The level of emotional attachment (or detachment) of different segments within Egypt is integral to the understanding of the movement’s somewhat ambiguous politics. The very definition of ‘Ikhwan’ itself seems susceptible to change from one person to the other; meaning, the Muslim Brotherhood as an organisation could mean to one the ‘persecuted, pious community organiser’ and to another the ‘lesser evil crook’. This article is in many ways the off spring to years of self-reflection on my identity that existed in the realm of a very politicized home but where talking about the obvious (my father’s politics) was not encouraged. Of course as I matured politically, answering questions about the Muslim Brotherhood was, for a reason I did not understand, a very reactionary thing. So the countless times I have been asked what I thought of the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ as ‘a woman’, my answer would usually be quite defensive. On the other hand, I have little tolerance for the oversimplified rhetoric of Ikhwan sympathizers, who endlessly parade clichés like, ‘No other political movement has suffered as the Muslim Brotherhood have’ to justify blind support. This is a contradiction I am not at ease with but I have reached the conclusion that discounting emotion from the equation is futile, in my case and in many others. In fact analysing the emotional legacy of decades of tyranny and political struggle may be the most useful, at least in the short run where loyalties seem to collapse or consolidate.
Before assuming the role of the analyst, there are a number of material factors within the structure of the Muslim Brotherhood one must consider. Aside from the ‘hierarchal structure’, the movement’s perception of itself and the way it marketed this perception in contrast to the day to day slander of the national media and the condemnation of the government, all these factors contributed to paint a very confused image. It must be noted that very little to none of the theories or example of their founder, Hassan al-Banna, remains a pillar of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
The strength of the Muslim Brotherhood has always lied in its strong and very well established student movement, as well as community organisers in deprived rural and urban areas. The vast majority of these activists are well-read, hardworking, organized youth with a very strong sense of religious morality. The repression they face is quite common knowledge and so a good percentage of society sympathizes with them. The Ikhwani students and activists are to most Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers the face of the Ikhwan. The real dilemma lays now in how much power these activists have within the Muslim Brotherhood.
The members of the Executive Office (leaders of Ikhwan) were virtually unknowns to the wider society and to a great extent they still are. For practical and historical reasons the hierarchy is quite horizontal. This became an issue when they started participating in parliamentary elections in the 2000’s and after the revolution with the expulsion of many young activists who played an instrumental role in the Revolution. This I believe will bring about the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood (and I believe a neo-Ikhwan movement may eventually arise).
The ‘Ikhwanophobic’ – a term coined after the Revolution – sentiments harboured mainly by middle and upper classes, the poor to a lesser but still quite significant extent, are also to a large degree due to legacy of years of dictatorship. The ‘enlightened secularist’ facade of the 1990’s created an elitist complex to the unpoliticized middle class. This created a bizarre sense of self-loathing, orientalist view of oneself. So, the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood must be illiterate, impressionable, ‘Islamised’ peasants. This self-image did not, however, stand the test of time. Egyptians, facing harsh economic realities due to the insane levels privatization and a militant police force that after 1997 resembled a mercenary army – looting and pillaging, became a defeatist in their self-loathing even more frightened to be associated in any way, shape or form to anyone from the Muslim Brotherhood. This mentality is still very much present; unfortunately not only with the segment of society that is politically apathetic but also with many activists who had not made the effort to move beyond their social circles.
Understanding the Muslim Brotherhood’s perception of itself is a complex matter based on a history of accumulated persecution, bitterness, idealism, conservatism, revolt, exile, defeats, and success. Having been raised among Ikhwan circles, myself, I shall use my personal experience as an example as well as some of my personal and family friends (all of whom will be anonymous of course).
Certain images of my childhood still linger in present, seemingly unimportant at the time, but in hindsight they may have shaped my identity – or identity crisis. Images I have seen, such as framed portrait of Sayyid Qutb on the wall of the house where I grew up. Memories like my grandmother’s stories on how my father at the age of 19 would fall unconscious and bloody on the cold floor of the prison cell, how he lost his teeth, how he was dragged in secret from one prison to the other. I recall a massive meetings which we were not allowed to ever mention; a certain guest who never seemed to leave (later I found out that he was hiding from the secret police, now he’s one of the Ikhwan’s TV faces). Unlike many Ikhwans, my father never got us involved in his political clique, all we knew about his political work was through the gossip of others. I only found out the actual date he left the Brotherhood after Mubarak fell.
This is my brief categorization and analysis of the mind-sets of those related to the Muslim Brotherhood in one way or the other.
1- Children of the 1950’s-1980’s Ikhwan ‘Youth':-
a- Student activists who chose to enter political cadres of the Muslim Brotherhood:-
1990’s Egypt was not the most hospitable place for Islamist intellectuals and activists, to say the very least. The political mood of the 90’s is a hangover from defeatist 1980’s nationalist rhetoric, among Islamists there was a sense of disparity and hopelessness. Even Sheikh Imam had died. The Arab political discourse focused on failure after failure and the brutal, beyond imagination crackdown on Islamists (after Jamaat Islamiyya tried to take up in arms and after a Mubarak assassination attempt). In Egypt the ‘Post Pan Arabic’ self-loathing turned into cynicism. The new Millennium gave birth to the ‘Second Intifada’; this gave power to the new generation (the generation that overthrew Mubarak) to see that cynicism is a result of frustrations not philosophy. The Hamas – Ikhwan link is historic and so with the old age Pan Arab inspiration – Palestine – and the morals plus the romantic Islamic, anti-imperialist, and Revolutionary ideals the Muslim Brotherhood (at least to them) has been founded upon. And so being vaguely familiar with the dangers of activism and basic religious and socio-political structure of the Ikhwan, most of these activists can give a healthy and objective analysis of the flaws within the Ikhwan (before and after the Revolution) and they can also correct misconceptions without circling the wounds left by dictatorship to define themselves.
b- Those born and raised in exile:-
Exile is a terrible mentality to get into. Children of Ikhwan exiles, especially those in Europe, and to a lesser extent Turkey, face an identity issue that is more related to nationhood than moralistic principles. A second generation exile especially if the parent had escaped extreme torture, as with the Egyptian Ikhwan or a massacre like the Syrian Ikhwan. The burden of the wound of a parent becomes the constructed ‘mental nation’ for the politicized second generation. The wounds of the pasts, the battles that had been lost, and the skeletons become your identification of a homeland. The more politically active the second generation exile becomes, the more the sense of bitterness grows, a very lonely form of bitterness. You cannot comprehend how the people let the battle be lost; it becomes increasingly difficult to empathize with a people who let you be born with the old, open, infested wounds and the graves be your homeland. It’s a very ‘Karbala’ mentality – to which I can relate but its self-destructive. It makes your life a reaction; you fight someone else’s lost battles.
The exile mentality especially of second generation Ikhwan is crucial to understand because the old elites manipulate them for blind support such as the case of Egyptian Ikhwan exiled youth and their blind support and submission to the Executive Office and the SCAF. I came to think of all of this when the SCAF started sentencing civilians in military trails. These sentences were a lot longer than the two years my father had spent and military prisons are equipped with the same sadistic gimmicks of a normal political dungeon but with a creepy military masochism. I came thinking, second generation exiles will be silent as expected of them while in the future children will be born who despise them and so the Arab cycle of Karbala continues..
c- Politically minded youth but not Ikhwan:-
My own sister was prime example to this. For quite a long time she was sympathetic to the purely Egyptian nationalist, secular, constitutionalist, liberal monarchist movements of the 19th century. My sister’s path was the cliché story of seeking autonomy through claiming opposite beliefs, ideals and identity. However, there is a more upsetting example, the younger half-brother of Imam Hassan al-Banna himself: Gamal al-Banna. Gamal al-Banna dedicated his whole life to the study of Liberalism and Islam, after power politics dominated the higher-ups and purposely marginalized him to make sure he does not become a threat. Gamal al-Banna’s scholarly obsessions unfortunately left him no time to make a family of his own. His identity became a reaction to having his natural family identity stripped away because of power politics.
2- Those that identify with the Muslim Brotherhood but are not politically active.
Those people identify with the Ikhwan for many of the reasons I’ve mentioned earlier, regarding student activists and community organisers in addition to that a good percentile of those people are quite religiously dogmatic. They mirror their extreme conservatism and orthodoxy on politics which is translated in the media, under the reign of the SCAF, by chants of praise and admiration to the Executive Office and Field Marshal Tantawi.
3- Actual Ikhwan activists.
a- Revolutionary Youth expelled (TM Party):-
Not only did the Executive Office not only NOT want to join in the January 25th ‘Protests’ but even after Ikhwan youth and student activists do join in the actual demonstration organisation by joining ‘The Coalition of Youth of the Revolution’ they did not actively encourage them. After the fall of Mubarak, the Executive Office celebrated their victories but when the heat of the moment cooled down, they faced mass expulsion.
The Executive Office shows this as a mere ideological disagreement. I spoke to some of the most inspirational, brightest and bravest Ex-Ikhwans. What I found most striking is they still identify themselves with the idea of the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’. The dilemma of what defines Ikhwan came up again but this time to free myself from the baggage of dictator mentality, fear, the half exile mentality, I thought whatever they are the ‘TM’ youth Ikhwan or not I support them. Traditional Muslim Brotherhood, not as sympathetic, claimed credit for the work done by the youth they kicked out, then they started a smear campaign, then they tried to buy off liberal and leftist Revolutionary youth (who refused, in favour of their comrades, the ex Ikhwans).
One must not view this as a generational or ideological struggle within the Ikhwan. There are plenty of older Muslim Brotherhood members who’d been kicked out but these older members have had long history of struggle that any Egyptian would be proud of but under umbrella of the Ikhwan. Most of whom had lived through all three (four if we count the SCAF) dictatorial regimes in Egypt. Most of whom had joined the Muslim Brotherhood early in their life. They are marginalized so as not to be a power threat and most would rather find a way to talk the Executive Office out of a bad decision (even if they know in their hearts of hearts that they won’t listen), rather than get kicked out now in their 70’s. The youth kicked out also seem careful as not to air out their ‘dirty laundry’, which I personally find bizarre. I would rather have them make a new Muslim Brethren movement and the traditional elites loose the battle for legitimacy.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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