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Behind the Fall of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood

Hard-liners including Morsi seized control of the group prior to the Arab Spring but proved inflexible and incompetent in power.

  • By Stephen Glain

Ali Ashmawi was a harvest of human wreckage. It was August 2006, and I had traveled to his remote, unnamed village — two hours from Cairo by car and a good half an hour from the nearest paved road — to learn more about the Muslim Brotherhood. Ashmawi, then 69, a devoted-member-turned-fierce-critic of the Brotherhood, bore visible scars from nearly a decade in Egypt’s gulag. His apartment was small but tidy, and his two young children, a son and a daughter, sat together on a couch and listened to his story as if hearing it for the first time.

A baker’s son, Ashmawi had joined the Brotherhood as a teenager in 1951 and rose to become a senior cadre in the group’s underground militia by the early 1960s. Fatefully, he joined a rogue plot to assassinate Gamal Abdel Nasser, the secular strongman then ruling Egypt, along with fellow conspirator Sayyid Qutb, the radical intellectual whose hard-line interpretations of Islam would inspire some of the Middle East’s most notorious terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda. The plot was foiled in 1965, and Nasser retaliated with a brutal crackdown on Brotherhood leaders.

In a low monotone, Ashmawi explained how he was stretched on a rack day and night for six months, denied a copy of the Koran and held in solitary confinement for weeks at a time. He pulled up his white short-sleeved shirt to show the scars on his back from relentless beatings; his listlessness testified to the emotional toll of his torture and isolation. Qutb was executed in 1966. Ashmawi was released from prison after nine years, and ever since has been a staunch critic of the Brotherhood (Ikhwan, as it is known in Arabic).

“If the Brotherhood became a ruling party, it would be a disaster,” Ashmawi told me. “It would scrap the peace treaty with Israel and impose a tax on Christians. This is an extremist group with stockpiles of weapons that will become a terrorist organization when it comes time.”

A year earlier, in 2005, Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, had unleashed a fresh crackdown on the Ikhwan after its members polled well in parliamentary elections. I asked Ashmawi how the group could seize power when so many of its members were either in jail or under house arrest. He thought for a moment, then shrugged. “They’ll probably be voted in,” he said.

Until the Arab Spring toppled the region’s established political order, the Muslim Brotherhood was the closest thing to an authentic grass-roots movement in the Arab world. Secularists and Islamists alike respected the group for its incorruptibility; its genuine regard — conspicuously lacking among the region’s cohort of dictators and emirs — for the poor and underprivileged; and its regular, peaceful and at least semidemocratic transitions of power. After Mubarak’s overthrow in 2011, even secular Egyptians believed that the Brotherhood, having suffered more in resistance than any other constituency, had earned its chance to lead. When the Ikhwan’s Mohamed Morsi won a narrow victory to become Egypt’s first freely elected leader last June, he enjoyed a genuine popular mandate.

Barely a year later, the Brotherhood is widely reviled and drastically diminished. Most of its leaders are in prison and awaiting trial after a military coup in July. Hundreds of its rank-and-file members have been killed by soldiers and police, either huddled together with peaceful protesters or picked off one by one in gun battles. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army commander who led the putsch, is hailed by many Egyptians as a liberator; some analysts predict he will be the country’s next leader, either by seizing power as a dictator or by entering an election that he would almost certainly win. The interim government is mulling whether it should declare the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and dissolve it, a move that would most certainly radicalize what remains of the group and drive it deep underground.

It is a striking denouement for a sociopolitical movement that, since its formation in 1928, was alternatively persecuted by despots or locked in thorny alliances with them. Allegations of Brotherhood links to extremism are as common as they are unproven — despite Ashmawi’s warnings, the Ikhwan’s militias, if they exist at all, have yet to reveal themselves. Similarly, the group’s reputation for cool competence has turned out to be grossly inflated. The group’s demise was largely of its own making, the product of a internal split between liberals and Islamist hard-liners.

The Brotherhood’s brief rise to power and subsequent downfall was also assisted by third parties, particularly the U.S. government. Successive presidents could have pre-empted the 2011 revolution by demanding that Mubarak implement political reforms, but they recoiled from doing so lest such reforms lower the drawbridge to an Islamist government that would resume hostilities with Israel. (In fact, the Morsi government carefully preserved Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.) Washington continued to indulge Mubarak despite the looming specter of a power struggle. By the mid-2000s, both the military and the Ikhwan were staunchly opposed to Mubarak’s grooming of his son Gamal as his successor. Popular antipathy to the regime deepened when cronies of Mubarak grabbed most of the spoils from the government’s economic reforms.

As early as 2008, political activist Osama al-Ghazali Harb warned me of the “general chaos” to come if Mubarak continued to resist a democratic transfer of power. He predicted the Ikhwan would leverage the situation to its advantage. Harb and his fellow secularists appealed to Washington to pressure Mubarak for gradual political reform, which would allow them to mobilize politically and eventually rival the Brotherhood for hearts and minds. Only that way, he argued, could a violent reckoning be avoided.

Years earlier, the U.S. flirted with but eventually abandoned any real effort to promote reforms. In 2005, Mubarak grudgingly permitted national elections in response to pressure from President George W. Bush, but when Brotherhood-affiliated candidates dominated the results, Bush lost his appetite for a democratic Arab world and imposed a de facto ban on U.S. dialogue with Ikhwan leaders. When the Arab Spring erupted in Cairo in 2011 and the Brotherhood emerged as the dominant political force, as Harb had predicted, Washington found itself largely ignorant of the men who would soon be running the Arab world’s most influential country. U.S. officials were blind, in particular, to the fault lines inside the Ikhwan.

Those fissures widened in 2010, when Mohammed Mahdi Akef stepped down as the Brotherhood’s seventh Supreme Guide. Akef had been an unusually progressive and high-profile leader, having encouraged group members to participate in politics and establish relations with non-Islamists. His deputy and presumptive successor, Mohammed Habib, was a leading liberal with plans to animate the Ikhwan’s ossified ruling culture with oxygen and light. “I had a vision that the group would meet in the open for everyone to see, that it would reach out and form alliances with secular and liberal groups,” Habib told me in 2011. “But others, both in the Brotherhood and in the regime, wanted us to remain in the shadows.”

By then, the group controlled 80 seats in Parliament, the largest minority bloc. Their representatives were, as the democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim once told me, “responsible, fair, honest and predictable men.” Mubarak stepped up his war against the Brotherhood, however, jailing hundreds of its members on flimsy grounds and torturing many. With little to show for the group’s engagement in politics, Brotherhood conservatives opposed to Akef’s legacy of outreach and moderation quietly organized a coup against the leadership.

On one side of the schism were Habib and his allies, most prominently Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Ibrahim al-Zaafarani, both prominent doctors in Egypt’s medical associations, and the dissident writer Kamal Helbawy, who wanted to level the Brotherhood’s top-down hierarchy by allowing its younger members a greater say in group affairs. Opposing these liberals were doctrinaire members led by Khairet El-Shater, then in prison, a powerful industrialist known for his peculiar blend of pragmatism in economic affairs and dogmatism in matters of religion. Last year, in two interviews of more than 90 minutes each, El-Shater outlined for me his Renaissance Project, a multipronged plan to liberalize Egypt’s economy, rebuild its infrastructure, deregulate its markets, increase exports and modernize its tourist and agriculture sectors. He was flanked by two interpreters and three stenographers, and he rarely paused to take questions.

Al-Zaafarani once recalled for me the polemical jousts he and El-Shater engaged in while in prison, which for the Ikhwan has traditionally served as both theological salon and recruiting ground for new members. They were joined by Aboul Fotouh, himself a pragmatist but minus El-Shater’s imperiousness. “We’d talk every day,” said al-Zaafarani. “We’d have long discussions about the great personalities of modern Egypt, beginning with [Ikhwan founder] Hassan al-Banna, Nasser and Qutb. Aboul Fotouh and El-Shater disagreed on many things but they both agreed that Qutb radicalism should be rejected.”

Weeks before the election for the next Brotherhood Supreme Guide, Habib was alerted by informants within the country’s security apparatus that he would be denied the job. He was edged out in the voting by Mohammed Badie, an obscure Brotherhood member widely regarded as a cipher for El-Shater and his subalterns, Morsi and Saad El-Katatni, the group’s leading parliamentarian. According to Habib, Badie and his allies agreed to support a dynastic succession of power if Mubarak ended his campaign of oppression against the Brotherhood. In his acceptance speech, according to Habib, Badie issued a tacit endorsement of Gamal Mubarak, and later praised Hosni as “the father of Egypt.” (In a 2012 interview, El-Katatni said Badie’s remarks were misrepresented in the media and that the leadership never wavered in its opposition to a dynastic succession.)

In the months that followed, several of Badie’s allies were released from prison. Habib and other moderates were marginalized, and a rebellion among the Ikhwan’s restive younger members was snuffed out. Dissent of any kind was ruthlessly silenced. It was this Ikhwan — one run by men who, according to former Ikhwan member Tharwat El-Kherbawy, believed “it is not right for anyone to live his life unless he belongs to the Brotherhood” — that would steer the group through the riptides of postrevolutionary Egypt.

Seduced by a power vacuum that the Brotherhood, with vast political and commercial resources at its command, was uniquely qualified to fill, senior members plunged into the void and committed one blunder after another. They assured nervous Egyptians that the group’s members would contest no more than 15 percent of the seats in Parliament, only to triple that ratio weeks later. The group prohibited its members from running for president, but when Aboul Fotouh declared he would do so as an independent, the leadership expelled him from the Brotherhood, along with a cadre of younger members who had launched their own political parties, some in league with secularists and liberals. Over time, the Ikhwan would lose some of its most respected members, including al-Zaafarani and Helbawy as well as Aboul Fotouh, many of whom resigned from the group in disgust over the group’s naked power grab.

By early 2012, Brotherhood members dominated the newly elected Parliament and made El-Katatni its speaker. In March, El-Shater announced his own bid for the presidency, contradicting previous assurances that he had no ambitions for high office. Two weeks later, the Electoral Commission barred him from running on a technicality (he had been released from jail only a year earlier, well short of the six-year period required for presidential contenders with felony convictions), and Morsi stepped forward as the Brotherhood candidate. The 61-year-old engineer squeaked past a divided liberal opposition in the first round of voting, then won the runoff ballot in June with a margin of less than 2 percentage points over his opponent, Mubarak crony Ahmed Shafik.

The new president wasted no time alienating and antagonizing nearly all of Egypt’s non-Islamist constituencies. He snubbed liberal groups who actively supported him in the election’s final round. He ignored a petition, drafted and signed by some of the country’s most respected activists, calling for a coalition government and assurances that rights for women and the country’s minority groups, particularly its Christian community, would be respected. He granted himself unlimited power in response to what he said were the predations of Mubarak-era holdouts, which included the power to legislate without judicial oversight or review. He issued a declaration that effectively barred the judiciary from any role in the drafting of a new constitution by a committee that was dominated by Islamists. In response, the few liberals and secularists on the committee resigned, claiming Morsi was paving the way for Sharia law.

Morsi even squandered support from Islamists, particularly for his neglect of Egypt’s failing economy. Convulsions from the 2011 revolt sparked a flight of hard currency from the country as growth slowed to a crawl, joblessness rose, and shortages of food and fuel grew widespread. Incredibly for a group that draws much of its membership from Egypt’s bourgeoisie, Morsi all but ignored the pressing need to revive growth. Slogans inspired by El-Shater’s Renaissance Project, recited relentlessly during the campaign, disappeared once Morsi, who apparently doesn’t share his mentor’s enthusiasm for grand master plans, was sworn into office.

In December 2012, Morsi failed to win Islamist support for a $4.8 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund, conditioned as it was on painful reforms like cuts in subsidies. Instead, he turned to allies like the Gulf emirate of Qatar, which seeks to extend political Islam throughout the Arab world. Though such funding kept the Egyptian economy afloat, the political motive behind it did little to restore investor confidence. On the eve of the coup, an Egyptian economist complained to me that “not a single economic decision has been taken” since the revolution. “Investors like a certain amount of certainty, yet there is no talk of economics, just politics.”

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries the Arab world was a Franco-British fiefdom run by a clutch of pliant kings and emirs. The postwar nationalist governments that followed failed after their disastrous 1967 war with Israel and were replaced by a generation of Baath Party dictators, corrupt monarchies and petty despots. Having outlived them all, the Muslim Brotherhood seized its moment after Mubarak’s removal, only to collapse after a single year in power. In fact, the Ikhwan’s demise really began with the election that empowered Badie and his allies, who lacked in restraint and competence what they had in ambition and cunning. Just as Akef’s policy of outreach had provoked Ikhwan hard-liners, so did Morsi’s overreach trigger the coup that destroyed not only his presidency but also Islamist governance in general, and perhaps even the Brotherhood itself.

It is tempting to suggest that the future of Egyptian politics belongs to former Ikhwan members like Aboul Fotouh and al-Zaafarani as well as former members of the group’s youth wing, who are now leading their own parties and are working closely with non-Islamists. The Egyptians remain, after all, a deeply religious people who are likely to demand that their leaders remain piously Islamic. (Even General al-Sisi understands this, having made the point in a thesis he wrote while on a U.S. military fellowship in 2006.)

Nevertheless, with Egypt’s interim government now actively persecuting its critics as traitors, even moderate ex-Brotherhood members would be wise to keep their heads down. So thoroughly did the Ikhwan leadership discredit the group that it will take years for Islamists of any stripe to establish themselves politically, even those who were shrewd enough to have left the bus before hard-liners drove it off a cliff.

Contributing writer Stephen Glain has been visiting and writing about the Middle East for nearly 20 years.

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