Where does the Brotherhood’s strength lie?

Some people attribute the Muslim Brotherhood’s strength to its organizational coherence and the widespread culture of obedience among its members. Some highlight the group’s use of religion to manipulate people’s feelings for political reasons. Still others underscore the Brotherhood’s 83-year-old history during which it has acquired experience in dealing with various political systems.

These reasons only partly explain the successes and failures of the Brotherhood over the past decades.

Internally, the Brotherhood is characterized by generational and intellectual diversity. The group adopts a comprehensive vision of Islam based on a flexible political and intellectual framework: its members can act as politicians or MPs, preachers of good manners, mystics or even revolutionaries when need be. It’s no surprise that such a versatile organization has included a conservative judge like Hassan al-Hodeiby as well as a revolutionary like Sayyed Qutb among its ranks.

The coherence of the Brotherhood has long perplexed those who fail to understand how group members are able to coexist despite their differences. The Brotherhood’s founder, Hassan al-Banna, was a sure genius when it came to organizational matters. He established a multi-layered organization with many outside admirers and supporters. Even though al-Banna was assassinated more than 60 years ago, the Brotherhood still embodies his core idea of a social-religious group. Unlike a conventional political party, the Brothers see themselves as belonging to a comprehensive Islamic organization that can engage in politics among other things.  

The Brotherhood’s strong organizational presence before the July revolution in 1952 did not translate into any form of political representation, and the group remained second to the Wafd Party in terms of popularity and impact. Similarly, after the breakout of the revolution, the group’s popularity waned in the face of Gamal Abel Nasser’s charisma. Egyptians chose the Wafd Party before the revolution and Nasser afterward — both times at the expense of the Brotherhood — because each one offered a political project

To the minds of many Egyptians, the Wafd Party, while unequivocally liberal, was at the forefront of demanding Egyptian national independence and its activities went beyond salons and intellectual discussions about the latest Western theories and philosophies. Nasser, too, had a political project in which Egyptians and Arabs felt invested.
Today, the Wafd Party is a far cry from its pre-1952 ancestor and the contemporary Nasserists bear little resemblance to Nasser himself. Like other political forces, none of them is currently able to formulate a discourse that speaks to the values, politics and culture of Egypt. Moreover, under Hosni Mubarak the state offered no domestic project other than “state security”. The ex-president looked down upon Egyptians and humiliated them while routinely succumbing to Israeli pressures.

In this context, the Brotherhood’s strength is not just a matter of organizational  prowess or tactical experience; it derives from the fact that the groups expresses a domestic project, albeit in the language of religion. Egyptians sympathize with the Brotherhood not only because of the group’s use of religious slogans, but also because it’s a self-financed organization whose members stand in contrast to their competitors that rush to join new parties for personal gain. Add to that the unease created by the immense flow of foreign cash that is funding much of Egypt’s civil society, making many Egyptians feel they are surrounded by institutions that are extensions of the outside world,with few local alternatives in sight.

Unless Egypt can produce a civilian political current born out of domestic political, economic and cultural concerns, the Brotherhood will continue to be the chief political power in Egypt. Alternatively, if Islamists can successfully join their counterparts from the right and left in formulating a national project based on social justice, democracy and cultural arabism, it will restore a sense of self-confidence to Egyptians. The 25 January revolution, which was wholly produced within Egypt, will then present a genuine model for renaissance that is not monopolized by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Translated and abridged from the Arabic Edition.

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