When it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood, even the irreligious evince a sudden interest in what lies within the inner reaches of the Islamists’ souls. Are they really democrats? What do they really believe? It is time for analysts to leave those questions to a higher authority. For now, it is much more important to ask what they intend to do and what they could do in office.
If balloting is free in the run-off in mid-June, Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi is the favourite to beat Ahmed Shafiq, President Mubarak’s last prime minister. If that happens, Egypt’s major democratic institutions, the parliament and the presidency, will be in Islamist hands. And while full oversight of the security services and military will be out of their grasp for the present – and important institutions like the judiciary will also likely push back against elements of their programme – the Brotherhood could soon have a fairly free hand to tackle many of the country’s domestic problems as it sees fit, and even to begin pushing Egyptian foreign policy in different directions.
When it comes to what the Brotherhood intends domestically, the movement has been stunningly loquacious in its attempts to sketch out a practical programme for administering the country. And that programme focuses much of its attention on good governance, the rule of law, the provision of social services, and an economic policy that owes more to the Washington consensus than to 7th-century Arabia.
Does the Brotherhood intend to apply Islamic law? That is where it begins to retreat into generalities, claiming that it will use Islam as a “reference” or pursue the “goals” of Islamic law, but it will do so through democratic and constitutional channels.
And when it comes to foreign policy, the Brotherhood has also been a bit more cagey: it wishes to “renegotiate” the peace treaty with Israel but will clearly face an Israeli government deeply resistant to making any formal changes; it has communicated reassuring messages to a stream of official American visitors but clearly has a regional agenda that would cause some headaches for the US; and it is deeply and emotionally opposed to the blockade on Gaza but has also effectively told its cousins in Hamas that their cause will have to wait.
The real question is how effective it can be in its programme when it is faced with crushing economic problems, a feisty set of public sector workers, and a public that has been fed the belief that ousting dishonest and corrupt leaders is enough to lead to immediate economic improvements.
The way the Brotherhood governs in the short term – and the success it has – will determine the movement’s long-term fate. It was designed to be a tightly organised, hierarchical, reform movement, not a broad-based electoral party. But it now finds the political arena so tempting that its leaders seem to view their overriding duty to the Egyptian people as politics and governing. A few months ago, when I asked a leading member of the movement who had not joined the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party what the non-political arms of the movement were up to, he simply looked tired and sighed: “It’s very hard.”
In short, while the Brotherhood draws its inspiration from religious texts, it behaves a bit like a French existentialist: existence precedes essence. And that means that the movement will be deeply shaped by current events. Will it wind up marrying itself to political power, as Hamas has done in Gaza? Will it instead build an electoral juggernaut that will maintain the form but not the substance of democracy (like governing parties in Mexico and Japan used to do)? Will its cadres become disgusted or frustrated with politics and turn from running election campaigns back to preaching, educational and charitable work? Or will it become a large, socially conservative political party like the German Christian Democrats, passing in and out of power according to the will of the voters?
All the possibilities are open, but it is not the Brotherhood alone that will determine the outcome. Much more will depend on the actions of others: will non-Islamists finally drop their bickering and figure out ways to organise an alternative electoral party? Will Egypt’s political actors agree on a clear set of fair political rules and codify them in a constitutional text as they are supposed to do later this year? Will Egyptians continue to find ways to act assertively without pushing the country into civil war, a fate nearby societies have not avoided?
The fate of the Egyptian revolution will have enormous impact on the region: it is clear that all other Islamists are watching Egypt’s Brotherhood very closely. This is not because they all walk in lockstep or follow orders from what some call the “mother movement” headquartered in Cairo. The movements in the region are at best loosely linked. But they swap ideas and programmes very easily and calculate their own political odds by watching what happens in other countries. In a visit to Gaza earlier this month, I found Palestinians – notorious in the Arab world for believing the world revolves around their politics – more interested in figuring out what was likely to happen in Egypt than talking about their own frozen political scene.
Egypt’s lurching transition has opened up doors to democratisation but hardly guaranteed it. What the Brotherhood does – and even more, how other actors react – will determine whether the Egyptian revolution becomes a democratic transformation or a move towards ongoing instability and renewed authoritarianism.
Nathan J. Brown is professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University and nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.