Rached Ghannouchi’s Historical Responsibility for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Anticipated Revisions?

In Opinion Articles by CIHRS

Rached Ghannouchi’s Historical Responsibility for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Anticipated Revisions?[i]

Bahey eldin Hassan[ii]

This issue of Rowaq Arabi looks at the evolution of political Islamist groups in the Arab world, attempting to answer several questions closely related to the trajectory of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt, especially since the uprising of January 2011.227

This discussion comes as the Ennahda movement in Tunisia is engaged in profound intellectual debates in preparation for its landmark general congress in May 2016. The preliminary discussions for the conference have revolved around the separation of political and outreach or preaching activity and the possibility of abandoning outreach and leaving it to civic associations wholly separate from the Ennahda party, which would become a “civil” political party along the lines of Christian Democratic parties in Europe. This intellectual conflict—unprecedented within political Islamist groups in the Arab world since they emerged in the early 19th century—is being led by Rached Ghannouchi, the ideologue and historical political leader of Ennahda.[1] If this revolutionary trend emerges victorious in the general congress, which is likely, it will mark the beginning of a very long road at the end of which Islam will no longer constitute the binding, authoritative reference for Ennahda’s program, policies, and practices, especially as concerns the system of governance in Tunisia, the legal order, the status of non-Muslims and non-males, and other vital issues. Islam will be no more than a source of general inspiration for the ethos and value system of the renewing party. In turn, Ennahda could gradually become the principal conservative, non-religious, rightist party in Tunisia, returning to power with a bigger majority and broader, firmer social base.

In introductions to the CIHRS annual report on human rights since 2011, I have repeatedly pointed to the crucial role played by Ennahda, as a sophisticated Islamist movement more open to change than its peers in the Arab world, in the success of the Tunisian iteration of the Arab Spring, just as, conversely, the inflexibility and opportunism of the MB contributed to the bitter revolutionary failure in Egypt, though it should go without saying that the decisive factor for success in Tunisia and failure in Egypt is the very different role played by the military elite in the two countries since January 2011.

Two years before its general congress, Ennahda initiated a thoroughgoing reassessment and practical review of its political conduct. Based on this, it decided to respond to the overwhelming public demand that it abandon its seat in power and reconsider its political strategy, alliances, and political rhetoric and lexicon. This took place in the shadow of two significant developments: first, the rising popular opposition to the Troika government formed by Ennahda with its parliamentary majority and second, the abject failure of the MB in power in Egypt, the collapse of its popularity, and the army’s ouster of the elected president.

In Egypt, the MB proved incapable of even noticing their own abysmal failure or subsequently recognizing its causes and their responsibility for it, explaining the public’s utter abandonment of it solely in terms of conspiracies by the deep state and military establishment. This intellectual rigidity and political incapacitation has persisted unchanged by subsequent events, including the removal of the MB from power after only one year and the massacres at Rabia and al-Nahda Squares, unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history, which claimed the lives of some 1,000 people, most of them supporters and members of the group, and even the security, legal, and judicial crackdown that affected thousands more MB supporters and members. On the contrary, these seismic developments only cemented a narrative of victimization among what was left of the MB collective, reducing the scope of action of both major factions of the group to the reactive, whether political or armed and violent.

Of course, it is unreasonable to demand that the MB copy or adopt every line of Ennahda revisionism, although the ideological revisions proposed to the Ennahda

congress offer a suitable framework for anticipated ideological revisions in all “moderate” political Islamist groups in the Arab world. Despite that both Ennahda and the MB belong to the same current of political Islamist current—in fact, Ennahda was a member in the International Muslim Botherhood Organizatoin, led by the Egyptian MB—there are differences in the level of development between Egyptian and Tunisian society, in the political and cultural climate, in the political trajectories of Ennahda and the MB, and in the nature of the grave errors committed. In turn, this will give any political revisionism undertaken by the MB in Egypt its own particular flavor.

The period between January 25, 2011 and July 3, 2013 requires the MB and any objective historian to take pause. It throws into stark relief the true nature of the MB’s strategic choices, which were hidden in the more dissembling time prior to the revolution.[2] In this historical stage, the MB was first a rising star then the master of the scene, having directly or indirectly a decisive say in major decision-making institutions in Egypt, including the committee amending the constitution (March 2011), the People’s Assembly and Shura Council, the constituent assembly (2012), and the presidency itself.

Of course, there were conflicts with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which governed the country from February 11, 2011 to Jun 3, 2012, but these were always resolved through public or tacit understandings and agreements concluded at the expense of the primary forces that had staged the January 25 uprising. Before June 2013, the conflict between SCAF and the MB only came to a head in the spring of 2012, when the MB broke its pledge not to stake a candidate in the presidential elections. For the two fateful years following the January uprising, the MB’s political rhetoric and its everyday political stances supported the front on which SCAF was fighting. That is, the MB acted to domesticate and cut down the forces of reform and change, and gave political cover to massacres engineered by the SCAF in Maspero, Mohammed Mahmoud, the Cabinet sit-in, and elsewhere, as well as the smear campaigns against political activists and rights groups as well as the crackdown on them through security, legal, and judicial channels.

In this context, the MB should also reflect on the sole political program it has ever released publicly, in the fall of 2007. The most serious ideological crimes committed by the MB while drafting the constitution in 2012, thanks to its majority in the constituent assembly, find their origins in this program, which is inspired by a totalitarian model and uses Islam to secure and intensify the totalitarian nature of governance.[3] When the 2012 constitution was being drafted, the MB argued that it was compelled to offer concessions to the Salafis in the constituent assembly, but in fact it was drawing inspiration from and seeking to incrementally apply the ‘constitution’ it had unveiled five years earlier.

The other party that saw its aspirations met by the 2012 constitution was the military establishment, demonstrated in particular by its constitutional ‘right’ to prosecute civilians in military courts, a first in the history of Egyptian constitutions. Prior to the 2012 constitution, Egyptian civilians could be referred to military tribunals—and they were, including MB members—pursuant to a statute, but an unconstitutional one. In fact, suits were filed with the Supreme Constitutional Court seeking to overturn statutes that contravened the 1971 constitution, and the first post-2011 parliament amended them. But the 2012 constitution revived the overturned laws by allowing civilians to be tried before exceptional courts, paving the way for new laws that would allow military tribunals to try to civilians, which indeed came to pass under President Adli Mansour and President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi after July 3, 2013. This may be why the military establishment did not seek to draft an entirely new constitution after President Morsi and the MB were removed from power, but instead ‘amend’ the 2012 constitution. This enabled it to remove its strategic gains from public debate, in order to focus its efforts on making further gains in the amended/new constitution. Those who demonstrated against the constitutionalization of military trials of civilians are still serving sentences of three to five years in prison.

The sole loser of any serious revision[4] undertaken by the MB is likely to be the leadership that guided the group in this historical era, when the MB committed political, and even worse, moral suicide, becoming easy prey, politically and physically, for the agencies of the deep state. But such a revision might breathe new life into the MB itself. It will undoubtedly be an arduous process, for it will require above all for the MB to hold a mirror up to itself. Making the task even more difficult is that at this moment, and for quite a long time, the MB has lacked the kind of leadership needed to shepherd this strategic process—charismatic figures with a strategic vision and horizons—while this same official leadership is currently detained in inhumane conditions and is being prosecuted in multiple prolonged and arbitrary trials on fabricated, implausible charges that have nothing to do with the very real crimes committed by some of the organization’s most prominent figures.

In the run-up to the Ennahda general congress, I met with Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi in his home in Tunis, where we discussed some of the issues broached in this introduction and his responsibilities, as an ever-evolving Islamic thinker engaged with the issues of the day, toward political Islamist groups and parties elsewhere in the Arab world.

[1] The term ‘ideologue’ is not readily applicable to other leading figures in moderate political Islamist groups in the Arab world (moderate meaning those groups that eschew armed violence).

[2] Hossam Tammam, in his valuable study, “Islamists and the Trajectories of the Egyptian Revolution,” published on February 7, 2011, says, “There is a traditional suspicion that the Brotherhood remain closer to the regime even in their political imagination and that they always want or at least accept an association with it, even while they are rising against it or, more precisely, taking part in the uprising.”

[3] For an evaluation of the program, see Bahey eldin Hassan, “Muslim Brothers’ Party Platform in Egypt from a Human Rights Perspective,” June 2008, https://cihrs.org/?p=2789&lang=en.

[4] There are several ostensibly liberal or leftist political groups and parties and public figures who also need to engage in a serious reconsideration of their political course and value system, especially after July 3, 2013.

[i] The introduction of  the Rowaq Arabi periodical, Issue number 70

[ii]  The director of Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS)

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