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As conflict rages in Egyptian society Sean Ledwith explores the role of the Egyptian Brotherhood in the revolution

The fall of Mohamed Morsi on 3rd July represents the latest twist in the ambiguous relationship that has developed between the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the Egyptian capitalist state throughout the last century and the first decade of this one. The largest uprising in human history that brought down Morsi is obviously an event that socialists should celebrate. The subsequent massacre of over 100 of his supporters by the Egyptian army on the 27th July, however, underlines that a socialist response to Morsi's downfall has to be alert to the dynamics of the revolutionary moment.

Bourgeois commentators in the West have celebrated the fall of Morsi as the straightforward failure of an Iranian-style fundamentalist regime on the Nile. Last year the Daily Telegraph's Con Coughlin wrote:

'It is not only the anti-government protesters in Egypt's Tahrir Square who should be concerned about President Mohammed Morsi's audacious power grab. Mr Morsi's claim at the weekend that "God's will and elections made me the captain of this ship" has echoes of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's claim during the 1979 Iranian revolution that his mission to overthrow the Shah enjoyed divine guidance.'

Coughlin's simplistic nonsense neglects the political reality that the Shia regime in Tehran is implacably hostile to the Sunni dominated Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This type of crude analysis is partly shared by sections of the left who have absurdly characterised the Brotherhood as an example of an 'Islamo-fascism' that is allegedly resurgent in the Arab world. Slavoj Zizek claimed two years ago the rise of the MB would terminate the Egyptian revolution:

'Unfortunately, the Egyptian summer of 2011 will be remembered as marking the end of revolution, a time when its emancipatory potential was suffocated. Its gravediggers are the army and the Islamists.'

Renegade leftist, Christopher Hitchens, was also a notorious propagator of this quasi-racist label in the Anglophone world.

A more nuanced assessment of the role of the MB in this dynamic situation can only be understood by analysing the development of political Islamism in modern Egypt.


The roots of Islamism can be traced back to the growth of anti-colonialism in the Arab world in the late nineteenth century. Jamal al Afghani formulated the notion that oppressed Muslims enduring European occupation should be inspired by the example of the conquests of the early Islamic empires in the medieval era. They should see themselves as part of the umma-a cross class and international brotherhood of believers, opposed to Western notions of pluralism and secularism.

This idea took a concrete organisational shape when the Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 by a schoolteacher, Hassan al Banna. The country at that time was controlled by the British, who were trying to thwart resistance from below by inching the political system towards a limited secular constitution. From its inception, the Brotherhood was riven by a tension between its rank and file who wanted confrontation with the British, and the leadership who sought to carve out a niche at the top table of the Egyptian state.

Chris Harman identified this contradiction at the heart of the early Brotherhood:

'On the one hand, there were those who were drawn to the notion of using the crisis to force the old ruling class to do a deal with them to enforce Islamic values (Banna himself dreamt of being involved with the monarchy in establishing a New Caliphate and on one occasion gave backing to a government in return for it promising to clamp down on alcohol consumption and prostitution); on the other, there were the radical petty bourgeois recruits wanting real social change, but only able to conceive of getting it through immediate armed struggle.'

This schism between the leadership and large sections of the membership continues into the present and explains why socialists have to be clear about neither dismissing nor uncritically supporting the MB.


Despite the conceptual paradox at the heart of the organisation’s philosophy, the Brotherhood grew in the post-WW2 era thanks to the reputation its grassroots members acquired for militancy in the struggle against the British occupiers and their support for the Palestinians against the newly created Israel state. The reluctance of the leadership to think seriously about political power, however, led to them being overtaken by Nasserite nationalism as a contender for government in the post-colonial era. When Nasser came to power in 1952 he mercilessly crushed the Brotherhood and drove its most radical activists into either the grave or exile.

The organisation might have been permanently eclipsed were it not for the disastrous decision of the Egyptian Communist Party to liquidate itself into the ranks of Nasser's party in the mid 1960s. Under orders from its Stalinist masters in Moscow, the former identified Nasser as valuable anti-American ally on the international chessboard of Cold War diplomacy. This devil's bargain was disastrously undone when economic crisis brought down Nasser in 1970, leaving the ECP to face the wrath of workers for upholding the regime.

The political vacuum created by the self-destruction of the left, persuaded Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, to legalise the MB in the 1970s as part of his infitah (openness) policy of realigning Egypt with Western capitalism and away from Moscow’s orbit. By that time, however, the Brotherhood’s radical elements had been marginalized and the organization was controlled by a pro-business and right wing faction which remains in control today. From this point, the organization started to build up its network of welfare support, clinics and schools which enabled it to emerge as the largest non-governmental structure in the country.

The MB and the revolution

In the absence of any state-funded welfare system,the Brotherhood's extensive provision enabled it to develop the loyalty and respect of millions of Egyptians. This support was augmented by the credibility MB leaders such as Morsi himself acquired thanks to their imprisonment by Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak.

Following Sadat’s assassination in 1981, Mubarak continued the regime’s twin track of repression and neoliberalism. This involved ruthless pursuit of the Brotherhood’s radical jihadist wing but a toleration of its pliant pro-business leadership. The MB rank and file bore the brunt of the state's reign of terror but the leadership was able to use the welfare network to integrate itself into the fabric of Egyptian society. When Mubarak’s rule crumbled in the face of mass protest in January 2011, the MB was the only established political structure with the capability of asserting itself as an alternative government. The Egyptian left was still handicapped by the historic collaboration of the Communist Party and the smaller revolutionary groups were only just emerging out of underground activity.

Characteristically, the Brotherhood initially refused to participate in the first wave of the 2011 revolution, fearing it might undermine their negotiating position if Mubarak survived. Morsi declared the Brotherhood ‘will not follow a bunch of kids’ when the plan to occupy Tahrir Square was announced by the protest organisers.

Once it became apparent the ‘kids’ had mass support and that Mubarak was on his way out , the Brotherhood saw an opportunity to cement its position in a new hierarchy.

The dominant authority in post-Mubarak Egypt is SCAF, the upper echelon of the army. The Brotherhood’s leadership opted to turn a blind eye to the years of persecution and torture its rank and file members had suffered at the hands of the military ,and work to assist SCAF in an attempt to contain the revolutionary energy that was sweeping Egyptian society. The ‘Second Day of Rage’ called by protest leaders in May 2011 was officially boycotted by the Brotherhood, but-once again-the grassroots membership of the organisation embraced the action.

When parliamentary elections took place in November 2011, the Brotherhood had accumulated enough goodwill from Egyptian workers to become the dominant organization in the rebooted constitutional process; thanks to the extensive welfare network it had established and a sense that it deserved a chance for surviving as the main opposition to Mubarak. Under the parliamentary label of the Freedom and Justice Party and with 50% of the seats, the Brotherhood sought to emulate the electoral achievements of Turkey’s equivalent which seemed to have delivered economic growth for that country alongside an increasingly conservative social agenda.

Neoliberals with beards

The dominant right wing faction in the FJP predictably believed the acceptance of neoliberalism was the key to Egypt’s post-Mubarak reconstruction. One of these so-called ‘Brothers of the 1 per cent’ has outlined the vision of the group:

'The core of the economic vision of Brotherhood, if we are going to classify it in a classical way, is extreme capitalist….'

Another member states:

'It’s very easy to confuse their (FJP) economic platform with the previous regime: private-led growth, free market economy, scaling down the role of government, empowering the private sector. The big difference is which private sector you are talking about. Previously the regime had its focus toward mobilizing investment, but the beneficiaries were those who were well-connected, brand names in the investment world. It didn’t trickle down.'

In other words, the FJP government represented an adaptation of Egyptian capitalism to the external pressure of global recession and the internal threat of mass unrest. The deep state, however, would be left intact-especially the huge chunks of the economy controlled by SCAF.

By the time the presidential election took place in June last year, the neo-liberal wing of the FJP was ready to present Mohamed Morsi as the acceptable face of Islamist reformism –supposedly responsive both to Washington and the IMF but also to the millions of Egyptians demanding change. It was Morsi’s doomed attempt to play this dual role which brought him down this year.

Although Morsi won the presidential run-off, the vote of the FJP was virtually halved from the parliamentary elections a few months earlier-from 10 million down to about 5 million in the first round.

This significant decline in support indicated that suspicion of the Brotherhood's drift to the right was growing among Egypt's subaltern classes even before Morsi took over the reins of power. Once installed in office, he displayed the autocratic tendencies and neoliberal policies of his role model,Recip Erdogan in Turkey. A ham-fisted attempt to introduce a centralising constitution last November triggered a further wave of mass protest across the country.

The fall of Morsi

Morsi's tenure as President did emulate Erdogan -but not in the way he would have expected. The pursuit of economic austerity on the orders of the IMF sparked the gigantic protests that forced out Morsi this month. The Turkish President has encountered a similar mass backlash against neo-liberalism but so far managed to ride it out. The MB's collaboration with the global capitalist elite that made it acceptable to SCAF was the same reason the government became unacceptable to the millions who took to the street on the 30 June.

As soon as he took over Morsi resumed negotiations with the IMF that had been stalled by the revolution for a $4.8 billion loan. Predictably the international bankocracy demanded the loan was predicated on slashing state subsidies of essentials such as food and fuel to the poor. The IMF also insisted Egypt's public sector, which accounts for 40% of the economy, be opened up for privatisation and deregulation. It was Morsi's acquiescence with this global parasitism that led to the Tamarod opposition movement to start collecting the 22 million signatures among workers and unemployed that morphed into the colossal uprising of this summer.

The International Trade Union Confederation summed up the impact of Morsi's economic programme:

'Egypt has not only experienced two lost years since the former dictator Mubarak was thrown out – major parts of the population are now experiencing unprecedented levels of poverty and exclusion and the promise of democratic transition and human rights is being betrayed. President Morsi is seen by tens of millions of Egyptians as serving only the interests of his own support base, a situation which is totally unsustainable.'

Morsi’s downfall indicates the attempt by SCAF to use the MB as political cover for its retention of economic power has failed for the foreseeable future, but it would be shortsighted to assume that means the Brotherhood is spent as a political force.

SCAF's attempt to use the MB may have collapsed but they have now assembled an even more explicitly bourgeois and pro-Western administration with former nuclear negotiator, Mohamed El Baradei, as a senior figure acceptable to Washington. The centrality of SCAF in the heart of the Egyptian state has been consolidated and the expectation of General Sissi and his colleagues is that the revolutionary impulses of 2011 will now be quashed.

As the country’s oldest Islamist organisation and with over half a million members, the MB will remain a crucial part of the equation in the Egyptian Revolution. The tasks of socialists in the post-Morsi situation is to engage with the large numbers of Brotherhood supporters who will be alienated by the ex-President’s embrace of neoliberalism. The massacres of MB supporters at the beginning and end of July could also transform the consciousness of many MB members about the road to real change in Egypt. As Chris Harman put it:

'Where the Islamists are in opposition, our rule should be, “with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never”.'

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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