Last year, shortly after the recently deposed Mohamed Morsi was elected president, I met a man who I was surprised to learn had been shot in the leg during the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes in 2011. He had a long, many months-old beard and wore a galabeya. In my mind, those on the front lines back then had been young revolutionary types, dressed in jeans and often too young for even a moustache.
The injury only strengthened his belief in the revolution and his opposition to military rule, he said. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi was clearly his president: the candidate of both Islam and the revolution.
When I asked him if he was afraid that the military would overthrow Morsi, his face lit up and he abandoned the reverent demeanor that has characterized most of my one-on-one interactions with the outwardly pious.
“It could never happen,” he said. “The world would be set on fire.”
In the wake of Morsi’s ouster on July 3, and with Islamist movements on the run or on the rampage, his prediction is especially relevant today.
The question of whether mainstream Islamism, and specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, have moderated is the main focus of Emory Professor Carrie Rosefsky Wickham’s The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement.
While my experience has mostly been with the rank-and-file of the Islamist movement, Wickham’s analysis — published in 2013 by Princeton University Press — is based on over 100 interviews with Muslim Brotherhood leaders and the Egyptian political elite, an amount of research one would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere. The veteran Brothers that she encounters are secretive, opaque, unilateral and undemocratic — the same description that most have of the Brotherhood these days. While in the immediate aftermath of Morsi’s elections there were hopes that democracy would bring out the best in the Brotherhood, Wickham’s experience matches what we now know in hindsight. Its worst attributes are only strengthened under the pressure of a competitive, often contentious political environment.
Wickham shows how the Brotherhood’s conservative wing increased its power when the regime attempted to squash or stifle the organization in crackdown after crackdown. Some of these crackdowns were triggered by political upheaval, like the assassination of Sadat. Other spells of confrontations were triggered by literal upheavals, like when the Brotherhood’s aid distribution programs upstaged the state’s ability to provide aid following the 1992 earthquake.
When the Brotherhood was able to crawl back from the shadows to participate publicly in politics and society at large, reformists inside the group found that the conservative leadership had little interest in engaging with others. While reformists attempted to cooperate with other social forces in professional associations and civil society, the conservatives focused on bringing the base closer to their own conceptions of Islam, which were traditional but never truly defined. At times, Wickham writes, the conservative wing simply “clung to the traditional conception of the Brotherhood’s mission as an expression of Islam itself,” rather than articulating what Islam was to them.
Those with any experience working with other political forces were pushed out of the group. In an instance of cruel irony, the democratic bylaws that reformists pushed for and trusted to strengthen the reformist trend were violated, and their marginalization was justified under the violated democratic process. This left only those organization men (not women) in the leadership of the Brotherhood, who continued to make sure they had the support of the rank-and-file. The now-arrested Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie had such little interest in running the Veterinarians Syndicate that he was voted out, after focusing instead on solidifying the base’s leadership to fellow conservatives.
By the time several prominent reformists left the Brotherhood after deciding that their efforts were stymied, the base of support inside the organization was so loyal to the conservatives that Wickham says you could not describe it as a schism. Even when the Brothers — who were no reformists — that were assigned to manage the group’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, set out to find independent sources of funding, the Guidance Bureau told them not to, and to receive funding from Brotherhood sources only.
This partly derived from the conservatives’ beliefs that they had earned their privileged position after being in jail. They considered the reformists young upstarts. One journalist from the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat said the conservatives described them as “khawagat,” a term between outsider and foreigner.
One young Brother I know repeated this sentiment in a Facebook post on June 29: “Our whole leadership has served time in prison,” he wrote. “More so, the severity of punishment for our leaders surpasses any punishment given to an ‘ordinary’ member greatly … these people have paved their way to heaven with their extraordinary patience.”
Now, with the leadership caught up in the deep state’s dragnet, there is a key difference between their imprisonment and the experience of those on the outside. Brotherhood leaders left Rabea al-Adaweya just a few hours before it was cleared, possibly after being tipped off to the attack, while the rank-and-file stayed. Whether they stayed out of conviction or ignorance of the imminent onslaught, their sacrifices will be hard to ignore this time around, but only if they are willing to push for their recognition.
The book was finished before Morsi was ousted, but Wickham’s scholarship is still worth reading, and is by no means irrelevant. Looking back, it provides insight into the failure of the last president’s government as it failed to adapt to the massive shifts in public opinion that ultimately provoked what were arguably the largest protests in Egyptian history. Looking forward, it shows the obstacles the Brotherhood will have to overcome to be reincorporated into Egyptian public life.