The Debacle of Orthodox Islamism

By Khalil al-Anani, Middle East Institute

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

The downfall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has put political Islam at a crossroads. Not only has it shown that ideology per se is not a guarantor of political success, but also that Islamists need to rethink their strategy and tactics in order to deal with the new environment following the Arab Spring.

However, the debate over the end of political Islam in the Middle East is not only premature but also irrelevant and certainly misleading. Instead it would be more useful to discuss the ideological and political changes that might occur within Islamist movements during crisis time.

The Debacle of Orthodox Islamism

The failure of the Brotherhood in power has revealed the inability of orthodox Islamism to adapt to the political environment that developed from the Arab Spring. By orthodox Islamism I mean the traditional Islamist movements that emerged over the past century and are burdened by its stagnant structure, its sprawling organization, and the domination of a conservative, old-fashioned style of leadership

Therefore, it is highly important to unpack the underlying factors that affect Islamists’ ideology and shape their political calculus and strategy during transitions. The Brotherhood, for instance, has failed to maintain power in Egypt not only because of its incompetence and political inexperience, which was evident, but also because of its rigid organizational structure and obsolete ideology that shaped the movement‘s strategy, calculations, and political choices. The decision to run for presidency, for instance, was driven mainly by political miscalculation and misconception of the new realities without deliberate discussion or genuine debate within the movement. Hence the Shura Council, the Brotherhood’s legislative body, was deeply divided over fielding a presidential candidate and whether the movement should abandon its self-restrained strategy that it had adopted for decades.

Moreover, the dominance of the conservative faction within the Brotherhood has contributed to its removal from power. Over the past two decades the Brotherhood has been controlled by a “narrow” power center that dominated the movement and precluded calls for internal reform. This faction adopted a rigid worldview and wasn’t able to adjust to the new environment after Hosni Mubarak’s downfall. When the Brotherhood took power in 2012, the so-called “reformist” current was almost absent or marginalized. The inauguration of Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s first democratically and freely elected president in June 2012 was a triumphant moment for the conservative leadership within the Brotherhood, and the election dissipated the hopes of reforming the Brotherhood via fundamental changes in its ideology, discourse, and strategy.

In addition, the nature of the Brotherhood’s organizational structure — which was created and infused by Hasan al-Banna eight decades ago and maintained by his successors — has contributed to the Brotherhood’s failure. As a social movement, the Brotherhood has a highly disciplined structure that is rooted and maintained by a profoundly conservative and rigid code of norms and values such as obedience, loyalty, allegiance, nepotism, and commitment. While this well-knit structure safeguarded the Brotherhood from Mubarak’s brutal repression and preserved its cohesion, it has become a hurdle after the uprising. The Brotherhood continued to operate as a secretive and underground movement without any attempt to modernize its code of values. Indeed, the lack of a pluralistic worldview and the absence of a flexible strategy within the Brotherhood can be ascribed to the influence of this set of norms and values. This lack deepened the mistrust between the Brotherhood and other political forces and reinforced external skepticism over its commitment toward democratic values.

The Cost of Conservatism

The fall of the Brotherhood has revealed the crisis that faces Islamists in the age of Arab Uprising: the lack of a revolutionary mindset and agenda. The majority of Islamist movements in the Arab world maintains a conservative and outdated vision that could not live up to the aspirations and dreams that fueled the Arab Spring three years ago. This conservatism, or lack of revolutionary ideology, continues to be incompatible with the new environment that exists now after the fall of the old regimes.

The majority of the Arab youth who took to the streets were driven by an ambitious, revolutionary agenda that they believed could change their lives and destiny. However, the youth were struck by the emergence of the traditional Islamists who sought to diffuse the revolution. Moreover, Islamist movements appear to be a reflection of a traditional and conservative social bloc that seems to have Arab societies in its grip. The inability to create such a revolutionary platform is in fact the most important reason for the Brotherhood’s downfall. The Islamists continue to act as the largest conservative social movement in Egypt. Therefore, the Brotherhood has a considerable appeal among the lower and lower-middle classes located mainly in the Nile Delta and the more impoverished parts of Upper Egypt. Surprisingly, large segments of these demographics turned away from the Brotherhood during its year in power, although they benefitted the most from the group’s social services network.

The Brotherhood’s conservative ideology had guaranteed a social reservoir during the past three decades, however, it became a burden after the uprising. Not surprisingly, during its year in power, the Brotherhood’s discourse and rhetoric resonated more with Salafis and former jihadists than it resonated with young revolutionaries. Moreover, while in power, Morsi’s policies and decisions were driven by this conservatism. Therefore, instead of reforming state institutions (e.g., the police, bureaucracy, military etc.), Morsi sought to appease and contain them. Instead of focusing on resolving the social and economic problems, the Brotherhood was consumed by and dragged into other controversial and highly contested issues such as identity, religion, and politics, not to mention bickering with Salafis and other political forces. It seems that the Brotherhood has paid a high price for its conservatism and lack of progressive and revolutionary agenda.

The Specter of Radicalization

Historically, repression has been a key factor in generating extremism by fueling the emergence of radical and violent Islamist trends. When Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s president during the 1950s and 1960s, prosecuted and tortured many members of the Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, surfaced as the chief ideologue and inspired many young Islamists to implement his philosophy on the ground. Similarly, the massacre at the Rabba al-Adawiya mosque, which left hundreds of peaceful protesters dead, in addition to the on-going repression, are potential turning points in the path of political Islam.

However, radicalization doesn’t happen suddenly or overnight. It takes time to be indoctrinated and infused within Islamists’ structure and ideology. Moreover, the traditional and peaceful Islamist movements, such as the Brotherhood, realize the dangers and the cost of radicalization and using violence in the political conflict. Not only could radicalization affect the popularity and credibility of the movement, but it would also give the regime a pretext to exclude it from the political scene.

Nevertheless, the lack of communication between young Islamists and their leadership, coupled with the absence of the weekly ritual gathering — both of which help in moderating young Islamists’ views — could increase the potential for radicalization. Having lost faith in democracy, it is likely that some young Islamists may exchange participation in peaceful politics for an extreme ideology and tactics.

Survival vs. Reform

During repression, survival becomes the chief goal for Islamists. As ideological and social movements, Islamists tend to unite in order to maintain cohesion among their rank-and-file. This has been the case with the Brotherhood since its founding in 1928. The movement has encountered many crises over the last decades; however, it hasn’t fractured or split. Over the past three decades, the Brotherhood has capitalized on former President Hosni Mubarak’s brutality and dehumanization of the group. Counterintuitively, oppression enables Islamists to survive and unite while also strengthening and expanding their social networks. This was illustrated when Mubarak’s ouster enabled the Brotherhood to emerge as Egypt’s most robust and organized movement.

Nevertheless, the Brotherhood’s history has shown that survival always comes at the expense of change and reform. The conservative wing within the movement used to employ repression in order to prevent the calls for change. The current debate among Brotherhood’s members is not how to reform and hold the leadership accountable for mistakes of the last year but rather how to survive and maintain the cohesion of the rank and file.

History has shown political Islam to be a resilient phenomenon. When Islamists encounter an existential threat, they tend to adapt, endure, and recover, albeit in different forms. However, the brutal repression and exclusion always take Islamists down different paths that no one is able to predict.

Khalil al-Anani is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins School of International Advanced Studies (SAIS). He is the author of Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity, and Politics (forthcoming).

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