Mohammed Mursi

Blinkered and arrogant, Brotherhood on the ropes

Islamist movement faces greatest crisis in its 80-year history after wildly miscalculating the needs and seething anger of the people

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 July, 2013, 3:03am

The Muslim Brotherhood, among the most powerful forces in Egypt and the pre-eminent Islamist movement in the region, is reeling.

Its members have been gunned down, 40 wounded and at least 11 killed. Its new headquarters has been ransacked and burned, its political leader, President Mohammed Mursi, abandoned, threatened and isolated by allies and enemies alike.

The Brotherhood is facing perhaps the worst crisis in its 80-year history, a surprising fall for a group that survived autocrats and came to power through the ballot box just one year ago. Its critics say it remains stuck in old divisions, pitting Islamists against the military, and has failed to heed the demands of ordinary citizens.

"I think this is an existential crisis, and it's much more serious than what they were subjected to by Nasser or Mubarak," said Khaled Fahmy, a historian at the American University in Cairo, referring to the governments of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hosni Mubarak, the autocrat deposed in 2011. "The Egyptian people are increasingly saying it is not about Islam versus secularism. It is about Egypt versus a clique."

The Egypt that Mursi and the Brotherhood inherited was in a state of political and economic chaos that would have challenged any established government, yet they have sometimes seemed their own worst enemies.

Even as the clock ticked on an ultimatum from the top generals - to meet the demands of the protesters or face military intervention - they remained deeply reluctant to acknowledge errors in governance or the depth of popular discontent. They saw only a conspiracy to topple the Islamists in the face of a new conflict with the generals.

For decades, the Brotherhood was hounded by repressive autocrats and their security forces, its members jailed, its organisation outlawed. But its years as a secretive underground organisation did not prepare it for Egypt in the throes of revolution. With its leaders focused on outmanoeuvring the military and firming up their own power, critics say the Brotherhood lost sight of its own role in the revolts that helped crown a new power: the people.

The Brotherhood has been shocked by the scale of the popular opposition now emerging against it, failing to foresee the size of the demonstrations or the speed of the military's move.

Brotherhood leaders, for their part, have sounded increasingly isolated, defiant and bellicose. "Everybody abandoned us, without exception," Mohamed el-Beltagy, a senior Brotherhood leader, said.

"Seeking martyrdom," he declared, was the only choice to stop "the coup of June 30", the day millions turned out to demand Mursi's ousting on the anniversary of his inauguration.

Mursi and the Brotherhood faced daunting obstacles, said Professor Mona el-Ghobashy, who teaches political science at Barnard College and studies the Brotherhood. "The first elected president as a product of revolutionary upheaval is already in a hazardous position," she said. "He was not only the first, but he was elected by the skin of an onion," she said, with just more than 51 per cent of the vote.

Mursi was ill-equipped to soothe the nation, she said.

"And the Brotherhood, seeking to tighten its grip on power, favoured "elite level machinations" - like neutralising the military - rather than the public and its needs. They are old-style politicians. The people are trotted out to give you their vote. Then, 'go back home, and let the leaders take care of you'.

"The newly empowered public … need you to deliver."