Loveluck on the MB

Louisa Loveluck (who runs a terrific blog focused on Yemen, Egypt and other interesting things east of the Maghreb) has a very fine and concise post on generational and organizational fractures within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. She writes:

The Brotherhood has not been an internally cohesive organisation for decades. Over the years, its programme has been dynamic and reactive, adapting to political developments both in Egypt and abroad. This strategy of adopting a relatively fluid position was successful in building support but it also pushed the organisation along the road to an identity crisis. As Maha Abdulrahman argued back in February, the early days of the revolution only hastened this moment of reckoning. In casting the membership net wider, their ability to harness specific political grievances had grown narrower.

On generational splits:

In addition, the formation of the Freedom and Justice Party – the legal incarnation of the Brotherhood’s political aspirations – has exposed intergenerational rifts within the organisation. Divergent ideas from younger members regarding ideology, tactics and internal structure have been met with relative intransigence from the Brotherhood’s upper echelons, unused to such challenges.

These fault lines became even more apparent on Tuesday when a group of young Brotherhood members announced the formation of a separate political party . The establishment of Hizb Al-Tayyar Al-Masry (Egyptian Current Party) represents an act of defiance that could well deepen the generational split.

The more active organisational role undertaken by some of the younger members has highlighted the potential for new political approaches. A good example can be found in the Egyptian Current Party’s manifesto, according to al-Masry al-Youm:

Unlike most other Islamist parties, [its] manifesto does not mention Islamic sharia as its frame of reference; it only refers to the Arab Islamic civilization. “We cannot refer to the Islamic sharia because this is not an Islamist party, and it is not a party for the Muslim Brotherhood youth,” said Mohamed Shams, a 24-year-old co-founder of the party. “Not all founders belong to the Muslim Brotherhood.”

It is worth noting that in Tunisia, which of course has its own particularities, one finds rhetoric such as this among Islamist (and Arab nationalist parties) who emphasize the “Arabo-Islamic heritage” or civilization as opposed to shari’ah, representing a pragmatic steak when faced with a public unwilling to accept the connotations that this might drum up among voters (for Arab nationalist parties that have taken a more socially or even religiously conservative line, this represents the de-secularization of certain currents in Arab nationalism observed across the Arab region over time since at least the 1980s as Islamist discourses became more popular, a process described in Michaelle L. Browers’s book Political Ideology in the Arab World: Accommodation and Transformation, Cambridge, 2009).

Loveluck concludes:

For the first time in decades, Egypt’s public sphere is charactarised by a process of genuine political contestation. In this environment, we should not fall into the trap of believing that those arguments that fit with our own sensibilities are necessarily neutral. Yes, most ‘consitution first’ proponents genuinely believe that immediate elections would be unfair to those parties that have not yet had time to organise. But on the other hand, the people on this side of the argument also have their own views on who should win the at the ballot box, and if they’re arguing for postponement, it’s unlikely that this is the Brotherhood. In overstating the strength of the Islamist parties which, as I have argued, are also struggling organisationally, then these assumptions should not go unquestioned.

Consider this analysis together with the sections on regional Islamist tendencies described here and here on this blog. Also, for Arabic readers, view this article: “Islamists and the the Revolution” [Arabic] by Sameh Naguib, posted on the website of the Center for Socialist Studies in Egypt (affiliated with the left-wing Trotskyist party Revolutionary Socialists). It presents a left-critique of the Muslim Brotherhood’s approach to the January uprising and is very much relevant to the sort of things mentioned in Loveluck’s post regarding the Brotherhood’s strategic positioning and posturing and the consequences of its wide composition. Naguib’s represents a left-wing Egyptian perspective on the Brotherhood’s tactics and posturing with respect to the old regime and the current military government which is relevant in terms of political competition inside Egypt, especially on the left (which receives inadequate attention from western reporters and analysts, which is particularly dissatisfying given the rapid and wide proliferation of left-wing groups and parties in the Arab region as a whole in recent months and years, Egypt and Tunisia being open books nowadays for the study of these increasingly important political forces: Arab politics is not Islamist politics and the Arab left deserves more study). An excerpt (this blogger’s terrible translation):

[. . .] various currents of pressure within the group [the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership] did not participate [in the revolution] due to the righteous principals of the revolution but as a result of terrible pressure coming from the youths of their base who merged with the masses in the revolutionary field.

This volatility and discrepancy is not new to the Muslim Brotherhood, it is witnessed through their whole history from the time of Imam al-Banna and even today. At the end of the nineteen forties the monarchy was able to destroy the heart of the organization, despite its power and a group membership of more than a half a million, by using the sharp differences within the organization and the wavering of its leadership in the face of the monarchy. The group saw a similar crisis in the early years of the July Revolution, as differences and fluctuations in the group’s positions enabled the Nasserist regime to destroy them.

Constant oscillation between opposition and appeasement and escalation and calm is the result of the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood as a populist religious group, consisting of sections of the urban bourgeoisie along with the petite bourgeoisie, the conservatives, modernist (students and university graduates), the unemployed and large segments of the poor. This structure remains coherent in times of political and social calm, but turns into a time bomb at moments of great transformation and when the time comes to reconcile the various conflicting social interests under a broad and vague cloak of religion it is almost impossible.

These contradictions are also reflected in the attitudes of the group towards colonialism and Zionism, where we find differences between those who want to cancel the Camp David agreement and those who want to announce the nation’s commitment to all international agreements. We find it preaches sharply against US colonialism and yet meets and negotiates with US officials on a regular basis (one of the Wikileaks documents talks about repeated meetings between US officials and Guidance Council member Muhammad Kitani) and this is not just political opportunism, but the inevitable result of the group’s contradictory structure.

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