Thursday, 27 January 2011

Unrest in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood

As in the case of Tunisia, a succession of commentators have remarked on the small role the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have played in the past two days of unrest in Egypt. One of the latest I have seen came from Michael Collins Dunn, the editor of the Middle East Institute yesterday. "Do you see any beards? Well, maybe a few beard-and-mustache looks of some young hipsters, but not the beard-without-mustache "uniform" we associate with the Muslim Brothers," he writes. I think Dunn is mistaken here on several counts. For a start, Muslim Brothers come in many guises, and the 'beard-without-mustache' look is hardly a Brotherhood uniform. He may be confusing Muslim Brothers with salafis, while the two groups are quite distinct, though with some overlap. From my own experience on the streets (see my earlier reports passim), I believe people are understimating the level of participation by members of the Brotherhood, though I will readily concede that they have not taken part at full strength and at a level which reflects their demographic weight. There are several possible and obvious reasons for this. Let me offer a few of them:
    The Brotherhood, from long experience of confrontation with the Egyptian authorities, is always wary of commitment to street protests. It will calibrate its level of participation to its assessment of the chances of success. If it overreaches, it runs the risk of a massive crackdown. For the moment, probably rightly, it is not convinced that the protests will overthrow the regime.
    The Brotherhood knows that the world (especially the United States and Europe) are watching events in Egypt closely. If the protests appear to be Brotherhood-led, the government will feel free to use much more brutal methods to disperse protesters. For the moment it suits the Brotherhood's interests to give the impression that there is a broad coalition united against Hosni Mubarak, including liberals and leftists. This explains why Brotherhood members who have taken part in the protests have refrained from chanting slogans with religious connotations. The impression of a broad coalition also helps domestically -- if the Brotherhood take the lead, it would frighten off some of the other groups.
    The Brotherhood, like Islamist groups in many Arab countries, has cold feet about governing. It does not feel it is ready. This is reflected in its official strategy of concentrating on a political reform agenda which it shares with many other groups - free and fair elections, rule of law, a new constitution with checks and balances and so on. What the Brotherhood wants most in the short term is the freedom to organize and promote its ideas in a democratic environment, regardless of who is in government. The Brotherhood believes that, given freedom and time, it can win over Egyptians to its long-term agenda.
    The current state of sectarian (Muslim-Copt) tensions in Egypt, especially after the bombing of the church in Alexandria at the New Year, is not conducive to a protest movement in which Islamist slogans and objectives are prominent. Such slogans would be a distraction and could backfire against the Brotherhood.
    I'm not going to venture a guess at the level of Muslim Brotherhood participation but, judging from my chance encounters with protesters, any assertion that the movement is absent or very thinly represented is probably wishful thinking. By the way, many Brothers are clean-shaven, wear suits and ties and are physically indistinguishable from other Egyptians of the same class.     


  1. Finally, somebody who "gets it".

  2. Welcome to the blogosphere! Fabulous reporting. I already quoted from it, with due attribution and links, over at Just World News.

  3. great report, thanks! on a related note, I have seen on a newspaper a picture
    with protesters carrying a photo of Mubarak with a David' start on the head and a eye patch like Begin. I guess this means that the protests are not only about economic crisis and democracy but have to do also with Mubarak role in the Israel-Middle East crisis.

  4. Help us understand the pictures, maybe with a collection of images.
    Who is organizing the prayers and speakers in the sq? What are the Imams preaching? What do the different Egyptian flags mean, and which are predominant? Who is organizing the food and water supplies? What's the significance of the veiled women? What slogans are appearing on vehicles and walls? Why do so many people have bruises on their foreheads? How are the non-Brotherhood people working to build a coherent party that can beat the MB in an election?

  5. Like many of your compatriots, you seem to have a bizarre obsession with the Muslim Brotherhood, seeing them under every bed. Where did you get the idea that women in hijab and men with zabibas on their foreheads are automatically MB? Many such people have been quietists, though they may now have join the protest movement. I have met several secularists organizing food and water. Muslims don't need to 'organise' prayers. The organizing committee seems diverse, with a large liberal component.

  6. Thank you for partially answering some of my questions, However, your rude tone ('bizarre,' 'under every bed'), your assumptions that I'm generalizing (e.g. 'get the idea... are automatically'), plus the vague answers (e.g. 'seems,' 'a large liberal component') and partially incorrect use of 'compatriots' provided more information about you than about the demonstrators. I'll try to find a dispassionate and precise source of information elsewhere.

  7. I do apologize if my tone struck you as rude. That reflected the frustration people on the ground feel at the unwillingness of many people abroad to believe us when we say the protest movement is broad and diverse, and that the Islamist element is about what one expect, given their demographic weight in Egyptian society. About 80 percent of Egyptian women wear hijab every day. The proportion in Tahrir Square is lower than that. Similarly for zabibas. The slogans have been widely publicised and pictures are widely available. I haven't seen any Islamist ones, though plenty that reflect hostility towards Mubarak's cooperation with Israel and the United States. Similarly for graffiti. Sermons in Tahrir Square have been few and far between, and generally in line with the broad thrust of the protest movement -- against Mubarak, against corruption, against police brutality etc.