In the aftermath of the military action against pro-Morsi protests, it is worth bearing in mind that the Muslim Brotherhood has an eighty-five year old history of thriving under repression. The policies the regime employs today will shape the Brotherhood of the future. Rather than imprisoning its leadership, the military-backed regime would do well to reach out to reformist elements within the organization. Failure to do so urgently means that the society risks further polarization and an increased Islamic radicalization in the future.
In the days leading up to June 30th, most of the young, educated urban youth I spoke with cited Morsi’s divisive policies as one of the leading reasons for their demand of his ouster. Yet, the military intervention on July 3rd and subsequent arrests of the Brotherhood members by the regime have only exacerbated this schism. The debate on whether to classify the intervention as a revolution, a popular uprising, or a coup d’état provides evidence of the growing rift.
“Every revolution ends with a coup d’état,” said Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim when I posed the question to him in his Cairo office. One of Egypt’s leading human rights and democracy activists, Dr. Saad is credited for his leading role in the revival of the country’s contemporary civil society movement. He went on to say that on July 3rd, the military stepped in to protect the people’s revolution. He sees this as evidence that the role of the Egyptian military is evolving in a manner similar to Turkey, where the military reserves the right to remove an elected government when the principles of secularism as laid down by Kemal Ataturk are threatened.
When I asked how—in in the absence of a leader like Ataturk—emulating such a model in Egypt might be problematic, Dr. Saad responded, “[The military] has Nasser, who not only abolished the monarchy, but also fought off the Muslim Brothers.” In 1954, after a failed attempt to assasinate Nasser was linked to the Brotherhood, the organization was brutally repressed. For the remainder of the Nasser era, the Brothers were either underground or imprisoned. But while Nasser and the military successfully shattered the political power of the Brotherhood, they failed to adequately address the principles and ideas that drive the organization. Thus Nasser—in fighting off the Muslim Brotherhood as a violent organization that included an underground intelligence and paramilitary arm with a terrorist wing—triggered an era of introspection and evolution. This eventually led to the Brotherhood officially renouncing violence and embracing the political process.
It was also during this time in prison that Syed Qutb developed his version of a radical Islamism that would inspire extremists for generations to come. While the mainstream Brotherhood eventually distanced itself from Qutb, the prison experience crystallized a narrative of victimization that viewed the military as corrupt and illegitimate. The result of Nasserite policies was twofold: an organization that learned to evolve in hostile circumstances, and the creation of radical extremist splinter factions.
The Brotherhood adopted a policy of focusing on charity, social work, and education as a means of reforming Egyptian society. It was this network of charitable organizations that allowed the Brotherhood to mobilize effectively during elections in 2012. Although there was a multitude of complex factors at play, in their unprecedented electoral victory, the Brotherhood owed much to the repressive policies of the Nasser era.
With wholesale arrests of Brotherhood leaders and members, the parallels between 1954 and 2013 are becoming increasingly obvious. Marwan, one of the protesters celebrating in Tahrir Square hours after Morsi was removed, had no doubts that the Brotherhood would be back. “For now, they will go underground,” he told me. “There will be much introspection and an eventual change in strategy. They will reappear twenty, maybe twenty-five years from now. And they will win elections again,” he said. What the Brotherhood will look like in twenty-five years is unclear; what is certain is that government policies today will play a major role.
Heavy-handed government tactics like torture and lack of due process risk pushing the organization back to a radical, hard-line mindset. People like Marwan might be able to help. Marwan left the organization in 2007, after becoming disillusioned by the lack of transparency and democracy within the party. He is not alone; there are many young members who agree with the principles of the Brotherhood but not the internal operations. Rather than arresting members, the government should collaborate with reformist elements within the Brotherhood to encourage internal democracy and transparency. Only by treating members as a political party and not as outlaws can the Brotherhood be included in a pluralistic society the revolutionaries envisioned and for which they continue to fight. The cost of not doing so might be borne by future generations in a fractured Egypt.