor of political science at the University of Delaware.

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