Briefing paper: ‘Egypt and the eclipse of the Muslim Brotherhood’ 28 January 2011 Summary: Western analysts and
policy-makers have long argued that in most Middle Eastern countries Islamists, and in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, constitute ‘the only real opposition’ to ruling regimes. Recent and ongoing events in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere suggest that this analysis may have been mistaken. The popular revolts have erupted across the Middle East that are grassroots, largely leaderless movements composed of a broad cross-section of society protesting against dictatorship, corruption and poverty. These movements appear to be largely secular. The protestors have, as far as can be judged at present, not only bypassed Islamist organisational structures but have also adopted hardly any of the Islamists’ policies, slogans or ideologies, demanding instead only more jobs, cheaper food, political freedom and accountable government and an end to repression. Although protests across the region are still ongoing it is possible to draw some early conclusions. Through looking at unfolding events in Egypt, this briefing paper aims therefore to explain this emerging trend and to highlight some potential implications for western policy-makers. Background: Following the deposition of President Ben Ali in Tunisia, coverage of events there has triggered similar demonstrations in a number of other Arab countries, most notably in Algeria, Jordan, Yemen and Egypt. These demonstrations have been most striking in Egypt, the most populous Arab country, where protestors have clashed with police, attacked government institutions in Cairo and other major cities and held a large number of well attended street demonstrations. The demonstrators were initially galvanised by the story of Khaled Said, a young man who was beaten to death by police in June 2010.1 In recent days, protestors have additionally torn down pictures of President Hosni Mubarak and called for him to step down. As the home of one of the world’s largest and influential Islamist organisations, the Muslim Brotherhood, the situation in Egypt is an important indicator for trends across the region. Character of the Egyptians demonstrations: The demonstrators – The Egyptian demonstrations appear to have involved a broad crosssection of society including people from all classes, backgrounds and religions. For instance,
See here: http://www.elshaheeed.co.uk/home-khaled-said-full-story-background-truth-whathappened-torture-in-egypt-by-egyptian-police/
one online appeal asked atheists to take part – while Christian protestors are also reported to have protected Muslims protestors from police attack while they were praying. ‘Islamic’ slogans have been strikingly absent as have chants directed against the West or Israel. Prayers that have taken place during the protests have been largely incidental to their demonstrations rather than central to them. Many chants have had a strongly patriotic and sentimental tone and many of the demonstrators appear to be unaffiliated to any political party or trend. Leadership – The Egyptian protests – much like the Tunisians protests – have so far been largely leaderless, instead being organised anonymously or collectively through twitter and facebook (the internet as a whole has now been sporadically blocked in Egypt). The ‘horizontal’, quasi-democratic and swarm-like nature of these leaderless protests contrasts with the often rigidly hierarchical structure of most Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, in Egypt, the growing involvement of the opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei (until he was put under house arrest) and the Muslim Brotherhood in the protests (at least before a series of mass arrests) may lead to greater jockeying for power and influence between rival opposition factions. Secular/civic demands - During the Egyptian protests, several key demands have emerged. These initially including demanding the removal of the unpopular minister for national security, the introduction of a national minimum wage, the creation of a democratic transitional government and an assurance that Mubarak’s son, Gamal, will not be appointed to succeed his father. In the last two days protestors have additionally begun calling for the removal of Mubarak himself and lifting of martial law which has been in place since 1981. These tangible demands are far removed from the non-specific sloganeering typical of Islamist movements typically demanding abstract concepts such as ‘sharia law’, an ‘Islamic state’ or ‘justice’ at the expense of actual policies. Muted government response. In Egypt (as previously in Tunisia), the response of the police and the military to the protests has been relatively muted (although there are signs this may be rapidly changing). This may be because of the absence of Islamists from demonstrations to date – and possibly also because the government may not trust its security forces not to side with the demonstrators (there are sporadic reports from Egypt that this is already starting to happen). In Tunisia, the fact that many demonstrators were ‘ordinary people’ clearly deterred the military from taking strong action against them and made it difficult for the government to depicting them as ‘terrorists’ and ‘anti-state elements’ which could be used to justify harsher repression. Islamist reactions: The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has now endorsed the ongoing protests and has sought to take the initiative back from the facebook-led demonstrators by calling its own supporters to join the protests on Friday after prayers. Although the Brotherhood has thus now joined the protestors, it is still too early to predict what the consequences of this will be. Initially, the protesters appeared concerned that the Brotherhood would take credit for the movement or that it would seek to take over leadership of the protests. Many were additionally concerned that the Brotherhood’s
involvement would provoke a strong counter-reaction from the government. Although is clear that many of the current protestors do not share the Brotherhood’s goals, the Brotherhood appear to have been to an extent welcomed into the protests, once they had clarified that they did not intent to supplant the original demonstrators. Islamist supporters abroad. In the case of Tunisia, Brotherhood supporters enjoyed some success in appearing on English-language media outlets in order to present Islamist parties as being an integral part of the ‘Jasmine revolution’, to imply that the Brotherhood has a powerful grassroots presence and to present a strong Islamist presence in any future government not only as just but also as inevitable. Other fringe Islamist organisations, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir have unconvincingly told their own followers that the Tunisian protests were calling for ‘Islam and Khilafah’ and that the establishment of an Islamist state in Tunisia is inevitable. 2 This process has been less visible in the case of Egypt. The role of al-Jazeera. During the Tunisian protests, Al-Jazeera, much of whose management is strongly pro-Brotherhood, used its media power to repeatedly present Brotherhood leaders as the face of the Tunisian protests. It also repeatedly gave Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a major influence on the Brotherhood, repeated platforms on the channel to address Tunisians and to attempt to brand the protests as being pro-Islamist or even Islamist-led. In its coverage of the Egyptian protests, al-Jazeera’s coverage has been more even-handed while it has also been pre-occupied in covering the leaks of Palestinian documents (which the channel is widely accused of spinning in order to damage the Palestinian Authority in favour of Hamas). Jihadist reactions: Reactions on jihadist internet forums to the protests in both Egypt and Tunisia have been confused and muted. It seems like that many jihadists are clearly struggling to fit the news from Egypt and Tunisia into their existing narrative that jihadist organisations throughout the Middle East are steadily progressing towards establishing projihadist ‘Islamic states’. Some users of the jihadist forums say that the protests indicate the extent to which Egyptians have rejected jihadist ideology. In other instances, forums have seen disputes between jihadists who advocate some form of political action and quietist salafis who believe it is haram to demonstrate against a Muslim-led government. Most jihadist forums have however continued to concentrate on news in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Key points: Islamists do not have a monopoly on grassroots movements. The ‘conventional wisdom’ that only the Muslim Brotherhood can organise grassroots opposition movements in the Middle East clearly needs re-thinking as does the idea that it is the ‘only real opposition’. While it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood is the most ‘organised’ formal opposition group in Egypt (and some other Middle Eastern countries but not in others such as Tunisia),
See, for instance, http://www.hizb.org.uk/current-affairs/tunisia-protests-muslims-call-for-islamand-khilafah
advances in technology mean it can now be outmanoeuvred by spontaneous grassroots movements. Islamist support may have been over-estimated. The high levels of support for the Egyptian protests among ordinary people may indicate a larger than suspected groundswell of support for genuinely democratic, non-sectarian politics in the Middle East. The lack of vocal support among the protestors for standard Islamist slogans perhaps indicates that much of this apparent support for the Brotherhood was not ideologically-based but rather based on a shared opposition to the status quo for whom the Brotherhood was the only available outlet. This shows that Brotherhood claims to be the ‘only real opposition’ to dictatorial regimes in the Middle East should be viewed with a considerable amount of scepticism in future. Given the opportunity, many people in the Arab countries clearly prefer civil, nonsectarian parties over Islamists. Rise of secular discourse. The basic demands of the Egyptian demonstrators for jobs, food and accountable government are both tangible and strikingly non-ideological. The Egyptian protests are also remarkable for the wide cross-section of society represented through them – civic, non-Islamist activism is not just popular among the elite but also among the masses. This is also a rebuff to those on the Right who believe that Muslim-majority societies do not want or understand liberal secular democracy and also to those on the Left who argue given a free choice that Muslims will chose Islamism over pluralism and political freedom. Aside from Egypt, the unfolding events in Tunisia are also a challenge to supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood who argue that Islamism is the only alternative to either Mubarak dictatorships or al-Qaeda. There is now another clearly option for the Middle East: genuine pluralist democracy. The process is still ongoing. Although the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt have so far been largely secularist and pro-democratic, and often deliberately excluding of Islamists, this may yet change. Although groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have been caught off-guard by the protests, they are looking for ways to re-gain the initiative in both Egypt and in Tunisia. Previously Islamists have tried to take over and usurp revolutions in Muslim-majority countries, doing this successfully in Iran in 1979 and unsuccessfully in Egypt in 1953. Although secularists in Egypt and Tunisia are clearly alert to this danger, this does not mean that Islamists will not try, perhaps with some success, to hijack these mass movements. Similarly, if secular democratic regimes are ultimately established in these countries, some Islamists groups may deliberately try to push them towards collapse (as Hezbollah has recently done in Lebanon) in order to ultimately take control of these states.