There is an eerie familiarity to the dire circumstances in which the Muslim Brotherhood currently finds itself. As in the 2011 uprising, the 1952 revolt by the Egyptian military’s Free Officers was supposed to usher in a new era of possibilities for the Egyptian people: independence, economic prosperity, and even representative democracy.
Like today, the critical period before and after the July 23, 1952, coup proved the military far more manipulative than Egyptian society’s disparate parts. The prevailing narrative has it that Gamal Abdel Nasser and his fellow plotters sought to rid their nation of a hated foreign occupation, a corrupt monarchy, and ineffectual political elites. But the scene in Egypt on the eve of that revolution was far more complex, with volatile yet dynamic opposition politics that included liberals, communists, fascists, and Islamists. In fact, the July date was chosen in part to preempt the possibility of a mass uprising. In essence, Nasser believed he was saving Egyptians from themselves.
The critical two years that followed featured the systematic marginalization and repression of Egypt’s independent political forces. The Muslim Brotherhood was the last to confront the military and failed. The result was sixty years of dictatorship.
In one fell swoop, the country’s largest opposition movement was outlawed, its leaders imprisoned, exiled, or executed. Its headquarters were burned to the ground. Infamous photographs showing crowds of anti-Muslim Brotherhood protesters surrounding the fire immortalized that moment. Those photographs were quickly forgotten, only to be revived on social media by proponents of the latest round of Muslim Brotherhood repression, days after the July 3 military coup.
As the Brotherhood defied the odds, stood the test of time and assumed a place at the table after the untimely fall of Egypt’s longest standing dictator, one has to wonder how it all went wrong for the Muslim Brotherhood. And more importantly, where does it go from here?
The People and the Army
Following Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, the success of the revolution hinged on the ability of the various revolutionary forces to unite in the monumental task of dismantling the remaining parts of the regime: removing the military from politics, declawing the security agencies, banishing the ruling party’s operatives, and cleansing the state bureaucracy and media. On all of those fronts, the Muslim Brotherhood and its prospective partners failed to deliver lasting changes, with enough blame to go around.
The Muslim Brotherhood did not develop as a revolutionary movement. It promoted gradual social and political reform with an Islamic outlook. In the emerging landscape after Mubarak’s removal, however, the group had to rapidly adapt to Egypt’s revolutionary moment. It needed to shift from its proven willingness to work within the boundaries established by the former regime into becoming a revolutionary force that could mobilize its organizational strength to overhaul the state’s authoritarian institutions. This challenge was by no means easy, and the results were often schizophrenic.
By accepting the military’s roadmap in March 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership believed it was safeguarding its limited political gains, buying time to establish a long-term plan of gradual reforms to various state institutions, culminating in an eventual retraction of military privileges in some distant future. In doing so, it quickly alienated an already suspicious and impatient revolutionary youth movement. The Brotherhood inadvertently provided the remnants of the Mubarak regime—down but certainly not out—the window to pounce on the widening fissure within the revolution’s factions.
Upon assuming the presidency, the Muslim Brotherhood accommodated the military, shielding it from prosecution for abuses committed against civilian protesters, while attempting to double down on the pursuit of more vulnerable figures from the former regime. Mohammed Morsi fired the state prosecutor who had made a mockery of attempts to prosecute Mubarak and his lieutenants, but faced a strong backlash by the same revolutionary movement he had been hoping to appease.
Morsi also shied away from the opportunity to exert greater control over important state portfolios, such as defense, foreign affairs, intelligence, and internal security. Instead he left them to more experienced—though politically compromised—hands in the hopes that they would allow him free rein over areas where the Muslim Brotherhood believed it could make its mark.
This too proved to be an error in judgment, as the provision of social services and infusing the new state with religiously inspired (albeit cosmetically) policies fell far short of addressing the deep economic and social problems plaguing Egypt, especially when considering the continued interference of Mubarak era oligarchs and several regional powers.
For many Egyptians, the means by which Morsi pushed through the constitution, in December 2011, was the final straw. Though it was ultimately approved by popular referendum, the constitution failed to deliver on a number of key promises of the revolution, such as placing the military under civilian oversight. In a nation where millions live in poverty, the document didn’t address social justice. Added to that was the perception that the constitution pursued an Islamist agenda, in large part to placate the Muslim Brotherhood’s allies to the right, the Salafis. The issue proved to be the most divisive of Morsi’s brief tenure, with several protests and confrontations erupting at the end of last year.
If the Muslim Brotherhood was the third actor in a crudely conceived triangle that also includes “the people” and “the army,” its repeated electoral victories and overtures notwithstanding, the last year proved that it could neither placate nor conquer either one.
A Revolution Unraveled
Whatever one thinks of Morsi’s failures as president, the events since the July 3 coup have demonstrated that he was not removed due to those failures. Rather than attempt to aid a negotiated settlement among the civilian political factions, the military intervened to overthrow Morsi, abandon the transition in place since March 2011 and unilaterally impose its own political roadmap. The military’s intervention reflects a longstanding desire among elements of the former regime to rid Egypt of its revolutionary movement and destroy any progress toward the establishment of democratic institutions.
If those intentions were not obvious in their posturing before July 3, they have certainly become clear since then. In the six-week long crisis that followed, there was no genuine attempt by the military-appointed interim government to resolve the situation in a manner that would allow Egypt to remain on the revolutionary track or even to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. The total war strategy employed against the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters was meant to emulate the repression of prior eras, but on an even wider scale, due to the perception of widespread public support for this move.
Staying true to form as a movement with strong internal discipline and the capacity to mobilize, the Muslim Brotherhood employed the only means at its disposal, a non-violent mass protest, to oppose the clear attempts to overturn its democratic gains and destroy its presence in society for the foreseeable future. In fact, the Rabaa protests took the group’s leadership back to a place with which it is all too intimately familiar, the perpetual victimhood upon which it has built its eight-decade legacy. Far from the challenges of governance, the anti-coup protests recalled the common theme of standing up to tyranny and repression that marked the Muslim Brotherhood’s experiences under successive authoritarian rulers.
The military’s disproportionate response to the protests, unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history, reflects an attempt to establish a new political and social order that would not only marginalize the Muslim Brotherhood, but would destroy it altogether. The wholesale adoption of the “war on terror” discourse by the state and its media arm is not only intended to make the alarmingly high number of casualties seem justifiable. As with the Bush era policy of the same name, this paradigm is meant to convince those watching from the sidelines that the Islamic activist impulse that has been part and parcel of Egyptian society for a century could conceivably be eradicated.
The muted response from the liberal, leftist, and progressive currents within society suggest that this tactic has worked, with most groups hoping that the wave of violent repression is not indicative of a wider trend aimed at rolling back the gains of the revolution. Beyond wishful thinking, however, there is little to challenge the notion that the counter-revolution is in full swing.
The Brotherhood Regroups
With its leaders imprisoned or isolated, hundreds of its members killed, its buildings destroyed, its media shut down, and its assets seized, the Muslim Brotherhood appears destined to the same fate that awaited it in 1954. It took two decades for the movement to recover. Even then, it was forced to contend with the rise of a militant faction from within its own ranks; it would take another two decades for the moderate mainstream wing of the movement to completely subdue the violent impulses of its more fervent supporters.
This time the organization has the benefits of that experience. Rather than continue the tactic of insulating itself from the state, and therefore taking its mission underground, the Muslim Brotherhood would do well to realize that the best protection against the brutal wrath of the authoritarian state is wider public support across all segments of Egyptian society. For years, this is what the group’s youth wing has called for, and it is likely that the current crisis and ensuing leadership vacuum will lead to a search for new models to pursue the traditional Muslim Brotherhood mission.
It has not been lost on the group’s leaders and supporters that the military’s unrelenting bloodshed was only possible following decades of vilification and dehumanization of the Muslim Brotherhood by successive regimes. Those efforts intensified during the last two years in particular, effectively conditioning the Egyptian populace for the possible extermination of an entire segment of its society.
Another lesson for the Muslim Brotherhood going forward is the need to maintain a real separation of the political project represented by its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) from the broader Islamic movement. A major point of contention among its critics and its rank-and-file members alike, the notion of subjecting its millions of followers and sympathizers to the narrow objectives and daily machinations of its party apparatus has the effect of building a political project at the expense of a movement designed to transcend politics. While the FJP successfully mobilized tens of millions of Egyptians to support its candidates across multiple elections since 2011, recruitment into the Muslim Brotherhood has been at an almost complete standstill in that same period.
With further violence, more isolation, and the likelihood of sham trials on the horizon, the weeks ahead are sure to be some of the darkest yet for Egypt’s oldest social movement organization. Its fragmented leadership will no doubt take solace in the fact that while the organization may be dismembered, the “idea” upon which the Muslim Brotherhood was built is not one that can be so easily extinguished. Millions of Egyptians believe that their religious values can serve to inspire a national project for political and socioeconomic reform. But in order for that idea to transcend day-to-day political battles, and to serve as a force for the empowerment for all Egyptians, the lessons of its experiences, past and present, must be embraced.
Abdullah Al-Arian is assistant professor of history at Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service in Qatar. On Twitter: @anhistorian.