The Elephant in the Brotherhood’s Living Room

The Elephant in the Room, Image: David Blackwell/flickr

Ongoing protests in Cairo have cast a shadow on the inauguration of Egypt’s first democratically elected Parliament, making it clear that the country is still merely at the threshold of achieving a successful transition to democracy. Hovering above the heads of many protesters remains the fear of military rulers not willing to step down from the political arena, and given the military’s core interests, this apprehension would not appear misplaced. Meanwhile, the question of how the Muslim Brotherhood will actually grapple with the burden of government responsibility once in power is predominantly worrisome to liberal Western governments and to Israel in particular.

Considering the Brotherhood’s long history of being in opposition and primarily functioning outside the political realm, this is a highly relevant question. Starting in the 1920’s as a social movement, the organization has built up its strong popular base mainly by avoiding direct government confrontation and providing efficient social services to Egyptian citizens at the margins of a repressive government. Having originally operated in the shadows of Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt regime, the Brotherhood’s grass roots approach has now borne fruit in the form of votes at the ballot, and the people are skeptically waiting to be served. The ever-evolving nature of the Brotherhood seems to be standing at the crossroads once again, having to compromise between pragmatism and ideology, a choice that is likely to determine Egypt’s future at least in the short term.

Meanwhile, the Brotherhood is being harassed on all sides and even from within the organization itself. It appears as if an inter-generational struggle has broken out between the first and more conservative generation of Muslim Brothers on the one side, and the second as well as third generation of members that have played a vital part in the revolution and share a more liberal worldview on the other side. Seeing that a dialogue with military rulers is openly aspired to by its leaders, it is especially the youngest generation of the Muslim Brotherhood that fears seeing the goals of the revolution being compromised. To make matters worse, the Salafists, who are the largest coalition partner in the new government, are accusing the Brotherhood of losing sight of their Islamic agenda and are in turn running after the support of the far end of the ideological spectrum. Indeed, once in the driver’s seat of ruling the country, the Muslim Brotherhood will need to take a clear stance on decisive issues such as the role of minorities, women, or foreign policy towards Israel. By then at the latest will it become clear whether the Brotherhood will opt for a more pragmatic approach, with the Turkish AKP as a potential role model, or if it will go towards the road of an Iranian style theocracy.

As far as the dual role of the military is concerned, although the interim ruling military council has pledged to hand over government matters after the ratification of a new constitution and the election of a new Egyptian President this coming June, it has only recently been rumored that the Brotherhood has already bargained a power-sharing agreement with military leaders behind closed doors. Such an agreement seems to be a likely outcome, as the military rulers are no longer willing to make political decisions and be held accountable for them in the future. However, controlling a huge shadow economy within Egypt, these military entrepreneurs see their economic empire endangered by a strong civil government detached from their sphere of influence. Judging by their recent behavior, military rulers will see to the fact that their power will not cede completely. In order to avoid direct confrontation with Egypt’s citizens, it will moreover make sure to do so through the back door. Desperately in need of economic reforms and foreign investment, the already tattered state of Egypt’s economy might just provide the military with enough leverage to legitimize its tampering with political affairs.

For now, the Muslim Brotherhood continues to bide its time. Living up to the expectations of the many disparate interests within Egyptian society however will not be an easy task to fulfill. Nevertheless, the Muslim Brotherhood will need to find a way to establish a political consensus sooner rather than later.


This topic was discussed at length at the Interactive Community Roundtable hosted by the International Relations and Security Network (ISN) and the Center for Security Studies (CSS) last Wednesday. Speaking on the subject “The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: Lessons Learned from Indonesia” were Dr. Lorenzo Vidino, a visiting fellow at the CSS and Professor Amien Rais, a prominent Indonesian politician who led and inspired the reform movement in 1998. The meeting was the first in the ISN monthly series aiming at creating an interactive platform and bringing together international relations/security policy professionals, non-governmental organizations, and students in the IR and political science field in order to promote current research efforts and the exchange of ideas. Here are some excerpts from Dr. Vidino’s comments on the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s uprisings:

In the following videos, Dr Lorenzo Vidino and Prof Amien Rais compare the state of constitutional reform, the role of the military and the prospects of decentralization in Egypt with Indonesia in 1998:

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