In analyzing the actions of Egyptian President Morsi and by extension, the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, Western analysts have expended much energy calculating the group’s impending moves and projecting where the ruling party plans to take Egypt. However, these expectations and calculations have largely been built on the false premise that the Brotherhood is an inherently political actor that governs within the formal constraints of political savviness. DC-based analysts are quick to reassure themselves that the Brotherhood would never force women to dress a certain way, would never abrogate the peace treaty with Israel, and would never leave Egypt to fail economically. Contrary to these assumptions however, one need only look to the group’s origins, internal structure, and manifest actions to come to the realization that the Brotherhood cannot be analyzed based on a Western understanding of political theory and the typical characteristics of a political party.

There is no doubt that the Brotherhood has invested in a number of superficial efforts to portray a certain image to the West, whether through its charm offensive trips to Washington, its English-language rhetoric that is starkly different from Arabic content, and its “inclusion” of symbolic female and Coptic members. A look beyond this thin level of superficiality, however, demonstrates that the group is unequivocal in its insistence on barreling forward with a plan for Egypt that appears to have little or no vision behind the characteristics of an Islamist project. There are a number of signs that the Brotherhood cannot be analyzed as a typical political actor, some of which are as follows:

The Brotherhood is an exclusionary, non-transparent group by nature 

A rational political party or organization is willing to incorporate as many diverse individuals as possible, ultimately depicting a “least common denominator” and seeking to portray a sense of inclusion. Generally, a newly-minted member of a political party becomes privy to the same internal voting and participation rights as a long-standing member. Furthermore, while exceptions do exist, the finances and budgets of political parties are largely made available.

While the Brotherhood occasionally spotlights its female and Coptic members, it has largely kept its fraternity-like hierarchical structure intact, despite the increasing phenomena of young opposition voices parting from the group’s ranks. Even today, Muslim Brotherhood members are recruited and sought out at a young age based on their religiosity and commitment. These potential members experience extensive levels of vetting, so much so that it can take up to 10 years, if not more, before a committed Brotherhood member has access to voting rights in internal elections. The group’s complicated structure (which has been explored at length by scholars like Eric Trager) keeps a shadowy cloak over the group’s internal dynamics, but ultimately strengthens the unwavering commitment of Brotherhood members to the General Guide and the organization’s mission, building a bond between members that becomes extremely hard to break and a culture of blind adherence and discouraged rational thought.  

Only after threats of dissolution and increasing questions on the group’s funding and finances, did the Brotherhood seek to become recognized as an official non-governmental organization. It is unclear whether the organization plans to make funding information publicly available in the near future. Even beyond finances, the group’s true intentions and stances on issues like minority rights, female empowerment, and the notion of a Western democracy are unclear at best; the organization and its members partake in extensive double-speak.

The Brotherhood does not derive its support or legitimacy from contested elections

A political party derives the majority of its support and legitimacy from contesting elections.

While the Brotherhood has participated in every set of elections since the January 25 Revolution, much unlike a typical political party, it has not derived the majority of its support from running candidates and putting out political platforms. As an organization that has existed in Egypt since 1928 and heavily relied on religious and spiritual emotional rhetoric, the Brotherhood has taken on a number of responsibilities, from the promotion of religious values to the provision of supplies for impoverished citizens to more recently, the assumption of governing power. The organization’s sense of purpose has not been clear and for this reason, it is difficult to calculate from where the organization gets its support or how long such support can continue in the face of ongoing political turmoil.

Additionally, while the Brotherhood has formally rejected violence, many ex-members allude to the presence of militant wings and jihadist tendencies. Thus, it becomes unclear whether the Brotherhood will remain peacefully willing to accept the results of the ballot box when its popularity wanes in the upcoming years.

The Brotherhood does not have a political vision

While political parties are often guilty of baseless political rhetoric to further their cause, there is no doubt that rational political actors are driven by a political platform, or at least, clear political principles.  

With the Brotherhood in power for what is now nearing a year, it is clear that the organization has no vision for Egypt beyond vague conceptions of an Islamist project. While President Morsi and Prime Minister Hisham Qandil have talked extensively of al-Nahda as the magic wand for Egypt’s faltering economy, ailing tourism sector, and harrowingly-high levels of poverty, it has become clear that the details of the project were never based on a realistic understanding of the Egyptian economy. Initially expected to lead to a GDP increase of 6.5-7% in 5 years and reduce unemployment by 5% every year, al-Nahda has brought Egypt a 13.2% unemployment rate, up 0.2% from the last quarter, and economic growth of only 2%.

Furthermore, the Brotherhood’s projects have been ad-hoc; they do not represent what the Egyptian economy needs to revitalize the country’s institutions, but rather, a set of random laws and propositions to give off the impression of facial reform and ultimately to contribute to a superficially-Islamic state. Plans to build an “airport city” similar to  Silicon Valley, laws to de-criminalize FGM, and efforts to raise taxes on alcohol and cigarettes are just a minor personification of the Brotherhood’s misplaced priorities and generalized solutions for what the country needs and wants as thuggish violence reaches all-time highs and potential sources of FDI, loans, and investment dry up without reasonable alternative.

Beyond the project of enforcing a set of arbitrary Islamic principles and the day-to-day reliance on country-based strings-attached loans from Qatar, it has become clear that the Brotherhood lacks a political vision to save Egypt and possibly even, to save the organization itself.

The Brotherhood does not act with a predictable degree of political savviness

Rational political actors work with a significant degree of political savviness to further their causes and goals.

While this has been true for the Brotherhood in its superficial outreach to the West, this air of political savviness has largely begun to fade. The Brotherhood has had endless opportunities to give off the air of inclusion, incorporation, and willingness to engage and it has unequivocally failed in capitalizing on these opportunities. On the issue of sectarianism, for example, instead of building bridges after the harrowing images from the April 7th attack on St. Mark’s Cathedral, Morsi refused to attend Easter services, instead sending poor government representation. On the issue of political incorporation, the Brotherhood has also failed to give off the air of inclusion; instead of accommodating opposition requests to equalize the playing field before participating in dialogue, Morsi and the Brotherhood have completely stopped referring to the “National Salvation Front” in their rhetoric and continue to run the country as if a credible opposition movement does not exist. Even more recently, instead of hiring technocrats in response to calls for a ministerial change, the President selected nine Ministers, all of whom are arguably either formal Brotherhood members or Brotherhood-leaning individuals, and none of whom are the most qualified in their respective fields.

Thus, the Brotherhood has even rejected opportunities for the organization to put in minimal effort and yet yield immense political capital to further their own standing. The group’s inherent ideological tendencies that are based in a lack of open-mindedness and willingness to engage with the other, further cement its refusal to engage.

Rational political actors are ultimately willing to reach a hand to the other side, and the Brotherhood has completely refused to do so, refusing to “kiss the babies” and “wave to the crowds.”

Ultimately, a ruling party that does not fit within the typical confines of a political animal is one that cannot be expected to act rationally or pursue predictable actions. The Brotherhood seems willing to dig its own grave, quite irrationally, in the effort to pursue its Islamist project. Unless the propensity of the Brotherhood to go rogue and sacrifice its political capital for the sake of such is taken into consideration by analysts, policymakers, and diplomats, the West and the remainder of the world will continue to harbor an unrealistic expectation of the Brotherhood’s rationality, ultimately, finding itself picking up the pieces of a broken Egypt that is beyond fixing and contending with an ideologically-charged Middle East where rationality has permanently come to die. 

Mai El-Sadany is a law student at the Georgetown University Law Center, with an intent to focus on international and human rights law in the context of Middle East politics. 

Note: For the purposes of this piece, the author is neglecting the difference between the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization and the Freedom and Justice Party as a political party in light of their parallel behavior and the lack of a clear delineation between the two actors.

Photo: Jonathan Rashad