A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

As Parliament Gets Down to Business, the Brotherhood Still Feeling its Way

Egypt's new Parliament has chosen its committees, with the Muslim Brotherhood heading nine of the 19 committees, fewer than its electoral strength might have allowed. Clearly the Brotherhood is still feeling its way, fully cognizant that its relatively good relations with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which is likely to seek to limit Parliament's power. (SCAF unilaterally amended the Presidential election rules before Parliament assembled, though it announced it only after; it seems to want to keep calling the shots.) The Brotherhood, some feel, is gearing up for a challenge to SCAF, and in any event Parliament as a whole, as the only elected body at the moment, is likely to try to turn its legitimacy into real authority. (For nitpickers out there, by "Parliament" I mean the People's Assembly, since the Shura Council elections are still under way. But as I've noted before, even a lot of Egyptians aren't clear why Egypt even has an Upper House. The People's Assembly is what matters.)

One theme that is turning up lately, most recently in this piece by Khalil Anani at Foreign Policy, "Old Habits Die Hard!" After 80 years in the shadows, much of that time officially illegal, the Muslim Brotherhood and, by extension, its new creation the Freedom and Justice Party, are still functioning with the mentality of an opposition underground movement, meeting in secrecy, espousing gradualism rather than revolutionary change. Even the election of the FJP's Secretary-General, Sa‘ad al-Katatni was done with no one outside the party even aware of the process (the Katatni is now the Assembly Speaker).

It's hardly the first time a longtime revolutionary movement is suddenly confronted with the challenge of governance, of course, and the results range from the highly successful to the questionable. The Brotherhood has been around a long time, with a highly organized structure and infrastructure and an Egypt-wide influence despite years underground; getting used to power, especially shared power, may take some adjustment.  Some similar themes occupy Nathan Brown in his latest paper from Carnegie, "When Victory Becomes an Option: Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Confronts Success." (PDF) (Also, here's the first part of a response to Nathan Brown on the Freedom and Justice Party website.)

Unlike their Salafi rivals in Al-Nour, the Muslim Brotherhood does not limit itself to focusing on the hijab or banning beer and bikinis; because it has long drawn its membership from the professional and entrepreneurial classes it takes Egypt's economy seriously, though doing something about it may be a challenge to defy almost any single party. Any political party, Islamist or secular, coming after three decades of corruption and drift, is going to face a formidable task, and the past year's disruptions have crippled an already damaged economy severely. The ultimate test of any party in power is whether it can meet payrolls, collect the garbage, deliver the mail and keep the trains running (if not on time, at least running).

I know there are many who think the ascendancy of the Brotherhood means Egypt is going to be another Iran, or at least break with the US and Israel, destroy its own tourism sector and impose a theocracy. That could still happen, but that sounds more like Al-Nour's platform than the Brotherhood's. They've learned to be cautious — most of the leadership have lots of jail time on their resumes — and are still behaving so. Let's see what happens.

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