Egypt's Islamists do not conform to any single Brotherhood
On Saturday, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood held their most open internal elections to date, selecting three new executive board members and demonstrating a newfound promise of democratic transparency. As Egypt's Islamists have increasingly asserted their political power, the elections were meant to show that they will wield that power within a democratic framework. Nevertheless, many Egyptians are nervous that their country could be headed down an ultra-conservative, even reactionary, path.
Such alarmism has been a recurrent feature of the many mood swings of revolutionary Egypt. For decades, the Mubarak regime cried wolf about the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and most organised Islamist group in the country. It was either the regime or the Brotherhood, it argued, and this convinced many, ranging from the wealthy elite to foreign partners.
The Brotherhood were paradoxically both repressed and nurtured. In many ways, they conducted a kind of asymmetric cohabitation with the regime, in which the aim was not to gain control of government but rather to win influence over an authoritarian structure that seemed unbreakable.
This was one reason that while many Brotherhood members and other Islamists participated as individuals in the January uprising against Hosni Mubarak and his cronies, the Brotherhood did not back the uprising as a group. Many revolutionaries rejected Mr Mubarak's early attempts at a compromise solution that would have placed his long-time intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, as his anointed successor, but Brotherhood leaders (and many liberal and leftist ones too) rushed to the negotiating table. And it is why the post-revolution Brotherhood has for the most part embarked on a strategy of collaboration with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that now rules Egypt.
Mr Mubarak's overthrow has laid bare these strategies, and also exposed many of the Brotherhood's weaknesses. Dissenting members of the group have gained unprecedented public visibility, with senior figures rebelling against the leadership's orders not to contest the presidency or form political parties separate from the official Freedom and Justice Party. It has also highlighted that the strength of the Brotherhood in an autocratic context - that it is highly structured and cultivates quality cadres, with an emphasis on top-down loyalty - has its downside in the current highly volatile political environment.
One of the more remarkable phenomena in Egyptian politics today is not the legitimisation of the Muslim Brotherhood, but the sudden emergence of non-Brotherhood Islamists on the political scene. Some might be described as liberal or even leftist Islamists - in other words, moderate conservatives akin to European Christian Democrats or Turkey's AKP. This trend also exists in some other, nominally secular, parties and for the most part does not diverge much from a longstanding Egyptian political tradition of conservatism tempered by a concern for the country's sectarian makeup (some 10 to 15 per cent of the population is Christian).
But for the most part, non-Brotherhood Islamists are grouped together under the Salafist label. The Salafists vastly outnumber the Brotherhood. They are ideologically diverse, ranging from traditionalists to utter reactionaries. Unlike the Brotherhood, which has not had any top-notch ideologues or thinkers since the early 1970s, Salafists have a vibrant literature, and many intellectual leaders and influential preachers. Indeed, many Brotherhood members are ideologically close to the Salafist current, even if they have chosen to be part of an organisation that many Salafists disdain.
When recent public opinion polls showed that the Muslim Brotherhood had the support of less than 20 per cent of Egyptians, this probably missed a wider subset of Egyptians who may not support the Brotherhood but would nonetheless describe themselves as Islamists. In fact, the upcoming parliamentary elections are likely to return a larger Islamist political presence (albeit not necessarily an Islamist majority), but one divided among various groups.
This makes the situation quite different from that in Algeria in 1992, where a single party, the FIS, was poised to win elections when the military, backed by the non-Islamist political elite, staged a coup and cancelled the poll. Egypt's Islamists will probably form the largest ideological bloc in parliament, but not necessarily the largest voting bloc. This is because some of them may prefer entering into a political alliance with centrist secular parties (as the Muslim Brotherhood and some others are already working towards) rather than forming a more controversial hard-right alliance. Moreover, as Egypt's political system is still strongly presidential, an Islamist-dominated parliament may not immediately translate into policy changes.
Those who now worry about an Islamist turn in Egypt must remember this, as well as the reality that recent Islamist protests do not tell us much about the many Egyptians who have not participated in protests since the revolution - whether secular or Islamist-led. The most exciting thing about Egypt's current volatile politics, in fact, may be this sense of heading into the unknown. Elections will be a first step at determining a truer political map of the country than the "us-or-them" picture that the Mubarak regime tried to sell for 30 years. After all, it is worth remembering that in the end, those Egyptians who took to the streets simply no longer bought it.
Issandr El Amrani is an independent Cairo-based journalist and commentator. He blogs at www.arabist.net
Updated: August 8, 2011 04:00 AM