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.
The same conservative bloc would cement its control of the organization in 2009, when the Brotherhood held internal elections for seats in the Guidance Bureau. It edged out more reformist members, including such notable figures as Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Deputy General Guide Mohamed Habib, who publicly cast doubt on the legitimacy of the poll and eventually left the group.
After the 2011 overthrow of Mubarak, the Brotherhood went from being a banned and repressed movement to the most powerful political force in Egyptian politics, armed with a nationwide grassroots presence, a well-oiled electoral machine and established patronage networks. And it was the conservative wing that was in control to pave the group’s new path to power.
The Brotherhood initially vowed, as it had for years, “participation, not domination” in the political process after the revolution, signaling its limited political ambitions. It pledged, for example, to target only a third of seats in parliament. But during the military-led transitional period following Mubarak’s ouster, the Brotherhood came under heavy criticism for going back on these promises. When elections came in November 2011, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (the group’s political arm) entered nearly all of the electoral races, winning a plurality of seats, with 46 percent of the People’s Assembly.
But it was the Brotherhood’s decision, in late March 2012, to field a presidential candidate that proved far more controversial. It put forth its top strategist and financier, Khairat al-Shater, a multimillionaire businessman known as “The Engineer” to his friends, who served as deputy to the General Guide. Imprisoned for twelve years under Mubarak, he had continued to run the Brotherhood from his jail cell. “Khairat Al-Shater is the most powerful person in the Guidance Council and he controls the political party,” says a prominent Brotherhood member.
Senior Brotherhood leaders, including Shater himself, had repeatedly pledged that the group would not seek the presidency, going so far as to expel another member, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (the reformist who failed to win a seat at the Guidance Bureau in 2009), when he declared his candidacy. The choice to nominate Shater was deeply contested within the Brotherhood itself. The group’s Shura Council met at least three times before coming to a decision on the matter, in a split vote of 56 to 52. “Khairat al-Shater and his trust network sort of dominated,” says Mona El-Ghobashy, a professor of political science at Barnard College who studies the Brotherhood. “They’re the ones who crucially steamrolled the organization into the decision to run for presidential election.”
Today, the Brotherhood defends its decision to field a candidate by pointing to the military’s refusal at the time to allow the newly elected parliament to name a prime minister and form a government.
“We realized the only way to get into executive power to maintain the democratic process was for us to field a candidate,” says Amr Darrag, a senior Brotherhood member and secretary general of the constituent assembly that drafted the 2012 Constitution who most recently served as minister of planning and international cooperation. “My personal opinion is that it was the right decision to take at that time.”
Shater would eventually be disqualified from running for office by the presidential election commission due to his prior criminal convictions, thrusting the group’s less charismatic backup candidate, Mohamed Morsi, into the limelight. On July 1, the day after the popular uprising against Morsi, the military issued a forty-eight-hour deadline for the political crisis to be resolved. According to state-run daily Al-Ahram, the Guidance Bureau met the same day and considered holding a national referendum on Morsi’s presidency. It was Shater who strongly opposed the idea, seeing it as a potential defeat from which the Brotherhood would not recover for fifty years.
“They are conservative in terms of their ideological views and religious understanding,” says Anani, the Durham University scholar, of the hardliners within the Brotherhood. “But also they don’t believe much in reaching out to the opposition genuinely and realistically.” He adds, “They were arrogant, they had a lot of misperceptions and a lot of miscalculation. I think this was one of the underlying factors behind the removal of Morsi.”
“We are ready to die”
In Cairo, the sit-in at the Rabaa el-Adeweya mosque in the eastern neighborhood of Nasr City has taken on the feel of a permanent encampment, complete with hundreds of tents, several field hospitals, a media center and a commandeered satellite broadcast truck. From the main stage, pro-Morsi speakers vow to stay until their demands are met. Tens of thousands of supporters of the ousted president endure the summer heat while fasting from sunrise to sunset to observe the holy month of Ramadan.
At night, the crowds swell and Morsi supporters have taken to marching through neighborhoods across the capital, at times blocking major thoroughfares and sparking fierce clashes with local residents and security forces.
“If you look at the people who are protesting right now in the streets—millions of people—it is getting larger and larger everyday,” Darrag says. “I believe this is going to be spreading and increasing until those who took over realize that it is impossible to run the country this way and the only way for stability is to restore democracy.”
The Brotherhood leadership has repeatedly insisted the military’s intervention be reversed and the ousted president reinstated as a precondition for negotiations or participation in the political process. Yet by most accounts, the reinstatement of Morsi, who has been held incommunicado without charge since July 3, is a long shot.
Analysts say the call for continued street protests and the president’s return maintain the group’s unity and cohesiveness, as well as potentially strengthening their hand at the negotiating table.
“The Brotherhood is caught between a rock and a hard place,” says Anani. “On the one hand, they know that Morsi cannot be reinstated. On the other hand they cannot stop calling for this because they might face a lot of discontent and dissent within the movement itself over who should be accountable for what happened and what led to the removal of Morsi after only one year.”
While the group has repeatedly denied it is involved in any talks with the military, Brotherhood sources say senior member Mohamed Ali Bishr—a former minister under Morsi—has had direct meetings.
Meanwhile, the country’s military-backed interim leaders have moved quickly to assert their legitimacy, naming an interim president, a thirty-four-member government that includes no Islamists, and announcing plans to amend the constitution followed by parliamentary and presidential elections.
The military has shown no signs of backing down. Instead, security forces have initiated a crackdown on the Brotherhood, arresting hundreds, including the top leadership, freezing their assets, shutting down sympathetic TV channels and killing dozens of their supporters in clashes outside the Republican Guard headquarters. The situation has been described as the most severe crisis for the Brotherhood since 1954, when Gamal Abdel Nasser’s military regime arrested thousands of members, sending them to desert internment camps, into exile or to execution.
“The military is really going out full force to give them a body blow,” El-Ghobashy says. “What has persistently happened in the Brotherhood’s history is that they rally around and dig in and increase their solidarity so that will forestall change within the organization if there’s heavy repression.”
The coming days may prove to be pivotal in shaping the future of the Muslim Brotherhood, both within the organization and the broader Egyptian body politic. For now, they are choosing to remain defiant and in the streets, as the army— their historical adversary—backs them into a corner.
“I feel like they aren’t treating Morsi and the Islamic current as citizens,” says Ihab El-Sayed, 36, who traveled from Mahalla, an industrial town on the Nile Delta, to take part in the Rabaa sit-in. His brother, 31 year-old Salah, was shot dead on July 8, one of at least fifty-three Morsi supporters killed outside the Republican Guard headquarters in one of the bloodiest days since the fall of Mubarak. “Whatever they do, kill us, imprison us, there is no president other than Morsi. We are ready to die.”