Oh, Brother: Egypt’s Ikhwan a Monolithic Bloc?

Even while pro-democracy demonstrators still gather in Tahrir Square, the Egyptian electorate are set to commence voting tomorrow in the country’s first free elections since the beginning of the 1950s: the destiny of 498 seats in the lower house of the People’s Assembly of Egypt will be decided by this process, with those in the remaining ten seats being subject to the curious anomaly of being placements by the much-criticised Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (‘SCAF’). Despite the dizzying number of parties competing for office – movements that represent a huge cross-section of ideological and social strands – much of the attention of the international media has focused on the role that the al-ʾIhwān al-Muslimūn or Muslim Brotherhood (‘MB’) may have to play in a post-Mubarak and ultimately post-SCAF Egypt.

Some have posited that, given a good showing in the forthcoming elections, the MB is poised to transform Egypt into Saudi Arabia on the Nile; others point to a supremely pragmatic and politically cautious bloc that is far more comfortable with the established order in Egypt than they would publicly admit. But such evaluations, while interesting, perhaps miss the most essential points about the Muslim Brotherhood, which include the following:

1. Complexity. The MB is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon. It is not, as much of the coverage appears to be suggesting, limited to the Freedom and Justice Party (‘FJP’), a socially conservative political force that appears likely to win a considerable slice of the vote; conversely, it does not have any official or semi-official affiliation to many other parties bearing the ‘Islamist’ label, including the Salafist, ideologically extreme Al-Nour. Additionally, political parties that are in many ways as ‘mainstream’ as they come and which are rarely identified by observers as being anything to do with the MB – the liberal New Centre Party comes to mind – are actually founded by those with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood.

2. Dynamism. Only a relatively short time ago, the Muslim Brotherhood was characterised by an anti-Western narrative which fused various elements of religious fundamentalism, economic nationalism and revolutionary violence. However, in recent years these trends have ceded ground to newer trends to such a point that in a recent interview with Al Jazeera English’s Mike Hanna, Mohamed Saad Katatni, the secretary-general of the FJP, went out of his way to characterise his party not even as a religious party, but rather a civil one with religious reference points. Moreover, there are huge differences between the MB’s older generation and those aged 30 and under: the latter arguably have far more in common with their contemporaries in ostensibly ‘secular’ parties in terms of their views on democracy, human rights and gender, than with the senior figures in their own movement.

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