By Nervana Mahmoud
A month has passed since the forced ending of the pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo. The widespread security crackdown and the arrest of the Brotherhood’s most senior cadres have had a huge impact by paralyzing the main skeleton of the group and limiting their ability to function.
How has the Muslim Brotherhood coped with this? It is important to look at other aspects of the Brotherhood’s structure and mindset that opponents miss or ignore. These factors are crucial to understanding how the Brotherhood survives. Two aspects are especially worth highlighting.
First, many believe the widespread myth that Islamists in general, and the Brotherhood in particular, do not read about other ideologies and foreign books. This is untrue; many Islamists read the “Infidel’s” books, mainly to look for ideas that vindicate their ideology and tips that can be of help to their own goals. For example, many Islamists have read – at least translated summaries–of early Zionist literature, not to understand Zionism, but to learn from their success story.
Second, some wrongly assume that that the skeleton of the Muslim Brotherhood functions in a similar way to a human skeleton: with one central brain and many peripheral organs. This is mainly true in times of non-crisis, but the group has also implanted the mindset of their seniors into their junior cadres. This helps them to function independently if necessary. Therefore, it is futile to assume that the younger cadres will be reformists. In fact, they are nothing but an enhanced version of their senior leaders, equipped with innovative techniques, but running with the same old system.
Considering the above, it is easier to read the Islamists’ evolving new strategy. Currently, the Brotherhood and their allies are working on two fronts, domestic and international.
Domestically, they have decided to update their protest strategy. In addition to the new yellow and black “Rabaa” sign that is now printed on T-shirts and banners, and the deliberate vanishing of Morsi’s photos from the protest scene, the Islamists have decided to adopt some of football ultras’ tactics and slogans in order to add an Egyptian flavour to their protests with more cheerful music and animated cheers. They have also promoted more appealing slogans, particularly in impoverished areas like Hilwan, calling on local residents to stop paying water, gas, and electricity bills, knowing that this will resonate well among the public, particularly in the current, harsh economic conditions. Other measures of civil disobedience are also announced on some sites, including boycotting “pro-coup” businesses, local television programmes that supports the coup, withdrawing money from national banks, encouraging public servants to take annual leaves, calling on families not to boycott schools and for university students to protest at their own universities. In short, they encourage wide spread defiance of the interim government, enough to call for a national strike at a later date.
Internationally, Islamists have learned from Zionists that ideology and finance are not enough; global lobbying is also crucial. Therefore, they have shifted their focus from old slogans that were used widely in the 80s and 90s, like “Islam is the solution,” to newer, more appealing ideas that resonate better with a Western audience, such as championing democracy, political freedom, and of course, being anti-coup, wrapped nicely in passionate, well-delivered presentations. This lobbying effort is delivered by attending various conferences and giving interviews to a wide range of TV and radio networks. For non-Egyptian Muslim audiences, they focus on mosques. Toward Islamist networks in Pakistan, Turkey, and Gulf states, they enlist various supportive scholars, including persons like Sheik Qaradawi, who publically called on Egyptian army cadres to revolt against army chief General Sisi on Friday.
In contrast, pro-coup support groups are doing their best to undermine the Brotherhoods’ efforts, at least at the domestic level. State TV has changed the banner from “War on terror” to the softer slogan “Crack down on terror,” with a strong focus on the ongoing militancy in Sinai, and linked this to the Brotherhood as a group. Other private channels have tried to cover the anti-coup demonstrations, and, of course, have highlighted how the protestors have attacked them and made their job impossible. The sole aim of this subtle change of policy is to deprive the Islamists of the victimhood narrative, and try to counter their appeal for the wider public, while the government continues with its hard-core crackdown tactics.
Both sides understand that a substantial section of the Egyptian public are “swing- citizens,” without clear loyalties or political affiliations, and may swing towards the military or the Brotherhood, depending on the evolving events. Winning those Egyptians is the ultimate task for both pro and the anti-coup groups. It is unfortunate that both sides are not willing to reflect on the ghastly events that have become typical in Egypt since the ousting of president Morsi. Instead, this intense lobbying is going on, rather than working to embark on serious reforms of thoughts and practice.
On one side, the interim government is focused on the mix of a security crackdown, nationalistic propaganda, and imposing a monopoly on religious preaching, but fails to reassure the wider pubic that it will kick-start a true, inclusive democratic process, or even reform the ailing economy. The government and its allies are also failing miserably in selling their message to a western audience, and were only saved by the current western distraction with the ongoing debate on Syria.
On the other side, the Islamists are only updating their tactics without a serious reflection on the past or a genuine desire to reform their ideology. Their new slogan of civil disobedience may sound attractive; however, it is highly unlikely that it will be seriously effective on the ground. It may be easy to boycott pro–government TV channels, but not public transport or national banks. Today, most services of Egypt’s underground metro have worked as usual. Egyptians are already fed-up with uncertainty, and the Islamists’ policy of deliberately creating instability will be off-putting to many.
Looking back again to not-so-distant events, the crackdown has forced the Brotherhood to adopt more long-term measures that may not yield immediate results, but will help the group to tread the waters of the turbulent sea of Egyptian politics. The hope is that their new tactics will help them rebuild a ship capable of surviving and sailing back to the shores of power.
Nervana Mahmoud is a doctor, blogger and writer on Middle East issues. You can follow her on Twitter @Nervana_1