Egypt: The rise and (potential) fall of the Muslim Brotherhood

Arabic slogan that reads "No for military trials for civilians" over protesters' mouths during a rally in Cairo's Tahrir Square, where tens of thousands rallied against military rule. Photo by Amr Nabil / Associated Press

By Tim Dobson

November 29, 2011 -- Red Press Box, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- While the results of the Egyptian election won’t be known for a while, initial reports make it fairly clear that the election will result in a substantial victory for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.

It is almost too obvious what the hysterical reaction will be from establishment commentators in the West.  Court jester for the Murdoch empire, Greg Sheridan, has written the familiar script back in February:  “But Hamas, the terrorist death cult that rules the Gaza Strip, is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its manifesto, which you can read on the internet, is a bizarre amalgam of traditional anti-Semitism and grotesque conspiracy theory. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt fully endorses all Hamas terrorism.”

No doubt we will hear that this is a “Islamist” revolution and, at first subtle then more bold, proclamations about how deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak wasn’t such a bad guy after all. The Freedom and Justice Party has a website where people see what it is putting forward. While Juan Cole has thoroughly debunked the latest claim that the Muslim Brotherhood is calling  for  the death of all jews.

While it is necessary to attack this silliness, it is equally important for all those who support the Egyptian revolution to understand the basis for the Muslim Brotherhood’s support, even if it is only transient.

Basis of support

Without going into the whole history of the Muslim Brotherhood, since its formation in 1928, it has generally been in the role of opposition throughout its existence. First, it opposed British imperial rule and faced repression. Following independence, the brotherhood attempted to participate in parliamentary politics but since it was horribly rigged, it intensified the brotherhood’s turn towards terrorism, particularly after it was banned in 1948. The Muslim Brotherhood responded by assassinating Egypt's prime minister.

The brotherhood supported the military coup in 1952, which brought Nasser to power, but after being left out of the power apparatus, it turned against him. Brotherhood members were accused of trying to assassinate Nasser. This led to a widespread crackdown, with thousands jailed. The brotherhood once again had to go underground. This continued throughout the rule of Nasser. The Sadat government granted the brotherhood a bit more political freedom; it did this with the understanding that the brotherhood would play the useful role of attacking and suppressing the left at a time that Sadat was seeking to implement “free market reforms” and undo some of Nasser’s progressive policies. The Muslim Brotherhood was happy to play that role, while it had consistently opposed governments, it always had  complete agreement with their anti-communist policies.

This goes some way to explain why the brotherhood experienced periods in which it was tolerated, as compared to the Egyptian Communist Party. Emerging from the underground also saw it renounce terrorism and engage  in parliamentary politics and peaceful reform. The brotherhood, though, actively orientated to the uprising in 1977, in response  to the price rises caused by Sadat’s neoliberal policies. It also used its newly established newspaper to fiercely attack the Sadat government over support for the Camp David accords, which led to Egypt recognising Israel. These stances led to an increase in popularity for the brotherhood, resulting in the Sadat government repressing it once again.

This pattern of the brotherhood being illegal but tolerated continued under Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood used this time to establish welfare groups and advocate a more democratic system; its members participated in the mostly sham elections under the banner of parties that were legal or as independents. It became the largest opposition party in parliament in the 2000s, even though it was officially illegal. During elections many of its members were jailed. It also sought to broaden its appeal and stated that Christians could join the organisation. It renounced anti-Semitism.

When the uprising began this year, the Muslim Brotherhood sought to relate to it, while officially it was stand-offish in the beginning, this changed when it was clear that Mubarak was going to be deposed. From the very beginning, though, its young membership were central members of the coalition of youth, who coordinated the mobilisations. The brotherhood, in its literature, refers to the January 25 revolution as the “glorious revolution”.

All this explains why there is a basis for the Muslin Brotherhood's support. Its welfare organisations provided support for people suffering under the brutality of neoliberalism, it was consistent in arguing for democratic reform under Mubarak, its consistently supported the Palestinian people, it supported the January 25 revolution and, yes, its support for sharia law as opposed to Western law, which was imposed by the British, are all popular stands. As well, its opposition to governments, despite brutal harassment, has allowed it to build respect among a lot of Egyptians.

Established force

There are other factors that also explain the likely landslide win for the Muslim brotherhood in the election.

First, it is such an established force and has not been discredited for being too weak on the Mubarak government. This gives it a massive advantage. As I wrote at the time of the constitutional referendum, which paved the way for the current election:

Much of the leadership of the mass movement that overthrew dictator Hosni Mubarak called for a no vote. This included the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution (CYR), as well as various liberal and nationalist parties.

Two figures widely tipped to run for the Egyptian presidency, Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei, criticised the amendments. They called for the a new constitution to be written before upcoming elections in order to establish proper regulations.

Powerful, established political groups argued for a yes vote. These included the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party (NDP), the old ruling party under Mubarak.

This appeared to be for opportunist reasons. A yes vote would pave the way for elections in six months' time, favouring established parties. Many revolutionary forces opposed the plan, as it does not allow enough time for new political forces emerging out of the struggle against Mubarak to organise themselves.

This is exactly how it has played out, in the sense that the incredibly undemocratic electoral laws of the Mubarak regime remain in place, which benefits established parties, and that the time frame made it impossible for any force to mount a proper electoral challenge. The Freedom and Justice Party, for instance, set up information desks near polling booths, which are meant to show people how to vote, but they also provide chairs to old people weary from walking.

There have been suggestions that the military government is actively favouring the Muslim Brotherhood, financially and politically, as a force that won’t rock the boat too much. This could explain why the brotherhood en masse has been allowed to break the electoral law regarding handing out election material, while the military watches on.


Another  factor has been the ambiguity of the mass movement seeking to overthrow the military government regarding the election. After the referendum result in March, nearly all political forces, even those who advocated a no vote, stated that they would participate in the election.

However, after the crackdown by the military government against protesters in Tahrir Square, the deaths and injuries that followed, and the subsequent rise of a movement for a civilian government, this began to change. Many political forces, leftist and liberal, suspended their election campaigns and threw themselves into Tahrir again. It seemed that as the movement was growing, so was the call for an election boycott.

As the election approached, though, it became clear that the boycott call did not have the support of the majority of Egyptians. Many leftist and liberal forces, therefore, blinked and did not support a boycott, even while supporting the movement.

The Muslim Brotherhood was quite clear: it wasn’t supporting the movement and ramped up its election work. At the same time liberal and leftist forces were confounded by the question of whether to boycott or not,  they effectively did no election campaigning at all. This meant the final few weeks of the campaign saw the brotherhood have an almost monopoly on election campaigning. The Democratic Workers Party, the Revolutionary Socialists and the Egyptian Communist Party were the only groups who ended up supporting the boycott.

Hossam al Hamalawy gave the reasons why here: ”We cannot get a clean election while Mubarak’s army generals are still in charge… Police who are supposed to be securing the ballot boxes are the same ones who have been murdering us for the last days, months and years.”

The reason why the boycott call seems to have failed was explained quite well by Mostafa Ali, a member of Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists when he told Socialist Worker:

The majority of the country wants a democratic system. They want a civilian government. They want to be able to vote and to exercise political control over their lives. And they believe this is the way to get the army out of their lives for the first time in 60 years.

So even among people who are fighting in Tahrir and those who support them, some of them will vote, because they don’t want to leave the political scene to the SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists.

Mostafa Ali also made the point that the “SCAF [military] wants this election to gain legitimacy on the ground. The military is very weak right now, and it is determined that the election will take place no matter what. They want to use this to bolster their credentials as people who said they would bring about democracy–they want something to show they’ve kept their word in order to use that to attack the growing revolutionary vanguard.”

This is the crucial point, the election is being used by the SCAF as a way to prop itself up and it sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a way to do this. Ultimately, how the brotherhood reacts to the situation will determine its future. Since the January 25 revolution, we had already seen fissures. The Muslim Brotherhood youth who played a leading role in that revolution eventually grew tired of its leaders' conservatism and its inability to work with other groups that supported the revolution. They split and formed the Egyptian Current Party, which is part of the Revolution Continues Alliance, a leftist formation contesting the election.

This fissure could become a black hole, though,  if the Muslim Brotherhood, whose support stems from its limited but real opposition to neoliberalism, its support for the Palestinians and for democratic reform, hitches itself to the military government. The US-backed military government is working to halt and reverse the revolution, and any force that signs up to the agenda will ultimately have to be involved in unpopular and anti-democratic acts.

Zyad Eleliamy, a liberal activist, said a few days ago: "The street will be much more effective in achieving the demands of the revolution than these elections!”

The Muslim Brotherhood, in that choice, has clearly chosen elections. Its rejection of the street could well lead to the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood.

[Tim Dobson and a member of the Socialist Alliance who write for Green Left Weekly on developments in the Middle East. The mains the Red Press Box blog, which specialises insport and politics.]