Brotherhood May Be Losing Its Grasp on Power

Article Summary
The authoritarian behavior of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia portends a certain demise, as has always been the fate of power monopolies, writes Talal Salman.

It appears as though we are witnessing the early demise of the Islamist organizations. Some of them are respectable and possess long experience. But they have not learned the lessons of the nationalist, progressive parties that came before them and were offered the chance to ascend to the reins of power. ُThey were unable to rule and were ousted. The Brotherhood’s experience in Tunisia does not augur well; the Brotherhood’s experience in Egypt grows more desperate with each passing day. It demonstrates that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia took power more than they earned it; they still behave like secret organizations, afraid of the sunlight. They do not trust other political forces with a history of opposition to dictatorship, nor are they comfortable in arranging even a temporary partnership with them.

They have forgotten their long history in the opposition. More than that, they want to make up for it with the utmost dispatch by completely monopolizing power in their own hands — even if that requires a bloody confrontation with other members of the opposition. The latter are those who, let it be remembered, were the first to go out into Tahrir Square and hold firm against the old regime, those who showed greater resolve in making their demands. Those demands went beyond toppling the dictator; they amounted to nothing less than an attempt to create a new kind of regime in post-revolutionary Egypt, one that would provide national unity, social justice, and economic progress.

Yet the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is behaving like a party afraid of time, racing to cement the power that fell into their lap without their expecting it, let alone having planned for it. And so they were handed an opportunity to ascend to power, declaring that they would never relinquish it under any circumstances — even if this required that they drench themselves in blood and cross swords with the street that, they claimed, was their source of authority.

In short, their base desire to effect a despotic monopolization of power — no matter the price in lives, property, and damage to the institutions of state — has been revealed.

Their willingness to cover themselves in Egyptian blood has become a fait accompli. There are now those who have issued fatwas justifying such repression; there are those who call it religiously permissible. They swagger before the people with their crude apologetics, armed with long, unkempt beards, baseless Hadiths and proverbs from the time of the pre-Islamic Dark Ages. They put women under the ban, and excommunicate from the faith all who express their opposition through protests, writing, or chanting against the “rule of the Supreme Guide.”

Egypt was the beginning. Killing the youth in Tahrir Square, before the gates of the Presidential palace in Cairo, violently assaulting and harassing girls and women; then the massacre in Port Said and decreeing a state of emergency, deploying the army into the canal cities after issuing death sentences in the tragedy of the “Ultras’ Martyrs.”

As for Tunisia, there the Brotherhood (represented by the Ennahda Party) took power through a coalition with other political forces, with the goal of buying time until it was able to win a total victory. The situation has since exploded with the criminal assassination of the progressive revolutionary Chokri Belaid. And so the martyr’s funeral was turned into what might be viewed as the beginning of the end of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule in that country.

It came as a rude surprise when Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, the historical leader of the Ennahda party, who had himself been released from prison 14 years ago, announced the resignation of his government on the air, without consulting the Brotherhood’s leadership. He called for the formation of a technocratic government for a transitional period crowned by parliamentary elections. The reaction of Ennahda’s “leader,” Rachid Ghannouchi was embarrassing: He labelled the call of his “friend” foolish, and insisted that the government be reinstated with the Brotherhood still in the driver’s seat. Perhaps as a “guarantee” of the coming elections’ results.

Then there is Egypt. The Egyptian Brotherhood, which had been brought to power by a string of coincidences and thanks to the total absence of any effective, capable and program-driven political organizations, had grown arrogant. They rejected any compromise formula with other political parties during the transitional stage, insisting on keeping total control for themselves. Nor did they neglect to follow up. They went on to execute their plan to take control all centers of power, in the realms of security, economics, society and culture. The country has been emptied of capable, qualified men, of individuals with successful track records. No one remains who is capable of leading the country through the difficult circumstances in which it finds itself.

At a time when the leadership of the Ennahda Party behaved with a measure of savoir-faire, concluding a partnership with two parties that had popular bases of support in the country, so as to break the image of a party attempting to monopolize power in its own hands. The “rule of the Guide” in Egypt rejected such partnership. It even goes so far as to conjure up pretexts for hindering and blocking it. They have engaged in a series of transparent maneuvers, making only offers no [other parties] can accept, and then using their rejection as a pretext for monopolizing the decision making power in their own hands. All this in a country that has driven hundreds of thousands of its citizens to emigrate abroad — anywhere abroad — in search of job opportunities. Those opportunities might not be commensurate with their education, but at least it would spare them the indignity of begging.

The Egyptian Muslim Brothers reject partnership as a matter of principle, effectively depriving the government of the ability to vigorously confront the trying conditions now prevailing in the country. They are attempting with all their might to take control over all the social, cultural and security organs of the state, even if the transitional period (which is currently open-ended) does not culminate in the promised elections (which have yet to be scheduled). It seems that they have already grown accustomed to being at the center of decision-making in every ministry and administration, particularly in the ministries of the interior, education, and the security forces.

As for the Brotherhood in Tunisia, they accepted power-sharing under duress, and with the goal of buying time until they were in a dominant position. They went out into the streets repudiating the proposal of Jebali, a man with impeccable revolutionary credentials from their own leadership. He called upon Ennahda to dissolve the coalition government and form a technocratic government as a preliminary step to parliamentary elections — elections that enable the party to return to government afterward. After, that is, giving the fuming Tunisian street a chance to catch its breath and vent its frustrations.

The Muslim Brotherhood, primarily in Egypt and secondarily in Tunisia, ignores the experiences of other Arab peoples to the east. The first lesson they have to teach is that no one party can suddenly ascend to power on the back of the army and remain in power without inciting fearsome bloodshed. It can attempt to camouflage its power grab by assembling a “broad national front” of long-irrelevant parties and organizations ginned up overnight, crammed with empty suits and yes-men. They would, no doubt, “democratically” elect leaders from the security forces or “secret” cadres, in addition to the clingers  hungry for any form of association with the ruler, however subordinate. But it would not work without bloodshed.

This was the approach of the Baath party in both Syria and Iraq. Both are now witnessing the tragic results of their failed attempts to camouflage the monopolization of power through cobbling together the remnants of other, long-defunct parties into “national fronts” without power or influence. Even if they contribute their signatures to “fundamental coalition principles”, it does not matter.

For the most part, the role of such fronts is to provide a fig-leaf to cover despotism. The deception is two-fold. Firstly, the president presents the matter to his party, insisting on personally maintaining the facade of democracy, of his personal commitment to the needs of “collective leadership”. And so he refuses to declare a decision before he can secure the asset of the “democratic institutions”: a series of organizations that the president handpicked from within his own party. Secondly, there is the front itself. It makes itself seen, but not felt.

The experience of the ideological parties in the Arab East has been bitter, not to mention destructive. Nevertheless, it has at least demonstrated several fundamental truths concerning the makeup of our societies. We will list four:

1. These societies are diverse in terms of religion, racial origins, intellectual climate and political affiliation. Even though the majority believes in a single religion, this religion has many schools of thought and interpretation that differ sharply with one another in their interpretation of a single text. These organizations that hold aloft religious slogans in Egypt harbor such differing positions that they are willing to brawl one another out in the streets.

2. Most of these societies are generally religious, even if their religiosity is far removed from partisanship and antagonizing others. The Brotherhood is mistaken, and the Salafists even more so, when they assume that they have a mandate to “Islamize” societies already possessed of massive Muslim majorities. All these societies believe in a single God. Moreover, attempts at Islamization are the fastest route to civil war and devastating the various countries.

3. The people cannot be divided up into “supporters” and “traitors”. Opponents of a regime produced by historical chance, that handed over the reigns of power to the party leaders with the best organization and the most funding, cannot simply be branded as “enemies.”  Nor can they be accused of having abandoned religion. Religion welcomes and accepts diverging arguments and interpretations of its foundational texts. Time is always in motion; it changes and is changed. The mind must remain open to interpretation — and not simply stone the interpreter.

4. One cannot elevate a people by banning the parties, groups, organizations and sectors of society that go out into the street to declare their opposition to despotic decrees or violations of the law and the constitution. Which, after all, is the greater sin: to defy a few preachers and clerics of dubious knowledge, in defense of women participating in public life, or to demand — and at the dawn of the 21st century, no less! — the stoning of women. Women who might well be better educated, more cultured, and posses greater experience than they must be imprisoned in the home, as if they are bedroom fixtures. Are they really nothing more?

It is as though we are witnessing the early demise of the Islamist organizations. Some of them are respectable, and possess long experience. But they have not learned the lessons of the nationalist progressive parties that came before them and were offered the chance to ascend to the reins of power. ُThey were unable to rule and were ousted, even if it took some time.

The experience of the Brotherhood in Tunisia does not augur well. The experience of the Brotherhood in Egypt grows more desperate day after day — but the people do not know the meaning of world despair. Their first and last weapon is [Tahrir] square.

The square is still open. Its people are still there, and all around the country.

The directives of the International Monetary Fund and the counsel of the American administration will not increase the opportunities for success before organizations that do not heed the voice of their people, and fail to help them develop and tend to their sensitivity toward behaving toward them. It is as though they are unable and in perpetual need of a legal guardian. But what is to be done when the guardian is closed of mind and heart, afflicted with ignorance, fanaticism and the pernicious belief that he rules by the will of God?


Talal Salman was born in Lebanon in 1938. In 1957, he started his career in Al-Hawadeth weekly. In 1974, he founded Al-Safir daily, which would reach the second- largest circulation of Lebanese newspapers after An-Nahar. He was the spokesman of the "islamo-progressiste" left wing during the Lebanese civil war.

Found in: political opportunism, muslim, islamists, islamist, history, ennahda

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