Religion was not an issue at the start of Arab Spring revolutions three years ago. Islamist groups and parties were not key instigators of these revolutions, but one of several forces that benefited from the overthrow of corrupt and oppressive regimes. Nonetheless, the struggle over religion was a decisive factor in the dynamics of political transformation that accompanied efforts to form new political systems in the Middle East.
It is ironic that religion was a factor in the sudden and quick retreat and downfall of religious movements. Using religious ideology in its orthodox form undermined Islamists among the masses, not only because they acutely and shockingly made political conflict a religious issue that sowed seeds of division over identity, but also because they failed to present a successful and effective model of governance.
It was very clear that the more Islamists botched governance of a large and complex country like Egypt, the more their political and religious rhetoric veered towards the conservative right, which reflected the intellectual incompetence of representatives of the Islamist current.
The main goal of Islamist movements after the Arab Spring was not to establish their historic dream of Islamising Arab societies — which were already Islamised superficially, and through rituals, over the past decade as Salafist influence rose at full steam with the support of former regimes as part of the latter’s traditional conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead, it was an attempt to dig in their heels on the new political scene in order to guard against the return of the old oppressive regimes, on the one hand, and restructure the public domain on the other in a way that would better represent their political and organisational weight.
For example, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt partnered in many alliances and deals with some elements from the former regime to fortify the group’s rule at the expense of ties to revolutionary forces.
The main problem in the 2012 Constitution — passed in an unprecedented atmosphere of division and polarisation in Egypt under Brotherhood rule — was that it was an authoritarian constitution to empower the Muslim Brotherhood, rather than a religious or Islamist constitution.
Moreover, the conservative nature of Islamist movements was, and continues to be, a serious obstacle in adapting to new circumstances.
It is true these movements are a reflection of a traditional and conservative social current that seems to have Arab societies in its grip. But the lack of revolutionary ideas and platforms by leaders of these movements that would primarily generate a quantum leap in Arab societies and respond to their expectations from the revolution, and secondly contain revolutionary forces and currents, especially the youth, were the most important reasons for its failure during the last three years. Perhaps that also explains why the youth revolted against Islamist movements and rejected their political platform.
Meanwhile, the intellectual and ideological revelations about large groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood came as a shock for many observers and scholars of the movement.
Personally, I felt the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood from power was only a matter of time, not only because the conservatives were in control of the Muslim Brotherhood, causing neurosis and organisational problems, but also because of the group’s overall intellectual and intelligentsia bankruptcy, limiting its rhetoric to broad, meaningless and empty phrases that only aim to mobilise and whip up support. It also suffers from organisational stagnation and calcification that increased after the group reached power, whereby mobility and promotion within the group was tied to cronyism and personal relations rather than talent and abilities.
It was surprising that nascent Islamist movements and groups that were new to the political fray were more revolutionary and politically bold compared to traditional groups and movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Gamaa Islamiya and the Salafists. For example, Hazemoun, a group that grew around Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, adopted a strong agenda and rhetoric to overhaul, on Salafist principles, the political scene with the aim of quickly and effectively restructuring government institutions (unlike the gradual reform position adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood). The movement restructured itself once Morsi was overthrown as part of Al-Ahrar movement which is intermittently active.
It is interesting that the Muslim Brotherhood did not consider this revolutionary option except after it left power. Some Muslim Brotherhood members now regret that ousted president Mohamed Morsi was not as revolutionary or forceful in purging the former regime from state institutions, which in the end turned against him and pushed the Muslim Brotherhood back to square one.
The Muslim Brotherhood was, and still is, the largest conservative social movement in Egypt, which is apparent in its rhetoric, tactics and closed organisation, with the lower and middle classes being the nerve centre for its social network that is concentrated in the Delta and poorer and more impoverished parts of Upper Egypt. Nonetheless, what is surprising is that large segments of these classes turned away from the Muslim Brotherhood once it reached power. In fact, some of them have joined the opposing camp and the baffling question today is how some poor classes turned against the Muslim Brotherhood, although they benefited the most from the group’s social services network.
Of course it would be difficult to morph a large movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood to become revolutionary and change its conservative makeup in light of the campaign of oppression and violence it is being subjected to today. There are researchers and observers who have an existential problem with the Muslim Brotherhood; they believe there is no chance of reforming it or making it revolutionary. These are valid doubts that are enforced by the Brotherhood’s political conduct while in power for an entire year.
Nonetheless, if the Muslim Brotherhood is placed in its broader social context it would not be an exception compared to other traditional and conservative forces in Egypt who belong to other intellectual and ideological schools that are polar opposites of the Brotherhood, such as left and secular currents that inexplicably and passionately support a side that appears to be more conservative and traditional than the Muslim Brotherhood — the military institution.