There appears to be a temporary sense of normality about the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule after winning the battle over the Egyptian constitution—at least on the surface. The Brothers control the country’s executive and legislative branches and seem confident about holding a parliamentary majority in the upcoming elections scheduled for this spring—a likely outcome at present, given the electoral balance of power. But the organization’s success so far has clearly been based on the superiority of its electoral organizational machine compared to that of the opposition. But this superiority—one both quantitative (resulting from the Brotherhood’s decades of accumulated organizational expertise) and qualitative (from the cultural and social capital generated by the organization’s local networks)—is still tied to whether or not non-Islamist forces will be able to make up for lost time and develop their own organizational capabilities. This is a long-term concern for the Brotherhood.

However, the most pressing issue is the MB’s inability to create a political model that is distinct from both the Mubarak regime’s policies and those of the opposition in terms of values, results, and mechanisms. This model should be able to tackle the political, social, and economic development challenges that face a society like Egypt’s—one still in the midst of serious social and economic crises reflected in the January 25 Revolution. The Brotherhood seems powerless to produce the democratic solutions required. This is due to two fundamental factors: a social one which deals with the balance of power in the Egyptian public space, and an ideological one stemming from the growing number of gray areas in the organization’s rhetoric and ideology regarding pluralism and human rights. The latter may frame the authoritarian tendencies within the Brotherhood and legitimize it ideologically and, if need be, politically. 

There is now a secular social movement staunchly opposed to the Brotherhood, led by broad segments of the middle class, frightened by the organization’s now-sectarian tone—that of an insular organization whose objective first and foremost is the protection of its own interests. This movement, whose considerable size in the street was seen in the November 27 and December 4 demonstrations in 2012 as well as in first round of the presidential election—when Mohammed Morsi came in second place or worse in cities like Cairo, Alexandria, Mansoura, and Zagazig (among others)—also sees the Brotherhood as a threat to public and individual freedoms, to the nascent democracy, and to standards of living. Another significant group becoming disenchanted is the urban poor, who are upset about economic conditions and social oppressions that show no sign of improving under the Brotherhood’s rule. Days after the Brotherhood and Salafis mobilized in the provinces in support of Morsi in early December, demonstrators were still relatively less in number than those of the huge Islamist protests of July 29, 2011. Dozens of buses had to bring in thousands of Brotherhood and Salafi supporters from their rural strongholds in the Delta provinces to Cairo to demonstrate, raising questions about whether there is substantial support for the Brotherhood and the Salafis within Cairo itself. Support seems to have dwindled in tandem with the growth of popular discontent, except on the part of the Brotherhood’s staunchest supporters.   

The point of mobilizing demonstrators was unclear, since it was neither in support of Morsi’s policies nor was it an ideological march as had been the case on July 29, 2011. There were slogans calling for sharia which the protestors chanted with somewhat forced enthusiasm; it was obvious that this was not terribly relevant to the dispute with President Morsi. Some protestors, aware of this, repeated slogans in favor of the constitution, which the overwhelming majority of those present had probably not even read—nor did they probably even realize that the crux of the conflict was about whether the emerging system would be democratic or authoritarian. Demonstrators had no real issue left to champion other than their own self-preservation, which fits with the nature of the constitution produced by the Islamists and their military allies (the constitution being the only tangible product of Islamist rule so far), since it is neither a democratic constitution nor an Islamist one, but rather an amorphous constitution with authoritarianism as its only distinct feature.

What was the message which the Brotherhood’s leadership was trying to deliver that day, or in the clashes in front of the presidential palace on December 5, 2012? Was it that they are backed by a powerful group? Most observers now would agree that there is sharp political polarization in Egypt with grave potential consequences. Even so, the Muslim Brotherhood refuses to acknowledge that there is a strong democratic bloc representing a diverse array of Egyptians, and dismisses the opposition as “representatives of the old regime,” “losers,” and “haters.” This outright denial of reality is characteristic of dictatorships in their final days—perhaps the tragedy of an Islamist state authoritarianism, faltering before it ever really got off the ground.

Rather, the message taken away by average Egyptians watching the demonstrations that day was one not intended by the organizers: that the Brotherhood and Salafis have become unabashedly sectarian, after making the simple observation that the vast majority of protestors supposedly in favor of “legitimacy” and the Egyptian president were Brotherhood members or Salafis. Where were the others showing up to support legitimacy or the president? These Egyptians might back the Brotherhood at the ballot box, but they themselves will not demonstrate in the streets—unlike the revolutionary democratic protest movement which proved not only its ability to unite the opposition across the spectrum, but also to politicize broad swathes of typically apolitical spectators.

It is likely that other Egyptians sitting on the fence will eventually come to the same conclusion. Islamists’ confidence in their own electoral superiority cannot last long, since Morsi won with only about 25% of the vote in the first round—a scant 12% of overall eligible voters. In the runoff, the Islamist candidate won with a razor-thin margin, even with an all-out Islamist push for voter turnout (not to mention large numbers of pro-revolution voters for whom Morsi was the lesser of two evils when compared to Mubarak-era holdover Ahmed Shafiq). All of these factors working in favor of Morsi’s electoral victory were far stronger than the Brotherhood and their allies at the time of the Nahdat Misr Square demonstration. 

But despite the new constitution, there was still a distinct anti-MB protest vote in cities as was seeing in the results of the referendum on December 15 and 22. Cities were consistently more opposed to the constitution than the countryside, and although there were a fair amount of urban votes in favor of the constitution, many of them were not necessarily “pro-Brotherhood” per se; it would be fair, however, to say that virtually all of the voters who voted “No” did so as a protest vote against the Brotherhood’s rule. This “protest voting” should be a warning for the Brotherhood in the medium and long runs, and should also cast doubt on the political (not procedural) legitimacy possessed by the new constitution. Additionally, the scenes of Brotherhood “militias” assaulting protesters in front of the presidential palace on December 5, 2012 (which crowned the series of authoritarian escalations by the Brotherhood, beginning with Morsi’s constitutional amendment last November) confirmed many Egyptians’ fears of a hardline, sectarian Brotherhood. These conflicts deprived the organization of possible cooperation with secular and revolutionary forces which had been somewhat sympathetic to it because of the Brotherhood’s sway in the Egyptian street and its participation in the struggle against Mubarak, and so joint action against common enemies would have been possible. This sentiment played a major role in augmenting Morsi’s votes in the presidential election runoff round, but this goodwill has all dissipated, which does not bode well for the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood and its Salafi allies can now only mobilize the Egyptian street with a sectarian approach. Their ability to win over undecided voters in election season is becoming less reliable; the further MB-led rule becomes stuck in a quagmire of failed economic development and social policies, the further that the Islamist project will devolve from political-ideological conviction to sectarian spoil-taking and the logic of self-preservation. 

Ashraf El Sherif is a political science lecturer at the American University in Cairo.

* This article was translated from Arabic.