Many Americans — and many Egyptians — are souring on the Muslim Brotherhood. Some are rather smugly saying, “I told you so.” From the American and Arab liberal perspectives, the Brotherhood seems run by hyper-charged Islamists bent on imposing their will on the Egyptian people. Like most things in politics, though, it depends on what exactly you’re comparing them to. More than two years into the Arab revolts, Islamists are weighing the virtues of moving more aggressively to implement their agenda versus the benefits of proceeding cautiously in an attempt to placate their critics and opponents.
There is little doubt that the Brotherhood has veered to the right. The real debate within the group is whether they’ve veered far enough. With Egypt as polarized as ever, the group has effectively given up on reaching out to liberals and leftists, focusing instead on closing ranks and rallying its base. During the presidential race, Khairat al-Shater, the Brotherhood’s original candidate, chose a Salafi-leaning council of scholars for his first campaign event, where he affirmed that the application of sharia law was his ultimate goal and that he would form a committee of scholars to help parliament achieve that goal. After Shater’s disqualification, Mohammed Morsy — a weaker, less convincing candidate — doubled down on Shater’s back-to-basics message. “Needless to say,” Morsy said, “[I am] currently the only contender who offers a clearly Islamic project.”
After winning the presidency, Morsy took a brief stab at rising above his partisan origins. But the tragic events of Dec. 4, when anti-Brotherhood protesters and government supporters clashed outside the presidential palace, rendered such efforts moot. The violence of that night — provoked by the Brotherhood when it called on supporters to confront protesters — claimed “martyrs” on both sides. For many in the opposition, this was the point of no return — blood had been spilled.
For the Brotherhood, it had much the same effect. As one Brotherhood official told me, “there was a return to the mentality of mihna [inquisition]” after that day. The subsequent months saw the presidential office hiring a steady stream of Brotherhood members. The Brothers had no one to turn to — not even the Salafis — but each other.
Insularity and Islamization, however, are not the same thing. Beyond the rhetoric and the posturing, Morsy and the Brotherhood remain the calculating gradualists that they had always been. Despite considerable legislative and executive powers, they have passed almost no “Islamic” legislation, with the exception of a law on Islamic bonds, which angered ultra-conservative Salafis more than it did liberals.
Islamization is not something you do on the fly. The Brotherhood’s priorities, for now, are rather simple — to survive and get to the next elections. In the midst of an existential struggle, all the organization’s resources have been directed toward ensuring Morsy does not fall and take the Brotherhood down with him.