Year Ender: Muslim Brotherhood to keep a low profile amid fears of repression and internal splits

After failing to secure a single seat in recent parliamentary elections that critics say were subject to pervasive violations, analysts anticipate the Muslim Brotherhood will face tough political realities in the coming year.

“2011 is going to be a tough year for the Muslim Brotherhood in particular and the opposition movement in general,” says Hossam Tamam, an expert on Islamist movements. “We are approaching presidential elections. The regime will tighten the political space and will remain anxious to prevent the occurrence of any unpredicted scenario.”

This is a particularly sensitive moment for Egypt’s ruling regime. As the countdown for the presidential poll has now kicked in, the regime seems divided on a presidential successor in the event 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak, who has suffered health complications of late, opts to not seek a sixth term in office.

Analysts say the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) was determined to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood, the nation’s largest opposition group who seized 20 percent of parliamentary seats in 2005, from the new parliament in order to tighten its grip on the legislative body ahead of the presidential vote.

“The Muslim Brotherhood has one of two options,” says Amr al-Shobaki, an expert with Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “Escalate their stand-off with the regime or engage in a well-calculated confrontation.”

But the first option, according to al-Shobaki, will have a high cost as it will provoke “a cruel and violent” reaction from the regime.

Taking into account the group's legacy, al-Shobaki expects the Brotherhood to keep a low profile for survival purposes.

“They will go for the second option," al-Shobaki said. "They will maintain the same strategy which considers the protection of the organization a national goal.”

Many analysts shrug off this strategy as a weak outlook. They consistently criticize the Muslim Brotherhood for its unwillingness to mobilize supporters and resources to pressure the regime to embark on political reform. But group officials fear state retaliation would break its bones and seal the fate of the more than eight-decades-old organization.

“The group is focused on its own interests,” says Tamam. “It is incapable of building a wide movement that would seek political reform in Egypt.”

Tamam’s view is currently shared by dozens of Muslim Brothers. Shortly before the elections, the group's disillusioned members reproached the group’s senior figures for their decision to participate in the poll widely expected to be rigged. In defiance of the group’s decision, these members began collecting signatures within the organization in support of their boycott plea.

As soon as the first round concluded, opposition voices proved politically correct. None of the Muslim Brotherhood’s 130 candidates emerged victorious. Citing vote-rigging, the Muslim Brotherhood announced its boycott of the run-off race.

“These elections were more of a crisis that should lead to some kind of reflection,” Mokhtar Nouh, one of the most prominent founders of the Brotherhood faction that urged an initial boycott, told Al-Masry Al-Youm. “This reflection will either lead to some [positive] change or more dictatorship within the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The Muslim Brotherhood continues to arousing suspicion among secular intellectuals and lay people alike due to its ambiguous stance on democratic principles as well as its reluctance to draw distinct lines between its religious mandate and political activities.

In 2007, the group sent shock waves throughout Egyptian society after it released its political platform. The document contained the seeds of a theocratic state, with institutional discrimination against non-Muslim minorities and women.

The group's early 2010 internal elections excerbated fears of further radicalization. The closely-monitored poll brought Mohamed Badie, a hardliner, to the group's top leadership post and resulted in the exclusion of two reformers, Mohamed Habib and Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, from the Guidance Bureau. Critics say Habib and Abouel Fotouh were ousted in a poll marred by manipulations.

According to Nouh, such developments were quite alarming.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is headed toward more autocracy," added Nouh. "Few people are controlling the group. We had to act quickly in order to stop that.”

Along with fellow disenchanted Brotherhood members, Nouh is preparing for a conference to present views on how to amend the group’s outlook.

“The Muslim Brotherhood should endorse a strategy of a national civil reform group,” added Nouh. “In other words, the group’s struggle should revolve around national issues rather than stay limited to the group’s main concern with self-protection.”

Al-Ahram's al-Shobaki rules out such developments engendering a rift within the nation’s oldest Islamist organization in 2011.

“Such opposition fronts only represent one percent of the group,” says al-Shobaki.

Unlike al-Shobaki, Islamist expert Tamam lends more weight to this initiative but expects the political environment to preclude genuine and significant internecine division.

“For the first time, there is a strong chance of an internal division,” he says. “[Yet], the political space is blocked and does not tempt anyone to break ranks with the group.”

Even if Nouh and his followers leave the group to form some parallel entity of their own, they may face the same fate as others who have sought similar political objectives. In the 1990s, a group of mid-generation Brothers turned against the old vanguard, accusing them of political dogmatism. Led by Abouel Ela Madi, the group broke ranks with the mother organization and founded a civil democratic party under the name of Al-Wasat. Since then, the party founders have been languishing in court trying to force the government to grant their group official party status so they can engage politically. 

“The Muslim Brotherhood has to get re-vamped and revise its ideology,” says Tamam. “Without a comprehensive revision, the Muslim Brotherhood will remain a burden and an obstacle to political reform in Egypt.” 

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