Egypt Independent

The Brotherhood on the edge of reform

Many argue that Egyptian Islamism has lagged behind its counterparts in Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia, Yemen and other relatively “peripheral” Arab countries, where Islamist movements have been marked by organizational and ideological innovation. While this is not a far-fetched assessment, Islamism in Egypt may be undergoing a dramatic metamorphosis that will become more visible in the coming period

In the wake of the 25 January revolt, Egyptian Islamists are becoming more diversified in their ideological positions and their policy approaches. We can now talk about different shades of political Islam that look quite different from one another, and entertain the possibility of distinct trends emerging — Islamist leftists, Islamist libertarians, Islamist communitarians, and Islamist conservatives. Some Islamists now find in non-Islamist movements more attractive bedfellows than among their Islamist brethren.

Under Egypt’s newly emerging political system, a handful of new Islamist parties are likely to be formed. The Muslim Brotherhood alone may produce two or three parties. Salafists and other Islamic groups may have their own parties as well. The differences between them are genuine and together represent a new spectrum of Islamist politics.

Walking a tightrope is the Muslim Brotherhood. The conservative/reformist (or old guard/new guard) split that has divided the group for years is taking on a new form. Before the 25 January uprising, battle lines had been drawn between the two camps primarily on issues of decision-making, grassroots representation, the rotation of power, and the freedom to debate within the group. After the ouster of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, organizational contention within the Brotherhood still persists, but deeper antagonisms over actual policies are likely to prevail.

Brotherhood reformists are a loosely-defined group that includes political pundits, civil society workers, social media activists, and people involved in community service. Differences in age, social background and employment are superseded by their commitment to the values of political modernity and an open-minded approach to Islam.

The last five years of bickering and power-wrangling between conservatives and reformists left observers wondering if the reformists will have their own politics independent of the Brotherhood leadership’s designs. But there is no organized reformist bloc. The last one to emerge — which cut vertically across the group’s massive structure — broke away in 1996 to form the Al-Wasat party, which was finally licensed by a court decision earlier this year. At the present moment, there are reformist figures, ideas, sensibilities and supporters within the Brotherhood but nothing more. A long-overdue challenge facing reformist figures, like Abd al-Mone’m Abu al-Fetouh and Ibrahim al-Za’farani, is to create a political bloc out of these fragments.

The Al-Wasat party is an unlikely destination for Brotherhood reformists, despite their ideological similarities. Many of the Brotherhood rank and file who might opt for the reformist option in party politics are equally interested in remaining involved in the Brotherhood’s proselytizing and social activities. Given the uneasy and sometimes acrimonious relationship between the two parties over the past 14 years, joining the Al-Wasat party may not be an optimal choice. The reformist youth of the Brotherhood may prefer to have their own reformist party.

A new reformist party arising from within the ranks of the Brotherhood might bear ideological resemblances to the Moroccan Justice and Development party (PJD), which emerged out of the older Justice and Benevolence party. A new Islamist discourse on citizenship, good governance, development, human rights, gender and civic participation is already in the making as evidenced by the reformists’ ongoing deliberations online and in print. Such rumblings will be a coup-de-grace against the orthodox Brotherhood positions on these issues. Brotherhood reformists still have a long way to catch up with the PJD’s impressive party structures, parliamentary skills and electoral competence. Notwithstanding such gaps, one might ask if this is a question of time, particularly if we consider the possibility of the new socio-political base that the reformists are building.

Tapping into the socio-economic demands of Egypt’s disgruntled youth and the democratic aspirations of young middle class professionals (two groups at the heart of the 25 January revolt), Brotherhood reformists may shift towards the center-left of the political spectrum. They may find it timely to revive the populism of the late Adel Hussein’s Islamic labor party, which achieved some popularity in the 1980s and 90s by addressing the grievances of the urban poor, and at the same time liberalize its politics to accommodate the sensibilities of the Muslim yuppies. The outcome would be a party to the left of the PJD.

Brotherhood reformists would likely prioritize “soft politics” — community-development initiatives, human rights promotion and civil society organizations — over the talismanic imperatives of establishing an “Islamic state” and sharia law. This would entail a decisive rupture with several existing traditions of Islamic knowledge, a process already started by independent Islamist intellectuals since the 1980s. No less importantly, bridges with non-Islamist liberal political groups and initiatives can be cemented to create a democratic front that transgresses identity politics. Popular Islamic preachers and their supporters, long preoccupied with self-development and morality at the expense of politics, may get on the reformist train as well.

It’s likely that the reformists’ ranks will swell in the coming period. The real challenge for them will be the intransigence of a conservative Brotherhood leadership that will remain determined to thwart the possibility of a more pluralist Islamist politics.