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Egypt’s Muslim Brothers: Confrontation or Integration?
Egypt’s Muslim Brothers: Confrontation or Integration?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Egypt Conflict Alert
Egypt Conflict Alert

Egypt’s Muslim Brothers: Confrontation or Integration?

The Society of Muslim Brothers’ success in the November-December 2005 elections for the People’s Assembly sent shockwaves through Egypt’s political system.

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Executive Summary

The Society of Muslim Brothers’ success in the
November-December 2005 elections for the People’s Assembly sent shockwaves through Egypt’s political system. In response, the regime cracked down on the movement, harassed other potential rivals and reversed its fledging reform process. This is dangerously short-sighted. There is reason to be concerned about the Muslim Brothers’ political program, and they owe the people genuine clarifications about several of its aspects. But the ruling National Democratic Party’s (NDP) refusal to loosen its grip risks exacerbating tensions at a time of both political uncertainty surrounding the presidential succession and serious socio-economic unrest. Though this likely will be a prolonged, gradual process, the regime should take preliminary steps to normalise the Muslim Brothers’ participation in political life.

The Muslim Brothers, whose social activities have long been tolerated but whose role in formal politics is strictly limited, won an unprecedented 20 per cent of parliamentary seats in the 2005 elections. They did so despite competing for only a third of available seats and notwithstanding considerable obstacles, including police repression and electoral fraud. This success confirmed their position as an extremely well-organised and deeply rooted political force. At the same time, it underscored the weaknesses of both the legal opposition and ruling party. The regime might well have wagered that a modest increase in the Muslim Brothers’ parliamentary representation could be used to stoke fears of an Islamist takeover and thereby serve as a reason to stall reform. If so, the strategy is at heavy risk of backfiring.

Since the 2005 elections, the regime has deployed a range of legal and security measures to control and constrain the Muslim Brothers. It has restricted their participation in subsequent polls, restricted their ability to function in parliament, arrested thousands of supporters and prosecuted key leaders and financiers in military tribunals. Meanwhile, it amended the constitution to formalise the longstanding ban on the Muslim Brothers’ political participation and facilitate the introduction of repressive legislation if and when the Emergency Law finally is repealed. While the approach hampered the group’s further electoral advances, it did nothing to reduce its legitimacy or deal with its longer-term political role. And it has noticeably degraded the quality of parliamentary and political life, entrenching the NDP’s virtual monopoly and dealing a severe blow to the legal, non-Islamist opposition. 

The Society of Muslim Brothers also has altered its approach. It is using its sizeable parliamentary presence to confront the government and present itself as a major force for political reform. In an unprecedented move, and, despite the crackdown, it is seriously contesting elections for the upper house of parliament, municipalities and labour unions. In 2007, it also for the first time formally expressed its desire to form a legal political party. This last move in particular ought to be seen as an opportunity to separate its religious and political wings and begin the process of peacefully integrating a pivotal political actor. 

The current situation in which a banned movement can offer candidates as independents gives a little to everyone. The Brotherhood thrives on its socio-cultural
activism and retains manoeuvring space; the regime exercises leverage and constrains its formal participation; and the legal opposition faces less competition. But it also comes at real cost: confusion between the Society’s proselytising and political activities – arguably a key to its success; limits on the state’s oversight on the group as a political organisation; and overall damage to democratic life. Far better would be for the regime to formally incorporate the Muslim Brothers or an associated party into the political realm and open the political arena to a genuine democratic contest.

The Muslim Brothers also carry their share of responsibility. Although they have made considerable efforts to clarify their vision and can make a credible case that they embrace the rules of democratic politics, including the principles of citizenship, rotation of power and multiparty political life, serious questions linger. Many of their pronouncements are ambiguous; not a few – including in their most recent political program – retain a distinctly non-democratic, illiberal tone. This is particularly true concerning the role of women and the place of religious minorities, neither of whom, for example, the Muslim Brothers believe should be eligible for the presidency. Clarification is needed. Democratising the Society’s internal practice also would help, particularly if the group’s more pragmatic wing is able to make a credible case for a doctrinal revision as the price to pay for political integration.

The path toward integration will not be easy. The very reasons that make it more urgent – a tense socio-economic environment and a looming political transition – also make it more difficult for the regime to contemplate. At the very least, legalisation of a party associated with the Muslim Brothers is highly un­likely to occur under President Hosni Mubarak’s stewardship and may have to await the completion of a presidential transition. But this need not and should not mean complete immobility. Both the regime and the Muslim Brothers should initiate a dialogue as well as preliminary steps to pave the way toward eventual normalisation. Ultimately, the Muslim Brothers are too powerful and too representative for there to be either stability or genuine democratisation without finding a way to incorporate them. Their integration should be pursued not just for its own sake, but as an essential step to a genuine opening of the political sphere that would also benefit secular opposition forces.

Cairo/Brussels, 18 June 2008

Egypt Conflict Alert

It is difficult to know which is most dangerous: the serious uptick in street violence; President Morsi’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s serial inability to reach out to the rest of the political class inclusively; or the opposition clinging to the hope of some extraneous event (demonstrations, foreign pressure, judicial rulings or military intervention) allowing it to gain power while bypassing arduous compromise and politics. They are tied of course: the president’s cavalier treatment of the constitution-writing process and the judiciary and the opposition’s lethargic approach to politics and rejection of Islamist legitimacy alike have eroded the authority of state institutions. This encourages in turn unrest and contributes to the economic slide. Together, these heighten risks of a complete breakdown of law and order. For two years, political factions repeatedly have failed to reach consensus on basic rules of the game, producing a transition persistently threatening to veer off the road. It is past time for the president and opposition to reach an accommodation to restore and preserve the state’s integrity.

Since President Mubarak’s ouster, the level of violence has ebbed and flowed, yet each new wave brings the country closer to tipping point. Already, some police officers, beleaguered by attacks on their headquarters, are considering removing their uniforms and going home; there is talk of brewing discontent among Central Security Forces, the riot control police; and criminal gangs along with looters profit from the chaos. There are new shocking images of police brutality. Many young Egyptians increasingly appear disillusioned with electoral politics, and some are drawn to anarchical violence.

The situation is made worse by deteriorating economic conditions. As foreign currency reserves decline, the government finds it ever more difficult to prop up the Egypt's pound or maintain fuel and food subsidies. One should not be surprised to see larger segments of the population joining in socio-economic riots. By current trends, Egypt could find itself in a vicious cycle of economic under-performance and political instability, the one fuelling the other.

At first glance, the immediate trigger of the current crisis might appear to be entirely local. The violence that claimed the lives of dozens in Port Said began as a reaction to death sentences for 21 soccer fans charged with killing a rival team’s fans.  Yet, the events are symptomatic of a larger trend — erosion of respect for governing institutions. In the Suez Canal Zone and the Nile Delta, protestors have violently targeted administrative buildings, symbols of an authority viewed as removed, arbitrary and impotent. The collapse of the police and increased porosity of borders with Libya and Sudan, thus a marked increase in the illegal trafficking of light arms, further enable street violence.

Overshadowing this is a broader political context: a persistent, perilous standoff between on one side the president and his Islamist backers for whom elections appear to mean everything, and, on the other, opposition forces for whom they seem to mean nothing; between those in power who deny adversaries respect and those not in power who deny Islamists legitimacy. The constitution-writing process was a sad microcosm: Islamist contempt in forcing through what ought to have been a carefully constructed, consensual document; opposition recklessness in seeking to exploit the moment to topple the Brotherhood; one celebrating a narrow conception of majority rule, the other holding to a counter-productive notion of street politics.

In the absence of a shared view of the foundations of a future political system, Islamists are pressing their vision, while their opponents play spoilers. This has the makings of a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more the opposition obstructs and calls for Morsi's ouster, the more it validates the Islamists' conviction it will never recognise their right to govern; the more the Brotherhood charges ahead, the more it confirms the others' belief of its monopolistic designs over power. Even if leaders back away from the brink, this could quickly get out of hand, as their ability to control the rank and file — and, in the case of the opposition, ability to represent the rank and file — dwindles.

Reversing these dynamics requires efforts on two fronts. Politically, the key is mutual acceptance of two realities: that the Brotherhood's electoral victories give their rule legitimacy, but that a historic, complex transition in a challenging security and economic context requires exercise of power to be tempered by meaningful consensus-building.

Several steps would help: an end to opposition calls for the president to step down and agreement by Morsi that the constitution, whose adoption was marred by boycotts and low voter turn-out, ought to be revised to allay the apprehensions of non-Islamists and notably the Coptic community. Likewise, the process for designing the elections law — another topic of sharp disagreement, especially on district boundaries and the representation of women — should be revisited to reflect broader agreement among factions. Finally, after parliamentary elections are held, parties should form a coalition government, a result that would serve both the Muslim Brotherhood (which would gain from the opposition becoming a responsible stakeholder) and the opposition (which would be better positioned to impede what it views as efforts to institute single party rule).

The National Dialogue the president proposes is a possible forum.  It should build upon the 31 January Azhar memorandum in which all sides disavowed violence and promised serious discussion; its agenda — to find a way to amend the constitution and set the legal framework for legislative elections — needs to be clearly defined in advance; participation should be expanded to include representatives of youth activists and protesters. Parties should commit that, for decisions requiring legislative action, their future elected legislators would vote consistent with understandings reached in the dialogue.

The second set of challenges relates to the security environment. Security sector reform broadly construed — including mechanisms to ensure accountability and justice for victims of police brutality; training in crowd control; but also measures to restore law and order — needs to be tackled, and soon.

The alternative could well be a downward spiral toward greater insecurity, violence, social unrest and economic collapse. It also could be failure of a transition to which all eyes are turned and whose fate would reverberate far beyond its boundaries.

Brussels/Cairo