Muslim Brotherhood Conquers Egypt Elections

Major news outlets recently broke the story that the Muslim Brotherhood has taken in the neighborhood of 40% of the votes in the first election since the military-backed coup that was part of the initial wave of the Arab Spring.

This is bad for the longterm stability of Egypt, and the region, but to explain why will require quite a bit of background information on Egypt's recent history, the players involved, and things as esoteric as Salafist Islam and the origins of a group called Hamas.

This writeup will attempt to balance expediency and detail to explain why so many people are pulling their hair out over a splinter of the Muslim Brotherhood taking power in Egypt. Commentary will be minimal, detailed analysis will be minimal, and further reading will be suggested at the end of the writeup. The scope here will be primarily confined to context and history for the election results, with brief branches into related history.

The Region in Question

Most people are at least peripherally aware that the Middle East is not, and has not, been a particularly serene place for the last three thousand years or so. Things have been even crazier than normal for the last sixty to seventy years, largely due to a really astronomical amount of money and foreign influence being injected into the region in the form of oil interests from all of the global players. The situation was not good to begin with, especially given that the meat of it came right on the heels of possibly the single biggest long-term problem in the Mid-East: Israel.

The information here is not intended as anything but a fairly coarse observation, so take it as that. I also would suggest that anybody not familiar with the geography of the region to pull up a political map which includes Gaza and/or Palestine alongside Israel and the surrounding countries so you can follow along. The geography here is very important.

Israel, both the fact that it exists and the things it keeps doing, really make a lot of people in the region angry. Some of it is utterly justified, some of it is good old-fashioned anti-Semitism and tribalism. There have been several wars since the country was formed, and the end result of each has been that the aggressors not only get humiliated, but typically lose quite a bit more than they thought they were bargaining for.

Opposition to Israel and the Muslim Brotherhood

So. There are various resistance groups, variously labeled freedom fighters, terrorists, and "counterproductive forces" all swarming in the region and based mostly around opposition to Israel on various levels.

Now, we get to the complicated piece of ideology and politics: The relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Hamas.

The MB was founded in the late 20's in Egypt as a nonviolent Islamist movement. It was explicitly formed as an organized movement, and not a political party or action arm. However, various spinoff organizations, splinter movements, and factions have emerged, one of which is Hamas. Today, the MB is essentially a clearinghouse organization for many, many Islamic thinkers and leaders, some of which still believe in nonviolence, some of which are, well, Hamas and others of exactly that kind.

Hamas and Egypt

Hamas is a direct-action (read: blowing shit up and cutting off heads) group based in the Gaza strip, and have at various times blown shit up and cut off heads belonging to both Israel and Egypt, though most of the action against Egypt has followed in the wake of the Mid-2000's Gaza War. Hamas has taken a sometimes schizophrenic view of Egypt, at times denouncing the now-deposed ruler Hosni Mubarak as a puppet of Israel, and at other times making clear, but short-lived progress in negotiations with Israel both brokered and mediated by Egypt.

The accusations against Mubarak are rooted in various restrictions, sanctions, and outright ejections of Hamas from Egypt both politically and physically. These range from strict border controls to ejections of Hamas sympathizers from government and civil positions in Egypt. Essentially, Mubarak both feared Hamas' influence, and retaliation from Israel for harboring or abetting their actions in Gaza. It made perfect, if limited and short-sighted, sense to get them out of the way.

A side effect of his political intolerance - one of the finer euphemisms for "the brutal crushing of dissent" ever coined - was the gradual liberalization and secularization of Egyptian society. Between the ban on politicized, conservative Islamic groups, and greater openness and cooperation with the US and others in exchange for military aid, Egypt has become, as previously mentioned, one of the more liberal Muslim societies in the mid-East. This secularization was in fact another strong point of contention for the hardliners behind most of Hamas and the more radical elements of the MB family of organizations.

Hamas' Opposition to Mubarak via the MB

This set Hamas, and by extension, their overlapping membership in the MB, for a popular opposition to Mubarak, a by all accounts brutal dictator who was hated and feared by his people. The MB and its affiliates gained huge popular support over the years by opposing Mubarak in various ways and at various times, sometimes consistently and vocally.

In fact, after Mubarak was ousted, a new splinter of the MB was formed for specifically the purpose of capitalizing on this sentiment. In the first elections to take place since Mubarak was ousted, the MB formed the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) of Egypt. Since the ban on Hamas activity in Egypt is still, but only nominally, in place, a quick change of name was all that was required. Combined with the huge influence of the MB on its face as well as its splinter organizations with overlapping membership, the FJP was able to both finance and ride a wave of popular sentiment into a reported 40% share in the election. This process was in fact publicly announced by several spokesmen for the MB, who released statements that some funding for Hamas' Gaza Strip operations would be cut temporarily in favor of financing their efforts in the Arab Spring in Egypt.

Ironically, this hurt Hamas' legitimacy in the eyes of Gaza natives, since that funding, rather than being cut from the operational arm, was cut from the administrative and governing arm, leaving thousands of Hamas' provisional government employees out of work and jeopardizing Hamas-backed aid programs in the strip. It was obviously more important to the leadership in question to secure a strong foothold in Egypt, though that is beyond the scope of this writeup.

Hamas/FJP's Head Start and Manipulation

In fact, many of the fledgling parties setting up in Egypt banded together to ask for extra time before the elections to organize, with the now-validated complaint that the MB had an unfair advantage of in-place organization and political experience. In response the MB by way of some of its splinter groups organized a second series of violent riots, demanding swift elections on behalf of the people.

It was a stunning and brilliant manipulation of world media, who was eager to seize the opportunity to cover renewed riots and apparently anti-military unrest in Egypt, which had until then been seen as a model for the best-case scenario in the Arab Spring revolts.

This is where trouble really comes into play for the people of Egypt.

Salafism and Instability in Egypt

There is a very strong Salafist influence making itself known slowly in the FJP by way of the MB's network of personalities. Salafism/Wahhabism is best known as a particularly fundamentalist and oftentimes brutal school of Islam, and the major influence on the ideology of the Taliban, whose adventures in Afghanistan are as well-documented as they are horrible.

The FJP now finds itself publicly debating and calling for a return to an unfortunately popular interpretation of Sharia law, such as the stoning of adulterers and severing of hands for even petty theft, as well as a return to legalized misogyny - to include the revocation of suffrage and mandatory veiling, among other things.

This, frankly, will not fly in today's Egypt, which is one of the most liberal Muslim societies in the mid-East. Decades of rule by Mubarak and the increasing Westernization he ushered in were one of the major ideological sticking-points for much of the conservative MB membership, which as you recall has always been an Egypt-based organization. The relatively liberal society will inevitably reject the policies that today's MB will be pushing. Majority opposition to the basic policies of the majority party in government will be a possibly insurmountable obstacle to stability and acceptance of a fledgling government, and something the less radical elements of the MB will do well to heed when organizing.

Afterword

Anybody with at least a little more background on the events and groups discussed here will note that this is a very wide overview of some very complicated topics; the Muslim Brotherhood alone is worth volumes and volumes of history, analysis, and commentary. Most notable is the occasional conflict between the nominally political and dedicated action arms of Hamas; this alone would take years of careful study to fully understand. I would suggest that if you are interested in the region or modern political Islam, that you start with some of the reading below and branch out from there.


Selected Further Reading:

  • The Future of Political Islam by Graham E. Fuller ISBN 978-1403961365
  • Islamic fundamentalism in the West Bank and Gaza: Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad by Ziyad Abu Amr ISBN 978-0253208668
  • How Israel Helped to Spawn Hamas by Andrew Higgins via Wall Street Journal
  • Rage in Egypt at Hamas and Iran following Rocket Attacks on Eilat, Aqaba at MEMRI
  • Arab-Israeli Air Wars 1947–1982 by Shlomo Aloni, ISBN 978-1841762944
  • The Complete Idiot's Guide to Middle East Conflict (4th Edition) by Mitchell G. Bard ISBN 978-0028632612

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