Despite massive opposition to their rule, the Muslim Brothers are still confident the ballot box can reinstate their dominance and create a stable political system.
Only two days stand between Egyptian voters and the referendum over the Islamist-backed constitution. The poll comes on the heels of political unrest that has set in question the legitimacy of President Mohamed Morsy and cast doubts over the popularity of the nation’s largest political organization, less than six months after its rise to power.
Thousands had taken to the streets nationwide to protest Morsy’s “autocratic” decree passed last month. Through that move, Morsy had claimed for himself sweeping powers and brought the judiciary under his control.
Chants echoing “Down with the rule of supreme guide,” in reference to the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, and banners reading “No to the Muslim Brotherhood” were the catchphrases of the rallies. Meanwhile, violence targeting the Brothers’ headquarters rocked Cairo and several governorates.
The unrest reached its climax last week after the Brothers attacked secularists camping outside the presidential palace. For several hours, both camps were caught up in bloody clashes that left seven people dead.
The incident exposed the deep divide between the Brothers and secular groups, and warned of the perpetuation of turmoil if no middle ground solution is reached. In response, Morsy rescinded his decree, but called for a referendum on the Islamist-drafted constitution on 15 December, ignoring secularists’ demands to hold national dialogue over controversial clauses before the poll.
While secularists hold that the issuing of this constitution would add more fuel to the fire, the Brothers still believe it is the only way out of the ongoing crisis.
Deja vu for the Brothers
Islamists prefer to downplay the significance of the recent turmoil, contending it is deliberately perpetrated by their detractors to thwart the referendum.
“We got used to facing such crises ahead of each election,” says Ahmed Sobei, spokesperson for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). “Ahead of the parliamentary elections, we had the Mohamed Mahmoud incidents because some parties were not ready for the poll.”
Nevertheless, he says, people took to the polling stations. He wonders why the group’s detractors are “always sabotaging” elections.
Days before last year’s parliamentary poll, clashes erupted between the police and protesters on Mohamed Mahmoud Street off Tahrir Square after Central Security Forces raided a sit-in by families of the 25 January revolution martyrs.
The standoff lasted for several days and left dozens killed, amid allegations by the Brothers that the turbulence was perpetrated by “hidden hands” that sought to put off the much-anticipated poll. They refused to join the protests that took place then, which discredited them in the eyes of revolutionary forces.
However, their credibility was not shaken for the wider electorate. They garnered nearly 42 percent of the People’s Assembly seats, earning their place as the largest parliamentary bloc.
They believe that the current situation is no different, and that they can still sweep away their contenders in the upcoming poll.
“We deal with people on the street every day and they are quite disenchanted with the use of arms, with the burning of the [Brotherhood’s] headquarters and with instability,” says Hatem Abdel Azim, former FJP parliamentarian and member of the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly.
“Thus, I believe there will be a high turnout, and big numbers will vote yes on the constitution,” adds Abdel Azim.
The National Salvation Front, an alliance of liberal and leftist groups and former presidential candidates, had voiced its vehement opposition to the upcoming referendum and called for protests Tuesday to demand its postponement until the constitution is modified.
At press time, the front was still expected to advise its backers on whether to boycott the vote or cast a “no” ballot in the imminent poll.
Mokhtar Nouh, a former Brotherhood leader who broke ranks with the group before the revolution, citing the lack of internal democracy, says the referendum results are a foregone conclusion. He expects the majority of voters to back the controversial text, out of their desire to end the transitional period rather than their support for Islamists.
“Even if the constitution was drafted by the opposition, people would vote ‘yes,’” Nouh says. “People do not understand the constitution. For them, it is a bunch of logarithms. People are only concerned about concluding this tough period.”
Nevertheless, Nouh believes the Brothers’ “mismanagement” has already dealt a blow to the Islamists. This impact will not be felt until the next parliamentary elections, he adds.
“The image of the Islamist project altogether has been shaken,” says Nouh, a leader of Strong Egypt, the moderate Islamist party founded by the ex-Brotherhood leader and former presidential nominee Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh.
“We are no longer the owners of a project that could bear the solution. The Islamist project has become the problem,” adds Nouh.
A possible misreading?
Islamists always spoke proudly of their wide outreach and ability to mobilize thousands of people in support of their agenda. They had long dismissed secularists as elitist, detached from the masses and incapable of significant mobilization.
However, recent incidents have shaken this stereotype about secularists as tens of thousands heeded their call to protest Morsy’s rule in different governorate.
But this development does not alarm the Brothers. They insist that secularists still have no large following on the street.
“Two entities were behind the recent mobilization: the church and remnants of the old regime,” says Abdel Azim. “[Secular] political forces were not the main force behind this mobilization.”
Since the tension ensued, the Brothers have sought constantly to downgrade the legitimacy of protests by contending that they were led by members of the now-dissolved National Democratic Party.
“The Muslim Brotherhood misunderstands the reasons of these protests,” says Mostafa Kamel al-Sayed, a political science professor at Cairo University. “The dissatisfaction with the Muslim Brotherhood’s regime and Morsy is not confined to the constitutional declaration or the constitution, but it also has to do with the incompetence of Morsy’s government.”
Morsy’s government has offered citizens nothing so far, Sayed says.
“Hence, we see lay citizens expressing their dissatisfaction with the Brothers’ rule by attacking their headquarters in different governorates,” Sayed continues.
So far, Morsy’s government has failed to live up to the masses’ expectations. On the economic front, foreign reserves have continued to dwindle, and the pound has undergone its greatest devaluation since 2004.
Meanwhile, his short reign has been marked by several hasty decisions that he was later forced to suspend, such as new taxation legislations, which have shaken his credibility.
“The Brothers have no special program to run the country other than their desire to add an Islamic nature to the state and implement Islamic Sharia sooner or later,” Sayed adds.
He dismissed the Brothers’ argument that the issuing of the constitution is the only gateway to stability.
“No matter what the outcome of the referendum is, the causes of turmoil remain, and a large number of people are unhappy about the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Sayed.
Joining the far right
Amid this crisis, the Brothers could find no ally but hardline Islamists. Salafis and Islamist ex-insurgents had backed Morsy’s constitutional declaration and the Brotherhood-sponsored constitution, which includes several clauses widely dismissed by liberals and leftists as amenable to a religious state (see story on page four).
Last weekend, Khairat al-Shater, an influential Brotherhood figure, appeared in a press conference with several Salafi leaders to comment on the current situation.
After having elaborated on a “conspiracy” designed by remnants of the old regime to thwart Islamist rule, Shater left the floor to Saeed Abdel Azim, a leader of the Salafi Dawah who is known for his dismissal of democratic values. Abdel Azim stressed the need to implement Sharia.
The scene raised the question of why the Brotherhood, which has been selling itself to the West as a moderate force capable of achieving stability in the region and maintaining peaceful relations with Israel, would indulge in an alliance with hardliners who hold the US as the “great Satan” and refuse to recognize Israel.
“If Salafis support me in a certain situation, that does not mean that our methods are becoming the same or that the Brothers have relinquished their moderate views,” says Abdel Azim.
Since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and the emergence of the Salafis as a key player, the Brothers have often banked on them in their political fights with secularists.
“The Brothers have no one to ally themselves with other than Salafis. Nobody tolerates the Brothers anymore,” says Nouh.
Yet this Salafi-Brotherhood honeymoon will not last forever.
“This alliance is temporary until jihadi Salafis carry up their arms and other Salafis demand the implementation of Sharia, something that the Brothers would not give them,” argues Nouh.