What Next for Muslim Brotherhood?

The Muslim Brotherhood must realize its failings and consider a sweeping internal change in leadership.

al-monitor A supporter of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi throws stones at riot police during clashes in the Ramsis square area in central Cairo, July 15, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih.
Bassem Sabry

Bassem Sabry


Topics covered

us, protests, future, egypt, cairo

Jul 16, 2013

CAIRO — As the pro-Morsi sit-in extends into the middle of its third week and shows no signs of scaling back, and as the Muslim Brotherhood begins to escalate in the streets, it appears the current Brotherhood strategy is three-pronged. 

The first element: maintaining the Rabaa Square sit-in, fostering a public image of resilience and determination and ensuring the organization remains unified and its members psychologically charged, while officially demanding Mohammed Morsi and the previous constitutional framework be reinstated. The potential added benefit is that it provides some physical protection to Muslim Brotherhood leaders and members who are there from potential persecution or arrests, while possibly creating some continued pressure that makes going after them more politically painful and risky.

The second: gradually escalate in rhetoric (such as Brotherhood leader Mohamed El-Beltagy reportedly announcing the coming 10th of Ramadan as the “second crossing,” a general reference to the nationally popular October 1973 war’s crossing of the Suez Canal, and a direct reference to unclear planned escalations by the Brotherhood) and to up the ante in ground movement, with Morsi supporters cutting off Cairo’s lifeline October Bridge and spreading out in marches outside of Rabaa and into the downtown area of Ramses and elsewhere, where they encountered resistance from security forces and opposing citizens (with the act likely further sabotaging any sympathies the Brotherhood might have been garnering lately).

Both the first and second strategies have the benefit of keeping the Brotherhood (and Morsi’s continued detention) in the news amid their loss of supporting media on one hand, and the private media’s minimal (and often hostile) coverage and general message that the nation being is enjoying “victory and moving on” on the other.

The third strategy has been to adjust the PR message and the sit-in from being “pro-Morsi” to being “anti-military coup” and “pro-democracy.” Rather than hoping to primarily influence locals with this more nuanced message, especially given the massive appeal of the military and an ostensibly wide public disapproval of Morsi, the message appears to be targeted mostly at Western audiences and governments. If the observation is correct, then the idea would be to heavily present the current situation in Egypt as unacceptable to such audiences and as a setback against democracy by a conspiratorial “military coup" against “legitimacy,” improve and rewrite Morsi's image and the Brotherhood’s troubled time in power, and increase international pressure on Egypt’s current leadership whether for a compromise or a reinstatement of Morsi.

But the main question is: Is the reinstatement of Morsi still a possibility or even desirable for the Brotherhood?

Theoretically, two broad scenarios exist for Morsi's return. The first is through massive international pressure, which is growing less likely as more and more of the international community seem to have accepted the new reality (even Doha) and are keen to move pragmatically forward. US Deputy Secretary Of State William Burns visited in Egypt (where, notably, the Salafi Nour Party and Tamarod declined to meet him). But even if that did work, there would be resistance from the military, which has wide public support, especially since the public  is also quite increasingly distrustful of the international community and the United States, and amid local portrayals of the Brotherhood being an ally of an unpopular US administration.

This would lead, in turn, to Egypt growing more isolated internationally but generously supported by the Gulf, and even rendering extraordinary measures by the authorities against the Brotherhood and Morsi easier to undertake. The second way is through massive, overwhelming popular protests that dwarf June 30, coupled by a split or internal pressure in the military, or both. Both seem unlikely. A split in the military could lead to widespread civil upheaval that could end up further reinforcing a military grip on power or push Egypt off the cliff. The best scenario would be a referendum on Morsi’s return to power or immediate presidential elections, both of which Morsi would almost definitely lose, further stripping him and the Brotherhood of clout and claims to broad support. It would generally be wiser for Morsi not to stand for elections again, not only because of the slim chance of victory but also to allow the Brotherhood and Islamists in general a fuller chance at better rehabilitating their image.

But even if Morsi did forcibly return to power, there would also almost be no chance of him going on without neutralizing all pockets of resistance. That would mean most of the leadership in the military and the police, much of the judiciary (those three being of substantial current popularity), virtually all predominant private media, the state bureaucracy, an even more fierce opposition, all potentially coupled with a volcanic public uprising likely larger than June 30, and more. It would seem impossible to confront it all without effectively bringing down the Egyptian state in a Samson-like manner, likely ending in either a second ousting of Morsi or Egypt descending into chaos.

Assuming that this line of logic is accepted, this leaves the Brotherhood in turn with two main options. First, it could suddenly just decide to call the bluff and immediately announce it's just joining the current road map in one form or another. The main risk here for the Brotherhood is that this would render a powerful implosion likely. On the other hand, it would alternatively be giving it the highest defense and protection against any unwarranted persecution, would put everyone else on the other side of the spectrum on the spot, and would ensure the fastest return of the democratic process while making official the Brotherhood's reintegration. The second option is to continue to (intelligently and peacefully) maintain pressure until the Brotherhood can extract some sort of victory under the current situation it can sell to its supporters (for example, Morsi's release, strong assurances of inclusion) and grow confident of the organization's integral unity while ensuring it's sufficiently protected from any possible witch hunt.

In any case, it's highly unlikely this is going to be 1954 all over again, when Nasser abolished democracy as it stood and obliterated the Brotherhood. This is a different time and a different world. The Brotherhood, instead of blaming everything and all its failures on outside forces, must realize its failings and missteps, accept them, evolve, and even consider a sweeping internal change in leadership, both for the sake of internal unity and for improving chances of public re-acceptance. And it's also unlikely this is the end of political Islam, as some have been too quickly heralding.

The Brotherhood thrived for decades under pressure, and the idea of surviving the “mehna” (ordeal) is a key element of Brotherhood ideology. Egypt’s current leadership must realize that the country’s largest political force will not disappear, its followers will not vanish, and that the most dangerous thing to do is to corner a desperate man without giving him a viable way out.

Inclusion and an honest desire for reconciliation remain key.

Bassem Sabry is an Egyptian political writer and commentator. He could be found on twitter as @Bassem_Sabry.

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