The Muslim Brotherhoods: force of change and enemy of the imperialist west?
One year after the beginning of the revolutions, which are still ongoing, in the Middle East and North Africa, the victory of the elections by Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as in Morocco, have cooled a number of observers and supporters of the revolutionary processes in the region. They now speak of the “Islamist winter” following the “Arab spring”.
The Muslim Brotherhoods (MB) are the great winners of these elections in the various countries, Their success or their importance comes despite the fact these parties were not leading the popular movement in their countries and were less involved than other political forces or groups.
In Egypt, the MB, except the youth in opposition to the decision of the leadership, did not join the demonstration in the beginning of the revolution on the 25th of January. In Tunisia, Nahda members were only a small minority in the demonstrations and the strikes that led to the overthrow of Ben Ali.
What are the policies of the MB in their respective countries? Is the MB a political force encouraging change in their society and a challenge to imperialist powers and to neo liberal forces?
I would like to precise before starting this article that this analysis is focusing on a political party and/or movement, and not on a religion or a community. The MBs represent a movement and political parties and not the whole community of Muslims; just as in Europe the Christian Democrats represent a political party and not the whole community of Christians. In the same time we refuse the argument: “they are religious Muslim parties, therefore retrograde” as an analysis in any possible way. This is essentialism and discriminatory explanations close to people such as Bernard Lewis and Neo Conservatives in the USA, and is islamophobic. Our analysis is rooted in materialist elements and based on politics, nothing else.
Let’s answer these questions by looking firstly at Egypt
The MB has won 47% of the votes of the elections, in other words assuring 235 seats in the new People’s Assembly out of 498. The MB was the largest opposing party during Moubarak era and became the focus point to rally around for the opposition against the dictatorship. Under the Mubarak regime, the MB was formally banned but nevertheless tolerated. The begrudging toleration, however, did not save its members from frequent arrests and trials before exceptional courts. The group achieved its best election result in 2005 with independent candidates allied to it winning 20% of the seats. The government subsequently launched a crackdown on the MB, detaining hundreds of members, and instituted a number of legal “reforms” to make them illegal. During the fraud-ridden 2010 parliamentary elections, the government found pretexts to invalidate the candidacies of virtually all Muslim Brotherhood-linked independents.
In 2009, the organization decided nevertheless to retreat from national politics following the election of a particularly conservative group led by Muhammad Badie. They intended to focus their members on religious observance and community affairs. The Guide Badie declared at this period that the MBs would seek only gradual reform and would not confront Mubarak.
How to explain the success of the MBs in the legislative elections?
The electoral success of the MBs in the legislative elections is due to several reasons. The MBs draw significant support from Egypt’s poor and working class sector of the society, despite the fact that the leadership is mostly upper-middle-class.
The MBs was the only established parties with a large network of institutions and a big number of members to manage the transitory period after the Moubarak era in the eyes of many Egyptians. They considered the MBs as a guaranty for stability in a near future. The MBs was the most opposition important party in the past as we have seen above, contesting elections, organizing and dominating many professional associations, while engaging in a host of welfare activities such as supporting schools, clinics, hospitals and youth centers. The MB provided also services ranging from business start-up aid, legal advices and no interest loans. It created an important network of charitable institutions which brought the party large base of support among the lower and middle classes society, in a society lacking public services and which has virtually no welfare state.The uncorrupted image of the MBs was also an important element in the success of the MBs, especially in a country where it is so widespread.
The MBs present it selves as well as an anti imperialist party which is supporting the Palestinian cause. This is actually more rhetoric than practice as we can observe by their will for dialogue with the US and stability with Israel.
Finally, the MBs’ reformist stand as viewed by many Egyptians was considered stability for the future of the country.
Position of the MBs towards the revolutionary process
The position of the MB towards the revolutionary process since the fall of Moubarak has been more than ambiguous in many ways.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s behaviour towards Security Council of Armed Forces ( SCAF, the ruling army council) since the fall of Mubarak in February has been characterized by collaboration. The MB Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie urged Egyptians on several occasions to support SCAF – and he praised its role in ‘protecting the revolution’ and ‘backing the people’.
The Muslim Brotherhood has insisted that any difference in views should not turn into a confrontation and that there should be co-operation between the military council, interim government and elected parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood has approved of the ruling SCAF’s opposition to strikes on different occasions.
The MB position of supporting SCAF has actually been the case since February, as we remember with referendum on the Constitutional amendments which the ruling armed forces put forward. These amendments were the most marginal constitutional changes and they were supported by Mubarak’s old party, the NDP, and by the MB. The Army and the MB put forward amendments favoring same system and disadvantaging new candidates in forthcoming elections. Those in the No camp were most of the left and those in the forefront of the revolutionary movement plus the youth sections of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The MB has also attacked the various groups and forces willing to continue the revolutionary process in Egypt at several occasions. On the demonstration of the April 8, the Army launched a violent attack on the protesters killing at least two, while the MB has described those protesting against the military as ‘zealots’, and has refused to support their demonstrations: ‘The Muslim Brotherhood condemns any attempt to weaken [the military’s relationship with the people], and especially attempts to cause any split between the military and the people or to pit them against each other.’
The MB repeated this behavior lately in mobilizing for the Tahrir Square rally on 8 July, which hundreds of thousands, but made a pointed exit at 6 pm, defying calls for a sit-in and leveling criticism at the political parties and groups who remained in the square. The group launched attacks as well on the ongoing protest via its website, Ikhwan Online, which on 11 July reported that the sit-in had been infiltrated by “remnants of the dissolved National Democratic Party, the state security apparatus and their Zionist allies”.
The call for this demonstration to continue and achieve the demands of the “revolution” was made on the 23rd June. The MB initially refused any participation in the demonstration, but under the pressure of the mass and scared to lose ground even more with the protesters, finally decided to join the demonstration out of fear and self interests more than principles.
In December 2011, the MB and Egypt’s state-run affiliated media outlets launched a campaign
to make supporters of the continuation of the revolution look like criminals. The MB accused Anarchists and Revolutionary Socialists of being inciters of violence and propagandists of state demolition. They actually filed a lawsuit against members of these parties.
Recently, The MBs have been the target of criticisms and opposition groups during the last demonstrations from the 25thof January.
On the 27th of January, popular movements organized demonstrations throughout the country. The day was called “Friday of Pride and Dignity”. SCAF was again defeated by the massive participation of Egyptians in the demonstrations.
The slogans and chants raised by the protesters demanded the overthrow of SCAF and direct transition of powers to the parliament. The attempts by SCAF to transform the 27th and the 25th into celebrations were a complete failure as we can be witnessed by the mobilizations of the people and their refusal to step down against SCAF.
Some protesters clashed with supporters of SCAF in front of the ministry of defense building. The protesters pushed through the human chain created by the SCAF supporters and chanted “down with SCAF”. In Tahrir square, at the arrival of the various marches the main slogans were still directed against SCAF. Demonstrators held up a doll of SCAF leader Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi in the square. The protesters manipulated the doll to have the fake Tantawi say, “We [the SCAF] have protected the revolution. Whoever is in Tahrir is a thug.”
The atmosphere started to change at one point when the officials of the Muslim Brotherhood began their speeches and became the target of a large section of the protesters. The dispute began when some protesters marched into the square, raised their shoes at the Brotherhood’s stage, chanted and threw rocks at them. After turning up the Quranic verses failed, Brotherhood members instead began chanting against the SCAF.
That did not work, either, so the Brotherhood invited some youths of the 6th of April movement onto their stage to convince the crowd to not attack them. After that failed, the Brotherhood announced that it would remove an anniversary banner from its stage as an affront to the revolutionaries, and draped a cloth over the banner.
The ambiguous position of the Muslim Brotherhood towards the SCAF these past few months and its acceptance of the transfer of power to parliament in June following SCAF are the main causes of the protesters anger towards them. In addition to this, the Muslim Brotherhood presented the day, as well as the 25th January as a day to celebrate and party; while the protesters considered it as an opportunity to say that the revolution must continue.
The protesters threw bottles and raised their shoes in the air against the MBs representatives on stage, while singing chants asking them to leave and accusing them of being liars.
The opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood became the center of attention in Tahrir square, the stage close to it joining the demands of the protesters for the Muslim Brotherhood to leave.
The MBs then brought back a lot of their members to protect their stage and impose their presence in the square.
Large masses of demonstrators are still in Tahrir, chanting for the overthrow of SCAF and demanding a civil state. The Muslim Brotherhood continued to be the target of protesters telling them to leave.
On the 31st of January, once again clashes happened between MBs members and protesters. Four protest marches, each composed of several hundred people, have started their journeys to the parliamentary headquarters, demanding that the SCAF hand over power to the newly-elected legislature immediately.
As some protesters coming from Cairo University approached the parliamentary building, they were faced by members of the Muslim Brotherhood who wanted to prevent them from protesting in the area. Clashes took place between the two groups.
Brotherhood members chanted “the army and the people are one hand,” and created a human shield around the parliamentary headquarters. Similar scenes were witnessed at the opening session of Parliament the week before.
Protesters started chanting against the Muslim Brotherhood and accusing them of abandoning the blood of the revolution’s martyrs by trying to please the SCAF and refusing the early handover of power to Parliament.
As the clashes started, Social Democratic Party MP Ziad El-Elemy said that about thirty MPs from different parties decided to withdraw from the session in protest at Parliament Speaker and leading FJP member Mohamed Saad El-Katatni’s decision not to call on them to speak, and joined the protesters outside the Parliament building.
Fifty-six political parties and movements called for Tuesday’s marches on the parliament to demand that representatives support the One Demand initiative raised by those forces.
The One Demand initiative was announced earlier this week, listing certain measures that Parliament should adopt to achieve the stated demands: “No to safe exits for military council leaders, no to a constitution drafted under military rule and no to presidential elections under the military’s supervision.”
The Muslim Brotherhood called on people to not participate in the calls for a general strike aimed at pressuring the ruling SCAF to handover power to a civil authority, which were triggered by a number of university student unions and adopted by a handful of leftist and liberal parties as well as revolutionary groups. The MBs said that the calls for a general strike were “destructive” and “extremely damaging to the nation’s interests and future.” It also warned a strike would only worsen the country’s poor economic and social conditions, and could “lead to the dismantling and collapse of the state.
The MBs went as far as to declare middle of January their plan to pass legislation granting immunity to the ruling military generals for crimes they have committed since taking power in February.
In Parliament, the MBs continue to try to bring closer relationship with the SCAF and avoid confrontation towards it. The MBs new speaker of parliament, Mohamed Saad El-Katatni, sent a thank you letter to SCAF on behalf of the parliament, despite the fact that he did not have the approval of the deputies, saying: “The People’s Assembly commends your historic stances in the great Egyptian Revolution. You have taken the side of the people and their peaceful revolution…and as brave fighters you shouldered the burden of making this choice.”
Later on in February, the parliament speaker told the chamber that according to the interior minister, no bullets were fired in the wave of violence between police and protesters in downtown Cairo following the deadly Port Said football match.
The Youth leaves the party
The MB’s leadership negative behavior and criticism towards the protesters created more tensions among its members and led to an inevitable split with the youth of the group who where one of the leading parties in the revolution from day one.
Tensions between factions of the Brotherhood youth and leadership were first exposed during the January 25 Revolution, when the group officially boycotted the call for a revolution while its youth insisted on participating.
In June, the youth of the MB finally decided to create their own political party following increasing criticism on the political position of the MB’s leadership and disenchantment with their generation’s marginalization of the group’s leadership. The party is called Hizb Al-Tayyar Al-Masry (Egyptian Current Party) and plays until now an important role in the pro revolution camp.
They were actually part of the electoral bloc of the Revolution Continues, with other leftist forces during the last elections.
Imperialism and Palestine
In relation to Palestine, the MB did not participate in the protest for Nakba day in May in front the Israeli embassy in Cairo, in which the Egyptian police fired tear gas and live ammunition at protesters. Thousands of demonstrators were massed outside of the embassy in the Egyptian capital. The MB did not intervene or criticize as well the SCAF’s decision to restrict the Palestinian use of the Rafah crossing to enter Gaza, after announcing the total opening of beginning of June.
In their election manifesto the MB said that Egypt’s international agreements must be upheld, In relation to Israel, they said recently existing agreements with Israel should be maintained as long as Israel also keeps to their terms, while they do not seek to end the Qualifying Industrial Zones agreement under which hundreds of Egyptian companies export products with Israeli components duty-free to the United States. Export volumes have been running at around $800 million annually.
In addition, according to Gaza-based analyst Ibrahim Ibrach, the MB privately asked Hamas to “stop military activities and to work on politics. They want the situation to remain calm.”
On international issues, the MB have met finally met with US officials in the beginning of this year, following answering positively to a call made by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on 30 June that the US was “re- engaging” with the MB in an effort to promote democracy.
The meeting happened on January 2012 between Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and The head of the political arm of Egypt’s MB Mohammed Mursi at the Cairo headquarters of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). FJP head Mohammed Mursi said his party “believes in the importance of US-Egyptian relations,” but stressed that ties between the two nations “must be balanced,” in a statement issued after the talks.
The MB shares good relationships with counter-revolutionary Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been financing the party and salafists groups massively during the elections.
Neo liberal policies
The MB leadership repeatedly declared it supports free-market capitalism, but without manipulation or monopoly. They support private enterprise, a stock market, and engagement with the global economy. They also repeated several time that they wanted “to attract as much investment as possible.” They don’t challenge Mubarak past pro business policies.
The MBs platform calls for the withdrawal of the state from providing subsidized services to the people and expands the role of businessmen in managing state affairs. Safeguarding the rights of the poor is considered an act of social solidarity rather than a duty to be fulfilled by the state. The MBs as we can see does not espouse the idea of redistribution of wealth, preferring charity instead as a means of combating poverty.
These policies are then presented as “Islamic” to justify them. The MBs political platform says: “Economic activity is to be conducted in conformance with Islamic market mechanisms, which depend on fair competition and restricted free economy [without manipulation or monopoly]. Economic activity will also rely on Islamic investment and funding methods. Ownership will be multiple, with regards to public property and private property, on the condition that property be used to carry out their social function to achieve fair expenditure and establish social solidarity. The state will have a decentralized role.”
In June, Cairo investment bank EFG-Hermes brought 14 managers of foreign institutional funds based in the U.S., the U.K., Africa, and the Middle East to see the Deputy Supreme Guide or No. 2 leader of the MB El-shater. The investors declared that they “were positively surprised to find some of the ideas shared by the Brotherhood to be mostly capitalist in nature.”
The MB campaigned on a platform to trim the country’s budget deficit. The MB proposed to cut spending, sell state-run media, link subsidies to job creation and slow inflation. They have prioritized investment and free markets for encouraging industry and innovation. “The FJP (MB’s official party) strongly see the need for a free economic system… and building government institutions that would ensure prosperity and justice,” their economic program ambiguously stated.
Speaking to Reuters in November, Hassan Malek, a textile mogul and Brotherhood financier, emphasized that the Brothers “want to attract as much foreign investment as possible … and this needs a big role for the private sector.” Just last week, Malek was tapped by the Brotherhood to head up the newly formed “Egyptian Business and Investment Association,” a coalition of leading Brotherhood businessmen working to promote private investment.
For his part, Al-Shater has been personally courting select investors and reassuring them in private that the Brothers have no radical plans for the economy.
Malek has even gone so far as to praise the economic policies of the Mubarak regime. “We can benefit from previous economic decisions. There have been correct ones in the past … Rachid Mohamed Rachid [Mubarak’s minister of trade] understood very well how to attract foreign investment.”
As a reminder, Rachid fled to Dubai after the ouster of Mubarak and has since been convicted in absentia of squandering public funds and embezzlement.
Rachid worked to privatize Egyptian industries, reduce taxes and subsidies, and defang unions. This economic model, adopted at the urging of the IMF and international financial institutions, delivered strong economic growth — nearly 6 percent a year from 2004 to 2009 — but also generated inequality. The gains were concentrated in the hands of Egypt’s economic elite, while millions of working-class Egyptians saw their wages stagnate, as rising food prices pushed many to the brink.
The party’s political program also included tourism as a main source of national income, but the MB believes that Egypt should focus on a specific form of tourism. A sort of “clean” tourism, which will attract many tourists and investors who would like to take part in it”. They are notably seeking to enhance trade with Muslim and Arab countries in particular.
An economic political program that can hardly be differentiated from past economic policies in many ways, the MB have actually not supported but opposed socio economic demands of the workers and public servants. A senior official in the MB recently said that the party would consider supporting a deal to obtain emergency aid from the IMF, providing there are no conditions attached and alternatives are explored first.
In addition to this, the most powerful man in the Muslim Brotherhood is Khairat Al-Shater, a multimillionaire tycoon whose financial interests extend into electronics, manufacturing and retail. A strong advocate of privatization, Al-Shater is one of a cadre of MB businessmen who helped finance the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party’s impressive electoral victory this winter and is now crafting the FJP’s economic agenda.
At Al-Shater’s luxury furniture outlet Istakbal, a new couch costs about 6,000 Egyptian pounds, about $1,000 in U.S. currency. In a country where 40 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, Istakbal’s clientele is largely limited to Egypt’s upper classes.
Although the Brothers do draw significant support from Egypt’s poor and working class, “the Brotherhood is a firmly upper-middle-class organization in its leadership,” says Shadi Hamid, a leading Muslim Brotherhood expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The MBs are definitely not puppets of the SCAF, there are tensions between the two forces. It is also a certitude that the first target of the protesters should be without any doubt the transfer of power to the parliament and the people, as well as putting out of power the SCAF. This said, the MB will nevertheless not be the force to deliver the demands of the revolutions and they will not pressure the SCAF if a strong popular movement is in the streets pressuring them to fulfill the demands of the revolution. The victory of the MBs in the last democratic elections does not give them a blank check to rule as they wish.
The MBs should therefore not be left out of criticisms and opposition in the course of the revolution, as we have seen above in relation to their policies and especially because of their counter revolutionary behavior and speeches against the popular movements and the continuation of the revolution.
The contradictions of the MBs have come to light for those who had not seen them before. The MBs do not argue for the continuation of the revolution and radical changes in their society. Their slogan of the past, “Islam is the solution”, is no longer present and has almost disappeared from the Arab street to be replaced by revolutionary slogans of the revolution “freedom, social justice and independence.”
The revolutionary process is ongoing and any forces opposing the forces of change will pay the price. Viva the permanent Revolution.