Middle East

Middle East/North Africa

The Misery of the Brotherhood, the Misery of Egypt, the Misery of Us All

Egyptians mourn the death of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mustafa Mashhour
Mourners carry the coffin of the leader of Egypt's banned Muslim Brotherhood, Mustafa Mashhour, during his Nov. 15 funeral in Cairo. Mashhour died the day before, at the age of 83 (Photo: Khaled Desuki/AFP).   

The Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest Islamist group in the Arab world and is widely regarded as the biggest opposition group in Egypt today, though the authorities continue to ban it. The government says the Brotherhood offers tacit support for the militant groups that launched a campaign in the 1990s to bring down Hosni Mubarak's government; many political observers suspect the government simply fears that, in free elections, the Brotherhood’s populist religious slogans would prove too popular. But experts also criticize the Brotherhood for doing next to nothing to challenge the government's anti-democratic impulses by reshaping the group’s platform along the lines of Turkey’s ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party, and thereby making it more difficult for the Egyptian government to continue to cast the Brotherhood as a radical fundamentalist group. In fact, many analysts say Egyptian political reform depends on the Brotherhood’s reform, which would force the government to acknowledge its presence and open up democratic politics in line with other countries in the region where Islamists have become part of the system, such as Turkey, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, and Bahrain. Unfortunately, though, much of the debate between the Brotherhood and the state revolves around arguments over the era of political violence in the 1940s and 1950s, when the British left Egypt and a military regime took over. The Egyptian government says the Brotherhood began a history of violence at that time.

Last month, the Brotherhood's octogenarian spokesman Maamoun al-Hodeiby took over after the Nov. 14 death of the Brotherhood’s “supreme guide,” 83-year-old Mustafa Mashhour. Al-Hodeiby's father was Hassan al-Hodeiby, the second leader of the Brotherhood, who succeeded its charismatic founder Hassan al-Banna. Banna founded the group in the Suez Canal town of Ismailiya in 1928 with the aim of reinvigorating the Arab and Islamic world in the face of Western colonialism and its secularizing politics. Modern Islamic militancy began as an offshoot of the Brotherhood in the 1960s, but today the Brotherhood has also produced a moderate splinter group in the form of the Wasat (centrist) Party—led by popular middle-aged Brotherhood figures who broke away in the mid-1990s, complaining that Hodeiby and Mashhour were incapable of adapting the organization to changed realities. The Egyptian government has likewise refused to recognize Wasat or license it to run in elections.

Hazem Saghiyeh, writing for London’s Pan-Arab Al-Hayat, here looks at the state of the Muslim Brotherhood at this crucial moment in its history.—WPR

Maamoun al-Hodeiby won’t find it easy to prepare the Muslim Brotherhood for the future or to lead the party there. The violent groups, all the way up to [Al-Qaeda and Osama] bin Laden have given a new lease on life to the Brotherhood: They have made the Brotherhood define itself in relation to something contemporary. They have made them say: We are not a violent group. If it wasn’t for this, they would still be fighting their battles with [former Egyptian President Gamal] Abdel-Nasser, against Noqrashy Pasha [an Egyptian Prime Minister allegedly assassinated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood], and maybe even against the British military and missionary presence in Ismailiya [on the Suez Canal. Britain withdrew from the Suez Canal in 1956].

The Brotherhood, unlike the violent groups who stab people in the flesh, stabs only at dead bodies. They are faithful to the past. Their necks are craned backwards. They repeat the talk of the past and enter its battles. Its aged leadership are living symbols of their war with the pre-Islamic age of ignorance.

The present, never mind the future, is the enemy of the Brotherhood, which has not adapted to the modern age. The Brotherhood does not possess the tools to understand modernity and doesn’t dare contradict the ideologies and struggles of its great past, which it values at the expense of reality. The Brotherhood’s static theories on Islamic law, women, freedom of expression, and second-class citizenship for Copts all speak of this fact. Its leaders’ ideas are fitting for a group that has done nothing for the development of Islamic thought. Their thinking is poor while the world’s is rich. Theirs are the ideas of people who are simple while the world is complicated.

But the Brotherhood’s long, sad story tragically resembles the story of the region itself. The rest of the region’s politics appears as worthy of our questioning as the Brotherhood. The oldest Islamic party in the Islamic world, founded in 1928, today appears to drag its heavy body and ruined mind. Since 1928, it has been at once victim and victimizer, but it always denies both charges. The missionary zeal of Hassan al-Banna [the Egyptian schoolteacher who founded the Brotherhood and was assassinated by secret service agents in 1949] turned into the terrorism of the “special units” he created, then lost control of…. The Brotherhood tried to marry the ideas of Sayyid Qutb [the founder of a violent faction that splintered off from the Brotherhood], with Hassan al-Hodeiby’s claim, issued from prison, that the Brothers are “preachers not judges.” History shows that the Brotherhood has always tried to unite what cannot be united. They tried to amalgamate different interests, ideas, and generations under the illusion that loyalty to a certain original early Islamic way of doing things was enough to dissipate the contradictions. Unfortunately, they always thought they were one, and the authorities always dealt with them as if all Islamists were one. The authorities thought that if it wasn’t for the Brotherhood’s stabs at dead bodies, the stabs of militants in living flesh would never have happened.

But history also shows how the door of politics was as firmly shut in the face of the Brotherhood as it was in the face of other groups, and, in so doing, contributed to the rise of violent splinter groups.

The fact is that anyone who managed to emerge from the cloak of the Brotherhood found a starring role awaiting him, usually involving “martyrdom” of some sort or another. That’s what happened with Qutb [who was hanged in 1966] and Adbel-Salam Farag [an associate of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s and a founder of the Islamic Jihad movement. Farag was executed for his connection with the assassination of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat]. As for those who left the Brotherhood with a message of renewal, the authorities blocked their path and left them to die without any drama in the desert: The Wasat Party, which wasn’t allowed to register as an official party, is the best example.

As for the leaders of the second, third, and fourth generation of Brothers who have been shocked by Al-Hodeiby’s taking over the Brotherhood leadership now, and haven’t got over the leadership of the deceased Mustafa Mashhour: Will they stay under the Brotherhood cloak as they watch [modernizing Islamist leader of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party] Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey? Or will they stay lonely and die?

When political life is semi-nationalized, as it is today, there’s always room for more decrepit parties as the existing parties grow old, and that’s true of all Egyptian political groups. If that’s how politics is, extremism flourishes, while Maamoun al-Hodeiby continues as the guardian of a crumbling temple. He repeats what his father used to say in the 1940s and 1950s and finds in the Arab world, with its shining ideologies, many young people making pilgrimage to his temple, repeating his words and those of his father, and probably those of his grandfather too.