In a message issued by the Muslim Brotherhood in early December 2014, the movement appealed to the supporters of the military regime of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Sissi to abandon him and re-join the ranks of true revolutionaries. Given the harvest of a year and a half of murder and mayhem, and a series of scandals and failures in all areas, the truth is out. Those who had supported Sissi ‘with good intentions’ should ‘revert to the truth’, following the example of the Pharaoh’s sorcerers, who sided with Moses as soon as the truth became clear to them, regardless of the sacrifices.
As expected, this brought condemnation from critics who thought it outrageous for the group to liken itself to the Prophet Moses, while branding its opponents as followers of the infidel Pharaoh. A similar torrent of indictments was provoked in April 2012, when the current Brotherhood’s ‘Supreme Guide’, Mohammed Badie, accused the Egyptian media of acting like the Pharaoh’s sorcerers in seeking to distort the truth (in reference to media criticism of the Brotherhood’s performance in parliament). However, this did not deter the movement’s spokespersons from making the comparison again and again. Even a cursory search of its literature produces scores of instances of such use.
This appeal to that ancient story is revealing at many levels. The Egyptians are very fond of their history, and many pro-Mubarak intellectuals frequently used the Pharaonic reference to make the point that Egyptians love their tyrants. One argument went like this: all Prophets were sent to their peoples, except in Egypt, where the Prophet was sent to the king. This is an indication that Egyptian society has always been a hierarchical one, and will always need its Pharaoh.
The sorcerers were not as enthusiastically claimed or hailed, but their role is probably more interesting and more revealing about the nature of authority. In the Qur’anic story, with its many overlapping versions, the sorcerers were assigned a crucial role in refuting Moses’ claim about his divine mission. Their anticipated public humiliation of the Hebrew upstart would provide conclusive proof of his false claims, and confirm the Pharaoh’s own unassailable authority. In ‘supporting the cause’, they were also motivated by their own form of ‘nationalistic’ feelings. They clearly bought into the official narrative that the two Israelites were a threat to the social order, who wanted to ‘uproot you from your land’ and ‘destroy your cherished way of life’. (This in spite of the clear demand of Moses to be permitted to leave Egypt with his people, rather than take it over, but superpowers always have a different way of telling the story!) Being judiciously opportunistic, the sorcerers also inquired in advance about the reward for success, and were promised a generous one, which would include high status.
However, the collective response of the sorcerers to their humiliating defeat was rather intriguing and very disappointing for the hapless Pharaoh: they decided unanimously to endorse Moses. This enraged the tyrant, who was more upset by this ‘unauthorised’ endorsement than by their dismal failure. This provides another intriguing insight into the nature of public authority. For it was the Pharaoh who set up the test for Moses, and it was up to him to assess the outcome and its consequences. In his own ‘spin’, the victory indicates nothing more than Moses being a better magician, probably the master-magician who taught those inferior performers. It was anyway up to the King to determine if, and when, people should endorse Moses, even if unquestionable proof of his authenticity could be found. The ‘truth’ here is not a matter for ‘experts’, no matter how knowledgeable, but a matter for royal power. Long before Foucault, the Pharaoh stated unequivocally that truth was a product of power, and not the other way round.
Going back to the Brotherhood and their claims, it is to be noted that while Moses had performed a good number of miracles, displacing the Pharaoh as Egypt’s ruler was not part of his repertoire. One would have thought the project perfectly feasible. Having been raised as a royal prince, and with apparently some powerful allies in the court, it would not have been far-fetched for him to stake a claim to rule. Just as the sorcerers endorsed him, the people at large could have done so (that is precisely what had worried the Pharaoh). So why did that thought not cross his mind? More to the point, why was he not given that assignment?
On closer examination, it would appear that Prophet-rulers are a rare breed. Among all the prophets mentioned in the Qur’an, only David and Solomon became rulers. For the rest, either their people rejected them and were destroyed, or the prophet was killed or condemned to death. The Prophet Muhammad was the (partial) exception who proved the adage that a Prophet is more often than not rejected by his people and his homeland. For Muhammad was also forced out of his hometown, and did not become a ‘King’ anyway. It is to be noted that in all his missives to Emperors and Kings, he did not ask them to come under his authority, only to accept the divine message.
So while there may be lessons for Egypt’s new hapless (and much less honest) sorcerers from the old story, there may also be some lessons for the would-be heirs to Moses. Given that they do not have the wherewithal to part the Red Sea or perform other miracles, their demands should be even more modest.
However, the main problem with the Brotherhood remains the lack of modesty and the near-pathological illusions of power. Paradoxically, the movement had swung in a very short period from paranoid displays of weakness and insecurity, to megalomaniac affirmation of omnipotence. Up to January 2012, the Guide vociferously opposed any suggestion for fielding a Brotherhood presidential candidate, saying in an interview that month that an Islamist president would expose Egypt to sanctions similar to those suffered by Gaza. The movement had earlier given repeated assurances that it will not seek a parliamentary majority. It did not completely respect those pledges. However, it still hounded out one of its most moderate (and sensible) leaders, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, for deciding to run for President as an independent.
The comparison between Gaza and Egypt was misinformed. Hamas did not face problems in Gaza because it was a democratically elected Islamist movement, but because it was an armed movement which wanted to work within the internationally-funded and Israeli-backed Palestinian National Authority (PNA). This posed a number of problems, the first of which is that the PNA was an Israeli-Palestinian partnership in accordance with the Oslo Accords, which Hamas rejects. As if this was not enough, Hamas decided in 2007 to mount a military coup and take over Gaza completely on its own. This put it at war with the official PNA and most other Palestinians factions. It is therefore incomprehensible to compare such a situation with a potentially freely elected government in a sovereign country!
In any case, by April 2012, the Brotherhood changed its mind and fielded a presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi, who won the presidency by a very slim margin, even though he was running against one of Mubarak’s former aides. In fact that candidate was forced out from his post as interim Prime Minister by revolutionary protesters who thought he represented the more sordid side of the old regime, and later faced corruption accusations. It was clear even then that a large section of Egyptians preferred Mubarak to Morsi. It was also clear that many who voted for Morsi did so mainly because they preferred him to one of Mubarak’s most corrupt men. All this was a signal that the support for Morsi and Ikhwan was tentative and far from wholehearted or massive. However, the Brotherhood very soon began to act as if the whole Egyptian people were enthusiastic supporters. It allied itself with the more hardline Salafis, and systematically alienated everybody else. The movement and its front party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), insisted on leading the government and transition alone, passing a controversial constitution and getting it endorsed through an equally controversial referendum. All proposals from the opposition to form a national unity government were rebuffed. In November 2012, Morsi committed his most fatal error. Even though he enjoyed full executive and legislative powers, he decided to pass a constitutional decree blocking any judicial challenge of his executive decisions and decrees, which meant that he also wanted to restrict judicial authority. Even though Morsi tried to justify this move as a temporary measure that would lapse once the new constitution was endorsed, it gave his enemies all the ammunition they needed to torpedo his presidency. To make matters worse, he did not appear to have consulted his close aides on this. His minister of justice heard the news from the media. By the end of the year, almost all his advisers resigned in disgust.
This hubris indicated a number of problems. For one thing, it confirmed everybody’s fears about the secretive style of the Brotherhood. In spite of creating a legal political party (the FJP) which was its vehicle for political participation, it still maintained its secretive apparatus, which many feared was the one running the show. No one was bothering to hide this. For example, when the decision to field a presidential candidate was announced, the FJP was not even permitted to front the announcement presumably made in its name: the Guide and other Brotherhood leaders made the declaration without the benefit of that transparent fig-leaf.
More problematic was the demonstration of how the movement, in shifting from the paranoia of vulnerability to the arrogance of omnipotence, appeared oblivious to the limits of its power. The continuous diatribes against the media were just one indication about the movement’s isolation among elite opinion-makers and its inability to deliver its message to the people. The ‘sorcerers’ refused to play ball. However, the real ‘illusion’ was not the one produce by the sorcerers, but the one entertained by the Brotherhood about having become the new Pharaoh. Nothing was further from the truth. At the time when the ‘Supreme Guide’ was berating the ‘sorcerers’, a military-appointed government, made up almost exclusively of old regime figures, held executive power. So while Islamists controlled parliament with their allies and were being blamed for the chaos and the economic and security deterioration, they had no power to remove that government.
But things got worse. Just two weeks before the June 2012 presidential elections, the parliament was dissolved by a court order, permitting legislative powers to revert to the Supreme Military Council (SMC). Morsi gained popular adulation with his deft move two months later to dissolve the SMC and appoint a new younger defence minister. However, his newly acquired self-confidence did not hide the fact that he remained as powerless as Iraqi and Egyptian monarchs during the British occupation. The military remained self-governing, and in control of a vast economic empire. The media (including the ‘official’ media) was against him, as was the judiciary. He had little control over the powerful and pervasive state security apparatus or the police, both still under firm control of Mubarak’s men. Nor was he in possession of any tools to administer or control Egypt’s collapsing economy. Unbeknownst to him, all these centres of power had begun to systematically conspire against him.
In reality, Morsi was nothing more than the head of an NGO headquartered at the presidential palace. His main asset remained the street. The old regime had collapsed under popular pressure, and was giving concession after concession as it lost its balance. However, the Brotherhood was instrumental in reducing, stopping and then reversing that momentum. In early 2011, it broke ranks with most other opposition forces when it sided with the SMC on a new constitution that was put to a referendum in March. During the competitive elections for parliament, even more fractures appeared in the solid revolutionary front. As it continued to push its unilateral agenda in government, in parliament, in the constitutional commission and on the streets, the Brotherhood lost almost all allies. By November, people were demonstrating in the streets against it, and even mounted violent attacks against its offices around the country. Morsi, the NGO-president, was unable to defend the centres. He was even unable to defend his own presidential palace, which was besieged with hostile and rather violent crowds. He had to be smuggled out of the palace as his presidential guard looked on, unwilling and unable to defend him.
The writing was on the wall; but this latter day Louis XVI was incapable of reading it. He rejected numerous overtures from opposition groups and mediators to salvage things by setting up a national unity government. Insisting on defiant unilateralism, he remained oblivious to the fact that, perhaps for the first time in its history, the Brotherhood had become a ‘toxic brand’. It was clear that this was not just another setback like many the movement had faced throughout its history with characteristic stoicism and resignation. Having waited over eighty years in the wilderness (twice as long as the Israelites), it turned its greatest ever opportunity into a disaster. In the past, however, its enemies were unpopular regimes and its fate was met with popular indifference. This was an indictment in itself, and a sign of its self-imposed isolation. However, this time, it was facing popular anger and even hate. An even worse indictment was the fact that the regime many preferred to its rule is one of the ugliest and least appealing in Egyptian history.
The movement was advised by many of its sympathisers to call a halt to its political march and take time to reflect over the debacle it had brought on itself. It should leave it to the military and its allies to deal with the disasters zone Egypt had become, and attempt to regroup and rethink its strategies. The prominent Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, for example, pointed out the obvious fact that the movement is now hated and feared at home and abroad, and it has no chance of regaining power. So it should make another sacrifice by standing aside in order to give democracy a chance. The movement, instead, sought confrontation, with even more disastrous consequences.
In late December 2014, I received the movement’s latest newsletter, containing an article by one of its intellectuals. The accompanying message asked: ‘Isn’t this project still providing the answers to the perplexed and tired in the face of the pressures of reality and fierce attack, and will continue to do so, God willing?’ While the article in question, written by a prominent academic, was dated 2011, most of the references cited date from around the mid-1940s. It is so outdated it is an embarrassment. Its position on women is scandalous even by the movement’s own practice today, while it nonchalantly prides itself in having created its own self-contained ‘society’ for its members which ‘provided them with alternatives to everything it could find in Egyptian society’! Observe how they speak of ‘Egyptian society’ as something external, if not alien, to the movement.
It would appear from the circulation of such an anachronistic text at a time when the movement is fighting for its life, that it succeeded more than it had hoped for in building this disconnected society. It continues to live in a time warp with no link to the present or to the surrounding world. What is even more frightening is that it continues to believe that it has achieved success in spite of this lack of touch with reality.
It may be an exaggeration to speak of success, though. True, the Brotherhood’s format, together with the comparable Jamaat Islami model in the Indian Subcontinent, has become the template for all mainstream Islamic movements. In fact, the two movements between them have cornered the ‘Islamism’ market. However, the model itself has not developed much. None of the movements have managed to make a political breakthrough. They may become the main opposition, or even the most popular political movement. But they could not accede to power, and they seem to lack not only the ability, but the will to do so. They are well aware that their programmes are unworkable, but they lack the ability to change them. They have no notion of self-criticism, and utterly fail to accept sympathetic criticism, even after such a disaster as the recent one in Egypt.
This is increasingly appearing to be a problem with Islamism as a phenomenon rather than with this movement or that. In the age of ISIL and similar mega-terror groups, the lines between violent dysfunctional and non-violent variety of Islamism get blurred. The Brotherhood wants to re-establish the caliphate, but never gets there. ISIL does establish the caliphate, but its success appears worse than the Brotherhood’s failure. It is additionally a sad fact that groups like ISIL and Taliban keep springing up precisely because groups like Ikhwan and Jamaat seem to get nowhere, no matter how hard they try.
Both groups struggle to translate the core Islamic message, as they see it, into a practical programme fit for the modern era. But the translations repeatedly appear a travesty of the original text. This is an old problem, as noted by the seventh century sage al-Hassan al-Basri. Commenting on the policies of Ziyad, the first Umayyad Caliph Mu’awiya’s ruthless governor of Iraq, al-Basri said that ‘he wanted to emulate Omar (ibn al-Khattab)’ but the consequences were disastrous for everybody. Just as Zaid erroneously misread the legendary firmness of Omar, the companion of the Prophet and Second Rightly Guided Caliph, as violence, the new Islamists present equally disastrous misreading of Islamic sources.
The Brotherhood’s current narrative about themselves as God’s elect, living apart from the ‘Egyptian society’, contrasts and overlaps with other modern Islamist narratives. The dominant Maududi-Qutb version (promoted by Abul ala Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami and Syed Qutb, the chief ideologue of the Brotherhood) is that of the persecuted embryonic Muslim community in Mecca, waiting to migrate to the glories of Medina. However, the original narrative of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, implicitly harkens to the role of Omar ibn Abd al-Aziz, the righteous Umayyad Prince, who could ‘magically’ transform tyranny back into the Righteous Caliphate. But while such narratives remain problematic, the Pharaoh never disappoints, persistently playing his role to the script without fail. And as Sissi and Asad show, they are getting increasingly uglier and more inhuman. There are always too many of them and more than enough sorcerers. It is a pity that in this new replay, the Pharaoh and his sorcerers always win, and the Moses crew look less and less attractive. The miracle we await is the emergence of a new story, with new actors and a more reassuring ending.