The Muslim Brotherhood connects with Egypt’s rural majority
Many may hate the Brotherhood, but its concern for the poor has helped to make it the region’s most successful grassroots movement
Magdi Abdelhadi Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/25/muslim-brotherhood-egypt
‘Mohamed Morsi was certainly aided by many secular voters who, despite their visceral dislike of the Muslim Brothers, voted for him to prevent a return to the old regime.’ Photograph: Str/EPA
The Muslim Brothers have been hounded and persecuted throughout their long history, so their resilience and tenacity is not only to be admired and respected, but should also be held as an example for those who wish to make a difference in Egypt’s vibrant but chaotic post-Mubarak political landscape.
You may not like their populism, conservatism and anachronistic ideology, but as an organisation they are impressive. I don’t ever recall visiting their headquarters or talking to their leaders without feeling a strong sense of discipline, focus and commitment.
Their history is evidence that they have paid a heavy price for their belief in an idea. Their founder, Hassan al-Banna, was assassinated by state agents in 1949. One of their best-known intellectuals, Sayyid Qutb, was hanged by Nasser in 1966. Many have languished in jails for years.
It would have been profoundly unfair to deny them the fruit of their long and unwavering political struggle.
It’s true that notorious jihadi groups have been inspired by the teachings of Qutb – namely that modern society is pagan and ungodly and that true Muslims should reject it and take up arms against it.
But the Muslim Brotherhood of today has distanced itself from such ideas and is committed to normal politics.
The organisation may be run by old men, but it has proven to be nimble, astute, pragmatic and far-sighted. Its repeated electoral victories are ample evidence.
Although it had originally promised not to contest the presidential election, in the end it had to. Critics accused it of opportunism and lying. On the contrary, contesting the election was a far-sighted decision which was finally vindicated.
The reason for the Brotherhood changing its mind lies in the bumpy and chaotic political struggle with the ruling army generals on the one hand, and secular forces on the other.
The Brotherhood knew that there was a big risk that the constitutional court would dissolve the parliament where it had a majority. Fearing that it might be left out in the cold, it fielded its strongman, Khairat El Shater. But suspecting that Shater might be disqualified on technical grounds (which he subsequently was) the Brotherhood had a plan B: Mohamed Morsi who – against all the odds – won the race.
If that’s is not politics of the highest order, I don’t know what is.
Despite Morsi’s obvious drawbacks – dullness and lack of charisma and his being the movement’s second choice – he won. He was certainly aided in that by many secular voters who, despite their visceral dislike of the Muslim Brothers, voted for him to prevent a return to the old regime.
The electoral campaign was not as slick and costly as that of Ahmed Shafiq, which was paid for by Mubarak-era businessmen now hiding in Europe. The Brotherhood’s history and reputation were subjected to a relentless campaign of scaremongering and character assassination in state as well as private media. Yet it fended off all that.
The Brotherhood was also the first to produce a credible vote tally that showed Morsi as the winner. Many disagreed, but the tally was largely confirmed when the official result was announced. That too should be added to the Brotherhood’s score sheet.
This is an organisation based on a commitment to an idea, years of training and discipline. That’s how you build a political party. Parties built around a person or a group of people will eventually die when they pass away or when they fall out, as often is the case in Egypt.
There are so many people who hate the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and beyond. But no one can deny that they have proven to be the most successful grassroots movement across the entire region.
The Brotherhood is the closest one can find in Egypt today to an independent political institution where established practices and commitment to an idea seem to trounce blood ties and financial interests.
It’s not only populist, but also truly popular. Its members are drawn from all walks of life – middle-class professionals as well as workers and peasants.
Although the leadership is made up mainly of academic and professionals, they tend to come from a rural environment. That makes them more organically linked to the social fabric of the countryside (where a majority of Egyptians live) than the urban-based secular parties.
Their hospitals and other charity work have been a key component in their history to evolve as a movement from and to the people. This has often been criticised by their rivals as bribing the electorate. That may very well appear to be so at times of election.
But their bond with their constituencies is not seasonal. Care for the poor and the weak is central to Islamic teaching, and they would not have enjoyed the support they do if they had not lived up to those ideals.
Egypt’s “liberal” millionaires may be able to open party headquarters up and down the country and spend lavishly to buy support but they will not produce commitment based on belief in an idea.
I have frequently heard liberals complain that Tahrir Square had been hijacked by the “riff raff”, or “backward” Egyptians from the countryside on days when the majority of those demonstrating there were supporters of the Muslim Brothers and other Islamist groups.
This goes to show not only how cut off the secular minority is from the rest of country, but how little respect they have for the poor and ordinary people.
Egypt is certainly not in the middle and upper class enclaves of Zamalek and Mohandiseen of Cairo. The majority of Egyptians live in the countryside.
Unless the liberals and other secular forces learn from the commitment and organisational skills of the Muslim Brothers, leave their affluent ghettos in the big cities and venture out in the countryside, they will remain condemned to a handful of seats in any future election.