Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Brotherhood crisis alters region’s political thinking

Can the Brotherhood survive as a major ideological and political Arab player? Or will it fragment into opposing camps?

The fragmenting of the Muslim Brotherhood movement throughout the Middle East was always likely to be a consequence of the ouster of Mohammed Morsi, the former Egyptian president. Given not only Mr Morsi’s removal, but also the subsequent sustained efforts to crush the Brotherhood as an organised political movement, adaptation of one form or another became almost inevitable. We are now seeing signs that different parts of the movement are, predictably, drawing radically different lessons from the Egyptian fiasco.

Most striking is the adaptation by the Brotherhood-affiliated Tunisian party Ennahda, which has made a series of recent compromises that show a determination to avoid the fate of their Egyptian colleagues.

First, they agreed to a mixed presidential and parliamentary system, as opposed to a mainly legislative one more advantageous to them.

Second, after they were at least indirectly blamed for the assassination of two leading secularist politicians, and after a series of intense political protests and negotiations, they agreed to dissolve their governing troika cabinet. On Thursday, Ali Larayedh, Ennahda’s prime minister, stepped down in favour of technocrat Mehdi Jomaa who will form a non-partisan cabinet to oversee new elections.

Even more strikingly, the Tunisian constituent assembly is moving quickly to approve an impressively conciliatory new constitution. The articles thus far agreed show how far Ennahda has been willing to go to avoid any Egyptian scenario and to create, instead, a climate of consensus contrasting that of vendetta and gridlock that gripped the country during the last, disastrous, year of their rule.

Almost half the draft constitutional articles has been approved. They have already secured Tunisia as a civil state based on citizenship and the rule of law. The official religion is Islam, but nowhere is sharia mentioned as a source, or even an inspiration, of legislation. Instead, power is specifically said to flow from the will of the people, not any divine source.

Women have been guaranteed equal rights in two key articles, both of which could have been strengthened, but are nonetheless far-reaching. Takfir – accusations of apostasy – and other incitement to violence are banned.

Not only is freedom of religion guaranteed, so is freedom of conscience, which can only mean freedom not to have a religion at all. Freedom of thought and expression are guaranteed, and not subject to “prior censorship”.

The constitution is not completed, but as it now stands, it represents both the cutting edge of republican constitutionalism in the Arab world, and also a new willingness to compromise by an Islamist party dealing with a secular majority.

Ennahda is clearly evolving, but under duress. It was forced to resign, and made a calculated gamble that conciliation will be more productive in the long run than confrontation. Egypt is clearly the key object lesson in this calculation, and it is a wise one.

Tunisian secularists, too, are showing a greater willingness to work with each other and the country’s powerful labour movement, as well as with Ennahda, to achieve a consensus framework for the country’s political structure. What they’ve collectively come up with is hardly perfect, but in its contemporary regional context, it’s inspirational.

But the regional Brotherhood crisis is also giving rise to splinter groups. In Egypt, where the Brotherhood has been declared a “terrorist organisation” and membership punished by law, there have been a series of bombing and other attacks – some of these have been claimed by Sinai-based extremists (who may or may not be working in coordination with the Brotherhood) – and others that have not been claimed by anyone. The government blames all of them on Brotherhood elements.

Many observers anticipate the emergence of radicalised, violent groups from the Brotherhood’s disaffected and disillusioned membership. Some of these attacks in Egypt’s cities may be early precursors of this.

At the same time, several shadowy youth movements are purportedly emerging on the margins of the Egyptian Brotherhood. Some seem more belligerent, and even violent, in their attitudes. Others seem to blame their elders for rhetorical fixation on martyrdom, paranoia and confrontation, and wish to reach out to the broader public with a more optimistic message about social justice.

There are also persistent reports of dissatisfaction among Ennahda members, especially the youth, that their leadership has been too conciliatory. On the other extreme, the Brotherhood-affiliated party in Morocco has denied all links to the regional movement, and heaped praise on the King.

So what we appear to be witnessing is a scramble by Brotherhood-style Islamists to adapt to post-Morsi realities, most effectively and positively, at least for now, in Tunisia. Where Brotherhood parties are collapsing, the biggest winners appear to be the Salafists, who challenge them from their religious right, but have little hope of ever governing any Arab society.

Brotherhood leaders and members alike must now evaluate two primary models. Was the Egyptian party too inflexible? Or is the Tunisian party being too flexible, thereby requiring a more confrontational approach?

Can the Brotherhood even survive as a major ideological and political Arab player in the long run? Or will it eventually fragment into opposing camps of violent radicals, obscurantist traditionalists, and post-Islamist constitutionalists?

The emergence of these three competing trends seems the most likely scenario for what will then be remembered as a once powerful and influential, but passé, Muslim Brotherhood movement in the Arab world.

Hussein Ibish is a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, a columnist for Now Media and blogs at www.ibishblog.com

On Twitter: @ibishblog