“Never gamble to increase your comp credits,” is a rule that the Muslim Brotherhood should have learned before playing politics. For decades, the Brotherhood has presented itself as a socio-religious movement that seeks to reform society to be more Islamic, whatever that means, but the movement has been struggling to make sense of its new character since the ousting of Mubarak last year.
Clearly, the concurrent blunders of the Brotherhood have exposed its limited political skills. Not only have these mistakes distorted the movement’s image but, more importantly, it weakened its position in the game with its contenders.
Over the past fourteen months, the emboldened Brotherhood decided to play a risky game. In the beginning, the movement went farther than expected in forging deals with the military. It quickly parroted the junta’s argument about revolutionaries and young activists as “thugs, traitors, and agents of the West.” And after dominating Parliament, a sense of empowerment and assertiveness overwhelmed the group.
It took the Brotherhood a little over a year to discover that they have been fooled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which boxed them in a theatrical Parliament that has restricted authority; it could neither sack the government nor hold its ministers genuinely accountable. Hence, a confrontation between both parties was unavoidable.
Instead of correcting its mistake of distancing itself from revolutionary forces, the Brotherhood committed another mistake by flexing its muscle over the formation of the Constituent Assembly. This move was tremendously counterproductive and increased the Brotherhood’s self-imposed isolation.
Whereas the Brotherhood should have corrected this mistake and reconsidered the formation of the Constituent Assembly, the group decided to escalate the tension with the SCAF by contesting the presidency and claiming that the elections are likely to be rigged.
Khairat al-Shater was the key player in the Brotherhood’s decision to field a presidential candidate. Unlike the claim that he was taken by surprise by this decision, he was actually pushing for it. To unravel this decision, a closer look at the internal dynamics of the Brotherhood is crucial.
Like all “bureaucratic” organizations, the Brotherhood has its own internal balance of power. This balance has shifted many times over the past few decades. This manifested in different ways, particularly the struggle between the so-called conservatives and reformists within the group. Since the turn of the 1990s, the Brotherhood came increasingly under the domination of the conservatives, or the “men of the organization” (tanzimiyyn), those who only care about ensuring the organization’s survival (Mostafa Mashhour, Mahmoud Ezzat, Rashad al-Bayoumi, Mahmoud Hussein) in the face of those who are inclined to political integration (Mamoun al-Hodaby, Mahdi Akef, Mohamed Habib). The heirs of this dichotomy are Khairat al-Shater, Mohamed Morsy, and Mohamed Badie (representing the conservative camp) and Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, Essam al-Erian, and Ibrahim al-Zafarrani (who represent the reformers).
Over the past decade (specifically since 2002 after the death of Mostafa Mashhour, the fifth Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide), Shater sought to enhance his wing’s clout in the movement at the expense of the other wing. He did that through creating a power center that is loyal to him more than the movement. More specifically, he was the man behind the restructuring of the two highest institutions in the Brotherhood: the Guidance Bureau (maktab al-Irshad) and the Shura Council (Majlis al-Shura al’am). He paved the way for a new line of conservative leaders to dominate the main structure of the group.
Shater gradually widened his influence in the organization. He established the official English website of the Brotherhood, ikhwanweb.com, which became an outlet for young Brothers who couldn’t be easily promoted within the movement. In addition, Shater persistently empowered and strengthened his subordinates within the movement structures (e.g. the administrative offices, the governorates’ shura councils, etc.). He also campaigned for promoting the second and third generations to join the Guidance Bureau and the Shura Council. Not surprisingly, Shater was extremely influential in the group’s decisions even when he was in prison.
However, Shater tightened his grip on the movement after 2010, particularly when Mohamed Badie became the supreme guide. Despite the intimate relationship between Shater and Mahdi Akef, the former supreme guide, the latter restrained the former’s growing power. For instance, Akef was the shield of reformists in the face of Shater and his adherents like Mohamed Morsy. Not surprisingly, most of the reformists left the Brotherhood after the revolution and when it became certain that Shater was taking over the group and extending his control over the Freedom and Justice Party. He also managed to secure a line of faithful followers, such as Morsy, Saad al-Katatny, Saad al-Husseini, and Medhat al-Haddad.
Therefore, nominating Shater for the presidency was not a choice but rather a natural result of his cumulative power within the movement and the party.
This decision was massively damaging to the group. Shater’s power primarily stems from his ambiguity and ability to play behind the scenes. Hence, nominating him for the presidency not only “burns” him politically but also jeopardizes his position within the movement. From now on, Shater will no longer be an enigmatic character, as he lost the lure of his mysterious power. He will be also the subject of internal criticism for defying the military without a backup plan.
Secondly, given the fact that Shater was the man who could deal with the military, throwing him in the SCAF’s face will cost the movement the Brotherhood’s prime negotiator. “They burned him [Shater] for nothing,” a former Brotherhood leader told me. Thirdly, by challenging the Brotherhood into dominating the political scene, the SCAF succeeded in unveiling the Brotherhood as a “wild,” power-hungry party that seeks to control everything: Parliament, the Constituent Assembly, the government, and finally the presidency. But in reality the Brotherhood hasn’t gained any real power, at least not yet.
For decades, the Brotherhood has played politics competently and shrewdly. However, this time it has misread the rules of the game, and the cost of this will be significantly high.
Khalil al-Anani is a scholar of Middle East Politics at School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University and former visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, DC.