The phenomenon of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is a vital case study to build an understanding of Islamic fundamentalism.
While many have researched the MB’s history and politics, its performance in power has, for obvious reasons, been lacking. In this context, Alison Pargeter’s Return to the Shadows: The Muslim Brotherhood and An-Nahda since the Arab Spring (London: Saqi) is a welcome endeavour in understanding the MB’s politics after the Arab Spring.
This informative book begins by examining the uprising in Egypt and explores how the MB reluctantly joined the uprising. Its initial indecision can be attributed to the fact that the MB was always the preferred opposition and hence did not want to wreck the ship, Secondly, the MB feared that in the case of a defeat, it would be repressed by the regime. However, the mass sit-in at Tahrir Square drove a wedge between the reluctant leadership and the group’s young members. But, according to Pargeter: “Once the Brotherhood committed itself to the revolution, it became its major driving force”.
The wavering did not end with Hosni Mubarak stepping down on February 11, 2011. The MB, soon after Mubarak’s resignation, was keen to strike a deal with the military elite in a bid to restore the status quo instead of going the whole hog – and, hence, betraying the revolution. The military, in turn, wanted to seek the MB’s cooperation in order to “calm the streets”. The “marriage of convenience” between the MB and the military “cut off the revolution in its infancy” since it infused a new lease of life into the discredited institution of the army.
However, the leaders of the MB were intelligent enough to understand that placating the military’s top brass would not be sufficient and that the voters would also need to be given some assurances. From the outset, the MB tried to portray itself as ‘Islamist’ instead of fundamentalist. For instance, even during the Tahrir Square sit-in, the MB leadership advised its young members to wave Egyptian flag instead of a copy of the Holy Quran. Likewise, in its election manifesto and propaganda, the MB referred to Islamic values, it did not vow to implement sharia. Instead, the focus was on the welfare of the state and economic growth – without annoying the big businesses.
In short, everyone was promised something. More importantly, since it enjoyed deep social roots – owing to its charity networks and long years of organisational experience – the MB was confident it would win any elections. Hence, when election results made headlines in January 2012, the MB’s electoral front, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and allies won 47 percent votes and 235 seats. Their Salafi cousins, organised with the Al-Nour, bagged 120 seats. Together, in a house of 508, the fundamentalists had clinched 355 seats. However, after a few months, the MB’s candidate Mohammad Morsi managed to get only 24 percent votes during the first round of elections. Had he not faced Ahmed Shafiq, a remnant of the ancient regime, he could have lost election in the second round. In any case, bagging barely 52 percent votes, he emerged as Egypt’s first elected president on June 24, 2012.
Dramatically, on July 3, 2013, Morsi was removed by Gen Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and he is now in jail. On July 8, a mass MB demonstration in Cairo was drowned in blood, leaving almost 800 Morsi supporters dead. A counter-revolution, initially facilitated and assisted by the MB itself, was set into motion.
Meanwhile, in one year Morsi was able to isolate his government politically and socially to save his MB base. Not only did the MB prove inept in providing economic relief to the citizens, it also antagonised the military and political rivals as well as its allies. A reason for the MB’s isolation was the attempt to ikwanise (brotherise) the state and, to some extent, the military apparatus.
In contrast, An-Nahda’s exit in Tunisia was peaceful. It was voted out in 2014. However, An-Nahda’s rise to power and electoral victory in 2011 – winning 89 out of 217 constitutional assembly seats – and its performance at the head of the coalition government was not too different from the phenomenon of the MB.
In Libya, however, the situation was peculiar. The MB never had a considerable social base owing to the nature of the Qaddafi regime, which did not tolerate any political activity. Due to the prevalent Islamic practices, the MB’s wahhabi ideology did not find a significant audience. In fact, Libyan students studying in the West – won over by the MB branches abroad – provided the spine for the MB in Libya. It further discredited itself when it struck a deal with Saif al-Islam and a confident Qaddafi regime released the imprisoned MB activists in 2006.
When the Arab Spring arrived in Libya, the MB was irrelevant. However, thanks to Qatari and Turkish support and the MB’s international backing, it soon managed to secure for itself a new birth on the National Transitional Council (NTC). However, when elections were held in 2012, the MB managed to gain only 17 out of the 80 seats for political parties in a house of 200. In 2014, the MB along with other fundamentalist factions, did even poorly with 30 mandates in a house of 200. Since Libya almost collapsed as a state – and understandably Pargeter’s research does not explore the events that occurred beyond 2014 – the MB’s story in Libya remains largely unexplored.
However, while the MB’s exit in Egypt and Tunisia was seen by some elements as the beginning of the end for the fundamentalist forces, Pargeter justifiably warns: “To equate the Brotherhood’s fall with the end of political Islam…is premature at the very least”. Why? First, because political Islam is also “a social and religious force, making it impossible to dislodge with the same ease with which a president can be overthrown”. Second, “the underlying conditions in the region that gave birth to political Islam in the first place have not fundamentally altered, leaving ample space for political Islam to operate and evolve”. But, in her view, the Brotherhood has been dealt a critical blow while “political Islam is in crisis”.
One may agree about the MB’s dented position. But declaring ‘political Islam’ in crisis is a gross overstatement. In fact, Pargeter contradicts her own correct analysis by saying that the conditions which gave birth to political Islam have not been “fundamentally altered”.
The weakness of this otherwise well-researched book is the absence of a well-knit analysis. For instance, the book does not describe the conditions and spaces available to fundamentalism and her explanation for the MB’s downfall is largely unconvincing. In Pargeter’s view, the reason behind the MB’s failure – at least in the case of Egypt and Tunisia – was a “lack of vision”. This explanation is invoked ad infinitum in the book. In fact, a whole chapter is titled, ‘Brotherhood in Power: A Hollow Vision’.
The sources of this hollow vision are hinted at but not integrated into the overall analysis. For instance, she intermittently comments on Morsi’s failed economic policies, ‘power grab’, the MB’s philosophy which stresses on pious individuals (instead of structures) to change the system, and the inability to win political allies. But the focus remains on a lack of vision. In the case of Libya, though, her analysis is convincing since it does not hinge on the lack-of-vision thesis.
Lastly, but importantly, her research raises – even if by default – huge questions over fashionable descriptions of the Arab Spring – popularised by commentators like Hamid Dabashi – as a postmodern, post-ideological and networked revolution. Therefore, the book is an important contribution to the study of the Middle East merely because of its informative aspects.
The writer is a freelance