The Rise of the Brotherhood

February 16, 2011 Topic: AutocracyDemocracySociety Region: AlgeriaEgyptJordanTunisiaYemen

The Rise of the Brotherhood

Who will fill the void left by the autocrats in the Middle East? The Muslim Brotherhood is ready and willing.

The domino effect triggered by the events in Tunisia and Egypt heralds a new era of Middle Eastern politics with potentially wide-ranging implications for regional, if not global peace and stability. But who will fill the void left by the autocrats?

The most likely prospect will be a coming to power, sooner or later, of the various national branches of the international Muslim Brotherhood movement.

The Muslim Brotherhood is mainly known as an Egyptian Islamist opposition party. But this view is misleading. While the movement was founded in Egypt, the Brotherhood has become a truly international force with over seventy branches worldwide and an international coordinating body known as the tanzim al-dawli. It also has a very effective organizational structure and access to large funds through obligatory contributions from its members, from rich private donors mainly from the oil-rich Gulf states as well as from its vast business ventures.

Also, despite decades of suppression, the Brotherhood is certainly the most popular and best organized political opposition force in most Arab countries. It is known for providing many of the social services – from running schools, mosques to hospitals – that have been neglected by the governments in the countries in which it operates. In recent decades, the Brotherhood has increasingly come to renounce violence, condemned terrorism, and called for genuine democratic reforms in the Muslim world, and some western commentators and scholars have even suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood movement as a whole has increasingly gone down the route of the only very moderately Islamist ruling Justice and Development Party in Turkey. So what is the problem some might ask?

Those that have advanced the view of the Brotherhood’s moderation should not forget that the Brotherhood is a much broader church and that it has also given rise to almost all jihadi groups past and present, including al-Qaeda, Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, al-Jihad, Hamas or the ultra radical Takfir wal-Hijra. Whether the Muslim Brotherhood has become a genuine democratic force for change in the region or not, it is highly unlikely that it has completely abandoned its principle aim to reconstitute the Islamic caliphate, which should be enough cause for concern.

It is true that the Brotherhood has not been the driving force behind the current wave of protests currently sweeping through the Arab world and, as many analysts have rightly pointed out, their support in most countries is not such as to assume their definite victory in any upcoming election. But one should not forget that for the past decades Islamic groups, and in a sense even Islam, have been heavily repressed by most Arab governments and once lifted, the likely reaction will be a massive surge of religious sentiment, activism and support for Islamic parties—just as happened in Iran (after the fall of the Shah), and in Iraq (after the overthrow of Saddam Hussain.)

In Egypt, now that Mubarak has officially stepped down and the army taken over to guarantee a smooth transition of power, a best-case scenario would see a government of national unity emerging, possibly with Mohamed El-Baradei as the new President. But even in such an arrangement, the Muslim Brotherhood will inevitably wield significantlymore power than any other faction including the army and the al-Wafd party, not least because it is likely to capture the largest number of spots in any future parliamentary elections (even as an outlawed party, running as independents, Muslim Brotherhood members have held the most seats in parliament after the ruling National Democratic Party). This reflects the reality that the MB has become a virtual state within the state in Egypt—and elsewhere.

In Jordan, too, the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in the country, is the strongest opposition party in parliament. Since the start of protests in Jordan over the dire economic situation, the Brotherhood has been attempting to highjack the popular demonstrations. Its leader Hammam Saeed warned that unrest in Egypt “will spread across the Mideast and Arabs will topple leaders allied with the United States”. Since King Abdullah II ousted his government and replaced Prime Minister Samir Rifai with Marruf Bakhit, he has already met with representatives of the Brotherhood, urging them to join the new government and help it push through reforms, an offer it has rejected. This was the first meeting between King Abdullah II and the Brotherhood in nearly a decade.

Meanwhile, the exiled leader of the Tunisian Muslim Brotherhood arm An-Nahda, Rashid Al-Ghannouchi, returned to Tunisia and was greeted by thousands upon his arrival. And despite Al-Ghannouchi’s contestation that he is not seeking to run for President and has merely returned home as a "free man," some feminist groups in Tunisia have already voiced their concern that his return might signal a renewed rise in political Islam in the country. An-Nahda has indeed been busy meeting with the Prime Minister and liaising with other parties and groups since the removal of Ben Ali and is well on its way to regaining its former strength. So even in Tunisia, where it seemed the Islamic resistance movement was effectively destroyed, now, Islamism, though presently dressed in a very moderate gown, is making a comeback.

My prediction is that further autocrats in Muslim countries will, sooner or later, be forced from office, and the political void that emerges will almost certainly be filled by the Muslim Brotherhood. While coping with a new era of Middle Eastern politics dominated by the Brotherhood might sound like a nightmare scenario to western leaders, there is really no way around it. So the West would do well to come to terms with this idea sooner rather than later and accept the inevitable.