The election last month of Mohammed Badei as the eighth Murshid al-‘Am (General Guide) of the Ikhwan al-Muslimun (Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt, and the results of December’s elections for the Ikhwan’s Maktab al-Irshad (Guidance Bureau), have caused ructions among many Western and secular observers of Egyptian politics. The results have been portrayed as a success of the “conservative” trend within the Ikhwan, represented by its older generation, over the “reformist” and “modernising” trends supposedly favoured by younger members. The terminology is loaded of course: “conservative” is automatically associated with backwardness and resistance to the necessity for change, while “reformist” and “modernising” are code words for trends seen as willing to change in the directions that others want. (In many Western and secularist discussions, these election results have been described as a conservative “coup,” which has become a code word for any election results that are not to their liking.)
The problem for these secularists and the West is that the Egyptian public has repeatedly confirmed the Ikhwan as the country’s most popular and credible political party. In Egypt’s last elections, in November 2005, the Ikhwan won more than a fifth of the 454 seats in parliament, despite being officially banned and being subjected to intense harassment and repression in the run-up to the polls. No other opposition party won more than six seats. This was the party’s best result since deciding in the early 1980s to enter politics under the system established by the regime. If the regime’s strategy has been to try to co-opt and emasculate the Islamic movement by allowing it a limited role in its controlled political institutions, it has failed. Instead, access to the political sphere — even only unofficially and under severe constraints — has enabled the Ikhwan to demonstrate its credibility and standing. It has been able to achieve this status despite being subjected to intense pressures of different kinds from various quarters, internal as well as external.
The first of these has obviously been the repression of the regime. Like many Islamic movements, the Ikhwan once made the mistake of allying with other, non-Islamic political forces in the hope of finding a short-cut to power. This was at the time of the Free Officers’ coup of July 1952, when Sayyid Qutb was prominent among Ikhwani leaders cooperating with the Revolutionary Council. The new regime soon marginalised and then cracked down on the Ikhwan. Qutb was jailed for the first time in January 1954, and was to spend most of the rest of his life in jail. It was in prison, before his martyrdom in August 1966, that he wrote his most revolutionary works, which have subsequently been unfairly associated with salafi-jihadi groups whose methods and tactics have sometimes gone too far. This history is relevant: the Ikhwan was not suppressed because it was violent and revolutionary; rather Ikhwanis turned to espousal of jihad because its peaceful activities in pursuit of its Islamic vision were regarded as dangerous and so viciously repressed. This is a pattern that has repeated itself in the history of the Ikhwan through successive Egyptian regimes. Since allowing the Ikhwan a limited role in social and political affairs in the 1980s, the regime has repeatedly cracked down on it whenever it has threatened to get too popular, and in particular in the run-up to elections. The same can be expected later this year before the elections due in October.
The Ikhwan have also faced pressure from the West and other opposition groups, trying to persuade them to abandon their Islamic principles. In an op-ed piece in the Guardian on January 21, American politicalscientist Fawaz Gerges accused the Ikhwan of “denying Egyptians a progressive alternative to Mubarak’s illiberal regime” by electing Badei. This is to put the cart before the horse: Egypt has secular and liberal opposition parties but none can get anything like the level of support that the Ikhwan enjoys because of its Islamic principles. And because secular and liberal groups cannot achieve popular support, Westerners demand that the group that does have public credibility should become secular and liberal! Other Egyptian groups have also tried to co-opt the Ikhwan’s popularity, demanding in the name of establishing a united national opposition movement that it should renounce its Islamic principles; the thought that they should perhaps sign up to the Ikhwan’s principles to achieve unity, considering the groups’ relative standing, apparently does not occur to them.
The third source of pressure on the Ikhwan is from within. On the one hand, there have always been Ikhwanis who have been frustrated enough by the repression of the government to demand changes of strategy, and there have been a succession of breakaway groups. Those opting for militancy, such as theGama‘a al-Islamiyya that waged a massively damaging war against the state in the 1980s and 1990s, have been the most prominent, but have achieved little more than justifying the regimes’ repression. (Among the leaders of the Gama‘a was Ayman al-Zawahiri, who became the deputy of Osama bin Laden and the main ideologue of al-Qaeda.) The possibility of frustrated Ikhwanis following a similar path again worries the movement’s leadership even more than the regime, for whom it would be a welcome pretext to move against the Ikhwan. The accusation that the Ikhwan is secretly planning militant activities, perhaps in cooperation with other Islamic movements such as Hizbullah or Hamas, is a staple of government propaganda against the movement.
Other Ikhwan supporters, equally frustrated with the apparent lack of progress and the government’s repression have concluded that the movement’s approach of engaging in politics has achieved nothing, and it should withdraw from politics and seek another approach, perhaps by focusing on social activism and intellectual work. Promi-nent members who have advocated such strategies in recent years include Abdullah al-Nafisi and Salim al-Awa. In 2007, Ali Abd al-Hafiz of Asyut University led a breakaway group known as al-Tayar al-Badil (the alternative trend), which totally renounced political activity.
Perhaps the internal pressure on the leadership of the movement at the moment is from those members who demand that the party make a greater commitment to electoral politics within the regime’s strictly controlled system, and make compromises with other parties to achieve this. Such people have often expressed frustration at the leadership’s suspicion of political engagement, and have sometimes been accused of being more committed to pragmatic political imperatives than the Ikhwan’s traditional principles. Many of those whom the West and Egyptian secularists describe as “reformers” and “modernisers” are of this tendency. This tendency too has produced breakaway groups, notably Hizb al-Wasat established by disaffected members of the Ikhwan in the 1990s, with little success.
What we are seeing now, and are likely to see in the future, are more of these same patterns. The Ikhwan is now accused of being “conservative” and “ideological,” and Ikhwanis disappointment with the results of the recent polls, are being encouraged to break away from the movement. At the same time, the regime is likely to use the “conservative” success to accuse the movement of militancy; with Sayyid Qutb unfairly regarded as the godfather of Islamic terrorism, it is not a coincidence that “conservatives” are increasingly described as “Qutbist,” despite the distance travelled by the movement since the 1960s.
The Ikhwan’s powers of resilience are already being severely tested as the regime seeks to ensure that it cannot claim any success in the elections due at the end of this year. At the same time, many of those who have supported it through thick and thin are going to look for greater effectiveness in its promotion of the traditional Islamic values that it has always represented, and questioning the strategies being followed by its leadership if they feel that progress is not being made. In the next phase of the Ikhwan’s experience, the path between accommodation, repression and militancy is likely to be as difficult as ever.
Iqbal Siddiqui publishes a personal blog, A Sceptical Islamist: http://scepticalislamist.typepad.com.