Banning the Brotherhood won’t make it go away
The Brotherhood’s own conduct in power in Egypt led to the single most damaging impact upon its popularity
During the tenure of Mohammad Mursi’s presidency in Egypt, there were some supporters of Islamism who expressed grave concerns about the future of the Islamist project regionally and globally. These particular concerns were not about the possibility of a military intervention that would remove Mursi from office. Rather, the concerns were about the exposing of intellectual bankruptcy within the parent movement of modern, mainstream, Islamism. Those concerns have now been put to one side –the Brotherhood in particular, and Islamism as a whole, have other more immediate concerns to deal with. But regardless of those concerns, neither the Brotherhood, nor Islamism, is likely to disappear anytime soon.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood distinguished itself in the 20th century as being the mainstream of political Islamism, effecting the production of other Islamist movements elsewhere in the Arab world and beyond. It wasn’t quite religiously mainstream – ideologically, it generally flowed from something of an irregular approach to Islamic teachings – but it wasn’t based on a takfiri, radical method either.
When that type of Islamism finally, after so many years in opposition and confrontation with the powers that be, found its opportunity to engage with the state and actually govern, the grand edifice of “political Islamism” was put to the test. It was found wanting – the “Renaissance Project” of the Brotherhood, which was meant to be the “grand idea” of the organization for governance, quickly found itself being derided for its superficiality. The Brotherhood had decided to try to govern with an exclusivism that was always going to be difficult in a country as diverse as Egypt – but considering the organization had been on the sidelines of governance for so long, any type of grand political project it suggested was liable to be based more on slogans, and less on proven policies.
The Brotherhood didn’t lose power by tucking their tails between their proverbial legs, and admitting defeat against a superior political forceH.A. Hellyer
As this became more and more clear, many observers, even those sympathetic to the Brotherhood, began to wonder – was this the twilight of the movement? Was the movement to be exposed as something akin to a balloon decorated with emotive catchphrases, only to be popped by the pin of public opinion? Under Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood received much sympathy as the underdog – but under Mursi, the organization was the party of power. In power, its incompetency, sectarianism, and willingness to entertain vigilantism, meant that public opinion gradually turned against it. If the movement had failed to deliver, followed by a crushing defeat in an open and free election, the Brotherhood’s failure would have reverberated.
That, of course, only partially happened. According to reliable opinion polls such as those released by Gallup and others, a huge swathe of the Egyptian public did turn against the Brotherhood. Its popularity, and Mursi’s, plummeted during his year in power. The Brotherhood began Egypt’s revolution seeing around 12 to 15 percent of the Egyptian public express confidence in it, and saw that number rise to around two thirds, a little over a year later after its political party won a plurality in parliament. From that point, confidence began to decrease – and it had crashed by May 2013 with figures in the teens.
Fall from grace
But the Brotherhood didn’t lose power by tucking their tails between their proverbial legs, and admitting defeat against a superior political force. A military leadership removed Mursi, after widespread opposition to him and the Brotherhood managed to bring out large numbers of protesters demanding early presidential elections. The Brotherhood’s intellectual bankruptcy was not exposed via a superior candidate trouncing Mursi in such elections, or a grander political party thrashing the Brotherhood at the polls.
If the “Renaissance Project” was in trouble under Mursi’s era, because it was actually being tried (and found wanting), it ceased to be in that kind of spotlight after Mursi was removed. Indeed, privately, many Brotherhood leaders and supporters admitted that being forced back to the sidelines was a far more familiar – and comfortable – space, as compared to being in the corridors of power responsible for governance.
Nor has the crushing crackdown against the Brotherhood, particularly in Egypt, led to the Brotherhood being challenged on their ideas. The intense violence, instrumentalized by the state against the Brotherhood and its supporters, has ensured that any rethinking process shall be delayed indefinitely. That is true for members, or supporters of the Brotherhood in Egypt – but it is also true for supporters much further afield. If in early 2013, such supporters might have had doubts about the Brotherhood, after Mursi’s ouster and the violent onslaught against the Brotherhood by the state, many are now whitewashing Mursi’s tenure in office. The dynamic has changed.
The Brotherhood was designated a terrorist organization in Egypt in December – it’s now been declared as such elsewhere in the Arab world, in places like Saudi Arabia and Mauritania. Increasingly, the Brotherhood finds itself being driven underground – not simply in Egypt, but across the region. The idea, one assumes, is to ensure that the Brotherhood ceases to be of political consequence in those countries, and more generally in the Arab world.
Indeed, the decision may have repercussions in non-Arab, and even non-Muslim, countries where the Brotherhood has sympathizers and supporters. One imagines that forces on the right and far-right in European democracies and elsewhere may treat this as an opportunity to increase pressure upon their own governments to increase restrictions on domestic Brotherhood affiliates.
But the banning of movements with grassroots support does not have an unproblematic history. Banning them seldom makes them disappear or go away – it applies pressure upon them, to be sure. But they do not shrivel up as the result of bans. They disappear when their supporters desert them – and bans do not always lead to that. Sometimes, they may even stimulate people to support them, for a while.
The Brotherhood’s own conduct in power in Egypt led to the single most damaging impact upon its popularity in its entire history. What is left of that popular support may not seem like much in comparison – but it is still significant, and it is not going away just because of a ban.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.
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