Where Does the Muslim Brotherhood Go From Here?

Nathan J. Brown Op-Ed July 3, 2013 New Republic

The final, desperate hours of Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian president ousted by the military on Wednesday, were in one sense merciful, but also pathetic. After a brief feint that called to mind the image of Salvadore Allende picking up a gun to defend his presidency, Morsi resorted instead to a series of increasingly desperate verbal signals, including ineffectual crises about his own legitimacy and attempts to grasp expired offers of compromise. The result made him seem less like a martyr than a property owner waving his deed at a wrecking-ball operator who has already destroyed his home.

Waving that deed—or, less metaphorically, attempting to fall back on constitutional text and electoral legitimacy—would have much to persuade a neutral observer if any such creature still exists. Yes, it is true that the Brotherhood did well in elections; that it was not able to govern fully but still saddled with responsibility for Egypt’s insurmountable problems; that important state actors never accepted its authority; that its opposition was unified only by a desire to make the Brotherhood fail; and that Egypt’s rumor mill transformed preposterous rumor into established fact with breathtaking speed.

But it is also undeniable that Morsi and the Brotherhood made almost every conceivable mistake—including some (such as reaching too quickly for political power or failing to build coalitions with others) that they had vowed they knew enough to avoid. They alienated potential allies, ignored rising discontent, focused more on consolidating their rule than on using what tools they did have, used rhetoric that was tone deaf at best and threatening at worst. Had they hired a consultant from the Nixon White House, they would have done a more credible job, at least by being efficient.

The Morsi presidency is without a doubt one of the most colossal failures in the Brotherhood’s history. What lesson will the movement learn from it, if any?

In studying Islamist movements over the last decade, I generally found that the most rewarding time to speak to leaders was about a year or so after an election. During the heat of the political battle, they made decisions like most politicians do (on the fly, often overreacting to yesterday’s headlines) and spoke like most politicians do (providing glib spin than reflective analysis). But at calmer moments, they spoke less like politicians and more openly. And there was a reason why: The movements prided themselves (justifiably) on an ability to learn.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its sister organizations represent the most successful non-governmental organizations in Arab history. No other movements have been able to sustain, reinvent, and replicate themselves over so much time and space. And there are two secrets to that success: a tight-knit organizational structure that rewards loyalty and the ability to adjust and adapt.

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