An American journalist friend of mine got in touch with me just after the 2011 Egyptian parliamentary elections when the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists won a majority of seats.
Were the Muslim Brotherhood extremists? he asked.
He was hearing this and similar things from friends and the media and told me that this was not his understanding. He asked for my insight on the matter.
I sent him a long answer. Here are two short excerpts:
“They are not the type of group that would force women to wear the head scarf or force people to practice a certain form of Islam. My expectation is that they will focus on building the country rather than on building a religious society.”
“…in my opinion it’s not a disaster. I would have liked to see a wider representation of society [in parliament]. I’d like to see Egypt becoming more liberal. The liberals and secularists in Egypt are not strong. They are not united. They have very small followings. And very little experience on the ground with charitable services and politics. It’s going to take time for political parties to grow and have an impact so that they do get followings. We just need to give it some time.”
In the 20 months since that exchange of emails, much has changed, including my own perceptions.
The Brotherhood, along with many other sectors of Egyptian society, played a major role in the January 25, 2011 Revolution in Egypt. With 80-years-worth of grassroots work all over the country and many years of experience as opposition in Egyptian parliaments, the Brotherhood already had a strong following among a large number of Egyptians. Public opinion of the Brotherhood only improved during the 2011 Revolution.
It was such a glorious time for many Egyptians, one must admit. There was a sense of unity among those who revolted against the Egyptian government and its leader. We all felt like one big family. We were one. We were happy. “Raise your heads high!” we all shouted. “You’re an Egyptian!”
That unity was short-lived.
In the months that followed, the Muslim Brotherhood, with the support of several Islamist parties, grabbed Egypt in a stranglehold. They became happy bed partners with the Egyptian military and with the U.S. government. This was politics, after all. One does what one needs to do.
At the same time, the million and one parties that were now in opposition to the Brotherhood government were just that: a million and one political parties. It was their complete inability to form any semblance of a unified front that put many Egyptians in the predicament of having to choose between what they felt was bad (Muslim Brotherhood Morsi) and worse (former Mubarak minister Shafik) for presidential candidates.
In the few months that Egypt had a post-revolution parliament – it was dissolved by the courts in the middle of 2012 – the Islamists’ performance was abysmal, even farcical. The formation of a 100-member constituent assembly to revise the Egyptian constitution was highly criticized by opposition groups as not being representative of Egyptian society. Instead, it had a major Islamist component. Over the weeks that followed, many members of the committee resigned in protest against the way discussions were being managed and the tendencies of the majority Islamist committee to be exclusive of non-Islamist views.
Morsi’s staged appearances, his language, and his actions were all only fuel to the fire. It was becoming clear to many Egyptians that the Muslim Brotherhood was doing everything it could to take control of Egypt – National-Democratic-Party-style – for decades to come.
It took three decades for the Egyptian anger over Mubarak and his NDP to boil over and result in his removal. It took a mere one year for that same anger to bring down Morsi.
Regardless of my and others’ thoughts on how this was done and whether it was the right thing to do, no one can deny the fact that millions of Egyptians felt that the Brotherhood’s performance was so horrid that it needed to be removed. This was not helped by the fact that Mubarak and his NDP’s tentacles were still writhing all over the country doing everything in their power to bring the man down. Morsi was hardly in real control of the army or the Ministry of Interior, for example. Also, thuggery (much of which was probably NDP-directed) added to the country’s poor security situation. But the Egyptian people expected this. All they really needed from their elected president was some transparency, which they never received.
As all this was happening, Brotherhood members rejected all forms of criticism of the parliament, Morsi, the government, or their party/movement. They rallied together at every chance to support Morsi and the parliament no matter what they did. It was this herd mentality that resulted in many Egyptians referring to Brotherhood members as “sheep”.
Despite the severe harshness of the insult in the Egyptian context, it is this herd mentality that is at the heart of what is wrong with the Brotherhood. “Listen and obey” is one of the first things Brotherhood members learn when they join. This stems from the Brotherhood’s many years of working underground and its need to protect its members and the necessary secrecy of their work. The Brotherhood has a very top-down form of internal governance, making sure there is strong control of all the goings-on within the wide-spanning movement. This may have been suitable in the 1950s. It is definitely not suitable in 2013.
So many of my generation bailed the Brotherhood’s ship in the 80s and 90s because of their leaders’ refusals to conduct revisions of many of the movement’s givens. The petrified mindsets of senior Brotherhood members will result in the movement’s downfall.
Today I see more hate on the streets towards the Muslim Brotherhood than I have ever seen in my lifetime. Much of this hate, admittedly, has been fueled by Egyptian media campaigns against them. But had the Brotherhood conducted themselves with honor, had they prioritized the country and its people over their movement, no media campaign would have had any real effect.
We are marching down a very dark road in Egypt right now. Hate has become a major driving force for this march. Hate can breed nothing but fear, death, and destruction. This is exactly where we are headed.
The Muslim Brotherhood are worthy of hate. Regardless of their intentions, pure or evil, their actions have resulted in the January 25, 2011 being hijacked. But if the Egyptian people truly want a better Egypt, they cannot allow hate to be their driving force.
Egyptians are in dire need of a deep cleansing.
The Muslim Brotherhood, who I know has members who are pure-minded, strong-willed patriots of their country, must stop now and conduct an internal cleansing. Take them or leave them, the Brotherhood are here to stay. And we need them strong. We need them open-minded. We need them to be part of the process of building a new Egypt.
And the Egyptian people need to cleanse themselves of hate. It is eating us up alive. And it is taking us where I know we do not want to go. We need to stop. We need to purify our hearts. And then we need to think. What does our country need from us now? How can we work together against the tentacles and the barnacles and all those creepy crawlies who are trying to bring our country down? Hate will never be our answer. Actions driven by hate will never help us build our country into the beautiful place we all dream of.