Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ikhwanul Muslimin after the uprising: What next?

Mohamed al-Kassas is a 35-year-old youth leader with the Muslim Brotherhood. He belongs to the generation that has just changed the face of Egypt by ousting longstanding President Hosni Mubarak.

For over two weeks, young Egyptians had spearheaded unprecedented protests that culminated in a sweeping revolution in demand of change, freedom and social justice. Looking back on the revolution, al-Kassas contends that the experience has left a strong impression on the mentality of young Islamists.

“The Egyptian revolution has made young Muslim brothers more tolerant in accepting the other,” says al-Kassas. “In Tahrir Square, we saw them bond and eat with women, Copts and leftists. This experience will change many of the group’s ideas.”

Under the Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood was formally banned but nevertheless tolerated. The begrudging toleration, however, did not save its members from frequent arrests and trials before exceptional courts.

The oppressive political environment is believed to have emboldened the brotherhood's more conservative members, which had resisted endorsement of full democracy and opposed reformist voices within the group. But as prospects for a new democratic order now loom, some experts believe the group will be racked by fragmentation if its outlook is not revised.

If a new democratic political order is instated, “the group will stand at a crossroads,” says Mokhtar Nouh, one of the group’s reformist voices who relinquished his membership years ago in objection to the rise of hardliners.

“The Muslim Brotherhood will have to develop itself and form a real political party or remain stagnant. This stagnation will lead to splits between the old and young guards."

Yet for al-Kassas, splits within the ranks of the group’s younger generation seem farfetched. “Young Muslim brothers are committed to the group and they do not flirt with the idea of splitting up. Plus, they have their own channels that allow them to convey their views to the leadership,” he says.

In the lead-up to the uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood was reluctant to back the protest call on January 25. However, when tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets, the group revisited its position and threw its full weight behind the burgeoning revolution, mobilizing thousands of its members in the following days.

Throughout the revolt, the group’s young members impressed observers by refraining from resorting to religious slogans or symbols. They were also praised for standing up to pro-Mubarak thugs who attacked Tahrir Square with Molotov cocktails, swords and iron chains.

Given this close involvement in events, the Mubarak regime could not ignore the brothers in the national dialogue it later held with the opposition. For the first time, Muslim Brotherhood leaders sat at the same table with regime representatives, implying official recognition of the formerly-outlawed group.

Days before Mubarak's resignation, Omar Suleiman, then Mubarak’s deputy, had met with opposition parties--including the brotherhood--in hopes of appeasing the ever-growing numbers of protesters.

In the meantime, the group’s top leaders were keen to reassure certain segments of society fearful of the influence of hard-line Islamists. On several occasions, the group affirmed that it had no intention of "hijacking" the revolution or capturing the presidency.

Earlier this week, the group announced that it would form a political party if the constitution was amended and draconian restrictions on political activity--a longstanding feature of the Mubarak regime--were lifted.

The armed forces, meanwhile, have promised that the current transitional period would lead to a civil democratic order. On Sunday, military spokesmen announced the suspension of the constitution and the formation of a commission mandated with introducing constitutional amendments.

The army has also dissolved the bicameral parliament that was elected in controversial polls late last year, widely dismissed as fraudulent. In the meantime, youth-led opposition groups have called on the army to abrogate the repressive laws that regulated the exercise of political rights under Mubarak. All these demands have been endorsed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

For analysts, embarking on the formation of a political party will pose a series of challenges for the group.

“The only problem with forming a party is the internal consensus over such an idea and the future relationship between the party and the movement, along with which model the Muslim Brotherhood will follow,” says Khalil Alanani, Egyptian political analyst at Durham University’s Institute for Middle East Studies.

The group is believed to be divided over whether to abandon its proselytizing agenda or to become a modern, civil political party that has little to do with religious preaching.

“I don't think the brotherhood is ready now for taking such huge steps towards establishing a political party, or at least it does not have a full vision about what shape it should take,” adds Elanani.

Elanani’s concerns about building consensus are downplayed by the group’s leaders. In a phone interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm, Mohamed Morsi, the group’ s official spokesman, said that to decide on a party platform, “you do not need a consensus--you need a majority.”

“The Muslim Brotherhood is a coherent group to a great extent and the divergence in views does not hinder the group’s ability to make majority-based decisions,” Morsi added.

Agreeing over the intricate details of a party platform might be another challenge, given the ideological disparities within the ranks of the brotherhood.

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 some saying that it discriminated against non-Muslim minorities and women. The platform was seen by many critics as evidence that the group had been largely taken over by hard-liners.

“This old platform has to be revisited in light of recent developments and the Egyptian revolution experience,” says al-Kassas.

According to Hossam Tamam, an expert on Islamist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood serves as an umbrella for contradictory schools of Islamic thought that range from Salafi fundamentalism to liberal Islamism.

“If the political system gets opened up the right way, the Muslim Brotherhood will not be able to manage all these internal differences,” explains Tamam. “What ensured the consistency of the group was the closed political system. No new political faction had prospects outside the group.”

The famous case of the Wasat Party serves as the best evidence of Tamam’s argument. In the mid-1990s, moderate Islamists broke ranks with the brotherhood and attempted to establish their own civil democratic party.

For over a decade, Wasat leaders struggled to obtain an official party license from the government. The would-be party's failure to gain legitimacy is believed to have discouraged many reformists within the group.

Yet under a prospective democratic system, dovish voices will find enough room for maneuver to break ranks with the 83-year-old organization, some observers say.

Morsi, however, dismisses such speculation as “unfounded." “When there is more freedom, the brotherhood will get together more. There is no room for splits,” he says.

The Egyptian revolution had already come on the heels of a growing rift between conservative and reformist camps within the group. Divisions followed the movement's internal elections, which brought Mohamed Badie--considered a hardliner--to the brotherhood's top post and excluded prominent reformer Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh. Critics say the internal elections were marred by violations.

A few months later, a group of middle-aged Muslim brothers threw themselves into a head-on confrontation with the group’s leaders, accusing them of monopolizing power within the organization.

It remains yet to be seen whether Egypt's new political order will be democratic enough to prompt a change in the group's long-held principles.

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