Egypt’s atrophy could revive the Brotherhood

Apr 2, 2024
Paris, France - October 28, 2016: People protesting at Trocadero near the Eiffel Tower in Paris against Abdel Fattah el-Sisi government in Egypt. They hang flags from Rabia muslim brotherhood. Image: Alamy/ Guillaume Louyot/Alamy Live News

The unprecedented political, economic, and social crises in Egypt may trigger a resurgence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has historically filled gaps the state cannot meet.

Republished from The Cradle, March 19, 2024

On the morning of 4 March, the State Security Criminal Court in Egypt sentenced the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide Mohammed Badie to death, along with seven of the outlawed group’s leaders (Mahmoud Ezzat, Mohamed el-Beltagy, Amr Zaki, Osama Yassin, Safwa Hegazy, Assem Abdel Maged, and Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud) for organising acts of violence eleven years ago in the so-called ‘Platform Events’ case.

The case traces back to 2013, days after the Egyptian military ousted the late Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Mursi in a Saudi–UAE-backed coup.

Technically, this ruling marked 80-year-old Badie’s third encounter with a death sentence following the infamous “Rabaa Operations Room” case in 2015.

Yet, beyond notions of ‘justice,’ a deeper narrative unfurls – one laden with political gravitas. The court’s ruling wasn’t solely about holding individuals accountable for past transgressions; it was a strategic move by the Egyptian state.

Ticking time bomb

The government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is fearful of the impending social upheaval anticipated as a result of the state’s faltering economy, flawed fiscal policies, decline in Arab world clout, and Egypt’s impotence in the face of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Gaza – all ingredients for a potential powder keg primed to detonate.

Commentators suggest the next explosion could be of an unprecedented scale, eclipsing the Bread Intifada of 1977 and the 25 January revolution of 2011.

He recalled the role of the Brotherhood in the 1948 War, and then the effects of the Nakba on Egypt and the policies of the state, aimed at eradicating the popular Islamic social and political movement since the fifties:

We don’t care if we are sentenced to death and imprisonment. Palestine is our first cause and the cause of the Arab and Islamic nation. Mr Judge, this is the root of the case. We are imprisoned until the deal of the century is completed.

Regardless of the accuracy of Badie’s supra-temporal statement, it remains undeniable that the events unfolding in Palestine today are likely to cast a shadow on Cairo in the coming years, depending on which way the Egyptian authorities approach Gaza. The potent repercussions of a wrong move weigh heavily on Egypt’s authorities.

State v Religion

In this context, it is worth reflecting on Roger Caillois’ discussion in “Man and the Sacred” on the disparity between the state’s temporal perspective and the religious perception of time.

A state typically adheres to an objective, temporal, and often linear vision, whereas religious frameworks usually embrace a “supra-temporal” perspective intertwined with a historical understanding – in which, given time, popular struggles will eventually outmaneuver a failed authority.

While the state endeavors to regulate movement and time, manifesting its authority through institutions such as courts and prisons, Islamists engage in a different arena. They confront the state in streets, alleys, pulpits, and prisons, focusing strategically on the temporal dimension – that is, the “timelessness” of the struggle.

Indeed, understanding the political standoff between Cairo and the Muslim Brotherhood necessitates a deep dive into their historical relationship.

From the fraught interactions of the thirties to the dominance of the fifties, followed by a reluctant coexistence in the seventies, then the emergence of the Muslim ‘box’ during the Arab Spring, and subsequently the era of “post-Islamism” (as described by Iranian–American sociologist Asef Bayat), the Brotherhood has gone through various phases in a zero-sum game with the state.

This relationship is underpinned by foundational features deeply ingrained in Egyptian political life, which neither the state bureaucracy can overcome nor the Brotherhood can fully assimilate.

Furthermore, the evolution of the Egyptian state, with its centralised control system spanning over six millennia, has moved through various pivotal periods, each contributing to the unique crises that continue to shape the country’s political scene.

The Brotherhood throughout the ages

From a historical perspective, the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood can be understood as a civil response to state violence inflicted upon society. In other words, the secular–Islamic tension in Egypt is not merely a cultural clash but rather a consequence of the state’s violent encroachment upon society’s symbolic capital.

It is also important to view the Muslim Brotherhood primarily as a social movement rather than a political one, akin to its offshoots, Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which also trace their roots to grassroots social activism.

During Egypt’s monarchial period, the Brotherhood aligned closely with figures such as Fathi Radwan, Aziz al-Masri, and Muhammad Saleh Harb in opposing Saad Zaghloul and the nationalist, liberal Wafd Party. However, following the monarchy’s demise, the Brotherhood found itself on opposite sides.

In the turbulent sixties, controversial figures like Sayyid Qutb faced persecution, while Hassan al-Hudaybi, the Brotherhood’s former supreme guide, emphasized their role as “preachers, not judges.”

During Anwar Sadat’s presidency in the seventies, the Brotherhood oscillated between support and opposition, and in the eighties, it condemned his assassination by militant offshoot al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya.

This helps explain the fluctuating relationship between the state and the Brotherhood throughout modern Egyptian history.

A blast from the past

The ‘return’ of the Brotherhood, at least to the public’s attention, raises questions about what the Egyptian state wants from society. The government’s costly trophy ‘development-without-demand’ projects – erecting entirely new cities, including a capital city – and the random ‘renaissance funds’ that boomed under Sisi are yet to benefit ordinary Egyptians or resolve Egypt’s long standing economic and national challenges.

Despite the artificial boom attributed to these ego projects, Egypt languishes at the bottom of Arab states in education quality, ranking 139th globally in 2023, and 153rd in health security, as corruption continues to plague its institutions, for which it ranks 130th.

Arguably, these ‘renaissance’ projects in Egypt today do little more than enrich a financial oligarchy deeply entrenched in the corridors of power, who lack any vision for sustainable development.

While the Muslim Brotherhood may officially be banned, its historical role as a support system for the people during times when the state was either unwilling or unable to provide necessitates caution.

If the government fails to tread carefully in domestic affairs – particularly with the backdrop of Israel’s genocidal assault on Muslims right on Egypt’s border – the Brotherhood could re-emerge from the shadows, colliding head-on with the state once again.

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