The Brotherhood Withdraws Into Itself

By Nathan J. Brown, George Washington University

* This memo was prepared for the “Rethinking Islamist Politics” conference, January 24, 2014. 

When Mohamed Morsi was ousted from the Egyptian presidency on July 3, 2013, it was clear to many observers, though not necessarily all[1], that political Islam was entering a new era — at least in Egypt, a country which had given birth to perhaps the most successful model of a formal Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. But it was not clear what direction that movement would take. Six months later, the features of the Islamist response are becoming a bit clearer, again if one focuses on Egypt. And they are cause for concern, especially for the part of the Islamist spectrum represented by the Brotherhood and its supporters: The movement is showing signs of succumbing to a strange combination of paranoia and long-term optimism, tendencies that are very much fostered by a repressive and sometimes hysterical political environment. The trend toward the Brotherhood’s inclusion as a normal political movement — a fitful process that had been occurring in a two-steps-forward, one-step-back manner for three decades — has come to a full stop.

In this memo, I will rely on my past attempts to understand the Brotherhood to probe the future. My purpose is not to use the past as a guide so much as to explain why I think the future is unlike the past and how Egyptian political life — and the Brotherhood as an organization — have already entered a dangerous period.

The Brotherhood’s Political Project

From the time of its re-emergence in the 1970s and 1980s, the Brotherhood had found itself drawn increasingly if gradually into politics. Dabbling in parliamentary politics gave way to formal alliances with legal parties (the Brotherhood being denied legal recognition prior to 2012) and then to a decision to form a political party in principle, with implementation delayed until a time when an application would not be — as eventual Freedom and Justice Party head Sa‘d al-Katatni told me in 2010 — a “death certificate” for the movement.

In the 1990s, the movement may have postponed the question of a political party, but it gradually gained more and more electoral and parliamentary experience. Those within the movement skilled at building coalitions, reaching constituents, crafting platforms, and participating in public life gradually rose in importance, taking seats on the Guidance Bureau. But the movement as a whole remained cautious about politics, making politics a virtue of necessity. Operating in an environment in which they would never be allowed to win, they described their political goal as “participation, not domination” (al-musharika la al-mughaliba). And the majority of Guidance Bureau itself, as well as the position of General Guide, was never signed over to the more politically inclined. This story has been told by many of my colleagues, sometimes quite well.[2]

This strategy paid off handsomely until the aftermath of the 2005 parliamentary elections, in which the Brotherhood took one-fifth of the seats. Feeling a wave of repressive wrath from the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood leadership sensed that its increasing political involvement was actually exposing the movement to harm. The leadership shunted aside some of its more politically-minded members and hunkered down in a manner designed to preserve the organization through trying times as an apparently entrenched regime trained its sights fully on the Islamist opposition.

And then the regime fell.

Much of the Brotherhood’s flatfooted response to events in 2011 can be attributed to the way in which it had marginalized its more politically-skilled members. But in January 2011, the movement was suddenly presented with the prospect of a dramatically new political environment, one in which its electoral skills would suddenly become more relevant than ever before. Indeed, the Brotherhood plunged into elections with gusto — but still promising not to forget its “participation, not domination” refrain, eschewing an attempt at a parliamentary majority and initially abjuring the presidency, and even hesitating for a brief moment about forming a political party before taking the plunge.

The Impulsiveness of Icarus

In 2011 and 2012, the Brotherhood’s decision to re-emphasize politics seemed to pay off handsomely in the eyes of external observers. But the Brotherhood leadership was a bit more guarded, always looking over its shoulder. Yes, it took considerable pride in its ability to do well in electoral terms. Leaders felt vindicated that they represented the “silent majority.” To be sure, they did not plagiarize Richard Nixon’s terms, but they evinced every sign of embracing the idea that the Brotherhood spoke for the majority of conservative, religious, decent Egyptian voters and thus, sparked resentment from the effete liberal Cairo elite and the nattering nabobs of opportunism.

But the Brotherhood fell victim to Nixonian impulses in a deeper sense: It began to feel itself besieged by a hostile state apparatus and cultural elite, even as it piled up victory after victory at the polls. The decision to seek the presidency, the startling November 2012 constitutional declaration,[3] the disinterest in reaching out to opposition, the willingness to deploy violence against opponents, — to be fair, the Brotherhood was often responding to violent attacks on its buildings and members and could not rely on the security services for protection — and the preparations to purge the judiciary were all indications that the Brotherhood had made the transition to governing party without leaving its siege mentality behind. In January 2013 a friend in the Brotherhood told me the mood within the movement was that it was 1965 all over again (referring to perhaps the harshest year in the Brotherhood’s experience of official repression), neglecting to mention that the presidency was no longer in the hands of Gamal Abdel Nasser but instead Mohamed Morsi. In June 2013, a Brotherhood leader told me grimly he had no regrets about any of the measures the movement had taken, “Not only would we do it again, we will do it again if necessary.” The Brotherhood’s pride in learning and adjusting had taken a back seat to its feeling that time was on its side and against those of its hypocritical opponents. In April 2013, I observed that, “The movement’s response to the political opportunities before it, for all its well-earned reputation for caution, has been to marry a vague strategic vision to a series of ad hoc decisions on how to run in elections, structure campaigns, form alliances, and pursue office and policies that betray more the impulsive ambition of Icarus than the methodical precision of a chess grandmaster.”[4]

Political Islam After the Coup

The coup of July 3 should have come as no surprise, but it evidently did. The Brotherhood leadership stood in front of an oncoming locomotive convinced it would never hit or, if it did, that the blow could be deflected. And when instead the Brotherhood’s political leadership of the country was shattered, the movement did not know how to react. The fact that the collision caught the leadership unprepared should lead us to a clue about how to examine the post-coup environment and an important partial shift in how the movement’s political role should be analyzed.

I have argued elsewhere that explaining the behavior of Islamist movements should focus a bit less on the intentions of the leaders and more on the environment in which they operate. I still believe that generally to be the case. I closed my 2012 book on the movement with the observation that the problem “lies not in their learning abilities (which are impressive). The problem is the lessons they are taught.”[5] But it is clear now that the leadership has absorbed a bitter lesson indeed, and that the powerful nature of that experience — of the brutal defeat of the Brotherhood’s political project — combined with the organization’s tight and inward-looking structure now suggest we need to pay a bit more attention to the movement’s structure and choices. In an inelegant and unglamorous metaphor, I suggested that the Brotherhood behaves as bit like a toothpaste tube in which its shape is remolded in reaction to external pressure; I now think the events of the past year have frozen that tube in a manner that the next generation of Brotherhood members and of Egyptian citizens may pay dearly (and unfortunately quite steadily) for.

I further believe that it makes no sense to try to enter debates about what the Brotherhood should do as if the movement is in a tactical mood figuring out how to reenter an established political process. The Brotherhood is operating now in an environment in which it is making calculations according to something other than the logic imposed by a desire to return to the political maneuverings of the past two decades.

The organization’s own structure and worldview inform the way that it perceives of — and reacts to — the political environment. At present, both the external environment and the movement’s own impulses and organization combine to push the Brotherhood strongly in the direction of further withdrawal and paranoia, based on the combination of harsh repression, social ostracism, organizational involution, sense of being cheated, and long-term optimism that God and the people will eventually reward the righteous.

Let us take each of these factors in turn. The harsh repression has an obvious dimension: The movement’s leadership and parts of the rank and file have been rounded up, put on trial, sometimes for preposterous charges, and members now must once again meet — if they do — primarily in secret. But there is a potentially even more profound way in which the current moment will leave a deep imprint on the organization: Thousands of the movement’s supporters have been killed. In several conversations, I have been told harrowing stories from those present in Rabaa al-Adawiya or other sites, who carried bodies, watched friends being shot, and witnessed wonton bloodshed. The use of the four-fingered signal suggests that August 14, 2013 was a defining moment for the Brotherhood, one that is still now being deeply imprinted in the organization’s collective memory.

And that leads us to the second feature of the current moment. The movement is suffering not merely from political repression but from social ostracism. The hatred for the Brotherhood expressed by so many in Egyptian public life (and, in my experience, reflected in many private conversations) is overwhelming and likely unprecedented. In short, the collective memory of martyrdom so prominent in the movement now is one it simply does not share with most of the society.[6] Indeed, in almost all non-Islamist public spheres, the events of Rabaa fit into a very different story, one of the defeat of terrorism. Those who have studied the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would likely find such unshared sense of trauma familiar territory, but it is a new experience for the Brotherhood and a troubling one for Egyptian society. It is now undeniable that the Brotherhood now has a deep problem not only with the rulers but also with the people it seeks to lead and guide.

But the ostracism is not total, and that is in a sense even more troubling. Within some circles of Egyptian society, the Brotherhood will find its sense of victimization vindicated. I was struck in conversations in Egypt last month with a variety of figures in religious institutions (mosques, al-Azhar) how much the tenor of discussions was different from those that took place among the general public. There is deep opposition to the Brotherhood among some in al-Azhar, to be sure, but there is also a wide supportive subculture within the institution as well as other parts of the religious establishment. One leading imam I spoke with, for instance, was unable to find terms to indicate the events of past summer in any clear way, showing discomfort about whether to refer to “June 30” or “July3.” The simple designation of a date amounted in effect a statement of political loyalties, and he knew he would offend no matter what he said. (Outside of such circles I have encountered few Egyptians who seem so concerned about giving offense.) A very prominent television fatwa-giver and a leading former official of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, Salem Abdel Galil, appeared on a video distributed by the military that appeared to express support for Morsi’s overthrow. He issued a statement after the video’s release that he had not intended to take such a political stand (though it is almost certain that he was a strong supporter of the coup) and mentioned that he had close family members who had attended the demonstration in Rabaa. Egypt has not experienced a civil war, but the social scars do bear some resemblance to a time of deep social division. The embittered minority will find safe spaces in which to nurse its grievances.

Third, the Brotherhood’s organizational structure — one which served its well in semiauthoritarian times in the past and then in the cascade of post-January 25 elections — is now likely to accentuate the turn inwards. That structure,[7] based on very tight, personal bonds — quite literally invoking a “family” metaphor — will likely, in the current repressive period, lead to a great deal of organizational involution (if Clifford Geertz’s term about Indonesian farming can be modified and deployed in a very different context). Brotherhood members will fall back on each other, recruitment will be difficult indeed, and bonds of trust and discipline will be more tightly drawn. These features — which made the Brotherhood a formidable organization but also one difficult for any system, much less a semiauthoritarian or aspiring democratic one, to integrate — are likely to operate even more strongly in the coming years. The organization will emerge leaner and meaner from this experience.

Fourth, the Brotherhood not only feels besieged and sullen, it also feels cheated. It performed well in a parliamentary election and saw the parliament dissolved; it wrote a constitution according to the rules approved by Egyptian voters and saw that document torn to shreds; it won a presidential election but saw its president ousted by a general he had depended upon. While the Brotherhood is slow to admit any misdeeds, if it ever turns a bit more self-critical it will likely — and with some justification — claim that everything it can be criticized for doing was done to it many times over.

Finally, the Brotherhood has always fostered among its members a sense of long-term optimism based on an encouraging attitude that God has taught righteousness so that the righteous will ultimately triumph. I do not mean to say that the Brotherhood thrives on being oppressed — I think its members are very much suffering now and not at all enjoying the current moment — but the bitterness is not total, it is joined with a faith that those who follow a path based on higher truths will not always have to wait for the next world for their reward. As one Brotherhood supporter, but not a member, told me last month: There is no Egyptian who opposed the coup but came to support it; there are some who supported it who now have doubts. For him, time is on the side of the virtuous. I am quite skeptical that events are moving the Brotherhood’s way, but the movement’s members show few doubts. A strong sense of serene inner conviction coupled with a pressing sense of grievance is a heady brew.

I do not know what all this means in concrete terms, but I think little good can come from it. I am struck by the way in which the Brotherhood’s attitude in some past waves of repression — to buckle down and bear it, focusing only on the self — does not seem to be guiding the organization now. Yes, the movement is withdrawing into itself, but it is not directing its members to pull back from the society or even from politics. It is playing the role of an angry but active outsider. The attitude against initiating violence is deep indeed. I do not mean to imply that the Brotherhood is incapable of violence. I mean only that its self-image is one of being a peaceful movement if one that can deploy force in self-defense and that this self-image informs movement behavior in a manner that makes a full-scale Brotherhood insurgency very unlikely.

Most likely the movement will play something of a spoiler role, a hulking hostile presence outside of formal politics, a useful bogeyman for Egypt’s cruel security apparatus, and an axis of division within a society, which has always had an exaggerated sense of its own homogeneity and few tools or mechanisms for handling deep differences.

Nathan J. Brown is professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University, non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author of When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics (2012).



[1] I participated in a recent online forum on the future of Islamism with a group of other scholars whose work I do not merely respect but often rely on. I found myself a bit of an outlier on the significance of Morsi’s overthrow. See the Jadaliyya exchange in which I take the strongest position. “Roundtable on The Future of Islamism: A Starting Point,” Jadaliyya, 14 November 2013.

[2] Perhaps the most comprehensive work on the earlier period, though hardly the only one, is Carrie Wickham’s Mobilizing Islam (Columbia University Press, 2002); it will soon by joined by Abdullah Al-Arian’s Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Egypt (Oxford University Press, 2014). I have tried to contribute to an understanding of the more recent period in When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics (Cornell University Press, 2012); Wickham has also contributed The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement (Princeton University Press, 2013).

Also extremely helpful is Michaelle Browers’s Political Ideology in the Arab World (Cambridge University Press, 2009); Browers is able to show both the reality and the limits of cross-ideological dialogues in Arab politics in the period before the 2011 uprisings.

[3] That document was one I summed up in an uncharitable mood as amounting to “I, Morsi, am all powerful. And in my first act as being all powerful, I declare myself more powerful still,” in Kareem Fahim and David D. Kirkpatrick, “Clashes Break Out as Morsi Seizes New Powers in Egypt,” New York Times, 23 November 2012.

[4] “Islam and Politics in the New Egypt,” Carnegie Paper April 2013, p. 8.

[5] When Victory is Not an Option, p. 255.

[6] I am indebted to Lina Atallah for this observation.

[7] The best works on the Brotherhood’s structure are the more historically minded ones, including Richard Mitchell’s The Society of Muslim Brothers (Oxford University Press, 1993) and Brynjar Lia, The Society of Muslim Brothers in Egypt (Ithaca Press, 2006), I have tried to draw the political implications of this structure in my When Victory Is Not an Option.

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