The Middle East Channel

Does anti-Ikhwanism really matter?

Mounting anti-Ikhwan sentiment inside and outside Egypt has become indisputable. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) government's poor performance coupled with its political arrogance and immaturity have irritated many Egyptians and alarmed western policymakers. However, the crucial question is: Does it really matter? Does the MB take their critics seriously? More importantly, how will this anti-Ikhwanism play out with the internal politics of the MB?

The MB doesn't seem to be much concerned with the growing resentment against its rule. The movement is chiefly preoccupied by grabbing as much power as it can and its leaders don't give much attention to the allegation that their popularity is waning.

Moreover, President Mohamed Morsi tends to ignore, disdain, or threaten the opposition's leaders, which he believes are attempting to undermine his rule. For him, as long as MB support is secure, nothing should be worrying. Not surprisingly, since taking power, Morsi has shown no sign of disentanglement between the presidency and the MB. His discourse and policy are still much attached to the MB's ideology and leadership. 

But why don't Morsi and the MB seem to be concerned by the growing opposition to their rule, albeit publically? The answer in one word is: perception. Both perceive the opposition as a part of a global conspiracy against what they call "the Islamic project" or as Mahmoud Ghozlan, the spokesperson of the MB, puts it, "the opposition is an evil force [that] seeks to sabotage the revolution and exclude the MB." In other words, the MB leaders have tended to turn a blind eye on their mistakes and have hung their failure on the opposition's shoulder. They suffer a sense of self-denial, which has become common among members who unashamedly tend to attribute Egypt's problems to the opposition or to the "invisible and meddling fingers" that seek to destabilize their country, as Morsi repeatedly calls.

Nevertheless, the anti-Ikhwanism phenomenon, unlike many might think, has counterproductive effects on the MB. It significantly benefits the MB and plays in favor of its conservative leadership. In other words, the ongoing protests against the MB, inadvertently, do nothing but enhance the MB's unity and solidify its leadership's grip over the organization (tanzim). This happens through what I call the "ordeal" or mihna narrative. By this I refer to the sense of tribulation and victimization that prevails among the rank-and-file in the MB and enables them to confront or tolerate external pressure. This narrative historically originated from memories, emotions, and images of the MB's malaise under different autocratic regimes from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Hosni Mubarak. It is incessantly constructed and reproduced by the MB leaders in order to maintain members' solidarity and commitment to the MB's ideology and leadership. Over time, the "mihna" narrative has become an integral component of the indoctrination and socialization process within the MB. It helped the MB to accommodate regimes' repression and avoid any internal substantive fissures or schism over the past decades. Notions and terms like patience (sabr), God-test (ibtila), sacrifice (tadhiyya) are prevalent in the MB's discourse and ideology.

More interestingly, members' sufferance and tribulation has always been viewed as a key tool in the promotion process within the MB. The more members endure pressure, the higher they would get promoted within the movement's structure. Not surprisingly, those leaders who were systematically arrested and tortured under Mubarak's regime became the most influential leaders after the revolution, e.g. President Morsi, Khairat El-Shater, Hasan Malek, etc.

After the revolution, the MB's leaders replaced Mubarak's repression with the opposition's conspiracy against their rule as a rallying point. It is one of many tactics that are employed by these leaders in order to maintain members' loyalty and sustain the unity and coherence of the movement particularly during hard times or crises. Therefore, although they are in power, they continue to perceive themselves as "victims" of the opposition which turned to be the "external enemy" that attempts to undermine the "Islamic project" regardless of what the latter means. Ironically, the most powerful opposition to the MB's rule now comes from Salafis and other Islamist forces not from liberal and secular forces. More importantly, by treating the opposition as an uncompromising "foe" the MB leadership could ensure members' adherence and maintain their control over the organization. Indeed, the attacks on the MB's headquarters in Mokattam in March was a golden chance for leadership to feed this narrative and internalize within members' mindset. "Now the entire tanzim (organization) is under the control of the conservatives and all members would unwaveringly support President Morsi to the end of his tenure," a senior member of the MB told me. Clearly, the more the opposition presses the MB, the more solid and coherent the movement becomes.

In addition, MB leaders constantly invoke anti-Ikhwanism in order to bypass internal criticism and discredit calls for change and reform raised among the grassroots opposition. Over the past two years, particularly since the MB took power 10 months ago, no one could hold its leaders accountable or make them responsible for their decisions and mistakes. On the contrary, members have become increasingly willing to follow the "listen and obey" principle and succumb to the leadership. Not surprisingly, the reformist wing within the MB has eclipsed significantly. Reformist figures and youth were deliberately excluded, disenchanted, and marginalized by the hardliners who took over the movement over the past decade. Clearly, the MB tends to apply the same mechanism in dealing with secular and liberal opposition. Instead of promoting a genuine dialogue and listening to their demands, the MB has alienated the opposition's figures and defamed them.

Ironically, while Egypt's opposition is increasingly adopting an anti-Ikhwan discourse in order to expose and discredit the MB, the latter is emphatically banking on this discourse in order to maintain power and sustain its organizational coherence.

Khalil al-Anani is a Scholar of Middle East Politics at Durham University and has recently appointed as a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington, D.C. His forthcoming book is, Unpacking the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity and Politics (tentative title). He can be reached at: and followed on twitter @khalilalanani.


The Middle East Channel

Syria's fight after the fight

The bloody struggle playing out in Syria has taken on increasingly sectarian tones, with dangerous implications for the future of this important country and the region. Protests originally focused on governance, political rights, and human freedoms. President Bashar al-Assad and his regime responded with violence, torture, and abuse, labeling opponents as "terrorists" and emphasizing sectarian differences. Two plus years into this increasingly protracted struggle, Assad's actions have helped create what he feared -- armed anti-government elements seeking his overthrow, with violent foreign religious extremists importing their dangerous worldview and political agenda.

Considering the diverse set of actors fighting the Assad regime, there will be another war for control of Syria once he leaves the scene. It will pit onetime rebel allies against each other, with alignments along sectarian lines or divides over secular versus religious governance. These cleavages are already starting to show, such as with the recent announcement by al Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra of the establishment of an Islamic State in Syria.

Therefore, for the future of Syria, the fight after the fight may be as important as the first. 

The secular nature of the Syrian state prior to the conflict protected religious minorities and provided a modicum of freedom of worship. This is crumbling, and forward looking planning is needed about the future structure of governance. The U.S. State Department has stated that the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) is working to include "opponents of the Assad regime from across the political and ethno-sectarian spectrum." The State Department's decision in December 2012 to blacklist al-Nusra as a foreign terror organization linked to al Qaeda in Iraq was another step to limit its influence in a future Syria. There are also a range of U.S. government activities underway that touch on issues of interfaith understanding and religious tolerance.

However, more needs to be done. As United Nations and Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said this week before the U.N. Security Council, the "sectarian dimensions of the crisis are perhaps more important to watch and understand," and "Syrians and international partners have every reason to be concerned over [the effects of extremism] on the present situation and on its possible long term influence." Al-Nusra, al Qaeda, and other domestic and foreign groups will continue to work to impose their extremist religio-political ideologies onto the Syrian people. Allowing the creation of a Taliban-esque legal system would threaten the future for human rights and religious freedom in a post-Assad Syria.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), where I serve as Director of Policy and Research, has become increasingly concerned about religious freedom conditions in Syria, both during the current crisis and in its aftermath. The commission recently released a preliminary report on "Protecting and Promoting Religious Freedom in Syria," which highlights how regime forces and affiliated militias have perpetrated religiously-motivated attacks against Sunni Muslim civilians and religious minority communities. It draws attention to the increasing sectarian divides, and how the conflict threatens Syria's religious diversity, with members of the smallest minority communities either fleeing the country or remaining to face an uncertain future. 

The USCIRF report provides a range of recommendations for U.S. government activity, such as: prioritizing projects that promote multi-religious efforts to encourage religious tolerance and understanding; working with the SOC to train local councils, courts, lawyers, and judges on international human rights and religious freedom standards; creating a working group among likeminded countries in the Friends of Syria group to focus on protecting religious and ethnic minorities in a post-Assad Syria; and working toward developing a constitution that respects freedom of religion or belief in full (not just freedom of worship), as well as minority rights, women's rights, and freedom of expression. Importantly, the report also recommends the United States engage regional partners -- such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- on their vision for a post-Assad Syria to reach agreement for how the international community will influence the direction of a new government and its system of law.

Finding a proper balance between religion and state is critical, especially in pluralistic societies like Syria. Countries providing civic space for inclusive and peaceful religious discourse are more prosperous and stable. So despite worsening conditions and an uncertain Syrian future, the United States should start laying markers for the shape of a future governing system.

Actors like al-Nusra are already exerting pressure on Syria's collapsing secular legal system, attempting to replace it with a government based on their interpretation of Sharia (religious law). Notably, fewer than half of the majority-Muslim countries in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) give Islam a legal role. While OIC member constitutions may reference Sharia, many maintain non-religious systems. Ensuring a new Syria has a civil legal system fully protecting the rights of members of all faiths would reassure Syriac Christians and Alawites, two key Assad constituencies, as well as Sunni Muslims who want the freedom to peacefully practice their faith.

As the USCIRF report states, "Syria's transition from armed conflict to a representative democracy under rule of law will be difficult, arduous, and remains uncertain." Non-state actors and terrorist organizations are bringing weapons, material support, and a religiously-based system of governance to Syria -- in effect, importing their version of government-in-a-box. While the fighting continues to rage, the United States and its allies must help shape a post-Assad Syria that protects its religious diversity and ensures respect for religious freedom and human rights.

Knox Thames is the Director of Policy and Research at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Any personal views expressed are his own and may or may not reflect the views of the commission. He can be followed on Twitter @thames22.