Uncertain Future for Muslim Brotherhood in Changing Arab Region

June 24, 2012, was a day full of hope for the Muslim Brotherhood, which before was known as Egypt’s and the Arab world’s most powerful Islamist organization.

On this day, a senior member of the organization was declared the winner of Egypt’s presidential elections, the first to be held in the Arab country following the 2011 popular uprising that ended the rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

The election victory by Mohamed Morsi, who before the presidential elections was hardly known to the majority of the Egyptian people, also gave hope to the branches of his Islamist movement across the Arab region.

The Brotherhood, which emerged as an educational charity organization in Egypt in 1928, could not have been more optimistic.

This optimism was brought about by the series of uprisings that rocked the Arab world at the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 and came to be known as the “Arab Spring”.

These uprisings empowered Islamist movements in Arab countries, with the Brotherhood at their forefront, giving them hope that the road to power was finally open, after decades of repression.

The same movements used to claim that they had solutions to the economic, political and social problems of Arab countries.

In Egypt, the Brotherhood, which adopted the slogan “Islam is the solution”, worked hard to control all aspects of life in the populous Arab state after Morsi took power.

In Tunisia, the Ennahda movement, the Muslim Brotherhood’s affiliate in the North African state, also made political gains. Almost a year before Morsi came to power in Egypt, in October 2011, the movement won 90 seats in the 217-seat constituent assembly which would later draft Tunisia’s first post-revolution constitution.

The Muslim Brotherhood made equally startling political gains in other Arab states, including in Libya, Yemen and Jordan.

In Morocco, the country’s Islamists won the 2011 parliamentary elections and formed the government. They also won the majority of seats in the 2016 elections and formed the government again.

However, the Brotherhood was an utter failure in Egypt. Apart from failing to address the country’s economic problems, they increased its political and social polarization.

Morsi moved from one problem to another by antagonizing the media, the judiciary, the civil society, police and finally the army. This was why when millions of people took to the streets to protest the failure of the Islamist president one year into his presidency in June 2013, almost all state institutions were ready to offer support, including the army which served as a decisive force.

But this was to prove fateful for the Brotherhood, not only in Egypt, but throughout the whole Arab region. The collapse of the Brotherhood regime in Egypt made the organization’s dream of 84 years fall like a house of cards. This led to disbelief among the organization’s members who strutted and fretted, staged protests and sit-ins and finally turned to violence.

They attacked police stations, ministry headquarters and churches. Brotherhood militias killed dozens of policemen and planted hundreds of bombs everywhere in Egypt, precipitating a heavy-handed state crackdown that resulted in hundreds of organization members and leaders being put in jail and hundreds of others fleeing Egypt altogether.

Morsi and most Brotherhood leaders are now being tried on a wide range of charges, including premeditated murder, incitement, treason and espionage.

In the same way, it emboldened affiliates in other Arab states through its political rise in Egypt, the Brotherhood frustrated these same affiliates through its political collapse and loss of power. This triggered a chain reaction throughout the Arab region. The Islamist movement that had only just started to fulfil its dream of controlling the Arab world and leading Muslims, was now beginning the journey towards disintegration and political destruction.

In Egypt, it became nothing more than a pariah organization whose members started to either hide or run away from the country altogether. In Tunisia, the Ennahda, who were preparing to control the entire political scene, started incurring political losses as well. During the October 2014 parliamentary elections, the movement did not win the house majority of seats, finishing second to the Nidaa Tounes movement of incumbent President Beji Caid Essebsi. This foreshadowed the results of the presidential elections which took place a month later where Essebsi beat out Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s interim president and the Ennahda party’s favourite in the elections.

Throughout Jordan, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and the Gulf, the political conditions of the Brotherhood was no better. In 2016, the Palestinian faction, Hamas, which for years took pride in being an ideological offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, declared its disengagement from the Islamist organization.

Before and after this move, the Arab world turned into a hostile territory for the Brotherhood, with numerous Arab governments designating the organization as a “terrorist” movement. Egypt did this in December 2013. Saudi Arabia put a terrorist label on the organization in March 2014 and the United Arab Emirates did the same in November of the same year.

Perhaps the failure of the Islamist organisation to turn its rhetoric about reform in Arab countries into a practical plan that could contribute to improving the living conditions of the peoples in the region, was its most serious mistake.

In Egypt, for decades the Brotherhood won the hearts of the people by offering many social services, including the distribution of free food and medicine to the poor. The Brotherhood ran schools, medical institutions, supermarkets, charities, and professional unions. It used all these facilities to offer services to the public which over numerous years grew the popularity of the movement.

This was why millions of people were ready to vote for the Brotherhood’s candidate in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Millions of people were also ready to vote for Morsi who was running against a Mubarak-era candidate.

However, when the Brotherhood gained control of the presidency, parliament and the government, it was able to prove that its decades-old rhetoric about reform and problem solving were phoney and empty.

Morsi and his government were incapable of solving the day-to-day problems of the people. They failed in bringing law and order back to the streets. They failed to make the streets clean. They failed to address Egypt’s acute electricity shortages and they failed to make fuel available at petrol stations.

The Brotherhood also made a mistake in trying to impose its ideology of the Islamic religion on Arab societies.

In doing so, they overlooked the need for freedom and diversity in societies which have suffered under authoritarianism for decades. The Brotherhood just wanted to replace the political dictatorships the Arab people got rid of during the Arab Spring with their religious despotism. This catalyzed their massive public rejection.

The future is uncertain for the Brotherhood, in particular, and political Islam in general, especially after Islamist forces were responsible for the destruction of regional states following the Arab Spring.

But whether there will be a Brotherhood resurgence years or decades from now depends on whether the Islamist movement will be able to redress its mistakes and reinvent itself in a changing Arab world.