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Egypt's Brotherhood Struggles To Govern

The Muslim Brotherhood’s incompetence to date in governance is because of its lack of political experience, not its Islamist ideology, Khalil al-Anani writes.
Egyptian presidential guards stand on a tank behing the presidential palace's gate as protesters gather in front of it in a show of opposition to Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood on February 1, 2013 in Cairo. Egyptian security used water cannon and fired shots into the air as protesters threw petrol bombs and stones into the grounds of the presidential palace, an AFP correspondent said.  AFP PHOTO / KHALED DESOUKI        (Photo credit should read KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images)

The failure of Egypt’s postrevolution regime is evident. It accentuates the fact that Egypt’s path toward a functioning democracy neither will be easy nor peaceful. However, the exigent question is: Why have President Mohammed Morsi and his patron, the Muslim Brotherhood, failed, so far, in running Egypt’s transition?

There are two ways to answer this question. The first is short and easy, ascribing this failure to the Brotherhood’s ideology and its hunger for power. The second — which is the tougher one, providing an intricate answer — is pertinent in the ability and readiness of the Muslim Brotherhood, as a social and political agent, to adapt to the new environment and realities that emerged in Egypt after the revolution.

While some observers and analysts tend to overvalue the role of the Brotherhood’s ideology in interpreting its behavior, I tend to adopt a more reality-driven approach. As I explained elsewhere, ideology is vital for any political movement, albeit in recruiting and mobilizing individuals, yet it is by no means sufficient to understand and explain the behavior and decisions of that movement. Given the long-standing record of the Muslim Brotherhood’s pragmatism — running elections, compromising with autocrats, allying with seculars and liberals, adopting wariness strategy, and so forth — it is quite hard to assume that its leaders have suddenly decided to change course and abandon their pragmatism.

It is certainly true that the Brotherhood’s behavior is baffling and vexing, however, this underscores the fact that the movement is far from being rigid or an immutable phenomenon. Therefore, instead of decrying or rebuking Morsi and the Brotherhood for their many faults, as some “observers” do, it is more useful — albeit for the sake of analysis — to understand and construe why they behave in such disturbing manner. Likewise, it is highly misleading and inaccurate to argue that the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood over the past few months was unavoidable due to its desperate hunger for power. True, the Muslim Brotherhood, like all political movements, is keen to grab as much power as it can (Isn’t this the very idea of politics?!); however, this is neither abnormal nor unusual for a movement that was for decades repressed, excluded and intimidated. Needless to say, this is not to justify the blunders of Morsi or the Brotherhood, but rather an attempt to fathom the intricacy of Egypt’s transition and its many problems beyond the current status of outcry.

Now, the crucial question is: If ideology did not lead to the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in ruling Egypt over the past few months, what did? Among many other factors, one could attribute this failure to the lack of governing skills and aptitude among the Brotherhood’s leaders, members and cadres — or, in short, their incompetence.

Despite the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood has the largest number of professionals, including doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers, and more than any other social or political movement in Egypt, they lack the technocratic and bureaucratic experience and skills that can enable them to govern effectively. Ironically, while the Brotherhood has always been credited for its robust and competent organizational structure, which enabled it to sustain itself for decades, its ability to morph this organizational experience and capabilities into an effective governing body is significantly weak and limited. As a proselytization movement, the Brotherhood indoctrinates its members to become “preachers” not “statesmen.” For decades, the socialization and identification process that occurred within the Brotherhood aimed mainly to reshape individuals’ identity to become devout and loyal members, not merely politicians. For the Brotherhood, it was the only way to maintain members’ commitment and solidarity, and to preserve its survival in the face of the many attempts of the Mubarak regime to undermine its leadership and activities.

Not surprisingly, after the Jan. 25, 2011, uprising, it was significantly difficult for the Brotherhood to make the needed shift from becoming the regime’s subject to its owner. In other words, the Brotherhood’s leaders are grappling to become the new policymakers following decades of being targeted. This has become more palpable after the useless attempts of the Brotherhood to infiltrate the state’s bureaucracy, which unveiled their governance ineptness.

Since its foundation in 1928, Brotherhood members were trained on how to protest, oppose and challenge political regimes, but not how to govern or rule. In addition, the brutal repression and exclusion under Mubarak undermined the Brotherhood’s once-held hopes of not only sharing power with the former regime, but more importantly to be included within state institutions. “We were treated as second-class citizens,” a senior Brotherhood leader once told me.

Furthermore, the Brotherhood’s cadres never ran a public institution, whether on a local or national level. They were barred from public office and excluded from having influential posts within state bureaucracy. Unlike their counterparts in Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP), who gained significant governing experience during the 1990s, the Brotherhood’s leaders had no access to provincial and municipal administration in Egypt, which were under the complete control of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and its rotten lackeys in the public sector. In other words, the Brotherhood’s members were never trained to be professional civil servants. The highest experience they received was how to run mosques, syndicates and welfare societies, whereby their performance and record was remarkable and indisputable. Ironically, those who possess some strategic and administrative skills, such as the mastermind of the Brotherhood Khariat el-Shater, are politically conservative. They embrace a narrow-minded vision that tends to contempt and alienate their opponents.

The predicament of the Muslim Brotherhood in power reveals how difficult it is for those organizations that move, overnight, from the peripheries of politics into its center, and to make the shift in mind-set from being the ruled to the ruler.

Khalil al-Anani is a scholar of Middle East Politics at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. He is the author of the forthcoming Unpacking the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity and Politics (tentative title). On twitter: @Khalilalanani

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