The future of the Brotherhood

A few years ago, some social scientists propagated the concept of “post-Islamist” politics. They were referring to the gradual ascendance of cultural and identity-based, yet youth-oriented and global-friendly Islamist social movements, developed in response to the increasing de-popularization of the mainstream groups of political Islam. In many ways, these post-Islamist groups are different from your typical Muslim Brotherhood-type organizations, which have been operational in the Arab and Muslim World over the past century or so.

In the midst of Egypt’s current political upheaval, and with the looming retreat of the Muslim Brotherhood’s project, it’s useful to take a step back and look at the socioeconomic precursors that juxtaposed the MB as the only alternative to the demised National Democratic Party (NDP) on the eve of February 11 2011, when former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. It is still early to speculate whether the MB will become, or give way to, a post-Islamist-type organization, but there are some indications regarding prospects for reformulation that could be taking place within, and external to, the MB following its current impasse. 

The concept of “post-Islamism” aims to scrutinize the rise of new modalities of Islamist politics in the 1990s — exemplified by the reformists in Iran — and new versions of Islamist parties like the AKP in Turkey. In both cases, despite the vast contextual differences between the Turkish model and the Iranian one, the term “post” referred to a variation of an already-existing Islamist model. That model could be a political project or an actual entity that met several practical challenges as it attempted to function in the limelight, and was subsequently forced to transform.

In the Egyptian case, the MB could undergo such a transformation after the practical implementation of its “project,” a process that has been taking place since the Brotherhood’s ascendance to power following the January 25 revolution.

Socioeconomic bases

The socioeconomic networks that the MB helped create will not wither away overnight. In this regard, the Brotherhood is similar to the dissolved NDP. Not only did it abide by the same economic and administrative policies of the ailing NDP when it attempted to consolidate power as a dominant party, but the MB had a socioeconomic structure that was comparable to the old regime’s party. One of the most noticeable similarities between the MB’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and the NDP is the reliance on patronage networks.     

Throughout the Mubarak regime, socioeconomic and political spheres enabled rising social actors to establish networks with state institutions in order to actualize their role in the popular community as mediators, arbitrators, powerful figures of authority and distributors of resources. The ascendance of these groups of mid-level and lesser sociopolitical actors in the milieu of the low-income communities was taking place long before the January 25 revolt —  perhaps since the adoption of infitah (open door economic policies) in the mid-1970s. They include petty traders, wholesale-retail merchants, workshop owners and contractors, among other segments, and some of them come from merchant families that have been active for several generations. Henceforth, the competition over establishing alliances with these socioeconomic actors was one of the main pillars of the ongoing struggle between the various political forces.

In the case of the MB, these lesser and intermediary-level agents — who have been playing vital roles in Egypt’s urban and rural areas for years — were still considered relevant sociopolitical actors in the aftermath of January 25 2011. The MB and its affiliated Islamic Social Institutions (ISIs) have also been considerably successful in this sort of cooptation, thanks to the extensive web of networks that they orchestrated. They delivered needed resources and services to Egypt’s popular and low-income quarters that were unmatched by other political forces, especially in light of the incremental shrinking of the welfare state that accompanied the application of neoliberal policies.

Whereas the NDP’s constituencies were hit hard after January 25, owing to the dissolution of the party and the imprisonment of a number of its leading figures, the MB benefited from the removal of some the legal restrictions that used to stifle its operations. Additionally, the scope of businesses that had played a crucial role in funding the MB’s activities was also freed from the firm scrutiny and surveillance imposed by the Mubarak regime.

Therefore, if Egypt’s post-July 3 state pursues the neoliberal economic policies previously adopted by the NDP — exemplified in more state withdrawal from handling the socioeconomic affairs of the public — this will likely encourage the growth of the economic sectors in which such intermediary agents flourish. The ascendance of such groups to social and political prominence would be logical in order for them to fulfill some of the social and economic roles that have been abdicated by the state.

This means that, even if the leading cadres of the MB are targeted in an attempt to contain their economic activities, it is highly unlikely that such an endeavor would threaten the existence of their networks, given their previous resilience under the repressive Mubarak regime.

At the level of the patron-client networks in the middle and lower echelons of the polity, NDP-affiliated sociopolitical agents still appear considerably intact today. As a party that was mainly dependent on personal politics, rather than institutional structures, those cadres who had previously been associated with the NDP were still able to reign freely in the arena of socioeconomic and political networking after the January 25 revolt. Even with the ban on political activities for the leading cadres of the NDP, it was virtually impossible to halt the activities of the middle and lower-level figures, and now the same could be said regarding their MB counterparts.

In short, the socioeconomic bases of these patron-client networks still exist, and are likely to play some political role regardless of the prevalence of the MB as an organization. Ex-NDP (or MB) affiliated figures could possibly be the winning cards of any upcoming elections or other political mobilization endeavors, and the competition over their cooptation will be well underway between the various secular and Islamist forces alike in the coming period.

Challenges and opportunities ahead of the Islamists: Post-Islamism?

The institutionalization of informal Islamist figures and networks into state structures — which has been taking place since the January 25 revolt — imposed several challenges concerning the legitimacy and credibility of the Islamist project. The MB’s legacy mainly depended on rejecting such formal institutions. Now, with the ongoing demolition of the MB regime, will there be a reverse trend?

In fact, many unanswered questions will shape the prospects for Egypt’s version of post-Islamism. The socioeconomic bases of the MB are likely to remain solid, even if the high-level structures of the group are targeted. The question remains, however, whether this would be sufficient for the preservation of the organizational framework of the MB. The uprisings of January 25 2011 and June 30 2013 show that these street movements weren’t merely against the NDP or the MB as entities or amalgams of persons — rather, they were against their way of “doing things,” which may also include their reliance on clientelism.

The MB has faced mounting organizational challenges since Mubarak’s fall. This could be attributed to a variety of factors that have been plaguing the group for decades, and which were only further accentuated after January 25. The increasing divide between Brotherhood leaders and youth, the lack of a clear set of programs and visions for reform, and ill-managed decision-making processes are but a few of such predicaments facing the Brotherhood. This is in addition to the organizational structure of the group itself, which is based on loyalty and abidance. At a juncture that screams for public participation and critical engagement, these hurdles are among the risk-factors that pose an existential threat to the MB project.

This suggests that the MB as we know it will have to give way to a fresher and a timelier project. But what is the shape of this reformulation? Will it occur within the already-existing body of the MB, or will it be manifested in new actors? There is a set of candidates that could prospectively inherit the legacy of the MB, and subsequently spearhead Egypt’s post-Islamist trend — but perhaps this should be the subject of another article.

Mohamed I. Fahmy Menza 

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