Throughout the Brotherhood’s 80-year history, a variety of political systems have come and gone in Egypt, and despite the fact that Brotherhood collided with nearly every ruler, it has managed to persevere from the monarchical era to today. It survived its first dissolution in 1948 following the Arab-Israeli War, through to the Gamal Abdel Nasser era in which it was dissolved for a second time in 1954—following a botched assassination attempt on Nasser in Mansheya which Brotherhood leaders were accused of orchestrating—to the Anwar Sadat era. After Sadat’s assassination, it endured through the Mubarak years, in which it emerged as a political actor by colluding with the ruling National Democratic Party and competing in Egyptian elections, until finally successfully rising to power with Mursi’s victory in the presidential elections of 2012. However, their ascendancy was short-lived due to their inability to reconcile with rival political parties, including other Islamist groups. This turn of events raises questions about the Brotherhood’s future. Will it adopt violence following its first attempt at public politics ending in failure?
Seif al-Islam Hassan Al-Banna, the son of the Brotherhood’s founder and a leading voice in the organization, rejects the notion that the Brotherhood will transform into a violent organization. He points to the hardships and various crises that the Brotherhood has endured throughout its 80-year history, and said that the current crisis is by no means the worst it has experienced. He says that the Brotherhood has duly proven its commitment to democracy and has reaffirmed its rejection of violence. He also says that during Mursi’s year in office it defended basic freedoms and did not clamp down on the press or close TV channels.
Al-Banna told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Enemies of the Islamist vision want to drag Egypt into the dark ages, with neither a platform for the future nor respect for democracy. There is an intellectual and ideological dimension to the issue, for with the downfall of the capitalist and communist systems, the only option left is the Islamist system, and they are attempting to undermine it.”
Like some other members of the Brotherhood, he blames a combination of external enemies and corrupt elements within Egypt for the toppling of Mursi and the problems the organization has faced.
He said: “The battle to uproot corruption was one of the factors that contributed to the demise of the Brotherhood and President Mursi, who uncovered evidence of wanton corruption, especially regarding wages and finances. Mursi’s attempt to set the maximum wage limit at EGP 50,000 caused outrage considering that some officials receive upwards of EGP 1 million per month. Corrupt officials began to encircle the president, and they were joined by those who feared a visionary, Islamist ruler leading Egypt. Those officials must not wage war against us; they must look to the wellbeing of the people.”
As well as domestic enemies, Banna also points the finger at a “conspiracy” of external foes. He said: “Israel and the enemies of the Muslims do not want Egypt to be strong. This fracturing and bickering plays into Israel’s hands, and the situation grows all the more dangerous as the unity between the army and the people becomes fraught with tension.” According to Banna, “History shows us that after the people and army collided in 1954, the Israeli aggression of 1956 was close to follow. The same happened in 1965 in that it was followed by the great catastrophe of 1967 two years later. The situation today is perilous.”
Political analyst and author Dr. Sarhan Solomon also rejected claims that the Brotherhood would embrace violence, telling Asharq Al-Awsat: “The Brotherhood is no different than it was decades ago. Crises do not affect it; it will disappear and then resurface. The current happenings will not persuade it to abandon politics. Like any faction operating in the political sphere, it wants to rule so that it can implement its principles, realize its goals, and establish an Islamic state.”
Although not a supporter of the Brotherhood, he also argues that the military and its supporters have blundered by deposing Mursi, and that their actions risk provoking a backlash that will engender sympathy for the organization.
“Never in Egypt’s history have the military leaders been as unpopular as they are now,” he said. “If they had left the religious channels be, not conducted mass arrests, and not restricted freedoms, I doubt the Egyptian people would have all this sympathy for the Brotherhood.” In Dr. Solomon’s view, it “also does not make sense that all of the problems that had plagued Egypt during President Mursi’s time in office would disappear overnight. It makes one wonder what is going on behind the scenes.” He believes “the Brotherhood will not go into hiding; it will remain despite all the threats. They believe with each death revolution grows more likely.” Dr. Solomon feels that “the military were expecting the Brotherhood to protest and vacate quickly, but their predictions were wrong. They forgot that the Muslim Brotherhood is very persistent! However I do not expect them to embrace violence, but perhaps some jihadist groups will embrace violence.”
Many of Mursi’s supporters share the same analysis of events. Gaddafi Abdel Razek, executive director and spokesman for the Tajurrud (Impartiality) campaign, which sought to mobilize support for Mursi before the June 30 demonstrations, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “What happened to President Mursi could very well increase the Brotherhood’s popularity, which will inevitably bring the Brotherhood to rule Egypt once again; there is no other alternative. We are biding our time. We will be patient and we will not leave the streets until legitimacy is restored. We will continue to support President Morsi until the end of his term. This will happen and everything will return as it was. The Brotherhood will remain and will continue to exercise its rights.”
The inherent strengths of the movement—its mass membership, its organizational skills, its institutional experience of operating in Egypt’s fraught political scene—are also seen by many analysts as assets that will keep it afloat.
Mamdouh al-Sheikh, founder of the Islamists for the Sake of the Nation and an expert on Islamist movements, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We must first acknowledge that the biggest mistake the Brotherhood committed was allying and associating with leading extremist Islamist figures, such as Asim Abdel Magid and Sheikh Hazim Abu Ismail. This allowed the youth of the Brotherhood to make more serious demands of their leaderships at a time in which the Egyptian street most feared Brotherhood influence.
“Large movements like this do not suddenly disappear, they fade with time. Meaning that the Brotherhood as a political movement will not withdraw from the political fray, it will continue to operate in public, but not nearly with the same amount of swagger. Its popularity in the future will depend on the rise and fall in the popularity of other groups and how much influence it can bring to bear on Egyptian politics. I believe that their lack of credibility is causing them to withdraw. It is a massive movement, and it is being undervalued in the political market place.”
However, he is skeptical that these assets will do more than help the movement to survive its current troubles. “I do not think that sympathy will be enough for the Brotherhood to achieve its short-term goals,” he said. “The Brotherhood often makes the mistake of assuming that the general public supports them. Those who do not identify with the Islamist movement yet still cast their votes in favor of the Brotherhood did so because of the long history of persecution which the Brotherhood faced, but this kind of support is fleeting and could evaporate at any moment.”
In particular, he says that the Brotherhood’s leaders are able to mobilize and organize their core supporters, but are “very ineffective at communicating and connecting with non-Brotherhood segments of the population. They failed in the battle for the media. Whether or not they can establish a media presence that can engage a non-Brotherhood audience will be a big test for them. They must develop a message that surpasses the message of Islam so that they can speak to people beyond their immediate base.”
Political theorist Qadri Hafni, a professor in Political Psychology, told Asharq Al-Awsat that some of the charges laid against the Brotherhood are hypocritical, but concedes that the organization must change if it wishes to endure its current struggles and return to the front line of Egyptian politics.
“I would advise the opposition that if they revolted because the Brotherhood ruled by excluding others and called for dialogue while not offering any meaningful concessions, then the opposition must not act in the same manner,” he said. “The opposition must hold talks that are not based on the law of ‘Listen to what I have to say and accept it,’ for this is what spurred the opposition to reject the Brotherhood’s rule in the first place.”
He also says that some of the necessary changes are already underway, with obvious changes at the Brotherhood’s protest camps in Cairo: “Chants and signs declaring ‘Islamist Rule’ have been replaced with ‘Civilian Rule’ and nationalist songs by Abdel Halim Hafiz, Sheikh Imam, and Foud Nagam can be heard filling the air, despite the fact that the latter two are known leftists. This indicates an important shift. Speeches and sermons are being given in foreign languages and one can see many signs written in English, something for which they had criticized the April 6 Movement.”
Overall, he says, the Brotherhood seems to be moving in a pragmatic direction: “They were also criticizing the Shi’a for using dissimulation, that is, concealing their true beliefs. I envision that Brotherhood members are declaring things about themselves that we know to be untrue as they try to plead their case to the world. They have started given speaking time to Christian women, and women from Rabaa al-Adawiyya are calling in to radio and television programs, despite Islamists’ assertion that the voice of a woman is salacious. All of these changes will have an impact on the younger Brotherhood generation. And it has also proven that the demonizing rumors of the existence of Brotherhood militias were in fact false.”
However, he also cautions that both the Brotherhood and its opponents face a hard road: “The larger challenge awaiting Egyptians is finding a framework for coexistence so that the Thirty Years War of Germany is not repeated. Many were killed in that war and in the end the only option available to the warring sides was to coexist and to leave religious matters to God. The Brotherhood must accept coexistence and reevaluate their position, because their year in power has won them many enemies.”