Over the course of a few days, the Muslim Brotherhood has released two very different statements. One is defiant and was issued by their imprisoned leader, ex-president Morsi, who warns that, “Egypt will not recover from its crisis until the coup that removed him from power has been reversed.” Later on Saturday, his supporters, the national pro-legitimacy coalition, issued a very different statement during a press conference, attended by Mohamed Ali Bishr, the leading Brotherhood member, stating that it was ready to seek dialogue to end Egypt’s bloody political crisis, and interestingly, it did not call for the reinstatement of Morsi, although still several other preconditions for the proposed dialogue were set out by the coalition.
Several other initiatives have attempted to bridge the gap with the Muslim Brotherhood. These include those from the EU’s Catherine Ashton, Deputy PM Ziad Bahaa Eddin, Ex-PM Hicham Qandil, Kamal Abul Magd, and even from the radical Jamaa Islamiya group. This Saturday’s initiative, however, was the first time that a call for “national dialogue” has been backed by the Muslim Brotherhood. The contradiction between the two statements, made only days apart, is quite stark and baffling. There are several explanations for the new stance taken by the Brotherhood.
1- External pressure: According to the Egyptian newspaper Ahram, an anonymous Muslim Brotherhood source has revealed that the recent initiative is a result of “external pressure” pushing for integration in the current political scene, which has been exerted on the group. This is a plausible explanation; external supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, like Turkey and Qatar, might finally have started to see the futility of the current tactics, consisting mainly of defiance and protests. The ongoing protests are a costly business; there are unconfirmed reports that the Brotherhood has raised its annual subscriptions for members by 25%. If true, then money is a big problem, and foreign financiers from the International Brotherhood organisation have the upper hand in the decision-making. Morsi’s defiant letter, which was perceived by many as detached from reality, might actually reinforce the demands from outside financiers of the need to try a different approach.
2 – Divide opponents: It is important to understand that the Brotherhood’s opponents are not a monolithic group; various groups exhibit a range of antipathies to the Brotherhood. The Salafi Nour Party and Aboul Fetouh’s Strong Party are against the Brotherhood, at least formally, but they have hinted on several occasions that dialogue and reconciliation are the way forward. The obvious reason for the recent initiative is an attempt to win back some of their “soft” opponents. Even if the proposed dialogue fails to materialise, dividing their opponents is a goal in itself, which would be a small victory for the Brotherhood.
3 – Weakened hawkish camp inside the Brotherhood: The second possibility is that reality has finally started to dawn on the hawks of the Brotherhood. The ousting of Morsi has probably widened the gap between the hawkish and the dovish camps inside the Brotherhood. In a recent interview on CBC TV, the Islamist thinker Kamal Abul Magd predicted that the hawks are the reason behind the failure of his mediation efforts between the Brotherhood and the interim government. He hinted that the hawks, mostly in prison, do not want to end their political careers with a compromise. The reappearance of Bishr, who was the negotiator in Abul Magd’s initiative, is a possible indicator that life inside prison has started to mellow their thoughts. It might be that they are beginning to see compromise as a better alternative to total humiliation.
4 – Anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud Street bloodshed: On 19 November 2011, clashes erupted between protestors, mostly non-Islamist political activists, and riot police. Forty people were killed and over 3,000 injured, with many losing their sight. The infamous street has not just become a symbol of police brutality, but also a symbol of the Brotherhood’s betrayal of non-Islamists in their battle against the police and the ruling military council. It has sown the seeds of division between the two camps and this continued to evolve until it reached a climax on June 30. This year, the Brotherhood has decided to join the commemoration to protest against “the coup.” Winning over other political activists, whom they previously betrayed, by offering “national dialogue that is open to everyone,” seems a smart move.
5 – The next election campaign trail: With a referendum on the draft constitution possibly in December, and parliamentary elections early next year, the Brotherhood wants to show their core supporters that they are trying to explore every avenue to find a solution to the crisis. Their Saturday statement called for respect for “the will of the Egyptian people through the ballot box.” If that is an indication of their past success through the ballot box, it is also hints of a desire to maintain this success in future contests. Saturday also witnessed a recommendation by the high administrative court commissioners to disband the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which could mean a future ban on formal participation by the group. That could make things tougher for the Muslim Brotherhood. As such, they need to solidify their base to help them run an underground election campaign.
6 – Trial balloon: Testing both the government’s and also their supporters’ responses is essential for a group that has campaigned for the last three months on a no-compromise policy. The Brotherhood source quoted in the Ahram story expressed fears that dissatisfaction will arise among some of the Brotherhood’s youth, who believe that any attempt to negotiate with the current government is a betrayal of the martyrs’ blood. Testing the support for compromise, and the potential for mutiny within the junior cadre, is very important for the international Brotherhood organisation.
In sum, this realm of possibilities reflects how unpredictable the Brotherhood is as a group at the moment, and also how difficult it is for the battered organisation to find a way forward in the current hostile climate. It is doubtful that this proposal will stand a better chance than previous mediation efforts. For many of the group opponents, it is simply nonsense. A government minister said on Sunday that the Brotherhood has to recognise the post -30 June interim road map if it wants reconciliation with the authorities. Moreover, the death of the police officer Mohamad Mabrouk, who was shot dead in Cairo on Sunday, is not a good sign. Mabrouk was in charge of following up on the Muslim Brotherhood in the Interior Ministry’s National Security division. Regardless of who is behind his death, it is a blow to any proposed negotiation.
The Brotherhood has lost many cards, and their ability to influence the political scene has become deeply weakened, and its search for a reasonable exit strategy for the Brotherhood remains an elusive goal.
Nervana Mahmoud is a doctor, blogger and writer on Middle East issues. You can follow her on Twitter @Nervana_1