The disparate liberal and secular forces comprising Egypt’s National Salvation Front are so fractured that they are likely to cede “the last major decision-making body in the country to Islamists when the country votes in upcoming parliamentary elections,” says a prominent observer.
“Hostility to the country’s new Islamist-backed constitution drew thousands of protesters into the streets last month and degraded the Muslim Brotherhood’s credibility nationwide,” notes Abigail Hauslohner:
The crisis bolstered opposition optimism that they had been left with a prime opportunity to upset a string of Islamist electoral victories over the past year…An unlikely alliance of liberals, leftists, secularists and old-regime loyalists had pledged to run as a single party in the parliamentary elections, expected in April, to maximize their chances at the polls.
It is the Brotherhood’s prodigious organizational capacity and Leninist-style political discipline that gives it a substantial edge over its inchoate political rivals, says a leading analyst.
“How is it that an uprising that seemed to feature pro-democratic, secular young people on Facebook and Twitter became one dominated by theocrats of the Muslim Brotherhood?”asks Eric Trager, a Next Generation Fellow of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy:
First, they have a committed membership; the way they recruit and promote members is very different from the way other parties work. Secondly, they have a strong nationwide structure that allows them to move people in a way that’s quite similar to how a militia moves people. Third, they have a controlling centralized leadership that can quickly distribute top leaders across the new bodies of government that the Brotherhood controls.
Islamist-secularist struggles over the relationship of Islam to the state are not new, analysts suggest.
“Conflict, sometimes violent, between secularists and Islamists has been a characteristic of Arab politics since the 1940s. Since the 1970s, Islamists have increasingly gained support, even as the region witnessed rising demands for democratization,” according to Yale University’s Ellen Lust, Gamal Soltan, an associate professor at the American University in Cairo, and Jakob Wichmann, a partner at JMW Consulting:
By 2006, Arab Barometer opinion surveys taken in six Arab countries found that three-quarters of citizens supported democracy, but that they were evenly split between those who preferred an “Islamist democracy” and those who wanted a “secularist democracy” …..[while] a March 2011 International Republican Institute (IRI) opinion survey found that 48 percent of Tunisians want a state based on religion, while 44 percent prefer a secular state, and about one-quarter of those on both sides have strong feelings about this issue.
“While the division between secularists and Islamists complicates democratic transitions in the
Arab world, it does not make them impossible. The very hot ‘family feuds’ that persist in the Arab world, as Dankwart Rustow pointed out long ago, may in fact foster a democratic transition,” they write in Current History:
As long as both sides fear that they cannot defeat the other, they may be drawn to institutions that allow them to resolve their differences peacefully, accepting defeat today for the possibility of running again tomorrow. The political outcomes will ultimately depend on the ability, or lack thereof, of the two blocs to work out their terms of coexistence, and of centrist forces to gain strength, mitigating the polarization.
While Egypt’s anti-Islamist opposition groups are splintering over economic policy and the question of collaborating with members of Mubarak’s old government and former ruling party, the Brotherhood is organizing and consolidating its support base, Hauslohner writes for The Post.
“In recent weeks, the Muslim Brotherhood has launched the kind of grass-roots charity projects that analysts say have proved critical in building voter support among Egypt’s poor in recent years,” she notes:
It provided free seminars across the country to educate Egyptians about their new constitution. The Brotherhood office in Fayoum, a rural province south of Cairo, recently led a women’s literacy campaign. In the coastal city of Alexandria, the Brotherhood paid for a rat extermination campaign. The group’s charities operate mobile medical clinics in slums and rural areas year round.
Some factions within the opposition are catching on. The Social Democratic Party says it has started building schools on the outskirts of Giza, Cairo’s dense and populous sister city along the Nile, where Islamists command wide support. The April 6th youth movement, a group of liberal political activists that helped launch the revolution, sent a mobile medical clinic this month to Beni Suef, a deeply conservative town in central Egypt.
But the liberal and secular forces lack the ideological drive and cult-like organizational discipline that the Brotherhood has honed over several decades of semi-clandestine existence, notes Trager, in a must-read lecture to the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
In its highly developed system for recruiting and socializing committed activists, the Brotherhood pursues high-achievers – “the high school president, the best soccer player,” he says:
“Why? Because the Brotherhood is trying to create a grassroots network for establishing that Islamic state. It wants people who will grow the organization, and that requires winners—people that others will want to follow.”
New recruits must go through a five-to-eight-year process, “during which they’re weeding out anyone who might not be committed to the organization’s principles and might not be willing to follow the organization’s leaders,” says Trager:
Once you’re recruited, you become a muhib (literally, a “fan” or “lover”). This is a six-month to one-year stage in which you’re watched. Do you pray five times a day? Do you fast for Ramadan? Do you give charity? Are you a good person? Do you fit in well socially with the organization? …
If you pass an exam, you become what’s called a muayyad, a supporter. That lasts from one to three years, and at this stage you start learning the Brotherhood’s curriculum. They have a set curriculum. It includes rote memorization. You’re taught how to preach at mosques. You’re given certain local responsibilities. Throughout this process you are guided by three senior Brotherhood leaders who are watching you.
If you pass an exam you become a muntasib, which means “affiliated.” That lasts for a year. At this stage, you’re penciled in as a member. They could still throw you out if they don’t think that you’re a good fit, if you don’t follow orders, if you’re not really that committed to the organization’s principles. But at this stage you also start giving six to eight percent of your income to the Muslim Brotherhood. …
If you pass the exam at this stage, you become a muntazim, an organizer. This lasts for about another two years. This is the first time you’re able to vote in Brotherhood internal elections, and you can have a local leadership position.
If you pass this exam, you become an ach amal, a “working brother,” and you take what’s called a bayah or an oath to the organization to follow its senior leaders’ decisions.
“This is not at all like a standard political party. It is actually much closer to the way a cult works,” notes Trager.
In addition to its intensive process of ideological education, he says, the Brotherhood has fashioned equally impressive mechanisms for socialization and imposing political discipline, staring with the usra, or “family” – the equivalent of a Communist Party cell:
This is a group of five to eight Muslim Brothers. They meet weekly for about three hours. They discuss the Quran, religious texts, the Brotherhood’s curriculum, politics. They share their personal lives. The members of this group become a Muslim Brother’s best friends. The people that you work most closely with are in your usra. The usra is a mechanism through which the Brotherhood embeds your social relationships into the organization so that you’re less likely to disobey it due to peer pressure and you’re less likely to leave it because you’ll be leaving your best friends.
Six to twelve families makes up a populace or a sho‘aba. A number of those make up a muntaqa or an area. A number of those make up a governorate, which is like a state or a province in Egypt. ….. Then at the very top of this pyramid is the Guidance Office, an executive body composed of twenty Muslim Brothers, and the Shura Committee, a legislative body made up of some 120 Muslim Brothers.
The effectiveness of this organizational discipline was evident in the Brotherhood’s response to the early Tahrir Square protests, says Trager:
By way of illustration, in the days preceding the revolution’s first demonstrations on January 25, 2011, the Shura Committee voted and the Guidance Office passed down the ruling that members would not participate in those demonstrations. Why didn’t they participate in the revolution when it started? First, because the Brotherhood at that time was an 83-year-old organization; it wasn’t going to follow kids—as they called them—who were on Facebook and Twitter into the Square. They are an established organization. They have protocols. ….
The second reason is that the Mubarak regime had told the Guidance Office that if they participated in the protests, the whole Guidance Office would be arrested. So the Brotherhood passed down a decision that Muslim Brothers should not participate in the demonstrations and that if they did, they should not identify themselves as Muslim Brothers or carry the Brotherhood flag. Despite not participating, on January….half of the Guidance Office was arrested anyway. So the following night the Brotherhood decided in its Shura Committee and then executed through the Guidance Office that it would participate in the revolution.
The Brotherhood’s monolithic, totalizing approach to politics is one reason why the group’s claim that the Guidance Office, the Freedom and Justice Party, and the [Muhammed] Morsi (above) presidency are independent of each other lacks credibility, since all three institutions are “intermixed” with the Shura Committee, Trager contends:
All of the Guidance Office are members of the Shura Committee. The four most important members are Khairat al-Shater, Mahmoud Ezzat, Mahmoud Ghozlan, and Mahmoud Hussein. Within the Morsi presidency, at least three presidential advisors are members of the Shura Committee. …. The point here is that decisions reached by that Shura Committee are binding on all Muslim Brothers. If all these people are meeting in the same room reaching key decisions, then this Shura Committee is a key driver of the Brotherhood’s actions in the Morsi presidency, in Parliament, in the new ruling party, and, of course, in the Brotherhood itself.
Contrary to the “pothole theory” that the responsibilities of political office will dilute the group’s ideological commitments, “the Brotherhood’s organizational capability is another factor in why it is unlikely to moderate,” Trager argues:
If you’re the only organized political force, you’re probably going to win, and if you keep winning, why would you concede anything ideologically? So as long as the Brotherhood is Egypt’s only organized political force, there’s simply no incentive for it to moderate.
If anything, the current state of Egyptian politics will likely pull the Brotherhood to the right, given that their strongest opponents are the Salafists…. This will create substantial pressure on the Brotherhood in the long-run in particular. Think of yourself as a young Islamist. If you have a choice either to join the Muslim Brotherhood, which takes five to eight years and requires that you follow a very senior leadership, or become a Salafist multazim, which takes five minutes and you can follow any Salafist sheikh you want, it’s obvious which choice is more attractive.