It took the Muslim Brotherhood eighty-five years to reach the pinnacle of its power in Egypt—culminating in the inauguration last year of one its members, Mohamed Morsi, as the country’s first elected president—only for the group to lose it all twelve months later.
After a wave of popular anger led to an unprecedented mass mobilization on June 30, opening the door for Morsi’s sudden overthrow in a military coup, the Brotherhood went from controlling the presidency, the legislature and the cabinet to finding itself thrust out of office, its members protesting in the streets and hounded by security forces.
This was neither predicted nor preordained. Although the Brotherhood faced immediate political opposition upon winning at the ballot box, along with a declining economy and stiff resistance within the judiciary and state bureaucracy, critics largely blame the organization’s precipitous fall on its unilateral decision-making and an exclusionary style of governance—marked by hubris and a winner-take-all logic—that left it politically alienated, engendering open hostility from most sectors of Egyptian society.
“This happened because of the terrible mistakes that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood made over the past year,” says Khalil al-Anani, a scholar of Middle East politics and Islamist movements at Durham University, and who was in touch with Brotherhood leaders in the days leading up to June 30. “They were disconnected from reality and underestimated what has happening in the street. They did not have a Plan B and gave no room for any political solution but for the military to intervene and end the deadlock.”
The Rise of a Conservative Wing
The Brotherhood’s decision-making authority is centralized and concentrated in the upper ranks of the organization, whose rigid hierarchy is marked by discipline and a strong tradition of deference to superiors. With its “listen and obey” credo, the upper echelons of the Brotherhood’s hierarchical pyramid came to be dominated over the last decade by a staunchly conservative wing of the organization, which asserted control over the group’s key decision making bodies, the sixteen-member Guidance Bureau and the 110-member Shura Council.
The ascendancy of the conservatives came in the wake of elections in 2005, which saw the Brotherhood win an unprecedented fifth of the country’s parliamentary seats—only to be rewarded with a crackdown by the Mubarak regime, including increased arrests, harassment and a constitutional amendment designed to prevent further electoral participation. This was successfully exploited by the groups’s conservative wing, which, Anani explains, “used to benefit from oppression in order to take control and dominate the movement.”
The growing hard-line trend within the movement was manifested in the political platform the Brotherhood produced in 2007 that sparked criticism for barring women and non-Muslim men from running for president. More controversially, it also called for a government structure that would include the establishment of a council of elected senior religious scholars—effectively giving governance power to an extra-constitutional entity.