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Brothers in arms, and in power

July 31, 2012

LONDON: The past never disappears in the Middle East. It only temporarily fades, and then returns with a vengeance. That is certainly the case with the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement which always failed to win power but is now the biggest beneficiary from the Arab Spring revolutions.

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, recently elected to helm the region's most populous nation, belongs to the Brotherhood. So do the coalition parties in Tunisia. And, should the revolt in Syria end with President Bashar al-Assad's overthrow, the Muslim Brotherhood is certain to step in.

But who are these 'brothers' and what will they do with their newly acquired powers? No clear answers can be provided, for the Middle East's oldest political movement remains an enigma. And no Brotherhood leader is in any rush to dispel the mystery either.

Founded in 1928 by school teacher Hassan al-Banna as the Society of the Muslim Brothers and usually referred to by its simple Arabic abbreviation of 'Ikhwan', the organisation's behaviour was always contradictory. Its emblem is the Quran and the sword, although one or the other is emphasised at different times. Its ideology is pan-Arabic, but in practice, the Brotherhood's preoccupation was always Egypt.

And for a movement which spent almost a century dreaming about power, the Brotherhood remains curiously reticent about grabbing it: It enjoys its clandestine image, and prefers to participate in elections through proxies.

But the biggest problem is the absence of a clear ideology. Al-Banna was neither a scholar nor intellectual, as he proudly reminded his followers: "I might not have left a lot of books with you but my job is to write men rather than to write books," he said towards the end of his life. And, in over six decades that followed al-Banna's death, the Brotherhood produced no ideologue.

But, far from being a weakness, this has always been the movement's political strength, for it allowed it to be all things to all people. To a younger generation, the Brotherhood promises a fairer society, one in which a profit motive will no longer be the driving force. To older people, it promises the revival of traditional values as an antidote to the forces of modernisation. Revolution and restoration, rolled into one.

Historically, the Brotherhood was the Middle East's perennial loser. The pan-Arabism of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, the socialism of the Baath party, which until recently ruled Iraq and continues to rule Syria, or the old-fashioned monarchical rule of the Arab peninsula proved much more potent, shaping the Middle East as we know it today. And, more recently, extremist groups such as Al Qaeda have attracted far more attention from Arab youth than the middle-aged 'brothers' who languished in jail for decades.

However, the Ikhwan may be the political equivalent of a long-distance runner who lets all other competitors overtake, only to win the race with a last-minute sprint. The very fact that it never had to exercise real power means that it is untainted by the failures of all previous Arab regimes. But its biggest advantage is that despite its claim to represent a uniquely Arab phenomenon, the Brotherhood's organisation resembles that of a typical western political movement.

Ikhwan leaders are professionals — doctors, dentists and architects — and some, such as Egyptian President Mursi, are western-educated.

This gives them the kind of respectability few other Arab movements enjoy. And because the movement had to survive decades of persecution, it has developed its own survival instincts — anywhere it’s thrown, it lands on its feet, just like a cat.

The Brotherhood claims that it supports a pluralistic democracy in Egypt and has no intention to use violence. Still, the movement has a history of creating paramilitary militias which did use force; After all, it was the assassination of an Egyptian prime minister which led to the violent death of al-Banna, the Brotherhood's founder, in February 1948. And it was a subsequent attempt to assassinate Egyptian president Nasser which led to the Brotherhood's brutal suppression in October 1954.

The reality is that the Brotherhood resorted to violence when this seemed expedient. And although all its leaders denounced bloodshed, they faced challenges from rank-and-file members who wanted to use force.

The problem is not only whether the Brotherhood is serious about its current promises to respect individual freedoms — there is also a question mark over the organisation's ability to deliver on its promises.

The manner by which the Brotherhood came to power in Egypt only raises further questions about the movement's objectives. In the early stages of the transition, it claimed not to be interested in the Egyptian presidency, but only in having parliamentary representation. Yet, having scored an electoral triumph in Parliament, it then contested the presidency.

The 'now you see it, now you don't' game continues. President Mursi accepted power on the understanding that new elections for Parliament will take place. Yet days after entering the presidential palace, he convened the old Parliament into session.

Question marks also remain over Mursi's broader Middle Eastern policies. Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states fear the Brotherhood because the movement implicitly challenges the legitimacy of monarchies. Needing Gulf investment in the Egyptian economy, Mursi swallowed his pride and chose Saudi Arabia for his first foreign trip. But this symbolic act did little to dispel the Arab monarchies' fears: "The Gulf is a red line, it's a red line not only to Iran, but also to the Muslim Brotherhood," warned General Dahi Khalfan Tamim, the Dubai police chief, last week. "We love our leaders and rulers because they came from within our families and ancestors," he added, in a clear attempt to dismiss the Brotherhood as foreign to the Gulf.

For the moment, the Egyptian Brotherhood has refrained from influencing its franchise movements in other countries. There is no evidence, for instance, of any pressure on the Tunisian coalition government, where Brotherhood members predominate. And interestingly, the Brotherhood recently suffered a crushing electoral defeat in Libya. A secular party started by Mahmoud Jibril, a senior official in the deposed Qadhafi government, won power instead.

But the key challenges for the Brotherhood are still to come, both at home and abroad. Domestically, the movement which spent almost a century promising prosperity is now finally called upon to deliver. And in Syria, where the Brotherhood was always strong, it may soon get the whiff of power.

The United States and other western governments were right to engage with the Brotherhood, in the hope that early engagement would lead to greater moderation.

Yet the truth is that not even the Brotherhood's top leadership knows where the movement is currently going, since the organisation is deeply divided between hardliners and moderates, and confronts a challenge from Salafists, who have a more extreme religious agenda.

One conclusion, however, is evident to all: The Brotherhood's slogan of 'Islam is the Solution' may have been catchy in electoral terms, but offers no guidance for the daily management of a nation.

By arrangement with The Straits Times/ANN