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The rise and (potential) fall of the Muslim Brotherhood

November 29, 2011

While the results of the Egyptian election won’t be known for a while, initial reports out of Egypt make it fairly clear that the elections will be a substantial victory for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.

It is almost too obvious what the hysterical reaction will be from establishment commentators in the west.  Court jester for the Murdoch empire, Greg Sheridan, has written the familiar script back in February  “But Hamas, the terrorist death cult that rules the Gaza Strip, is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its manifesto, which you can read on the internet, is a bizarre amalgam of traditional anti-Semitism and grotesque conspiracy theory. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt fully endorses all Hamas terrorism.”

No doubt we will hear about this is a “Islamist” revolution and there will be at first subtle, then more bold proclamations about how Mubarak wasn’t such a bad guy after all. The Freedom and Justice party have a  website where people can take a look at what they are putting forward. While Juan Cole has throughly debunked the latest silliness regarding the claim that the Brotherhood is calling  for  the death of all jews.

While it is necessary to attack this silliness, it is equally important for all those who support the Egyptian revolution to understand the basis for the Muslim Brotherhood’s support, even if it is only transient.

Without going into the whole history of the Muslim Brotherhood, since it being formed in 1928, it has generally been in the role of opposition throughout its existence. Firstly, it opposed British imperial rule and faced repression. Following independence, the brotherhood attempted to participate in parliamentary politics but since they were horribly rigged, it intensified the Brotherhood’s turn towards terrorism, particularly after the Brotherhood was banned in 1948. They responded by assassinating the Egyptian prime minister.

The Brotherhood supported the military coup in 1952, which brought Nasser to power but after being left out of the power apparatus, they turned against him. Brotherhood members were accused of trying to assaisinate Nasser. This led to a widespread crackdown, with thousands jailed. The Brotherhood once again had to go underground. This continued throughout the rule of Nasser. The Sadat government granted the brotherhood a bit more political freedom, it did this with the understanding that the Brotherhood would play the useful role of attacking and suppressing the left at a time that Sadat was seeking to implement “free market reforms” and undo some of Nasser’s progressive policies. The Brotherhood was happy to play that role, while it had fairly consistently opposed ruling governments, it always had  complete agreement with their general anti-communist policies.

This goes some way to explain why the brotherhood experienced periods of tolerance, as compared to the Egyptian Communist Party. The Brotherhood emerging from the underground also saw them renounce terrorism and engage  in parliamentary politics and peaceful reforms. The Brotherhood, though, actively orientated to the uprising in 1977, in response  to the price rises caused by Sadat’s neo-liberal policies.  It also used its newly established newspaper to fiercely attack, the Sadat government over supporting the Camp David accords, which lead to Egypt recognising Palestine. both of these stances led to an increase in popularity for the brotherhood, the result of was the Sadat government repressing them once again.

This pattern of the brotherhood remaining illegal but being tolerated continued under Mubarak. The Brotherhood used this time to establish welfare groups, advocate for a more democratic system, while its members participated in the mostly sham elections under the banner of parties that were legal or in the 2000s as Independents. It became the largest opposition party in the parliament in the 2000s, even though it was officially illegal and during elections many of its members were jailed. It also sought to broaden its appeal and stated that Christians could join the organisation and it renounced anti-Semitism.

When the uprising began this year, the brotherhood sought to relate to it, while officially it was a bit stand-offish in the beginning, this changed when it was clear that Mubarak was going to go. From the very beginning, though, its young membership were central members of the coalition of youth, who coordinated the mobilisations. The Brotherhood, in its literature , refers to the January 25 revolution as the “glorious revolution”

All of this is written to make it clear why there is a basis for it having support. Its welfare organisations provided support for people suffering under the brutality of neo-liberalism, it was fairly consistent in  arguing for democratic reform under Mubarak, its consistent support for Palestine, its support for the January 25 revolution and yes, its support for Sharia law as opposed to Western law that was imposed by the British are all popular stands. As well as that, its opposition to ruling government, despite brutal harassment has allowed it to build up a level of respect with a lot of Egyptians.

There are other facts, though, that can help explain a landslide to the brotherhood in the elections.

Firstly, the fact that it was such an established force and was not discredited for  being too weak on the Mubarak government, gave it a massive advantage. As I wrote at the time of the constitutional referendum, which paved the way for these elections to be held

“Much of the leadership of the mass movement that overthrew dictator Hosni Mubarak called for a no vote. This included the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution (CYR), as well as various liberal and nationalist parties.

Two figures widely tipped to run for the Egyptian presidency, Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei, criticised the amendments. They called for the a new constitution to be written before upcoming elections in order to establish proper regulations.

Powerful, established political groups argued for a yes vote. These included the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party (NDP), the old ruling party under Mubarak.

This appeared to be for opportunist reasons. A yes vote would pave the way for elections in six months time, favouring established parties. Many revolutionary forces opposed the plan, as it does not allow enough time for new political forces emerging out of the struggle against Mubarak to organise themselves.”

This is exactly how it has played out, both in the sense that the incredibly undemocratic electoral laws of the Mubarak regime remain in place, which benefits established parties, is still in place and that the time frame was too soon,  made it impossible for any force to be able to put up a proper electoral challenge. The Freedom and Justice party, for instance, have set up information desks near polling booths, which are meant to show people how to vote, they have also provided chairs to old people weary from walking

There have been suggestions also that the military government is actively favouring the Muslim Brotherhood, financially and politically, as a force which won’t rock the boat too much. This could go some way to explaining why the brotherhood en-masse have been allowed to break the electoral law regarding handing out election material, as the military watches on.

The other  factor has been the ambiguity of the mass-movement seeking to overthrow the military government  about what to do regarding the elections. After the referendum results in March, nearly all political forces, even those who advocated a no vote, stated that they would participate in the elections .

However, after the crackdown of the military government against protesters in Tahrir and the deaths and injuries that followed and the subsequent rise of a movement for a civilian government, this began to change. Many political forces, leftist and liberals, suspended their campaigns and threw themselves into Tahrir again. It seemed that as the movement was growing, so was the call for a boycott.  As the elections approached, though, it was clear the boycott call hadn’t become gripped by the majority of Egyptians.  Many leftist and liberal forces, therefore, ended up blinking and didn’t support a boycott, even while supporting the movement.  The Muslim Brotherhood were quite clear, they weren’t supporting the movement and ramped up their election work. At the same time liberal and leftist forces were confounded by the question of whether to boycott or not,  they effectively did no election campaigning at all. This meant the final few weeks of the campaign saw the Brotherhood have almost a monopoly on election campaigning. The Democratic Workers Party, the Revolutionary Socialists and the Egyptian Communist party were the only groups who ended up supporting the boycott.

Hossam al Hamalawy, gave the reasons why here “We cannot get a clean election while Mubarak’s army generals are still in charge……Police who are supposed to be securing the ballot boxes are the same ones who have been murdering us for the last days, months and years.”

The reason why the boycott call seems to have not succeeded, was I think explained quite well by Mostafa Ali, a member of Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists when he told Socialist Worker:

“The majority of the country wants a democratic system. They want a civilian government. They want to be able to vote and to exercise political control over their lives. And they believe this is the way to get the army out of their lives for the first time in 60 years.

So even among people who are fighting in Tahrir and those who support them, some of them will vote, because they don’t want to leave the political scene to the SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists.”

Ali also made the point that ” The SCAF wants this election to gain legitimacy on the ground. The military is very weak right now, and it is determined that the election will take place no matter what. They want to use this to bolster their credentials as people who said they would bring about democracy–they want something to show they’ve kept their word in order to use that to attack the growing revolutionary vanguard.”

I think this is the crucial point, the elections are being used by the SCAF as a way to prop itself up and it sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a way to do this. Ultimately, how the Brotherhood reacts to the situation will determine its future.  Since the January 25 revolution, we had already seen fissures. The Muslim Brotherhood youth who played a leading role in that revolution, eventually grew tired of its leaders conservatism and its inability to work with other groups who supported the revolution. They split off and formed the Egyptian Current Party, which is part of the Revolution Continues alliance, a leftist formation contesting the election.

This fissure could become a black hole,though,  if the Brotherhood, whose support stems from its limited but real opposition to Neo-Liberalism, and its support for Palestinians  and for democratic reform, hitches itself to the military government. The US backed military government is working to halt and reverse the revolution, any force that signs up to the agenda, will ultimately have to be involved in unpopular and anti0democratic acts.

Zyad Eleliamy, a liberal activist in Egypt, said a few days ago ““The street will be much more effective in achieving the demands of the revolution than these elections!” The Brotherhood, in that choice, have clearly chosen elections and it is in that rejection of the street that we could well see the downfall of the Brotherhood.


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