Can The Muslim Brotherhood Save Face?

Article Summary
The Brotherhood announced a new presidential candidate [on April 18], after the election commission banned its first choice and sent the party back to the drawing board. It must now revert to its old populist rhetoric, writes Aminah Abu-Shehab, to repair its legitimacy, and gain back the support of its former allies—the true revolutionaries of Tahrir Square.   

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood will revert to the political rhetoric and terminology to which we were previously accustomed. This rhetoric was at the core of the Brotherhood's Islamic-derived popularity, and gave it a special place in the hearts of tens of millions of Egyptians. The group's reversion to its old discourse is not the result of a desire for ideological consistency—it is rather a political necessity.

This reversion will be a key determinant in the development of the internal conflict plaguing Egypt. Today, given that the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission decided to exclude the Brotherhood candidate Khairat al-Shater from the presidential elections, the group is facing certain political realities on the ground.

The electoral commission's decision came after all the obstacles and measures that were put into place to foil the Brotherhood's attempt to fully establish itself in power were exhausted. There is no doubt that the decision for al-Shater’s exclusion has ended all hope for the group to seize the presidency in Egypt. The road had been opened for him, and Al-Shater was the Brotherhood's most powerful bet. His name had also been associated with the Brotherhood's "Egypt Renaissance Project," which has recently been in  the spotlight.  

Al-Shater’s exclusion serves as a headline to describe the chapter of post-Mubarak politics, and the Brotherhood's role within it. The last scenes of this chapter ended with the words of Khairat al-Shater himself, in a speech after his exclusion from the presidential race. His speech demonstrated how the Brotherhood is standing at a crossroads, and shows its awareness of the limited political gains it can achieve at this stage.

Recently, the Brotherhood had been maneuvering politically. They had almost completely departed from their old religious rhetoric, and had  also dropped the rhetoric of the “revolution"—an obvious development given that the Muslim Brotherhood was, until recently, an ally of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

If the Brotherhood’s rhetoric is now shifting toward one of "exclusion" as well as claims that old-regime forces—whose strength has been proven by their holding of key Egyptian decision-making posts—are conspiring against them, this rhetoric will resemble the familiar discourse of the days of Mubarak. From there, it will evolve based on political developments.

In his speech following the decision to exclude his candidacy, Khairat al-Shater looked like a political instigator, and the proponent of a revolutionary manifesto. He spoke of the "hijacking" of the revolution, and of different possibilities through which it could be restored to the masses. These masses, he claimed, were the only ones capable of changing the course of political events and bringing the “revolutionary” momentum back to the Egyptian arena.

Khairat al-Shater is not merely the "pragmatic" personality portrayed in Western descriptions. He gets along with Senator John McCain, the leader of the U.S. Zionist right-wing, as well as with all Western envoys who seek to keep Egypt under Western control. Al-Shater also offers a model for moderation, and his "rationality" exceeds that of Mubarak, according to the West. And if this does not always seem to be the case, it is because these two dimensions can each be highlighted depending on the convenient political times and circumstances.

Thus, the revolutionary rhetoric will make a strong comeback after months of absence, as will some Islamic concepts which the Brotherhood has intentionally ruled out of its rhetoric. The group is doing so with the hope of mobilizing the masses to its side in a necessary show of force in the face of political opponents.

It is not the rhetoric alone that will change, but also the course of political action. After being part of the official Egyptian scene for many months, the Brotherhood will return to the public squares, specifically Tahrir Square, accompanied with a shocking amount of political support.

In al-Shater's speech—which was meant to simultaneously embody his personal response as well as that of the Muslim Brotherhood—he called on his supporters to gather in Tahrir Square and other squares across Egypt, and to occupy them indefinitely. The revolution, it seems, is a cloak that can be worn when needed at times of political vulnerability.

What’s more, it seems acceptable to overlook the Brotherhood's stance against its former companions in Tahrir, and when it abandoned them in their confrontations with the military. It seems easy to forget that the Brotherhood had aligned themselves with the military and the interim government. By allying with the military, the group in fact aborted any potential to change the underlying structure of the political system.

The return of the Brotherhood to the streets  will be different this time, as it comes after a period of political maneuvering in which they played a deceptive game. The Muslim Brotherhood's return to the street was calculated according to political goals, which became more urgent after Omar Suleiman announced his candidacy and his goal of facing up to the Brotherhood's control over the positions of power in the country. The Egyptian media—which is predominantly anti-Brotherhood— described Suleiman’s presidential bid as creation of a choice between military dictatorship and those speaking in the name of religion.

Many among the Egyptian elite have expressed that the the former regime may be better than the one on its way. As for the Egyptian people, the Brotherhood fears its tendency toward political stability, their demands for security and their complaints of the current state of chaos. They feared that this might make Suleiman’s victory all the more possible. Suleiman’s reemergence onto the political scene took the conflict back to square one, to the era of Mubarak. For the Muslim Brotherhood, this comes against the backdrop of their moral loss in the media as a result of their political muddling, duplicity and lack of readiness.

The Brotherhood is returning to the masses, whose demands and conditions they had forgotten in the fray. They will attempt to repair their image and their legitimacy so that they may have a chance of gaining more political power with which to fight against the remnants of the old regime.

This return to the masses and to the "revolution," and the restoration of the fundamentalist religious rhetoric in some cases, is but a further sign of their political duplicity. Moreover, its seems that they are paying the price for such duplicity in the suspicion they have stirred on the part of their ex-companions at Tahrir Square— the political forces that used to be their allies—and a fair segment of the Egyptian people. Their return to Tahrir Square and the masses is a dangerous development, fraught with potential for escalation. The Brotherhood’s chief power card—the use of religious rhetoric in politics—must not be underestimated.

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