Is the Muslim Brotherhood dying? In Egypt and throughout the Arab world, Brotherhood-affiliated parties are suffering an unprecedented series of setbacks that cast real doubt on the long-term viability of that version of Islamist politics.
The blow the Brotherhood has received in Egypt is exceptionally severe. Most of its senior leaders are under arrest, and its ability to mount mass protests appears debilitated. There is a pending court order mandating its disbanding and the seizure of its assets. And none of this seems to bother most Egyptians.
It’s not clear when or how the Brotherhood in Egypt can recover from this unprecedented crisis.
What is less widely understood, however, is that Brotherhood-affiliated parties across the region – many of which recently seemed to be on the brink of the political successes they have craved for decades – are suffering extreme setbacks. The Brotherhood’s crisis in Egypt may be particularly dramatic but it is also merely the tip of the iceberg.
A quick regional survey can show how damaged this movement currently is.
In Morocco, the Justice and Development Party might be in the best shape of all, currently occupying the ineffective office of prime minister. But, while ostentatiously praising the King, it is loudly insisting that it is in no sense whatsoever a Muslim Brotherhood party, or affiliated with it at all except insofar as both identify as Islamist.
This is untrue. They only find it necessary to disavow Brotherhood connections so vigorously because of how regionally discredited the movement has become.
In Tunisia, a coalition of secular political and labour movement forces has forced the Brotherhood Ennahda party government to agree to resignation. Ennahda may still be the largest political party in Tunisia, but it’s unlikely that it could repeat its 2011 parliamentary electoral success since secular and non-Islamist forces are becoming much more organised and coordinated. And it’s always been clear it would be exceptionally difficult for Ennahda to beat a consensus secular candidate in a two-person presidential election or run-off.
So, while Ennahda compromised to survive – and is likely to still wield considerable influence in Tunisia – it may already be past the apogee of its power.
In Libya, the Brotherhood and its allies never gained the political traction they expected, especially given the local backlash against their Qatari patrons. They were routed by the non-Islamist National Forces Alliance in the party section of the parliamentary election. This forced them to rely on highly unpopular militia bullying that produced occasional short-term successes but looks headed for long-term failure.
The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, which seemed to be growing from strength to strength a mere year ago, is in utter disarray.
The Syrian Brotherhood was the most influential political force in the opposition after the uprising against the Damascus dictatorship began. But now they seem to have virtually no influence on the conflict or its likely outcome.
Hamas in Gaza is undergoing an unprecedented crisis. It bizarrely made no effort to convince the new Egyptian government that it was not a hostile force, especially with regard to security in Sinai. It is therefore being treated like one.
Egypt has imposed an unparalleled blockade, leaving the economy in shambles. For the first time since 2007, it is now possible to imagine a Gaza no longer under Hamas control.
And in those parts of the Gulf in which the Brotherhood has some presence, its affiliates are coming under intense scrutiny and increasing pressure. [In July, 69 people received heavy prison sentences in the United Arab Emirates for belonging to the Brotherhood-affiliated Al-Islah group. Underground Brotherhood affiliates in Saudi Arabia are on clear notice as well. Even the Brotherhood’s affiliates in Kuwait are also bracing for a possible backlash, fearing they too may have overreached.]
But all of this hardly means that Islamism across the board is enduring a nadir. In several Arab societies, Salafists are either outflanking Brotherhood groups or reaping the benefits of the Brotherhood’s crises.
But there is an important distinction: the main regional financers of the Brotherhood movement actually want them to dominate as many governments as possible in Arab republics. States and wealthy individuals who finance Salafists use them to harass the Brotherhood and to project power. But the primary movers behind the regional Salafist movements don’t actually want to see Salafist governments in Arab republics.
If the ideology and practices of more moderate Brotherhood parties have proven unworkable and popularly unacceptable in power, that can only apply far more intensively to Salafist groups. The plausibility of Salafist rule in any post-dictatorship Arab society is, for those two reasons, virtually nil.
This may not be the end of the Muslim Brotherhood but its region-wide crisis is so severe that significant ideological and practical adaptation will be unavoidable for those flexible enough to learn any lessons. The Moroccan and Tunisian branches are already unhappily compromising to survive.
But the Muslim Brotherhood may be dying at least in the sense that what ultimately emerges from the current wreckage will be unrecognisably different. Only a radical change in fortunes across the region is likely to forestall such a process.
So during the very period in which many Arabs and westerners alike expected Brotherhood domination in many Arab countries, we may instead be witnessing the death throes of a nearly 100-year-old failed experiment.