Mursi and his clan
It was no surprise that the Muslim Brotherhood arrived at the presidential seat. In the last six months the Freedom and Justice Party – the Brotherhood’s political arm – proved its ability to achieve high percentages of the vote in the People’s Assembly and Shura Council elections, and likewise the party’s candidate achieved first place in the first round of the presidential elections.
There was – of course – concern and apprehension that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) would rush to cancel the election results or intervene on behalf of the other candidate Ahmed Shafik, especially following the Constitutional Court’s decision to dissolve parliament. There were also threats of returning to the issue of “banned groups”, which would open the door to the disqualification of Brotherhood candidates. However, the results showed a victory for Dr. Mohammed Mursi, despite a campaign led by some Brotherhood figures to discredit and attack Egyptian judicial bodies, describing them as institutions affiliated to the former regime.
Mohammed Mursi – a party staff member who rose to stardom in the 2000 parliamentary elections, after the original Muslim Brotherhood candidate was banned from running – has become the first civil President of the Republic of Egypt. Ironically, he was also a “substitute candidate” this time round, after Khairat el-Shater failed to secure the candidacy because of previous judicial rulings against him.
Mursi began his first speech with a stream of Koranic verses and religious prayers, during which he seemed closer to a Friday sermon preacher rather than a civil president elected through democratic institutions. However, despite this the “substitute candidate” was able to deliver three important messages to the outside world. Firstly: Egypt is committed to human rights and rejects “discrimination” on the basis of gender or religious belief; a message of reassurance to the Western countries who were wary of fundamentalists coming to power. Secondly, the new president pledged to maintain all treaties and international conventions Egypt has signed up to, which is an implicit recognition of the peace treaty with Israel and its conventions and commercial treaties, and this is a message to reassure Israel and the United States in particular. Thirdly, Mursi confirmed that Egypt will not interfere in the internal affairs of other states, and this pledge is aimed at the neighboring Arab and regional countries, particularly the Gulf States.
On the domestic level, Mursi offered a collection of public promises that apply to all Egyptians, or as he put it “my family” and “my clan”. He also directed his thanks towards the military establishment, reaffirmed the role of the police and the impartiality of the judiciary, and likewise promised to pursue transparency in the work of the state and all its apparatuses. Despite all these “reasonable” promises, which can be considered exceptional in terms of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political discourse, there is a legitimate question about their credibility, and the likelihood of the Muslim Brotherhood transforming this new discourse into a practical reality.
The Brotherhood is yet to replace its historic slogan: “Islam is the solution”, but it did allow its political arm to promise the principles of “freedom” and “justice”. The historical Brotherhood group itself has not conducted any ideological or methodological review of its political or educational discourse since Hassan al-Hudaybi raised the slogan “preachers not judges” in the 1970s, as a reaction to divisions among the organization’s younger ranks who were calling to bear arms. Indeed, we can say that the radical literature of Sayyid Qutb is still present in the Brotherhood’s approach, and the sayings of its ideologues.
There is no doubt that the mother of all fundamentalist movements in the Arab world is today reaping its first taste of power that it has always sought to achieve. If other branches of the Brotherhood, and the currents influenced by it, now seek to come to power – or participate in some way – in this country or that, then the fact that the mother group came to power through legitimate elections is a major and historic victory. However, accessing power via a democratic election is one thing, and “good governance” according to constitutional, civil and secular rules is something else.
There are parties and political figures around the world that came to power through fair and legitimate elections, but they did not necessarily display civil and democratic behavior afterwards. Rather, some took advantage of the constitution, were arbitrary in their use of the law, and exercised the most heinous means of propaganda and misinformation against their political opponents. There are numerous examples in Eastern Europe and Latin America, and so there are legitimate questions facing Egypt’s current transformation: Are we to believe the Brotherhood’s promises or are they lying? Have we forgotten the organization’s long history, and its continuously volatile policies? Can President Mursi’s speech be considered the beginning of the group’s intellectual change, and evidence of its future style of governance?
Those who are excited about the Brotherhood’s new discourse, as it appears in Mursi’s speech, see an opportunity for change that has been long awaited. The see the great benefits in the Brotherhood following a path of moderation and civil rule, in order to become a civil party that believes in political and societal pluralism. Meanwhile, those who have been burned by the group’s fire, or suffered harm from it in the past, whether individuals or nations, doubt the capacity of this group to transform so quickly. They believe that ever since 2005, the Brotherhood has been taking advantage of “human rights” slogans and civil society institutions, to achieve its objectives in order to seize power.
Yesterday I noticed two commentaries written by Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed and Mshari al-Zaydi in Asharq Al-Awsat. Al-Rashed supported the Brotherhood’s “conciliatory” direction, and even called for efforts to “accommodate” the Brotherhood and provide assistance for its members so they can change for the better, and so that they do not fall under the influence of other powers. As for al-Zaydi, he alluded to the history of the group, particularly its educational literature, and warned against being swept up by the Brotherhood’s new discourse. Yet he also highlighted the need to officially deal with Mursi – and the Brotherhood in turn as legitimate representatives of Egypt’s ruling system – and to forget the past to an extent, and leaving an assessment of cultural content and political direction of the group.
I believe that a close observation of the Brotherhood since the beginning of the revolution reveals a case of volatility and confusion – and sometimes improvisation – in the group’s comments and stances. They were several days late in publicly lending their support to the revolution, and then became involved to the extent that they crowded out the original demonstrators. They were the first entity to rush to engage in dialogue with the Mubarak regime in its last days, before returning strongly to the opposition ranks demanding his departure. Once the regime had departed the Brotherhood announced that it would not contend the race in every election committee, but they ended up competing in all of them. They claimed that they would work to coordinate with revolutionary individuals and bodies, however they took their decisions, selfishly as some would say, without referring to anyone. At the time of the presidential elections they announced that they would not put forward a candidate, but they reneged on this and pushed their candidates to the fore. As a result of this it is difficult – in truth – to believe the Brotherhood’s stances and statements, at least for the time being. We cannot be sure whether they will prove their promises or betray them whenever an opportunity arises!
The conflict with SCAF over the supplementary constitutional declaration, and likewise the crisis over the dissolution of parliament, will be the first test of these promises, i.e. will the Muslim Brotherhood seek to fully acquire power – and they have the right to do so – or will they adhere by the principle of stability and gradual negotiation in order to reach a consensus with the institutions of the state and its multiple bureaucratic apparatuses, with Egypt’s internal situation in mind. The true test of Mohammed Mursi’s presidency lies in whether he will demonstrate his allegiance to his major clan, represented by the Egyptian citizens, or his smaller clan, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide and Shura Council. The coming months will be suffice to clarify the situation.
As for the Gulf States, the arrival of Mursi or Shafik does not matter as much as whether or not their interests relate to specific individuals and parties. If the new Egyptian president and his government have pledged to build confidence between all parties, and focus on common interests, then this will strengthen relations with their Gulf counterparts. As for the call to “accommodate” the Muslim Brotherhood, this is a well-intentioned appeal, and may prompt other parties to relax their stances as a result.
It is known that that when a ruling system is not based on the rules of mutual respect and common interests, then over time this can develop into an unsanctioned acquired right. In the 1920s, the Egyptian leader Said Zaghloul described the volatile state of the country, which had recently achieved independence. He said: “If the Wafd party continues to represent the nation, which is in a state of disagreement, then this is considered an unforgivable act of deceit, but if the Wafd is dissolved this is a great defeat for the nation, and this is an unforgivable crime!” I believe the same applies to the arrival of the Muslim Brotherhood to power today.