Commentary Magazine


What Next for Egyptian Islamists?

Cairo has an outsized role in Islamic history. Alongside Baghdad and Damascus, it has always served as a cultural, intellectual, and often political capital for the Arab world. Thanks in large part to Al-Azhar University, perhaps the most prestigious center of Sunni learning in the Islamic world, it has also been a center for religious thought. In the modern era, it was home for a time to Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, an Iranian pan-Islamist thinker who called Cairo home, and later Muhammad Abduh, a nineteenth and early twentieth century Muslim reformer. In the twentieth century, Cairo was the home base of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement founded by schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna, which soon grew to become the preeminent Islamist movement challenging the established political order.  

The Muslim Brotherhood, seldom far beneath the surface, rose to prominence in the wake of the Arab Spring protests that led to President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. But the movement was hardly the only Islamist group to seek political power, nor was it necessarily a monolith, although Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi sought to run it as one.

Since the July 2013 coup, the Egyptian government has moved to delegitimize the Muslim Brotherhood, and drive its remnants underground, a policy which, quite frankly, I support. Still, it’s important to embark on any such policy with eyes wide open. While I believe the interim Egyptian government is, frankly, a better match for U.S. national security than Morsi’s government, and while I also believe Egypt is more likely to achieve a more democratic order from the current situation than from when the Muslim Brotherhood was in control, it would be foolish to consider the current Egyptian government democratic and fully committed to the rule of law. What goes on inside Egyptian prisons remains atrocious, and the Egyptian military remains as involved in the crony capitalist order as it was in the decades before the Arab Spring.

In assessing Egyptian Islamism in the wake of the coup, the Center for American Progress has just published an excellent new study that maps out the current state of Egypt’s Islamist movements. Based on a series of recent interviews, they depict a Brotherhood still in disarray amidst the new government’s crackdown:

These Brothers remain steadfast in the face of state repression. Their commitment to continued street mobilization is firm, and they help organize and fund the protests to bring pressure on the interim government. While they express concern over the growing tendency by some youth in their ranks to engage in violence, they are increasingly unlikely to condemn the use of violence by protestors considered to be acting in self-defense. But the impact of the crackdown is palpable. In speaking with members up the chain of command and across Cairo and Alexandria, differing opinions emerged on key issues and core challenges before the Brotherhood. While they are shoulder to shoulder in skirmishing with the security forces, their views diverge as they look back over Morsi’s tenure and forward to matters of politics and reconciliation. At times, this dissonance borders on incoherence and draws into question their ability to maintain unity of purpose.

Nor is there consensus about a way forward for those who have fled into exile:

Further complicating the group’s cohesiveness is the growing number of Brotherhood leaders and members outside Egypt that try to influence the actions and strategy of the group. Many of these leaders have sought shelter in Qatar and Turkey, while others have set up shop in London. The largely uncoordinated and seemingly haphazard efforts have ranged from dead-on-arrival calls to form a government in exile to more ambitious designs to take the group’s fight to the International Criminal Court whose governing Rome Statute was blocked from ratification by the group when it was in power.

While many young Egyptians gave the Brotherhood a shot but abandoned it when they saw the group’s rhetoric of democracy did not match the reality of its internal decision-making culture, other young Egyptians drew opposite conclusions, and determined that the problem was that the Brotherhood wasn’t hardcore enough:

These activists resent the senior Brotherhood leadership, whom they believe abandoned core Islamist principles, and are actively seeking to convince the rank and file of the necessity to resort to violence… These youth have come to reject the Egyptian state and believe that the country can progress only if the traditional centers of power—the military, the intelligence, the police, bureaucracy, and business networks—are taken apart rather than co-opted.

As valuable is the report’s survey of Egypt’s other Islamists: the Salafi Da’wa and the Nour Party, the Watan Party, as well as other Salafi splinter groups and factions.

While the Muslim Brotherhood seeks “to kill the state through a thousand cuts,” hoping that the new government’s brutal reaction will turn public opinion against it, the Salafi Da’wa has aligned itself with the state and against the Brotherhood. While this weakens the Brotherhood somewhat, it also suggests that the post-Brotherhood order will not be as secular as many in the West imagine. Whatever the tactical political maneuvering of their leaders, some within the Salafi Da’wa and Nour Party may ultimately put religion above politics. This might encourage further radicalization, especially among the youth who face the same problems as before the Arab Spring.

While I disagree with some of the report’s recommendations—promoting political dialogue sounds good, but in a battle of absolutist ideologies, it seldom does any good—“Fragmenting Under Pressure,” is probably the best platform from which to have a real debate about a pro-active rather than reactive U.S. policy toward Egypt, and is certainly worth a read not only by the Center for American Progress’s normal political allies on the left, but also by any serious political analyst on the right as well, for quality should never be defined by politics.

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