Part Two : Interview with Hazem Kandil – Inside the Brotherhood (Part Two)
Can you sketch an overview of the Muslim Brothers’ creation and expansion and reflect on the concept of “counter-hegemony” that you are applying to the Brotherhood’s history ?
The historical section in my book  goes back to the end of the 19th century, since it was characterized by a certain intellectual crisis that still resonates today. Even though Muslims occasionally faced times of weakness, they did not question the cultural and legal foundations of their community. But major changes occurred throughout the 19th century and in Egypt specifically, from the 1830s onwards. For instance, more and more students were going to Europe, especially France and, once back, were telling their community about different ways of thinking about culture, law, everyday life and so on. This led to a new situation, which Albert Hourani refers to as “two spirits in one body”.
By the beginning of the 20th century, when Hassan al-Banna was a young, bewildered primary school teacher, he lived in a community in which parts were becoming more Europeanised, meaning that Egyptians would still consider themselves Muslims but would also adopt what they saw as modernity wholeheartedly. And for them, because both Islam and modernity were valuable, there could be no discrepancy between these two systems of meaning. On the other hand, there were the religious clerics, who became very anxious and intransigent because of these changes, attacking every thing about Western modernity. And this divide persists today in Egypt: you have the liberal Muslims who believe that Islam is in perfect accordance with liberalism, and you have people who strongly oppose any Western ideology.
The Muslim Brotherhood was created at this specific moment in Egyptian history and that is when the notion of “counter-hegemony” becomes relevant. The Brotherhood thought that the two camps were not going to resolve the matter, as it had become impossible for them to listen to each other. On the one hand, it was too late to try to roll back modernity through religious arguments, but on the other hand, they could not just give up to modern secularism. Consequently, they settled to infiltrate society, slowly but surely, aiming at winning people over back to Islamic culture, Islamic lifestyle, Islamic laws, one by one – they were inspired by the imagery of Noah’s ark, bringing as many survivors as possible.
This strategy carries Gramscian overtones: the Brotherhood hoped to counter what was quickly becoming common sense by slowly expanding their Society. Their hope was – and it came to a climax with Rabaa in 2013 – that after creating what Gramsci calls the “war of manoeuvre”, that is, winning over larger sections of society, then the “frontal attack” could take place. It was not necessarily seen as a violent clash but rather a confrontation between two different, parallel communities, culminating in the victory of the more committed. Hassan al-Banna, at the Fifth Annual congress in 1939, specifically told his fellow Brothers: you’re too hasty, you want to move prematurely; only when we will have enough committed people, we could move to the frontal attack. That is why, I think, Gramsci is useful for understanding the Brotherhood. Of course the Muslim Brothers were not thinking in terms of Gramsci but in terms of the prophet’s tradition, starting with a small community and winning people one by one to finally overwhelm the unbelievers.
This moment of foundation of the Society still resonates with us now and it is important to understand that, throughout their history, the Muslim Brothers were always very consistent with their ideal of generating a cultural transformation.
In the 1930s they thought that the transformation might be achieved through fostering good relationships with the young reformist King and thus they became staunch monarchists. Then after the King turned against them, they took part in the Free Officers’ coup, thinking that, if they could help create a Republic, they would be able to infiltrate the subsequently established media and universal education system. And actually Sayyid Qutb, on the eve of joining the Brotherhood, was a cultural adviser to Nasser. Then Nasser turned against them. When Sadat got them out of prison, they reinvented themselves as supporters of a just dictatorship and embarked on cultural transformation by becoming his advisers. After years of collaboration, Sadat turned against them. When Mubarak came in, he did not want them as his advisers but allowed them to work in the sphere of civil society. Here, the more contemporary version of the Muslim Brotherhood took shape. Working at the level of civil society means, for the Muslim Brothers, running for elections at universities, syndicates, and parliament, with the aim of using the campaign itself as a cultural platform. The same logic applies to their charity work in neighbourhood mosques, nurseries, schools, and so on.
In sum, the Brotherhood’s strategies varied over time but their goal of cultural transformation remained the same. While Hassan al-Banna tried to win people over to a central Brotherhood headquarters, the current Brotherhood attempts to infiltrate civil spaces, without people necessarily being aware that they are Brothers. Contrary to the literature that usually portrays them as opportunists or pragmatists, they are utterly consistent in terms of objectives.
Moving toward more contemporary developments, can you broadly account for the popular uprising that led to Mubarak’s downfall, pointing out the specific role the Brotherhood played in this mobilization, especially its youth wing?
The Muslim Brotherhood has been working within civil society since the seventies. But after thirty years, many young members of the Brotherhood became slightly impatient and got involved with more direct forms of political protest, such as the united front movements like Kefaya, Facebook pages such as “We are all Khaled Saeed”, or youth movements like the April 6th movement. They started exploring different avenues, which were more subversive and more confrontational.
However, on the eve of the uprising, it was no secret that the Muslim Brothers were sending clear messages to Gamal Mubarak, Mubarak’s son and designated successor, that they would not oppose his succession if he would allow them the same space and freedom within civil society. And so, when the revolt itself took place, the Muslim Brothers were taken aback, since it was out of their field of possibilities and expectations. Many of the youth who were disillusioned with the Brotherhood went on to form several small (and so far insignificant) parties, such as the Egyptian Current, and Strong Egypt, while the Brotherhood famously decided to join the uprising on the night of 28th, when it became obvious that a big change was taking place.
However, it is important to know that, on the 1st of February, the Brotherhood sent Mohammed Morsi, who became president afterwards, and Saad El-Katatni, who became first speaker of the parliament, to negotiate a deal with Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s intelligence officer. Through this settlement, they would try to explain to the demonstrators in Tahrir that things could be solved through negotiations, while in exchange the Brotherhood would be offered a political party and more space. But on the 2nd February, the day after the meeting, the battle of the so-called Battle of the Camel occurred, changing the situation.
As soon as the revolt ended, the Brotherhood went back to asking how they could create their cultural transformation. They looked around to see whom they could work with. On the one hand were the civil activists, this core group of men and women responsible for the revolt, mostly liberal, leftist, with a very strong secular agenda. They could work with the Brotherhood to uproot the old regime but they would not want to see the country Islamised. On the other hand were powerful institutions: the military and the security, which had been the Brotherhood’s enemies for some time but which were not promoting any cultural agenda. So the Brotherhood thought to convince them that they could replace the old ruling party (that has been dissolved and its leaders imprisoned), so the institutions could take the Brotherhood as their new political partner. The Brotherhood thought there would be no clash because the security and the military institutions would not care about what the Brothers are mostly concerned with: culture – in this regard, it is worth noticing that in the first Muslim Brotherhood government under Morsi, the three positions they were really adamant about were: Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Information and Ministry of Education. In return, the Brotherhood could help the security and the military stabilize the political situation and shield them from accountability.
You briefly mentioned the power triangle between the political, the military and the security, which you describe further in one of your books . Can you develop this argument and explain how Morsi’s regime fit within this triangle structure?
In my work, I try to look at what I refer to as the “power triangle,” the political, military, and security institutions that constitute the core of any ruling bloc. I study regime change through examining the interactions of these three institutions, which are of course embedded in a certain cultural, socio-economic and geopolitical context.
My analysis is that what began as a military dominated regime in the 1950s slowly metamorphosed into a police state, with the security becoming the most important institution on the eve of the 2011 revolt and the military remaining an important, but less privileged partner. Consequently, the military saw the 2011 revolt as a good opportunity to outmanoeuvre its ruling partners and to change the power configuration. They first got rid of the old ruling party and came face to face with the security. Their plan was then to create a new political partner that would not be so troublesome and would defer to the military. The military initially thought about the revolutionary activists and, interestingly, the first governments formed after the revolt included figures associated with the opposition. However, at the end of the day, the military realized that the revolutionary youth was just too destabilising for the country and their next option was the Muslim Brothers, who presented themselves as a good partner: “We know how to defer to powerful institutions, we are not as rash and reckless as these youth, we are organised and we will not cause you any trouble, our sphere of interest which is culture is not your field our interest, etc.”. They seemed like a very good fit.
But what the Muslim Brotherhood did not suspect in trying to fit within this power triangle was that paying respect to the military and the security would not be enough. Famously, the Muslim Brotherhood did not only support the supreme military council in most of its decisions, but also identified with almost all of the security positions: the importance of maintaining order, the discourse on foreign conspiracies, the blame on the revolutionaries for challenging the police, etc. When Morsi came to power, he immediately said that everything was forgiven and forgotten because the security has reformed itself and even right before he was overthrown he went on to declare that the security was a partner in the revolt.
Incidentally, the current interior minister recently said that Egyptians do not have a problem with the security, as illustrated by the fact that the revolution occurred on Police day out of respect – while it is obviously the opposite. Later people found out that this line of reasoning was Morsi’s idea: in one of his speeches, he said that it had been the will of God that the day of the Revolution and Police day coincided.
So, the Brotherhood thought that paying respect to the security and the military would be enough. The problem is that they did not account for the fact that the two political factions they intended to replace could actually unite against them. The revolutionary activists felt betrayed because of the Brotherhood’s attempt to hijack the revolution, while the old regime networks refused to share power when they could reclaim it all once more. And so during the summer 2013 an incredible tactical alliance between the old regime and the revolutionary activists took place, in order to bring down the Brotherhood.
It would be wrong to think that the uprising of the summer 2013 was completely manufactured. The military and the security blessed it, but there were also millions of people in the streets. The revolutionary activists succeeded in agitating against the Brotherhood on their websites and on television and gave legitimacy to the uprising, while the old regime used its own money, networks and bureaucracy to get people out. So, now, the Brotherhood is out of the picture and Egypt’s political institution is still in a state of flux.
People suggest that the military controls the regime but, in my analysis, when Sissi goes to the presidency and leaves the military, he is no longer the parole officer representing the military. He has his own position and legacy to take into account – how he will go down in history books. We have a two-headed regime with the military and the security as the strongest institutions and it is still unclear who is going to dominate. And you have fluidity in the political field. Sissi is trying to build his own camp around the presidency, a faction made of technocrats and advisers, who are not political in any way but who work in a managerial style to achieve his vision. Very much like Nasser, he is trying to turn politics into management. But he is worried because the old regime is trying to get back to power, primarily through parliament. Ahmed Ezz, once the mentor of Gamal Mubarak, tried to run for parliament and of course the “independent” judiciary prevented him from running due to a technicality. But even if he can’t enter parliament, he can still be the caucus leader from outside. Old regime clients and businessmen are planning to run as independents and dominate parliament. And so again the independent judiciary, days before parliament elections was due to start, postponed the elections, saying that the electoral law is not constitutional although constitutional lawyers were involved in drafting it. So Sissi is trying to buy time to solidify his camp, and others are really anxious to get to parliament to solidify their own networks as well. They might come together under the umbrella of one party, under the umbrella of a number of parties, in a coalition. The regime’s character is not yet clear. Military and security are anxiously looking at each other, the political seat is contests, so that it is difficult to predict where the country is going.
The analysis I am conducting here is more complicated and fragmented than mainstream analysis, which states that the Muslim Brotherhood tried to be part of the revolution but was ultimately overthrown in a counter-revolution.