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What has changed; the Muslim Brotherhood or the scene? - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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With regard to the electoral gains made by the Muslim Brotherhood in the “Arab Spring” elections, opinions are broadly divided between those who are optimistic, those who are pessimistic, and those who are simply confused. Of course, such differences is nothing new, as the Muslim Brotherhood has long been a source of suspicions and doubts for some people, whilst an object of admiration and inspiration for others. However we have now begun to see some cultural and media elites in our region taking the negative step of politically humouring the Muslim Brotherhood, and in some cases even defending its extremist ideology and history of violence. There can be no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood moving closer to the seat of power, has prompted many, in turn, to try to move closer to it, either out of fear, or out of a desire to achieve rapprochement with the group that will be in power. Indeed, some seem to have forgotten their previous stances and opinions about this mother of all Islamist movements, and have contributed – in varying degrees – to promoting the Muslim Brotherhood’s political discourse.

At the individual level, such stances may seem understandable in view of the change in the political scene, but what is completely incorrect and unacceptable is some people claiming that the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood has changed following the Arab Spring, or that we are today witnessing a structural change in the Brotherhood’s ideology, that may lead to real change in its discourse and practices in the realms of politics and religion. This does not deny the fact that it is possible for the Muslim Brotherhood to change in future, but this is conditional upon a conceptual and political overthrow of the principles of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, and a complete rejection of the literature of its original members, such as Sayyid Qutb.

Has the Brotherhood reached this level of radical change? It is far too early to judge what will happen in the next few months or years. Yet, if we review the Muslim Brotherhood’s history over the last eight decades, then we could say that this organization has been continually undertaking such political manoeuvres. We must also acknowledge that it is skilled at [political] planning and tactics, and always issues two contradictory statements on any given issue or subject: one statement is for internal consumption by the Muslim Brotherhood itself, whilst another for the public. However, at each historical crossroad, the Muslim Brotherhood returns to its extremist and radical principles; whether this is regarding its political options or exploiting religion in order to gain popularity in uneducated societies – or shall we societies that lack civil awareness or secular democratic principles. Here, we must realize that those who expect – or hope – that the Muslim Brotherhood will develop its political discourse and practices so that it will resemble the Islamist experience in Turkey, have no concrete evidence for this whatsoever, rather this is merely wishful thinking.

In my opinion, this group has not developed its discourse whatsoever over the past few decades, indeed one need only refer back to the Muslim Brotherhood’s platform in 2005 and the political reform draft issued in 2007. Nevertheless, the Muslim Brotherhood is on the verge of winning the “Arab Spring” elections, and with an overwhelming majority. Perhaps, the significant question that must be asked here is: why should the Muslim Brotherhood today change its principles or vision of political reform when this is successful? Some may answer by saying that the scene has changed and that the “Arab Spring” will prompt them to change and adapt with regards the new requirements towards a civil democratic state based on “popular” legitimacy. However this is the paradox: the Muslim Brotherhood may portray itself as being sympathetic with the “popular and revolutionary powers” now, but after it has reached power it will no longer need to humour any of the Tahrir demonstrators, for it will lean on the “legitimacy” of the ballot box, in the same manner as the Mubarak regime. In addition to this, the Muslim Brotherhood will soon be able to redefine the revolution in any what that it likes, portraying this as a pure “Islamic” revolution. Indeed today we need only look at [Egyptian] television presenter Ahmed Mansour and his talk show “Shahid Ala al-Tharwa” [An Eye-witness of the Revolution] on Al Jazeera, to see that this has already begun. We also must remember that the Muslim Brotherhood announced its stance on the “revolution” three days after it had begun on 25 January, and that it refrained from allying with any of the revolutionary forces after Mubarak stepped down, whilst it has also refrained from participating in the most recent “Tahrir Square” demonstrations. Of course, there are those who cite the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party’s relinquishing of slogans such as “Islam is the solution” and “Islam: Religion and State” as being evidence of the group’s pragmatism and readiness to withdraw from its traditional positions and stances. However even if this is true, the Freedom and Justice party is nothing more than the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood – according to the regulations governing this international organization – and the mother organization is not necessarily obliged to implement its political program or new “democratic” discourse. Perhaps some still recall the statements made by former Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mahda Akef, when following the 2005 elections he was asked if the organization respects the democracy which has resulted in some of its members winning seats in the Egyptian parliament. Akef answered “for us, democracy is like a pair of slipper that we wear until we reach the bathroom, and then we take them off.” (Al-Dostour newspaper, 24 February 2011). In his book “Egypt and the Politics of Change in the Middle East” (2010) Robert Bawker suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood has been successful over the past decades because it played the role of the active political opposition by portraying itself as the religious option, and this is the real reason for its failure to renew its discourse or shift from its stance of conservative radicalism into a force that is more suitable to democratic governance. Bawker also stressed that the Muslim Brotherhood is divided between the hardliners and the more moderates, regarding their extent of the pragmatism – or let us say political tactics – that they must enact in order not to lose their religious identity. He said that the Muslim Brotherhood’s hawks fear that focusing on political settlements will weaken their religious identity.

Despite all of the above, some believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is on the verge of reaching power in Egypt, as well as a number of other Arab states like Tunisia and Morocco, therefore we must win them over – both spiritually and materially – in order to ensure that the Gulf states do not lose their influence and relations with these countries. This is also necessary to ensure that these new political regimes will not form a radical alliance, along the lines of the Iranian-Syrian alliance, and then confront states with more moderate policies. In my opinion, the Gulf and Arab states previously attempted to ally with the Muslim Brotherhood, offering them political asylum and financial support during their times of difficulty, or when they were facing political and security persecution. Yet, everything indicates that the Muslim Brotherhood is a chauvinistic organization whose ambitions go beyond mere politics, to spreading its political and ideological influence in neighbouring states.

If you want to read a serious discussion about this, you can refer to Abdullah bin Bajad al-Otaibi’s article “Saudi Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood: A glimpse from History” (Asharq al-Awsat, 17 December 2011). Some may consider this discourse about the most prominent Islamist movement to be pessimistic, yet it is difficult, according to al-Otaibi, to ignore history and all of our bitter memories of the Muslim Brotherhood, just because the group is now on the verge of power.

Those who are betting that the Muslim Brotherhood will change are taking a shot in the dark, and they must understand that the Brotherhood’s past history has only produced tragedy, however if this scenario is repeated once again, this will be nothing more than a farce.

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi is the former Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and Al-Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, his research focuses on Saudi–Iranian relations, foreign policy decision-making in the Gulf, and IR theories on the Middle East. Dr. Al Toraifi holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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