When Mohamed Morsi was elected president of Egypt in June 2012, it was the first time an Islamist had reached executive office through the ballot box in the Arab world. Contrary to the expectations of conservative pundits in the West, his government did not follow in the draconian path of the Afghan Taliban or Iran’s ayatollahs. But nor did Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood place Egypt on the road to a truly inclusive democratic order.
Things might have been different if reformists within the Brotherhood had set the group’s agenda after Egypt’s authoritarian leader, Hosni Mubarak, fell in 2011. Unlike the group’s hard-liners, the reformists had embraced more progressive interpretations of Islam that emphasize ideas of pluralism, tolerance and human rights. They had also come to view secular groups more as potential partners than as rivals. Yet over the past decade, the reformists were increasingly marginalized within the Brotherhood’s ranks. Some left by choice; others were expelled.
Unfortunately, the fading of these reformist voices will make it harder to resolve the escalating standoff between the Brotherhood and the military, which has ordered Mr. Morsi detained on charges of espionage and conspiracy with the Palestinian group Hamas.
The Brotherhood is not a monolith whose members think and act in lock step; it encompasses a wide spectrum of opinion. During the 1980s and 1990s, a reformist faction — mainly midcareer professionals — emerged, in contrast to the Brotherhood’s aging old guard, for whom sacrifice, loyalty and obedience counted more than competence.
Many had served as leaders of Islamist student groups in the 1970s and 1980s, and they injected a new dynamism into the Brotherhood. But it wasn’t long before they began to criticize the parochial views of the old guard. In particular, they argued that the leadership’s confrontational mind-set, suspicion of outsiders and disdain for the rights of women and Christians were blocking it from securing a legal foothold in the political system and gaining wider social acceptance.
In a sign of their growing influence, in the mid-1990s, after intensive lobbying, the reformists succeeded in getting the Brotherhood to issue official statements endorsing party pluralism and women’s rights. The reformists began to interact on a regular basis with professionals, journalists and civil society activists outside the movement’s insular networks. Such interaction, several of them told me in interviews conducted from 2004 to 2011, changed their outlook dramatically.
As Essam Sultan, who represented the Brotherhood in the Egyptian lawyers’ syndicate, recalled: “We thought we were the only ones qualified to manage the affairs of the country, and that other opinions and viewpoints were always mistaken. But our interactions with others changed our convictions.” Likewise, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a doctor who became the Brotherhood’s leading progressive figure, explained that through engagement with the broader society, “we came to realize that the scope for agreement and cooperation was in fact quite broad.”
In Tunisia and Morocco, leaders with similar ideas ultimately rose to the top of Islamist parties and have shaped their direction ever since. But in Egypt, the reformists never gained more than a seat or two in the Brotherhood’s executive council, or Guidance Bureau. Instead, the Bureau remained the nearly exclusive preserve of a close-knit group of veterans whose prestige rested on their long history in the movement and their enormous sacrifices on its behalf. As they saw it, the young “upstarts” had no right to challenge their authority or demand a greater share of decision-making power.
Aboul-Ela Maadi, an Islamist active in the engineers’ syndicate in the early 1990s, explained that while he and other reformist leaders were busy holding conferences on democracy and human rights, the old guard was consolidating its control over the recruitment and socialization of new members. As Mr. Maadi ruefully observed, he and other reformist leaders failed to appreciate the importance of grass-roots outreach. Their own neglect of the Brotherhood’s base, Mr. Maadi explained, set the stage for the “great theft,” allowing the old guard to steal the loyalty of the younger generation from them.
Eventually, growing frustration with the old guard’s rigid ideas and autocratic management style prompted some of the Brotherhood’s most capable and dynamic leaders to leave the group and strike out on their own. The exodus of the reformists accelerated during the 2011 uprising against Mr. Mubarak and the political opening that followed it. Mr. Sultan, Mr. Aboul Fotouh, Mr. Maadi and other former Brotherhood members are now involved in new parties, and many Islamist youth who share their progressive outlook have left the Brotherhood to join them.
When Mr. Morsi became president, he and his colleagues in the Guidance Bureau adopted a highhanded approach to governing that a more influential reformist wing might have persuaded them to jettison before it was too late.
Mr. Morsi squandered numerous opportunities to share power with other groups. He replaced old Mubarak appointees in key government agencies with Brotherhood members without any serious effort to address systemic mismanagement and corruption. He allowed pro-regime thugs to bully his opponents and failed to guarantee the security of minority Coptic Christians and Shiite Muslims. He did little to acknowledge or resolve the severe underrepresentation of women in Parliament and the blatant gender discrimination inherent in the country’s marriage, divorce and inheritance laws.
Finally, by rushing ahead with a referendum on a new constitution that lacked broad nationwide support, Mr. Morsi opened himself to the accusation that he was using his democratic authority for nondemocratic ends. The Brotherhood failed to appreciate that a narrow victory in the presidential race didn’t grant Mr. Morsi a mandate to do as he pleased.
Yet now, as a result of the army’s intervention, Mr. Morsi has suddenly been transformed from a tone-deaf and ineffectual leader to a hero of the Islamist cause. The Brotherhood is pitching itself as a victim of a conspiracy, rather than taking responsibility for its mistakes.
Some reformist figures inside and outside the Brotherhood who were openly critical of Mr. Morsi’s policies when he was in office have rallied to his side and joined in denouncing the military-imposed interim government. And those most inclined to acknowledge — and learn from — the Brotherhood’s missteps are unlikely to gain traction as long as the military seems bent on the Brotherhood’s destruction.
Had reformists in the Muslim Brotherhood gained the upper hand in 2011, Egypt’s transition might have taken a very different turn. The Brotherhood may not have run a candidate of its own for president, or if it had, it might have selected someone more disposed to compromise and consensus building than Mr. Morsi. Such a president would most likely have worked to strengthen ties with the secular opposition, rather than made the controversial moves that eroded its trust and good will.
Now those reformist voices are barely audible — and military intervention has robbed Mr. Morsi of the authority he had gained in free and fair elections. No amount of demonstrating is likely to put him back in power, given that the army, secular parties and millions of ordinary Egyptian citizens vigorously oppose him. The Brotherhood’s senior leaders have always been very good at recruiting members and mobilizing them at the ballot box and on the streets. They are much less adept at negotiation and compromise. Yet these are precisely the skills that are needed for the Brotherhood to play a constructive role in shaping Egypt’s future.
At the same time, the military’s campaign against the Brotherhood has recklessly and irresponsibly hardened the group’s will to resist and increased the risk of a prolonged conflict. For good or ill, the Brotherhood is the largest independent movement in Egypt. Its further demonization will only increase the chances of violence and chaos, strengthen the movement’s hard-liners and diminish the resonance of internal calls for reform.
Carrie Rosefsky Wickham is an associate professor of political science at Emory University and the author of The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement.