Esther Walker is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.
Until the military coup in the Summer of 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood was considered to be the biggest winner of the Arab Revolution of 2011, which ended the 30-year regime of President Hosni Mubarak. 20 years have passed since the Arab Revolution, and it is worth looking back at how the power of these winners declined in an abrupt manner.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has been a highly influential force driving political movement in the modern Middle East. Founded by religious scholar Hassan al Banna in 1928, as a pan-Islamic political and social movement with the goals of reinstating Sharia law as the legal system to control state affairs and of liberating of Arab countries from foreign imperialism. It also emphasises Dawa: Islamic outreach through the use of charity. It’s active and consistent defence of Arab national causes (a Palestinian state, challenging British imperialism and a presence in the Suez Canal) earned the movement popular respect and legitimacy throughout the Islamic World and beyond. The Brotherhood was, however, viewed with suspicion and hostility by the Egyptian political elite due to their destabilising use of violence. This violence would result in periodic crackdowns, the imprisonment of members of the Brotherhood and, ultimately, a total ban of the organisation under Presidents Nasser and Mubarak. Nonetheless, they continued to operate albeit illegally garnering significant domestic support.
The protests which became collectively known as the Arab Spring gave rise to the success of the Muslim Brotherhood outright. The trigger was when 26 year old Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, infamously set himself on fire in December 2010. Such act of despair galvanised Tunisian public anger against their autocratic government and set off a wave of demonstrations in Tunisia which were then widely documented and shared on social media. These evolved into the Arab Spring, spreading the desire for change and democracy across the Arab world and challenging some of the region’s entrenched authoritarian governments. Major protests erupted in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, and others against their dictatorial regimes, whose corruption, oppression, and wide-spread mismanagement had held the Middle East hostage to low living standards and desolation for decades.
The impact of the Arab Spring on the shape of Egyptian politics was not only that long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down from government in 2011 after nearly 30 years in power, but also that the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) was allowed to openly participate in the resulting elections. This was a turning point in the way the Brotherhood was participating in politics. Despite emphasising limited political ambition under the slogan of “participation, not domination”, the FJP emerged as the largest single party with 47% of the seats. Although Egyptians were given hope of a democracy when their first democratic elections were held, the outcome of this election, and the outcome of the Arab Spring, were clear a victories for the Brotherhood.
The ideology of the Brotherhood, namely Political Islam, was expected to spread throughout the region following the collapse of veteran autocracies, yet in a matter of months the Brotherhood lost power.
Egyptians became disillusioned with the ideology of the Brotherhood due to its continued incompetency. The Brotherhood also engaged in repression of civil society, Christians, the rights of women, and freedom of expression as well as making an attempt to introduce an unpopular Islamic constitution. As such, Political Islam rapidly lost its influence. One explanation for these events is that the leadership of the FJP was built on the basis of loyalty rather than expertise. Morsi, the first president representing the FJP was chosen due to his closeness to El Shater (who was disqualified from running in the election) and his loyalty and commitment to the movement, regardless of his lack of political experience. President Morsi’s cabinet was composed of a small group of trusted, long-time Brothers nominated on the basis of their dedication to Islam. For example Hatem Abdel Latif was selected as Transport Minister despite having no former governmental experience.
The flawed system of candidate selection is demonstrated if we examine how these inexperienced leaders handled the inherited political and economic situation which was on the verge of collapse. 40% of the Egyptian population lived in poverty at the time of Morsi’s election. The Egyptian currency plummeted, causing significant inflation, whilst crime rates soared and there were frequent electricity blackouts and gas shortages across Egypt. Cairo was indebted billions to international energy companies due to unpaid utility bills. Morsi was impulsive in forming government policy, in the space of one evening, he abruptly announced a tax increase on basic goods causing mass panic and then, later, cancelled it. This encapsulates the shambolic nature of the administration. Morsi disastrous economic policy ruined prospects of future loans from the IMF. Such incompetency led to decreased financial support from Gulf states who deemed the Brotherhood a liability to their monarchies.
Since the military coup of 2013, led by the then Commander of the armed forces Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi and the consequential successful ousting of the Brotherhood, President Sisi has adopted severely repressive measures aimed at destroying the Brotherhood. These include banning the FJP once more, and designating the movement a terrorist organisation. Sisi’s narrative directly links the Brotherhood to involvement in violence in an attempt to prove that the movement serves as a conveyor belt for radicalism. The vast majority of the Brotherhood’s senior leadership has since been exiled, incarcerated, or killed. Sisi attempted to globally isolate and obliterate the public presence of the Brotherhood by encouraging the international community to also designate it as a terrorist organisation. By enforcing this agenda, Sisi has shuttered over 500 charities and NGO’s affiliated with the Brotherhood. Yet, the state has failed to replace these or intervene itself in effort to alleviate the suffering of its poorest citizens who would benefit from such help. Little has been done to improve the lot of millions of impoverished Egyptians. This fuels antipathy towards his administration and leaves a vacuum that the Brotherhood could come back to fill as Egyptians become disillusioned by Sisi’s secular project.
The Muslim Brotherhood has suffered blows repeatedly in the intervening years between the Arab Spring and the present, and for now has next to no real power, That said, it is not expected that Political Islam will vanish indefinitely. The Brotherhood’s near 100-year presence in Egypt has resulted in it being a key player in Egyptian society and politics – becoming the de facto opposition party challenging the secular alternative and it will not disappear from Egypt entirely. The Brotherhood has survived previous rounds of legal prohibitions, repressions and crackdowns and it is just a matter of time before volatile power dynamics are affected enabling the organisation to rise again.