At first glance, the Muslim Brotherhood is having a political field day since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. It is finally mobilizing free from harassment after decades of carefully navigating a severely restricted political space. Following the military’s de facto recognition of the Brotherhood as a key political player during Egypt’s transition period, the Islamist organization has moved to establish its first-ever political party and launch its own satellite television channel. As Michael Slackman recently reported in The New York Times, some even see the Brotherhood as now being the driving force behind Egypt’s transition and suspect the group of striking a deal with the military that facilitates its political dominance.
However, while Egypt’s popular uprising has given the Brotherhood the chance to flex its political muscles, it is also forcing the organization to face up to its own democracy deficit. While it prefers to walk the line between being an advocate for reform and a guardian of the political status quo (under which it is one of the only forces prepared to compete in upcoming parliamentary elections), the Brotherhood is facing internal and external pressure to conform to Egypt’s emerging democratic standards.
Commentators and political activists alike criticized the Brotherhood for using coercive and manipulative tactics to yield a “yes” vote in the March 19 constitutional referendum, a litmus test for political forces in post-Mubarak Egypt. In one incident, an article appearing on the group’s official website used conspiracy theories and scare tactics to discredit opponents. The smear campaign accused those behind the “no” vote of receiving American funding and intentionally providing the Egyptian public with misinformation.
The Brotherhood’s use of religious propaganda to influence the referendum results, namely by instructing Muslims that voting “yes” was a religious duty, was also widely reported. Brotherhood representatives used the mosque as a space for political mobilization the day before the scheduled vote (thereby eschewing the military’s initiative to protect voters from last-minute influence through a media ban). On voting day, imamswereallegedly called upon to speak at polling stations, citing religious arguments in support of a “yes” vote.
These actions have cast some doubt on whether the Brotherhood can act as a democratic player in Egypt, a question that has been debated in academic and policy circles for decades. Apart from the red flags in the referendum, the group has also come under renewed fire for its political views, for example that Copts and women are unsuitable for the office of the presidency. With the impending formation of its “Freedom and Justice Party,” citizens are demanding to know what ties the Brotherhood’s political arm will have to its religious and social activities.
The Brotherhood is also facing internal turmoil due to its failure to democratize within. The rift between the group’s old guard and young reformist wing has come to a head yet again, this time with youth members calling for the dissolution of the Brotherhood’s executive bodies as well as free and fair internal elections.
While tension between these camps is hardly new, the elevated democratic consciousness of Egypt’s youth exacerbates the threat of fragmentation. The bonds that young “brothers” and “sisters” formed during the revolution with members of the opposite sex or different religions have fostered great disillusionment with the Brotherhood’s views on minorities. Democratic ideals that informed protests against the regime have intensified calls for transparent decision-making procedures within the group.
The newly-legalized al-Wasat party, which adopts a centrist Islamist platform, threatens to annex these reform-minded Brotherhood members. Perhaps more alarming for the Brotherhood’s old guard are announcements that reformist members intend to form alternative political parties, now that political Islamists are no longer repressed by the state and draconian restrictions on the formation of new parties have been lifted. Tellingly, General Guide Mohamed Badie issued a statement banning Brotherhood members from forming or joining any political parties besides the Freedom and Justice Party.
The Brotherhood’s success in mobilizing Egyptians behind the constitutional amendments, which passed with 77.2 percent of the vote, confirms that it is playing a significant role in shaping Egypt’s political future. Yet, it is becoming clear that the group is also constrained by the calls for greater democracy that toppled the Mubarak regime. It may soon be forced to choose between democratizing or losing members and supporters to parties that are adapting to the new demands of Egypt’s political sphere.
Sarah Grebowski is a Cairo-based journalist and a former research assistant at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut