In an interview last month, Egyptian politician Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh displayed the poise and good humor of a man who had the foresight to step off a bus before it rolled into a ditch. The former Muslim Brotherhood member spoke confidently about newly democratic Egypt, which he said would succeed so long as it remained true to its ecumenical, secular traditions.
“Religion should change society indirectly through inspiration, not directly through politics,” he said from his office in suburban Cairo, which serves as the headquarters of his Strong Egypt party. “I oppose Islamist groups who launch their own parties. There will inevitably be conflict between religion and politics.”
Aboul Fotouh, who was edged out in the first round of Egypt’s presidential election last year, was shrewdly restrained when asked to comment on the first-year performance of a government dominated by the Brotherhood, which he abandoned two years ago. “It is not for me to evaluate,” said the 61-year-old physician, “though we are against the concept of political Islam.”
A band of ex-Brothers
The view from the moral high ground is always gratifying, particularly when one’s rivals are mired in a tar pit of their own making. A cadre of prominent members of the Ikhwan (as the Brotherhood is known in Arabic) have bolted from the group and are now active oppositionists. They include men like Tharwat El-Kherbawy, a lawyer who has written books about the Ikhwan and the triumph of its conservative wing in the run up to the revolution that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011; Mohammed Habib, a former deputy to the group’s supreme guide, who claims he was outmaneuvered by hardliners when they allied with Mubarak in exchange for their support of a dynastic transfer of presidential power; and Ibrahim El-Zafarani, a physician who, as a political prisoner in the late 1990s, participated in vigorous debates over politics and theology with inmates Aboul Fotouh and his rival, Khairat El-Shater, widely thought to be currently the most powerful man in the Ikhwan.
Ibrahim El-Zafarani, who launched his own party last year, echoes Aboul Fotouh’s warning against mixing politics and religion. “A political party is different from a religious movement,” he said in an interview last year. “Religious values are absolute while politics is about negotiation and compromise and debate. The Brotherhood combines these two at its peril.”
Schismatics like El-Zafarani, who believe the Ikhwan has become corrupted by power and should return to its traditional mission of da’wa, or propagation of the faith, are emboldened with each mistake made by a blunder-prone, Brotherhood-led government. As a senior leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Youth Cadre, Mohammed El-Gebba manned barricades during the revolution and fought pitched battles with pro-regime forces in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. He left the Ikhwan last year and is mulling a bid for a parliamentary seat in legislative elections tentatively scheduled for October. “I was shocked Brotherhood leaders allowed their personal interests to clash with the values of Islam,” said Gebba. “If there is anything good from them being in power, it’s that they’ve exposed themselves for what they are.”
Gebba, an acolyte of both Habib and Aboul Fotouh, said the Ikhwan has thoroughly and irreparably discredited itself among Egypt’s orthodox Muslims, as well as its secular ones. He is concerned that the elections may lead to violence, and perhaps a military coup, but he says moderate Islam will prevail. “The Muslim Brotherhood’s core membership is a tiny fraction of Egypt’s population, and they are losing popularity. Egyptians don’t trust anyone anymore. There will be clashes, but the outcome will be the end of the Ikhwan as a political movement.”
Since he won the presidential election last June by the thinnest of margins, Mohamed Mursi, a former Brotherhood leader, has antagonized ordinary Egyptians by attempting to colonize key government posts with his former apparatchiks. (Morsi resigned from the Ikhwan ahead of his inauguration to preserve a veneer—however fig-leaf thin—of independence.) Having declined to form a coalition government, the blame for nearly twelve months of failed leadership rests exclusively on his shoulders. The Egyptian economy is on the verge of bankruptcy, with its foreign reserves reduced to USD 13.5 billion, about a third its pre-revolution level, and the Egyptian pound’s value is tumbling. Inflation and unemployment are creeping higher even as economic growth trundles at a mere 2% this year, unchanged from a year ago.
With Egypt desperate for hard currency, Mursi and the International Monetary Fund have yet to agree on the terms for a proposed USD 4.8 billion rescue fund. In December, negotiations collapsed when the president withdrew his support for IMF-prescribed austerity measures after they were rejected by leaders of his own party. Some observers now believe it is too late for an IMF rescue to have much of an impact.
Instead, the Mursi government has turned to friendly governments in Libya and Qatar for lifelines worth several billion dollars, which has kept the nation afloat at the expense of popular anxiety about the political price of such largesse. “For a year, we’ve been agonizing over whether the IMF deal will come through,” said Wael Ziada, the head of research at Cairo-based investment bank EFG-Hermes, “but the hard fact is we’ve had transfers from Libya and Qatar worth twice the IMF package and that’s done nothing to stop the decline in reserves. The current fiscal path is not sustainable.”
Despite its commitment to free-market economics, the Ikhwan in power has unnerved businessmen and investors with what they say is the arbitrary, if not politically motivated, application of tax law. Investigations into the Sawiris family’s Orascom group of companies, capitalization of which dominates the Egyptian stock exchange, is thought to be less a judicious probe than a shake-down of a prominent Coptic Christian family and a warning to their coreligionists. Although they comprise about 15% of the population, Egypt’s Copts account for an outsized share of economic output. The Orascom investigation is only one reason why many Coptic families with the resources to emigrate are doing so.
“The Islamists are the new businessmen,” says Basant Mousa, who runs a media company that focuses on Coptic issues. “They think they can just fill the void.”
In less than a year at the helm of the state, the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s other Islamist movements have vindicated those who warned that religious orthodoxy is irreconcilable with democratic ideals and that the Ikhwan‘s leadership culture—hierarchical, authoritarian, opaque—is unsuited for popular governance. With elections looming, the Mursi government has precious little time to redeem itself. The Brotherhood retains its ability to deploy supporters to the polling booth, which could be enough to see it through another election cycle. Few would doubt, however, that the future of Egyptian democracy resembles less the Ikhwan‘s aggrandizing, exclusivist species of politics than it does the more accommodating kind promoted by Aboul Fotouh and his comrades in self-exile.
That of course assumes Egypt’s revolution survives a military coup, which an astonishing number and diversity of Egyptians seem to be anticipating with relish. “One day the poor people will come after the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Ibrahim Zahran, an energy consultant and leader of a liberal political party. That’s when the army will intervene. That is the best solution.”
Kamal Helbawy is less optimistic. At 74, he was one of the eldest members of the Ikhwan until he resigned from the group last year. He dreads the prospect of a coup, although he said it is not the worst possible legacy of the Mursi administration. “The worst scenario and the most likely,” he said, “is an onslaught of extremism and sectarian conflict. Then the Americans will interfere militarily to control terrorism in the Sinai peninsula and elsewhere.”
Helbawy, who joined at the Brotherhood when he was 12 years old, laments what he described as the perversion of the group’s charter, established in 1928, from an evangelical movement to a political machine with little regard for the revolution’s liberal ideals. “The Ikhwan should be an academy for developing the character of Egypt’s youth to prepare them for their professions, including legislators,” he said. “Its leaders had the resources to both guarantee the democratic path and to satisfy the revolution’s demands but they only did the former. They were reluctant to join in the early days and after the revolution succeeded they declined to sustain it. That’s why I resigned from the group.”
With a flourish, Helbawy plucked a volume from a bookcase in his office and displayed it to a visitor. It was a copy of Mursi’s first budget, and it was titled “The Greatest Constitution for the Greatest People.” Such hyperbole, Helbawy said, “is the propaganda of autocracy. It’s something you would expect from Berlin or Rome in the mid-20th century. What Egypt needs today is a liberal Islamist. We need this for Islam, particularly as it relates to women, governance, the environment, globalization and Western philosophy as it may apply to us. This is the future.”