The Muslim Brotherhood Takes to the Streets (pt. 2)

This post is the second in a two-part series attempting to explain the massive crowds we see in Tahrir Square today in Egypt. In part one I tried to lay out the political-legal wrangling that has led to the dissolution of Parliament, the seizure of certain aspects of executive authority by the military, and the delay of the announcement of the winner of Egypt’s Presidential elections held last week.

These developments are of interest to everybody in Egypt, but perhaps no group had as much at stake as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), whose Freedom and Justice Party had the majority in the Parliament and who fielded a Presidential candidate they claim emerged victorious from the elections. In Part Two, I will chart the MB’s reaction to these moves. Backed into a corner by the SCAF (the military junta which controls the country at present), the MB has taken to the street in an attempt to influence the political process and present themselves as the guardian of Egypt’s nascent democratic revolution.

A member of the dissolved Parliament from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party speaks with the media at Tahrir Square

Background on the Muslim Brotherhood

First, a quick background. The MB was founded by Egyptian schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna in 1928. Al-Banna came from a family of Imams (prayer leaders at the local mosque). Like numerous other Islamic organizations, the MB engaged in religious and social work. The ideal organizational structure at founding was for each branch to have an associated mosque, school, and sporting club.

By the 1930s, the MB had some 500,000 estimated members in dozens of branches across Egypt. At the time, Egypt was engaged in a nationalist struggle against the British colonial troops that remained near the Suez canal. The MB began to sprout associated militias to fight the British. The MB initially welcomed the anti-colonial 1952 coup/revolution, but soon resented Nasser’s attempts to centralize power. In 1954, the MB were suspected of an assassination attempt on Nasser. Their organization was outlawed and their members were rounded up and tortured.

Over the course of the next three decades, Brotherhood members went in two different directions. The mainstream of the MB focused on democratic politics, forming alliances with the nationalist Wafd party in 1984, and the Labour and Liberal parties in 1987. By the 2000s, the MB represented the main democratic opposition to Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, winning 17 seats in the Parliament in 2000 and 88 seats in 2005. The group is still technically illegal, so it will not release membership rosters or financial numbers, but it is assumed there are at least 500,000 members–with 75,000 core members across Egypt who are willing to mobilize politically. The leadership is primarily middle-class, college-educated professionals. These are doctors, lawyers, and schoolteachers, not religious figures.

(Of course, a radical stream of thought based on the writings of MB member Sayyid Qutb went in a different direction and took up arms to resist the state and the international superpowers they thought were propping it up. Among these are Al-Qaeda’s current leader, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri.)

The Muslim Brotherhood in the 2011 Revolution

When the popular uprising against Mubarak erupted on January 25, 2011, many saw the MB as a step behind the young liberals who were credited with inciting the demonstrations. And indeed, the MB did not immediately come out in support of a challenge to Mubarak that did not originate from their own ranks. However, in my opinion, it is important to put the January 2011 uprisings in the context of the numerous democratic challenges that had been made to the Mubarak regime in the early 2000s, from within the MB and without. This gradual erosion of Mubarak’s credibility was a key element in the revolutionary environment in Egypt.

By February 2011, the MB was on board with the protests and was one element among many in the massive crowds in Tahrir Square and similar gathering places across Egypt. But as the first 18 days of the revolution passed, people started to go home, and the high tide of emotions began to subside. It was at this point that the MB’s experience in democratic politics began to come to the fore. They formed the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and aggressively contested the first Parliamentary elections, winning 49% of the seats and forming the majority coalition. (Of course, in Egypt, the Parliament does not elect the Prime Minister, so Kamal Ganzouri was appointed Prime Minister by the SCAF along with the rest of the Ministers.)

In the beginning of their majority government, the MB sought to reassure Egyptians that they did not seek power or a one-party state, so they promised not to field a Presidential candidate. But the Parliament proved to be an ineffective platform from which to get things done. In March 2012, the first attempts to form a Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution were challenged in administrate court by liberal members, who boycotted the process and complained that between the various Salafi parties and the MB (who together had more than 70% of the MPs) the CA was stacked with Islamists.

On March 31, the MB announced that they would indeed field a Presidential candidate, and nominated businessman and political acivist Khairat al-Shater. A large man with a booming baritone voice, al-Shater projected a strong image for voters. But in April of 2012, he was disqualified by the Presidential Elections Commission because of the clause in the March 2011 Constitutional Declaration which states that an eligible candidate must not have been in prison in the past six years. (Shater had been released from his fourth stint in jail because of his affiliation with the MB after the revolution.)

On April 7, the MB replaced al-Shater with Muhammad Mursi as their Presidential candidate. Mursi holds a Ph.D. in Engineering from the University of Southern California and worked as a Professor before becoming a member of Parliament in the 2000 and 2005 elections. Mursi lacked the charisma of al-Shater, and many began to refer to him as al-istibdal or “the spare.”

Facing a challenge from liberal Islamist Abdel Moneim Abu el-Fotouh and reduced to their back-up plan, the MB saw the elections as an existential crisis and doubled-down their efforts on Mursi. Activists fanned out across the country to promote his “renaissance” plan. A day before the elections, the MB held 24 simultaneous rallies across Egypt. The organizational investment paid dividends when Mursi came in first in the first round of voting, with 25% of the electorate.

Still unsure of a victory in the final round, Mursi stepped-up his charm offensive. He softened his public speaking and engaged with the media in long interviews. His slogan for the final round was “our power is in our unity.”  He took advantage of the public outrage over the acquittal of six of Mubarak’s lieutenants on June 2nd to call on Egyptians to “continue their revolution” in the streets.

That night, spontaneous mass-demonstrations of at least 100,000 erupted in Tahrir Square. Behind the scenes, negotiations were taking place between the prominent secular youth movement “The 6th of April Youth” and the MB. On June 12, 6th of April announced their support of Mursi in the final round of the elections.

The Dissolution of Parliament 

Then, on June 14th, the Supreme Court ruled that the Parliamentary elections were unconstitutional and dissolved the Parliament. Mursi, who had a press-conference planned for 4:30pm, delayed it until 11:30pm, and came out and spoke at length. It was the strongest “revolutionary”-type rhetoric I had seen come out his mouth, with repeated references to the corruptness of the old regime and the SCAF. Mursi also wrote an editorial in the British newspaper The Guardian, titled “If I am elected President, I will serve our Revolution.”

The dissolution of Parliament had the effect of galvanizing many of the religious voters, who had performed well in the legislative elections only to see their efforts to be in vain, for the final round of the Presidency. Besides the MB, other religious political parties include Salafis, who officially came out for Abu el-Fotouh in the first round, after their candidate was disqualified. Salafis saw the results of their lack of enthusiasm when Abu el-Fotouh finished fourth, and so many were ready to re-double their efforts to ensure an Islamic candidate won in the final round.

young Salafis protest in Tahrir Square

As voting got underway in the Presidential elections on June 16th and 17th, the MB launched a massive campaign to “protect the votes.” They claimed to have representatives at each of the 13,000 polling stations across the country, updating the official Mursi campaign vote count as results came in. Polls closed at 10:00pm on Sunday night, but by 4:00am Monday, Mursi felt confident enough to hold a press conference announcing his victory. Dozens of MB supporters took to the streets early that morning in celebration.

But on Monday afternoon, SCAF announced a supplementary Constitutional Declaration which reserved the position of commander-in-chief and Minister of Defense for the Army, gave the Army full legislative authority until a new Parliament could be elected, and reserved a veto over the constitution-writing process for key figures, including the head of the Army and the President.

It looked as if the Army issued the Supplementary Declaration as a direct affront to Mursi’s perceived victory. In response, Mursi and the MB called for a sit-in in Tahrir Square until he is sworn in as President. The demands have since evolved to include the repeal of the Supplementary Constitutional Declaration, the restoration of Parliament, and the repeal of expanded rights to military police.

The Sit-In in Tahrir Square

The day after the announcement of the supplementary constitutional declaration, June 19th, The Muslim Brotherhood called for a sit-in in Tahrir Square. Tens of thousands have been there consistently since Tuesday, with crowds growing in excess of 100,000 at night.

Going to the square now the difference is immediately noticeable. Approaching the square, you can see young men directing traffic and parking cars in makeshift lots in the middle of the street. Every entrance is blocked by rows of young men in cheap baseball caps with various brotherhood logos. These men ask for your ID and check your bags for weapons.

Upon entrance, the number of baseball caps is astounding. Rows of tents have been set up, leading to a huge stage erected between Talaat Harb and Muhammad Mahmoud streets, at the back of Tahrir square when entering from the Nile. The stage is perpetually packed with people taking turns on the microphone, where they lead the crowd in songs and chants.

Many of the people in the crowd are not from Cairo. I met men from Ismailiyya, near the Suez Canal, and Dinshawi, in the Delta. I saw many people heading towards the square from minibuses parked just outside of it, and can only surmise the MB are driving their supporters in throughout the country.

One reason the MB is feeling emboldened is because it perceives itself to have the support of the United States. On June 14th, Sec. of State Hilary Clinton made remarks that came across as critical to the military. On the day of the Supplementary Constitutional Declaration senior figures of the Obama administration joined Clinton in urging the Army to hand over powert to elected officials or else risk losing the $1.5 billion in aid Egypt receives annually from the U.S.

But ultimately, this is about the preservation of the MB itself. The group is extremely organized and its members take pride in their hard work and discipline. Having lost the Parliament, from which they had attempted to influence politics since March, and with a Presidency in limbo, this sit-in is a last-ditch effort for the Brotherhood to assert itself. They will probably never get a moment like this again, when the United States and the secular liberal forces in Egypt are coming out in favor of an Islamic fundamentalist Presidency.

In the end, I do not think the prospect of a Mursi Presidency would be such a bad thing. The MB already showed that they are incapable of pushing through some of the more extreme aspects of the legislation called for by their ideology (an attempt to pass a law legalizing 14 year-old girls to mary caused an uproar in Egyptian civil society and was killed before even being introduced), and the Army and Judiciary will provide secular checks-and-balances. But a President with a civilian (i.e. non-military) background would be the first in Egypt in 60 years.

The big news coming out of Egypt today is that Mursi has agreed to unite with other prominent secular revolutionary forces, in an agreement to form a broad-based coalition against the government. The agreement was announced in a press conference that included Hamdi Qandil, adviser to Mohamed el-Baradei and the speaker for his “Constitution” Party, and Wael Ghonim, the google executive who was imprisoned in the revolution. The Presidency is historically a much stronger institution than the Parliament in Egypt, with the authority to appoint the Prime Minister and the cabinet. In the end, the MB may be able to launch a more effective democratic opposition from the executive than the legislative.

If the military comes out, after delaying the results of the Presidential elections and letting the numbers in Tahrir build up, and announces that Ahmad Shafiq is the winner, I don’t know what to expect. But those people will not be happy.

(Update: Mursi has since been announced as the next President of Egypt)

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2 thoughts on “The Muslim Brotherhood Takes to the Streets (pt. 2)

  1. Pingback: Happy 2nd Birthday, Egyptian Revolution! | Kyle J. Anderson

  2. Pingback: Mursi’s Rebellion: How Did We Get Here? | Kyle J. Anderson

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