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Why The Muslim Brotherhood Has No Rival

Op-Ed: Founded 83 years ago, the Islamic organization manages to be both politically astute and yet rise above politics. But for post-revolution Egypt to turn into a vibrant democracy, other forces must emerge with the same connection to people's

Tahrir Square (Jonathan Rashad)
Tahrir Square (Jonathan Rashad)
Amr el-Shobaki

CAIRO - Some people attribute the Muslim Brotherhood's strength to its organizational coherence and the widespread culture of obedience among its members. Some say the group uses religion to manipulate people's feelings for political ends. Others point to the Brotherhood's 83-year history, which has granted it a wealth of experience in dealing with various political systems.

But these reasons only partly explain the Brotherhood, both its successes and failures over the decades.

Internally, the Brotherhood is characterized by generational and intellectual diversity. The group adopts a comprehensive vision of Islam based on a flexible political and intellectual framework: its members can act as politicians or Parliament members, preachers of good manners, mystics or even revolutionaries when need be. It's no surprise that such a versatile organization has counted among its ranks a conservative judge like Hassan al-Hodeiby, as well as revolutionaries like Sayyed Qutb.

The coherence of the Brotherhood has long perplexed those who fail to understand how group members are able to coexist despite their differences. The Brotherhood's founder, Hassan al-Banna, was a sure genius when it came to organizational matters. He established a multi-layered structure, with many outside admirers and supporters. Even though al-Banna was assassinated more than 60 years ago, the Brotherhood still embodies his core idea of a social-religious group. Unlike a conventional political party, the Brothers see themselves as belonging to a comprehensive Islamic organization where political engagement is just one feature.

The Brotherhood's strong organizational presence before the July revolution in 1952 did not translate into any form of political representation, and the group remained second to the secular Wafd Party in terms of popularity and impact. Similarly, the group's popularity waned after the revolution in the face of Gamal Abel Nasser's charisma. Egyptians chose the Wafd Party before the revolution and Nasser afterward -- both times at the expense of the Brotherhood -- because each one offered a specific political project.

Filling a vacuum

To the minds of many Egyptians, the Wafd Party went beyond mere intellectual discussions about Western theories and philosophies, putting its liberal ideas into action by demanding Egyptian national independence. Nasser, too, had a political project in which Egyptians and Arabs felt invested.
Today, the Wafd Party is a far cry from its pre-1952 ancestor and the contemporary Nasserists bear little resemblance to Nasser himself. Like other political forces, none of them is currently able to formulate a discourse that speaks to the values, politics and culture of Egypt. For three decades of Hosni Mubarak's rule, the state offered no domestic project other than "state security." The ex-president looked down upon Egyptians, humiliating them while routinely succumbing to Israeli pressures.

In this context, the Brotherhood's strength is not just a matter of organizational prowess or tactical experience; it derives from the fact that the group expresses a domestic project, albeit in the language of religion. Egyptians sympathize with the Brotherhood not only because of the group's use of religious slogans, but also because it's a self-financed organization whose members stand in contrast to those rushing to join new parties for personal gain. Add to that the unease created by the immense flow of foreign cash that is funding much of Egypt's civil society, making many Egyptians feel they are surrounded by institutions that are extensions of the outside world, with few local alternatives in sight.

Unless Egypt can produce a civilian political current that springs from domestic political, economic and cultural concerns, the Brotherhood will continue to be the chief political power in Egypt. Alternatively, if Islamists can successfully join their counterparts from the right and left in formulating a national project based on social justice, democracy and cultural Arabism, it will restore a sense of self-confidence to Egyptians. The January 25th revolution, wholly produced within Egypt, will then present a genuine model for renaissance that is not monopolized by the Muslim Brotherhood.

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Photo - Jonathan Rashad

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