Faith and the Forum: the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s Democracy

The recent ban on the Muslim Brotherhood by Egypt’s interim government represents an error of political judgment. Whilst their links with terrorist organisations are beyond doubt, the exclusion of the Brotherhood from the public square undermines Egypt’s fragile political discourse and creates an opportunity for unchecked extremism to take hold.

 Rudyard Kipling once gave poetic expression to the frustration he felt with British colonialism:

 ‘Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet…

Image Courtesy of S. Behn, © 2013, Some Rights Reserved.

Image Courtesy of S. Behn, © 2013, Some Rights Reserved.

His famous words are, of course, a satire upon orientalism, bemoaning the tendency of opposing cultures to shout past one another rather than identify and resolve their differences. Newcomers to foreign affairs during the Bush era could be forgiven for assuming they were intended as critiques of the administration’s cognitive dissonance in Middle Eastern policy, so often were they ventured in literary rants. But it is recent events in Egypt which raise the prospect of another outing for Kipling’s verse.

In late September, the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters imposed a blanket ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, following several tumultuous weeks which saw a resurgent swell of popular protest and the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi. The military-led interim government, driven by General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, launched a swift crackdown on the Brotherhood’s leadership, detaining dozens of the organisation’s senior figures, whilst violent street protests led to the deaths of scores more Morsi supporters.

Later statements clarified the place of the ruling in a broader government agenda; not only was the Brotherhood banned from all political activity, but its NGO status was revoked, its assets seized and its affiliated organisations shut down. Originally registered as an NGO after its ban in 1954, the Brotherhood has endured an almost comical seesaw of political fortune since 2012, when Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) triumphed in the wake of the uprisings which ousted Hosni Mubarak from power. As an acceptable face of the Brotherhood – which was kept at an arm’s distance from secular politics after the Generals’ Rule in the 1950s – the FJP remains in a perilous position. Recent constitutional amendments ban political parties with strong religious affiliation, and the government has made no secret of its desire to nullify the party’s political license.

The latest events in Cairo conform to a depressing pattern of cyclical retribution so characteristic of nascent democracies, not least in the wake of the Arab Spring. Of course, there can be no doubting the Brotherhood’s connection with unsavoury agents of political Islam. Their involvement in Egyptian politics has frequently included violent rhetoric and compromising proximity to coups. After the failed assassination attempt on President Nasser, for which the Brotherhood were blamed, a period of sustained persecution precipitated an ideological shift in the Brotherhood’s activities. The writings of Sayyid Qutb were an inspiration to many modern-day jihadists, including the founders of al-Qaeda, and advocated the use of indiscriminate violence against ‘ignorant’ societies in order to transform their political landscapes. His execution in 1966 served only to increase the appeal of martyrdom to many in the Islamist cause.

But, from the 1980s, the Brotherhood began to feel its way back into the public forum. The strategy worked, and Hosni Mubarak’s administration was deeply unnerved. They launched yet another crackdown on the organisation, adding to the constitution a ban on religiously-linked parties, and passing anti-terrorism laws which gave unprecedented national security powers to the executive. But a dam can hold for only so long; the unrest in 2011 precipitated a massive victory for the FJP in parliamentary elections, and ultimately delivered the presidency into their hands.

Morsi’s rule may have been doomed from the beginning. Caught between antagonistic Salafist and liberal constituencies, Mubarak’s successor failed dismally to convince the Egyptian people that their new government could be relied upon to preserve their hard-won liberties. The rhetoric that emerged was confused and unnerving. Ultimately, the armed forces intervened to maintain the basic integrity of the state. But, as much as Morsi’s overthrow may have been conducted in the name of lasting stability, the concerns it raises are identical to any of its forebears. The challenge to Egypt – and indeed to the progress of stable democracy in the wider region – is how to move on.

The signs so far are not promising. Even if the Brotherhood is far from a wholly benign operation, through successive decades of fluctuating political fortunes, it has woven itself deeply into the fabric of Egypt’s society. The blanket ban may have the unforeseen effect of closing scores of hospitals, schools and civic facilities, all of which rely on the Brotherhood’s charitable activities for support. It was in part precisely because of failings in the provision of such basic amenities that both the Mubarak and Morsi governments fell, which begs the question of how long the ambiguously mandated interim administration can hope to last if it makes the same mistakes.

But there is a deeper issue here. The Muslim Brotherhood occupied an important place in the Egyptian political discourse. For all its ties to movements like al-Qaeda, it existed to voice the concerns of millions for whom a departure from the tenets of political Islam represented a grave error in global justice. If such convictions are to be debated, they must first be heard. Excluding even marginal voices from the public square would reinforce the assumption, already widely held in Egypt, that the government is indifferent to the people’s needs, and open the door for extremism to take hold. It is no coincidence that the Brotherhood’s pivot towards violent jihad materialised during an era of persecution, nor that the spread of extremist ideas occurred in conversations away from the political mainstream. Excluding political polyphony is a recipe for repeated disaster.

This is especially the case with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has always had a pyramidal structure, reliant on the motivation and direction of a few influential voices. Their elimination leaves a vast body of Brotherhood supporters denied their only link with the mainstream political discourse. With weapons still readily available from the collapse of Mubarak’s bureaucracy, the logical consequences of this mass disenfranchisement don’t need spelling out.

Historical example shows that successful resolution of conflict and consolidation of stable democracy must include the full involvement of marginal and defeated parties; the precedent has been set from South Africa to Northern Ireland. If Egypt is to overcome the multiple challenges to its fragile democracy, the political process must reach out to those on the unfashionable margins – or else risk factions with no time for politics at all. If Kipling’s haunting lines are to be avoided, the Muslim Brotherhood must be given a fair hearing in the public square.