Roundtable: The Crisis of the Muslim Brotherhood
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s failure to manage its transition from semi-clandestine opposition group to governing party in the aftermath of the country’s 2011 revolution was the product of external conditions and internal mistakes. Pargeter acknowledged that the Brotherhood’s well-founded fears of the resurgence of counterrevolutionary forces in Egypt played a role. However, the movement also suffered from its own lack of preparation and inability to translate broad principles and slogans into a concrete policy platform.
Without a strategy, the Egyptian Brotherhood fell back on reactionary policies.
Without a strategy, the Brotherhood fell back on reactionary policies. First, it responded to popular anger with appeasement and appeals that criticized the very state which it was leading. Second, it adhered to a state-centric approach, which alienated multiple constituencies that could have been cultivated as political allies. Third, it failed to grasp the societal complexities in which it operated. Finally, it tended to approach problems with moralistic rather than structural solutions. Ultimately, the Brotherhood’s belief that putting Islam at the center of governance would be sufficient to correct the ills of the ancien regime led to a focus on installing morally upright individuals in positions of power and securing the repentance of Mubarak-era officials rather than pursuing real institutional reform, argued Pargeter.
In Tunisia, Muslim Brotherhood affiliate Ennahda displayed some of the Egyptian Brotherhood’s early mistakes when it first came to power. Ennahda eventually adopted a more pragmatic approach. Although Ennahda ruled in a coalition of three parties (known as the Troika government), Pargeter noted it tended to conduct affairs as if it was the sole group in power and failed to uphold a genuinely consensual decisionmaking model. Leaders seemed to approach the distribution of posts as a way to compensate party members who spent years in prison or in exile. Perhaps most damaging was the party’s inability to deliver on social and economic programs at the core of the revolution’s demands. Yet, Pargeter noted that Ennahda quickly absorbed the lessons of the Egyptian Brotherhood’s rapid fall, in part due to the pragmatic leadership of Rachid al-Ghannouchi. After entering into dialogue with other Tunisian parties, Ennahda made shrewd concessions, including stepping down from leadership, in order to preserve stability and its own long-term political viability.
Ennahda made shrewd concessions, including stepping down from leadership, in order to preserve stability and its own long-term political viability.
By contrast, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood struggled for relevance among numerous competing factions, Pargeter explained. Compared to other branches of the movement, the Libyan Brotherhood had relatively faint roots in the country prior to the 2011 revolution. It formed a political organ in 2012, the Justice and Development Party, but was quickly eclipsed by other Islamist rivals. The Libyan Brotherhood proved more hawkish and less compromise-oriented than its Tunisian counterpart, and in seeking to grow its foothold in the Libyan political landscape, aligned itself with some of the more extreme groups operating there. It has more recently moderated some stances and given its support to the UN-backed Government of National Accord, but it possesses limited influence.
The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood struggled for relevance among numerous competing factions.
Muslim Brotherhood branches in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya are adapting to their new realities in different ways. Four years after it was pushed from power, the Egyptian Brotherhood remains “shattered,” Pargeter said. Its leadership is fragmented between those in exile and those inside Egypt, many of whom are imprisoned. A small, vocal group of defectors are calling for a more confrontational approach to the state, but Pargeter cautioned against overstating the influence of this camp. She also disputed claims that the divide is a generational one between younger upstarts and older stalwarts. Egyptian Brotherhood members appear to continue to largely follow the traditional leadership, she said, which is staying the course in terms of its ideology and nonviolent approach. This is unlikely to change soon, Pargeter argued, as the Brotherhood is deeply reluctant to sacrifice what it has built over the course of years by adopting a militant approach likely to alienate much of its base. The Egyptian Brotherhood is also mindful of the weight it carries as the mother branch of a larger movement and approaches any policy shifts with the knowledge that they will reverberate more broadly.
The Brotherhood is deeply reluctant to sacrifice what it has built over the course of years by adopting a militant approach likely to alienate much of its base.
In a reversal of the post-2011 trend towards stronger transnational ties, Brotherhood affiliates outside of Egypt are now distancing themselves from the main branch. They are also in some cases adopting more accommodationist stances. In Tunisia, Ennahda has begun advocating more vocally for a locally distinct “Tunisian Islam.” In a major shift, Ghannouchi announced in May 2016 that Ennahda would separate its religious outreach efforts from its political activities. Pargeter saw little evidence that Ennahda has defined what this distinction will mean in practice. The shift also raises the question of how Ennahda will distinguish itself from other parties. Expected local elections in late 2017 in Tunisia will be an early test of how far Ennahda pursues this separation and whether Ghannouchi succeeds in rallying the base around the approach. A debate about future models is also occurring in Libya, Pargeter said, with one faction pushing to separate the Libyan branch from the transnational Muslim Brotherhood and even going as far as to advocate changing the movement’s name.
Local elections in late 2017 in Tunisia will be an early test of how far Ennahda pursues the separation of Islam from its political activities, and whether Ghannouchi succeeds in rallying the base around the approach.
As the Brotherhood debates the path forward, Pargeter did not identify efforts at serious organizational or ideological reform. The leadership acknowledges that it made missteps, but many see the main mistake as not having been “revolutionary enough”; that is, it failed to decimate the previous state administration when it had the chance. In looking ahead, the movement is rethinking its tactics more than its ideology or strategy. In the end, it is likely to prove resilient. While parts of the silent majority and traditional base have retreated, the Brotherhood retains a sizable and enduring body of supporters. In parts of the region, Pargeter noted, it continues to represent the largest or even the only genuinely popular opposition force.
In looking ahead, the movement is rethinking its tactics more than its ideology or strategy.