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Egypt: The Failure of the Muslim Brotherhood

Mohammed Morsi's own failure is also a failure of the Muslim Brotherhood. They did not succeed in consolidating the power they obtained in 2011. Stephan Roll analyzes why.

Point of View, 03.07.2013 Research Areas

The Muslim Brotherhood failed to consolidate the power they obtained in 2011. Stephan Roll analyzes why.

Mohammed Morsi's presidency is history. The mass protests, which spread across the country on the anniversary of Morsi's inauguration and the ultimatum given by the military leadership paved the way for the removal of Egypt's first freely elected president at the hand of the country's armed forces. Morsi's own failure is also a failure of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is standing behind him, and the leaders of which are now being arrested together with the deposed president. The group did not manage to consolidate the power it gained in 2011. Three central factors were crucial for this.  

Lack of Openness

First, the Muslim Brotherhood neglected to open up to the population. After the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime in 2011, the Brotherhood leadership attempted, through the founding of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), to transform its political arm into a catch-all party. Indeed, the FJP managed to organize a majority and to win elections. The reason was that the party, in contrast to other political parties in Egypt, had a good organizational structure. The FJP, however, did not turn into a catch-all party. Instead of integrating as many political factions as possible and having an open debate, party positions were mostly discussed within the Brotherhood’s leadership bureau, Maktab al-irshad. In this non-transparent executive board, a small group of ideologically like-minded “conservative pragmatists” who were part of the inner circle of Kheirat al-Shater, the deputy leader of the Brotherhood, kept things firmly in their hands.

Liberal-minded members of the Muslim Brotherhood, like Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, who managed to achieve a decent result in the 2012 presidential election, have been successively pushed out of the governing body of the group. The lack of appreciation for transparency is also mirrored in Morsi’s governing style. The president often did not even try to explain his decisions to the population. This lack of willingness to communicate was coupled with an uncharismatic and largely unknown Morsi, until his election.

Failure to Unite the Islamist Camp

Second, the Muslim Brotherhood was unable to unite the Islamist spectrum in Egypt. The Brotherhood, like foreign observers, was caught by surprise by the political success of the Salafis. The Salafist al-Nour Party (Party of light) was clearly the second strongest force in Egypt with 22% of votes during the first free parliamentary elections in 2011. Ever since, the party has developed further and has increasingly set itself apart from the Brotherhood and the FJP.

Although it is more conservative regarding socio-political positions, al-Nour showed a greater willingness to engage with the opposition. The party did not participate in the mass demonstrations against Morsi, but stressed the legitimacy of the elected president. However, it unequivocally asked Morsi to set new elections and until then to form a technocratic cabinet. It remains to be seen whether this strategy will pay off for al-Nour. In any case, the Islamist camp is split because of this, and the Muslim Brotherhood will have a harder time portraying the calls for Morsi’s resignation as an attack against the “Islamic identity of the country” — a formula which they were able to successfully deploy in the past in order to mobilize for its goals.

Agreements With State Actors

Third, the Muslim Brotherhood was not successful in coming to an agreement with important state actors. They only managed to bring about a power-sharing agreement, apparently in the form of a “gentlemen’s agreement,” with the military leadership. The military accepted the civilian president and, in return, it was awarded significant autonomy through the new constitution, pushed through by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood leadership apparently believed naively that through the agreement with the military, it could gain control over other established state institutions, like the internal security services and the judiciary. This was not the case; although the media, often critical with respect to the Muslim Brotherhood, decried an “Ikhwanization,” an infiltration of institutions by the Brotherhood.

Due to a lack of control over the interior ministry, the organization did not manage to start an urgently needed reform of the security apparatus and to break the informal networks and structures of the Egyptian police. The judiciary laws proposed by the Muslim Brotherhood, such as a change in the electoral law, were successfully blocked.   

The coming days will show how the Brotherhood will be able to regroup with many of its leaders in prison or on the run, and which path they will chose for the new political process that started with the military's interference. This could be dependent on how successful the Brotherhood will be in mobilizing its members and supporters, and how intact its internal structure still is. On this point, it is completely unclear on how many supporters the Brotherhood can count  – information ranges from several hundred thousand to several million people. It is also unclear to what extent these supporters could be mobilized for nationwide demonstrations – or whether there will be internal resistance against the leadership’s policy. During the last several months, there have been repeated reports of criticism against the movement's governing style, coming from within the Muslim Brotherhood. Then again, the military crackdown against the leadership could close the cracks that have opened during the Brotherhoods 12 months in power. In the coming weeks, organization’s internal cohesion could tip the scale for the brotherhood, and the democratic process in Egypt altogether.

This »Point of View« has been translated and republished by the Fair Observer. Its original German version was published by SWP on 02 July 2013.

Translated into English by Manuel Langendorf.