A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Muslim Brotherhood's Real Problem: Its Secrecy

I already linked earlier today to Nathan Brown's piece at The National Interest on the Khairat al-Shater nomination. In passing, he remarks:
The problem for Egypt is not al-Shater personally. Since the Brotherhood is still a fairly closed organization with a strong sense of discipline, it is difficult to state with precision very much about individual leaders.
This touches on a factor that I feel hasn't been talked about very much. The sudden emergence (eruption?) of the Brotherhood from the shadows of a nominally banned organization (but a tolerated one much of the time) into a commanding role in Parliament, in the constituent assembly, and now perhaps int he Presidential race has drawn a lot of attention, and a great many pundits who may still not be all that enthusiastic about the Brotherhood's agenda feel compelled to write think pieces about how the US is going to have to learn with Islamists (true enough: they're out there) and how the Brotherhood is really moderate (so far, so good). But what still bothers some of us, and many Egyptians as well as far as I can tell, is the total lack of transparency about how the organization works.  It was founded as a secretive, underground, cell-based revolutionary organization. Now, it says, it is ready to play a democratic role in an open system in which it does not seek dominance but wants to be a player in a genuinely democratic system. Though it wants to do so as a secretive, semi-above-ground, cell-based organization.

I wouldn't personally have voted for the MB — not just because I'm not Muslim, but because on a wide range of issues from women's rights to minority rights to personal freedoms I think they're either wrong or I'm suspicious of their suddenly shifted stance. I think they should be allowed to play a political role because they clearly represent a powerful constituency, but I also think it's worth some caution (and constitutional checks and balances) to assure they're really what they claim now to be.

But, of course, I'm not an Egyptian, and no one is going to ask me. Nor should they.

But I do think one reason so many Egyptians seem upset by the Shater nomination is that it has suddenly, and at a critical moment of confrontation over the constituent assembly, reminded everyone of how the MB makes decisions. Or rather, reminded everyone of how none of us really has much of an idea of how the MB makes decisions.

  • The Brotherhood had not only sworn time after time that it would not run a candidate but even read Abdel-Moneim Abu'l-Futuh out of its ranks for daring to run; yet it suddenly, for reasons everyone is still speculating about, reversed itself. Some say it lied. Did it intend to do this all along? Did it change its mind precipitately? Will anyone ever know for sure?
  • Many reports have claimed that the MB's Shura Council only narrowly endorsed Shater. Several figures have quit the Brotherhood in protest already, but no one is sure what the exact vote was or how narrow the margin because details are based on leaks. Anyone watching the current primary season in the US must think occasionally, "There must be a better way to choose a candidate," but I'm pretty sure the behind-closed-door secrecy of the MB isn't it.
  • Before the announcement, there were reports (true or false? we'll never know) of major disagreements between the MB leadership and the Brotherhood's political vehicle, the Freedom and Justice Party. But once the Brotherhood spoke, the FJP announced (discovered?) that Shater was its nominee. So the way to win the "FJP primary" is to be anointed by the Brotherhood, but how exactly do you do that?
  • Shater strikes many as the brains behind the Brotherhood's current leadership. Whose idea was his candidacy? General Guide Badia's? Shater's own? Who knows for sure?
  • If this is how they choose their candidate, how will they govern?
MB Founder Hasan al-Banna
Of course when Hasan al-Banna created the Brotherhood in the late 1920s and crafted its organization through the 1930s, cell-based underground movements were all the rage, both on the far left and the far right, especially in Europe. In Egypt and other Arab countries Communists and various shades of fascist movements were adopting such organization, and the Brothers did the same. They found themselves in a covert war with the Palace and the British and their secret wing operated as a vehicle for revolutionary violence. All that has supposedly receded into history, but the secrecy still prevails. Yes, they were harassed and persecuted under Mubarak,  but never suppressed completely as had been done under Nasser.

The Brotherhood is hardly the first revolutionary movement to find it hard to make the transition to a role in a democracy: a long list from Fatah to Sinn Fein have faced the issue, and success has not always resulted. But I do think that one of the reasons the whole Khairat al-Shater nomination has bothered many people is the fact that it has forcibly reminded Egyptians and others about how little we understand about how the Brothers arrive at decisions, and how the organization really functions. If the Freedom and Justice Party needs to make a decision once in power, will it heed the ballot box or the Shura Council?

That concern may handicap Shater's candidacy before he is fully out of the starting gate, even among many Islamists.

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