“Just how scared should we be of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood? In numerical terms, it doesn't present much of a threat. Membership is in the low hundreds of thousands, and in a fair election, the Islamists would not be expected to win - in 2005, only 3% of the population voted for the Brotherhood.” Thus read a piece on Time magazine in November 2010, just two months before the start of the revolution that would topple Mubarak and, indeed, bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is a religiously conservative group. They are a minority in Egypt. They are not a majority of the Egyptian people, but they have a lot of credibility because of liberal parties have been a struggle for thirty years. They are in favor of a secular state. they are of –they are in favor of an institution that have bread lines, they are in favor that every Egyptian have the same rights, that the state is in no way a state based on religion. And I have been reaching out to them.” (sic) Words of El Baradei, as published on the 30th of January 2011, as protests were ongoing in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt.
“There is no real danger that the revolution will be just the opening that Islamists need to take control.” And “Now there seems to be a concern that if President Hosni Mubarak leaves too soon, chaos will ensue and the Muslim Brotherhood could emerge as the biggest winner. But Egypt’s state structure is strong enough to withstand Mubarak’s ouster and there is no reason to think the protests will turn violent again.” Amr Hamzawi said on the 10th of February, 2011, one day prior to the announcement by then vice-president Omar Suleiman that Mubarak has decided to step down.
Many have only recently started to realize how wrong they were when they supported the Muslim Brotherhood, hailing them as leaders on the forefront of a transition to democracy. Many analysts underestimated the group’s power and popularity, most importantly, they belittled any fears and worries about their threat. While many remain wary of loudly saying ‘mea culpa’, things in post-revolutionary Egypt have already revealed a lot. The Brotherhood’s undemocratic and illiberal practices are now being highlighted more than ever.
In this context, an honest discussion is needed in order to understand how and why so many got the Muslim Brotherhood wrong. It is useful to take a step back and consider how the group managed to use events to its advantage, convincing many that it was the right choice for those who believed in the stated goals of the Egyptian revolution. If anything is to be gained from Egypt’s failed democratic experiment, it should be an awareness of how an organization such as the Brotherhood was able to project an image of itself that later turned out to be a mere mirage. The goal is to avoid such public displays of deception from succeeding in the future.
There are two sides to the story. On the one hand, the Muslim Brotherhood has been able to fool both fellow countrymen as well as foreign analysts and politicians with talk about its plans for tolerance and inclusion. On the other hand, Western analysts have often thought and written about Egypt in such a fundamentally flawed way, that they themselves were particularly susceptible to being misled.
I shall discuss a few aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy while also highlighting why it succeeded and why it was often received with such naiveté.
Firstly, the Muslim Brotherhood have a media team focused on its communications to the outside world. Apart from its famous Twitter account @Ikhwanweb, the Brotherhood also has a website in English which, contrary to what some might think, doesn’t simply contain translations of what the Brotherhood’s Arabic-language platform has to offer, but a tailored array of articles aimed to project a certain image to the Western reader. A couple of Twitter users, aware of the misleading nature of this arrangement, have recently started a new website in which they translate the actual Arabic content from official Muslim Brotherhood online outlets. That website is full of anti-semitic, sectarian rhetoric as well as a wide array of outlandish conspiracy theories.
The problem here is not simply that some analysts were ‘lost in translation’. People like Sondos Assem and Gehad El-Haddad, who is also the executive director of the Brotherhood’s “Renaissance” project, are supposed to represent a different kind of Muslim Brotherhood. As journalist Nick Kristof said in December 2011: “First, meet my hostess: Sondos Asem, a 24-year-old woman who is pretty much the opposite of the stereotypical bearded Brotherhood activist. Sondos is a middle-class graduate of the American University in Cairo [...]. She speaks perfect English, is writing a master’s thesis on social media, and helps run the Brotherhood’s English-language Twitter feed, @Ikhwanweb.”
This export brand of Muslim Brothers (or Sisters in this case) is meant to instate the idea of the presence of a young, progressive, open-minded stream within the Brotherhood. This idea has also been espoused by many within Egypt itself, but the reality is that the older, traditional Brotherhood members are the ones who run the show. Furthermore, it is questionable to even state that the younger generation is more open-minded. Dissidents who fall out of line too much can only seek their refuge in leaving the organization as opposed to ‘changing it from within’. This has happened with numerous young members of the organization as well as with one of its leaders, Abul Fotouh, who left to contend in the presidential race.
The faces of the revolution as they appeared in most media outlets, were young, tech-savvy activists who were quite progressive and ‘West-friendly’. The aforementioned image of younger Brotherhood members fit that narrative. All these progressive, young Egyptians, no matter their political background, would supposedly shed the bonds of patriarchy and embrace modernity and help Egypt embrace democracy in the process. That is ultimately what many wanted to believe and the Brotherhood simply catered to that wishful thinking.
Secondly, it is obvious how the Brotherhood depended on the naiveté and lack of political experience of its opponents to sway public opinion in its favour. In 2011, after the fall of Mubarak, parliamentary elections were held which resulted in an overwhelming victory for Islamists. Calling any opposition to the latter “elitist” or “in contempt of (the will of) the people” or “islamophobic” became normal and widespread and was sadly condoned, both explicitly and implicitly by Egypt watchers under the guise of political correctness.
During and after Egypt’s first post-revolutionary presidential elections, one of the strongest weapons used by the Brotherhood was the word “felool” (remnant of the old regime). Slowly but surely the word infiltrated all political discussions, lost its original meaning and was used to discredit all opponents of the Brotherhood. In the run-off round, accusations of being pro-Mubarak and “slaves of the (military) boots” were hurled at anyone who dared not support the Brotherhood candidate. Play on emotions was widely used as those voting for Shafik were said to be signing their ballots with the “blood of martyrs” and committing high treason against the revolution and the country.
But of course, as it would become clear later on, those who voted for Shafik did so for many different reasons and they weren’t all sympathetic to the Mubarak regime, let alone actual members of its network. It was the belief that it was Shafik – and not Morsi – who was the “lessor of the two evils” that played an important role in many voters’ decisions. Many had in fact predicted a lot of what the Brotherhood ended up doing once it came to power and it turns out they chose Shafik for very legitimate reasons after all. Yet all those valid concerns were successfully discredited by the Muslim Brotherhood and as usual most people took the bait.
When the theory that SCAF would define the outcome of the presidential elections by rigging them in favour of Shafik was proven to be utter nonsense, a new distraction was sought. And so the theory of the “deep state” as propagated by the Brotherhood started gaining momentum. According to that viewpoint, the old regime was still in control of the state through a presence in its institutions which it used to systematically fight the revolution personified in president Morsi. This theory served as a scapegoat which helped the Muslim Brotherhood escape responsibility for its failure to make political or economic progress. It also became used as dangerous justification for any of the president’s illegitimate decisions such as the constitutional declaration issued in November 2012 and the consequent presidential appointment of a new public prosecutor.
Thridly, the Brotherhood’s choice to help perpetuate the revolutionary – “felool” paradigm was one of its best strategies. The revolutionary group in Egypt, which includes the Muslim Bortherhood itself, is a very diverse one, with no unified ideology. Muslim Brotherhood, clear proponents of a religious state were able to bypass many revolutionaries’ rejection of such a state precisely because of that. When it comes to actually governing a country, there was no “revolutionary” way. After Mubarak fell, the differences between revolutionaries came to light. Instead of the revolutionary – felool dichotomy, alliances should have been formed based on the kind of state each group wanted, based on ideology instead of slogans. In that process, those who were against the revolution or those who were part of the NDP for various reasons (without being implicated in any criminal activities) should have been involved.
Finally, it is not acceptable for those claiming to fight orientalism, neo-colonialism, Islamophobia and racism to stifle criticism of the Brotherhood in the name of cultural relativism while ignoring the organization’s blatant disregard for human rights and the rule of law. You got the Brotherhood wrong because you allowed considerations of political correctness to make you ignore the facts. You got the Brotherhood wrong when you chose to see the world through the paradigms they propagated, ignoring the complexity of the political situation. You got the Brotherhood wrong when you agreed that their “illiberal democracy” is still a democracy worth supporting.