Interview Amr Hamzawy
An expert on Arab political movements, he is research director and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East Center in Beirut. Here, he outlines the tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood's old and new guard, and describes the challenges the group faces as it tries to gain political power in the post-Mubarak era. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on February 8, 2011.
What does this moment mean for Egypt and for the region and beyond?
It means that we are finally seeing citizens moving beyond authoritarian structures which have been imposed on them since the 1950s, 1960s. Back then, we had a set of military coup d'etats. Generals came to power; officers came to power, organized politics in an authoritarian manner. And this has been sustained throughout the last six decades.
What we are seeing now really moves beyond attempts by opposition parties, Islamists, otherwise, to challenge that. We are seeing citizens challenging that. It's a big change.
We are seeing a nonideological grassroots movement, which is not inspired by grand ideological banners -- Islamist, liberal, leftist. We are seeing citizens which simply raise democratic demands. We need our basic rights. ...
I would call it a revolution. We have seen millions of people taking to the streets since Jan. 25. The central slogan has been change, freedom and social justice. This is not Islamist, not ideological.
What does this moment mean for the Muslim Brotherhood?
It's challenging, it's undermining, and it has some potential for them.
It's challenging, because a constituency which has moved to create the revolution and to take to the streets in Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere is not a Brotherhood constituency. These are representatives of the silent majority, which has never been politicized, has never participated in elections before, has never voted before, and has never been part of any political party or social-political entity/religious entity like the Brotherhood. This is a new constituency, and they do not know what's going on. These are not the 10 to 15 percent share of the Egyptian political scene as they have been having it since the 1970s.
It's challenging, because these demonstrators have been raising demands which are not ideological. They are not inspired by Islamists as a solution. In fact, they are calling for exactly the opposite -- a civil state, as they call it -- for guaranteeing the secular nature of Egyptian politics. And in that dynamism, young Ikhwan members are present. They play an important role, but they are only one faction.
A third point of why it is challenging -- this is not the regime versus Ikhwan. It is the regime which governed Egypt since the 1950s increasing the authoritarianism the last three decades under [Hosni] Mubarak, [versus] whoever has been left out of that throughout the last five decades.
The Muslim Brotherhood has become an integral part of the system in its own way. Yes, it's bad, but it has been a domesticated opposition of sorts. It has participated in elections. It was fine with a 20 percent share of the People's Assembly in spite of the lack of effectiveness in terms of impacting the legislative agenda or really practicing oversight over the government or over the regime.
It has been an integral part of the system in the sense of sort of being satisfied with minor gains, which would be granted after waves of mobilization. So they mobilized in the 1980s, got a couple of seats; mobilized again in the 1990s and got a bit more seats in 2005.
And they even submitted to the authoritarian reversal of Egyptian politics, which took place between 2005 and 2010. They did nothing. I mean, they saw themselves losing seats in the People's Assembly in 2010, and they were happy with it. They did not do much. So they are caught in the very logic of the authoritarian game, and this is being challenged. So how to reposition themselves is very challenging.
How do you think they might do that?
Well, this is going to be a very tough process. It's a big organization with a degree of discipline. However, it's an organization which has been seeing internal struggles increasingly in the last five years.
We have been hearing about different factions. The media has tried to frame it in the sense of old guard/young guard; pro-reform/anti-reform; pro-participation/anti-participation; missionaries as opposed to political animals and activists. But it's a big organization, which is bound to move very slowly.
Secondly, the Brotherhood intrinsically has incorporated the very logic of the authoritarian game. And if you see them in the last days negotiating and dialoguing with the vice president, what they have put forward in public [have been] the same demands, like everyone else: Democratize and open up.
But they might be after small gains: Lift the legal ban on the movement; give us a chance to legalize a political party; guarantee for us a couple of seats when the elections and the current Parliament in some districts and some seats will be repeated, because of court rulings.
So they might be after minor gains, which once again sustains the authoritarian game. How to move beyond that?
And finally, you have a challenge within the movement between its young members, who are on the ground at the Tahrir Square and really pushing the same direction like most protesters -- we need a sustained democratization of Egypt -- and the old guard, which will be challenged in a democratic polity. How to move beyond simple slogans, anti-establishment, pro-religious messages? How to move beyond that and offer a recipe for how to democratize Egypt?
In that young movement within the Muslim Brotherhood, it seems to me there's a lot of political energy. Can these young forces coming up energize the Muslim Brotherhood again, or do you think it's just too old a structure and it's going to have to sort of fall apart and be remade?
The young activists can re-energize the movement. In fact, they have been trying to re-energize the movement under the conditions of authoritarianism and the minor role assigned to the movement in the last years. It has been a very tough, frustrating process for them.
Those who are out there in the Tahrir Square have moved beyond the movement. It means the movement never called on its activists to protest. The call to protest on Jan. 25 and before was coming from other directions, but never from the Muslim Brotherhood.
In a way, there's an act of defiance, which these Ikhwan members are doing by being at the Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt since Jan. 25.. It is the young members who are stating and telling and forming the old guard what to do. And the old guard, they are trying to catch up, and they are not catching up.
Questions of internal democracy and so on have never been answered in a satisfactory manner to the young members.
The third issue. Whereas the old guard does not trust nonideological forces, liberal parties, leftist parties, these young members are coming from a completely different background. They have been working hand in hand with liberals, leftists, with nonideological movements and networks on the ground.
They are socialized and politicized in a moment of cross-ideological cooperation and coordination, and if they are going to take that energy up to the organization, this is going to be an issue of conflict with the old guard, which does not trust whoever stands outside the Brotherhood.
So of course, in fairness to some members of the old guard, there are some key figures, like [Abdel Monem] Aboul Fotouh, who have been on the right side in terms of cross-ideological coordination and national demands and reaching out. But he has been marginalized and isolated inside the movement.
So that energy can exist, and they can change the movement. However, the other possibility of the movement breaking apart is going to be there as well.
But in imagining that we will have more liberal regulations pertaining to how to legalize political parties, many inside the movement might be inspired to create their own parties and own platforms while keeping the grand affiliation to the idea of the Brotherhood as a movement committed to reforming society and politics in Egypt.
Yes. They have a considerable constituency in Egypt. And even if we are talking about 10 to 15 percent and with a good degree of organization, which the movement has been sustaining over the last decades, in spite of the ban and in spite of waves of government repression and waves of exclusion throughout the last four decades, they have sustained the organization apparatus, and they have their constituents.
They are going to be an integral part of the scene. But whether they will play a central role or not really depends on how they will manage the tensions inside them between the young guys with the new energy, with the cross-ideological understanding and cross-ideological coordination and the old guard, and whether they will manage or not to reposition themselves if the system opens up, and whether they will be able to find partners or not, because one of the troubles of the Brotherhood throughout the last decades has been that the movement was never defended by anyone outside it. I mean, it was not only looked at as an adversary by the regime but by other opposition parties as well, which mistrust the movement for different reasons -- I mean, the arrogance of "We have the real constituencies out there; we can bring voters to the polling centers, and you cannot." So there's a long history of mistrust.
But didn't [Mohamed El]Baradei get his signatures essentially from the Muslim Brotherhood mobilizing on this?
No, no, no. That's a myth. No, this was the movements on the ground now which gave ElBaradei the long list of signatories for his petition to reform Egypt and amend the Constitution. The Brotherhood adopted ElBaradei's petition and Baradei's demands for a few weeks and then gave up on them as they participated in the elections of 2010. So they were very reluctant to endorse ElBaradei, and they never endorsed him in a way which would lead me to say that whatever happened before Jan. 25 was created by them. It's not true.
OK, but they did ultimately endorse him, and they did ultimately get some of the signatures on his --
Right. And then they pulled away from him. He called for a boycott of the elections. They participated in the elections. He is now saying, "Well, do not negotiate until the authoritarian game is reversed," and they are negotiating. So no, they are not coordinating with ElBaradei or with anyone else.
What does it say about the Muslim Brotherhood when they met with the vice president [Omar Suleiman] that Sunday?
The meeting, of course, signified in an unprecedented manner the willingness of the establishment to accept and legalize the existence of the Brotherhood. It was the first time for them to sit, not as members of the Parliament, but for them as a movement to sit in a meeting between the establishment and opposition forces.
The government and state-sponsored media used to call the Brotherhood the "banned organization." Now it is the Muslim Brotherhood. So it's a first step toward legalizing them.
The moment does [point out] the willingness of the establishment to open up the system a bit. But not to a great extent, because what is being offered to the Brotherhood is a legalization. Therefore they know they can contest the elections in the districts where the elections would be repeated, and probably they will end up having 20 to 30 seats out of the 200 where elections will be repeated.
But that said, the government has yet to submit to whatever else the Brotherhood is demanding -- an end to the emergency law and the set of constitutional and legal amendments and changes which have come to be a consensus issue in Egypt.
About the movement itself, the fact that they went to the meeting tells us much, much more. It tells us that this movement does not have a clear strategy as to how to manage its role in the transitional period, because we have been hearing contradictory signs, right? Couple of days we will not go; in a couple of days we will go; and then we will not go. And then they went. So this sort of ambivalence about how to position themselves in that transitional period is clear.
Secondly, the movement went out of the meeting and were very, very positive about what was offered to them, and in complete distance to the perception and views at the Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt, where people continue to mistrust -- and I belong to those who mistrust what the establishment is offering -- and see in it more of a consolidation pattern and not a democratization pattern.
The Brotherhood went out of the meeting, be it they lack the strategic view, be it they lack clarity or they are after minor gains, a couple of seats -- they gave their support for minor steps, which do not add up to a real reform package.
Thirdly, they gave their support in a moment where everyone at the Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt is calling for two major steps: Put those who are responsible for the bloodshed on trial; and let the public opinion know how we are going to honor the victims of the Jan. 25 revolution. They did not say a single word about it.
One of the things that you do see in Tahrir Square from the Muslim Brotherhood is the organization. I know that there are a lot of different opposition movements, but who are the men actually manning the checkpoints as you come in? Who's serving tea along the side there? Who's really organizing the trash pickups? It's the Muslim Brotherhood.
Right. That's very true. The physical sense, the organization of the space is in the Brotherhood's hand. And it's not only garbage collection, teacups and so forth. It's even the one microphone or the two microphones we have to address the crowd.
They are owned by the Muslim Brotherhood, which attests to the strong organizational skills of the movement. Not only that, in fact. Those who defended the demonstrators on Tuesday and Wednesday were Ikhwan members, and many Ikhwan protesters started to believe in the commitment of Ikhwan members after these two nights. I mean, these were the guys who were defending the crowd in Tahrir against the thugs of the NDP [National Democratic Party].
So, strong organizational skills. However, they billed these organizational skills as a religious movement, which has managed to generate great social capital in Egypt and sometimes has been able to translate that social capital into political capital within the authoritarian framework of Egyptian politics. Because they have been offering social services, they have been quite powerful in terms of grassroots activities. They have managed to get their voters out on election days to vote --10 to 20 percent, a bit more, a bit less, in the last elections. Once you open up the system, these organization assets, of course, are going to give the Brotherhood a good starting point to compete over whatever is going to be up for competition.
But once you open up the system, I am certain with the level of organization which we saw among young protesters -- which is informal and nonconventional -- they can catch up very quickly. You give them freedom of association, they will be able to organize quickly.
I'm referring, for example, to an initiative which started on Facebook four days ago to establish a socially responsible liberal party. More than 10,000 signatures in four days. And this is not only about virtual reality. This is real, real reality. This is what happened on Jan. 25.
The Muslim Brotherhood, particularly some of the younger people, are aggressive in the way they're social networking. That seems to be a place where this young generation is going to really be influential in terms of taking the organizational structure and getting the message out.
No, it's not going to change the game, because they are not the only ones who have that set of skills. In fact, they haven't played a great role in terms of organizing, mobilizing for Jan. 25 and later for Jan. 28. This was done by movements which are not Ikhwan-affiliated. This was not done by the young Ikhwan members. And they played a minor role. That set of skills is no longer a prerogative of the Brotherhood and no else has it. It's not true.
Secondly, the message young Ikhwan activists are putting forward is not a conventional Ikhwan message. I mean, this is not about Islam as a solution or about full implementation of the Shariah [Islamic law], or this is not about Islamizing Egyptian society. No, what they are saying up until now is democratize Egypt, equal citizenship rights. They are pushing in the same direction as many young protesters, the networks and movements, trying to open up the system.
What is going to remain Islamist about what they are saying? If you are saying change, freedom and social justice, what is distinctively Islamist about that message?
They will have to answer that question. And they will have to try to keep being part of the national movement calling for democratization. They will have a big tension. These tensions are very difficult to answer in ideological movements, and this will take part of their energy.
So, once again, they are going to be with us. They will be an integral part of what's going on, but any exaggeration of them taking over does not say much, because that "them" no longer exists. They are a part of what's going on the ground, the young members at least. And they are sending out a message which is not only Islamist; it's more of a national-consensus message.
As the movement transforms itself and starts to move forward, is there a possibility that that movement becomes one Islamist movement that the United States can actually deal with?
Yes. Yes. Of course, political Islam will continue to be a force. I mean, how it's going to organize, assuming that we will manage to open up the system, is a big question. Is it going to be a set of parties or one party? I'm not sure. Is it going to be the organization, the movement and a party linked, or functionally separated?
We have seen different experiences across the Middle East and even across the Arab Muslim world. Look at Turkey, Indonesia, Morocco and elsewhere. There are different experiences.
So these questions -- whether one party or more than one party, whether affiliated to the movement, linked to it or functionally separate and independent, autonomous -- these questions will be tackled.
What should be assuring from a U.S. perspective is that regardless of how it's going to go, if you open up the system, the Islamist component will be challenged to follow a centrist path. They will always try to keep their distinctiveness to appeal to their religious-committed constituencies. They will keep that. But they will have to follow a centrist path and that transitional period, because only that centrist path enables you to answer the real questions, which are relevant to the transitional period: how to create consensus over a set of national demands to democratize Egypt.
This is not about being anti-peace process or anti-peace treaty with Israel. This is not about being anti-Western or anti-American. This is going to be pushed to the sidelines. They will have to follow a centrist path.
Thirdly, what the Muslim Brotherhood has been saying, even in its current, still-existing conventional form, in fact, should have been assuring to everyone outside Egypt. I mean, they have stated before 2005 and before 2010, before the elections, that in case they have enough representation to form a government that they would never touch the peace treaty with Israel; that they are not going to change the pattern of pro-Western, pro-American alliance or foreign policy and regional policy that Egypt has been pursuing. They have neutralized that issue from the very beginning, even under the conditions of authoritarianism.
I don't think Washington knows about that.
No, they know about it, but they have submitted too long to the scare tactics by Mubarak and the Egyptian regime, telling them: "No, do not trust them. What they say to you is not what they tell us, is not what our intelligence knows." This is what they did. No, Washington did hear that very well. And I'm certain of what I'm saying. I mean, there were meetings.
Right. Yet United States has continued to play this fear card with the Muslim Brotherhood, as has the regime. What is in that for the United States just from a U.S. foreign policy perspective?
Once again, it boils down to what will be the position of the movement if Egyptian politics democratize. If the U.S. is looking at a plurality of actors in Egypt, which by no means can be reduced to a duality of regime [versus] the Muslim Brotherhood, I guess the U.S. will be more satisfied and more at ease to reach out to everyone. ...
What continues to be frightening about Egyptian politics is that we have always had this duality between a pro-Western, pro-American regime, and a rhetorically, at least, a bit of anti-Western, anti-American, big opposition movement, and in between minor groups, irrelevant movements, irrelevant parties, too weak to be influential.
That duality has been challenging and has always enabled the regime in Egypt to put forward the fear card. No, no, no, watch out.
So what will happen next? If we democratize and if we take seriously what has been happening in Egypt, in terms of the street dynamism, if we get the right mix of constitution and legal and political reforms, we will have a plurality of actors entering Egypt's political scene.
It will no longer be that duality. That is going to be assuring that there is a structure which the U.S. can be comfortable looking at.
Secondly, what would be even more assuring is to see more than one Islamist party. Once we do not have one single party which claims monopoly over representing Islam in politics, that is more assuring, like Morocco, for example, like Turkey, where we have a plurality of actors, and then they compete among themselves and with other actors.
Thirdly, the administration has to define for itself how to put in the constitution and in the legal framework governing Egyptian politics enough safeguards to ensure the secular nature of politics, and in which religious-inspired parties participate and have to submit. They cannot move around, sort of as the Brotherhood has been doing, the civil nature of Egyptian politics. Citizens, Muslims and all have equal citizenship rights -- that they can no longer say, "Well, we are fine with you guys, but you cannot run for the presidency." This can no longer be the case. So, how to put enough safeguards in the constitution and legal framework to ensure that?
Article II of the constitution will be a critical place where this country redefines itself. Or perhaps, as was being discussed earlier, you start all over and write a new constitution. What role would the Muslim Brotherhood play in that? What fears might you have about how they'll interpret that part of the constitution?
They have a huge interest in keeping Article II as is, unchanged, because Article II states Shariah is the major source of legislation. And the fact [is] the Brotherhood has blocked discussions in the last years in Egyptian civil society, in the opposition spectrum, to at least raise the issue of Article II and whether it entails a degree of discrimination against non-Muslims in Egypt.
To my mind, it entails a clear degree of discrimination against non-Muslims. They are going to push for sustaining it, maintaining it. I'm not sure about where the young members stand on that, but I sense that the movement is quite united on that issue [to] keep it.
Now, the question becomes how other actors and parties are going to position themselves vis-à-vis Article II of the constitution, and whether the government, once we move beyond the authoritarian tactics of the last years, would have enough power to say, "No, I'm going to change it, and I do not mind what the Brotherhood is going to say," because the government was afraid of touching it in 2007. We had 34 articles of the constitution amended, and we had an introduction of a citizenship article, right, saying that Egypt's political system is based on the equal citizenship rights for everyone. They kept Article II because they were afraid of the Brotherhood. But it's one key issue which nonideological forces in Egypt are determined to address.
What do you see happening here? Where is this headed?
It's too early to judge. I see two patterns. You still have an authoritarian logic intrinsically dominant in the establishment. And based on that, they are doing their minor concessions -- inviting to dialogues, not offering a package of reform. It's more of a consolidation pattern, and they use whatever fear tactics and scare tactics they have: the Brotherhood, chaos and so on and so forth.
And then we have a sustained pressure, democratization pressure coming from Tahrir Square and from the protesting networks and movements. And I do not see it weakening or losing momentum. They are, in fact, more determined than ever to continue and to develop their work, organizationally, addressing the issue of who represents whom, figuring out what to do and sort of not anti-establishment structures, but in a parallel structure, where they can define the rules of the game, not submit to the establishment's definition of the rules of the game.
Overall, we still lack a clear definition of what an orderly transition to democracy can look like in Egypt. And this is an issue of contestation. I guess it's going to be long, messy, and we will have to keep following it for sometime.