In her book “The Muslim Brothers in Society, Everyday Politics, Social Action and Islamism in Mubarak’s Egypt”, Marie Vannetzel — a visiting professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of Cairo — explores the history of Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian society. Vannetzel’s expertise on the subject is marked by her 15 years of experience in the fields of political science, sociology, and anthropology.
It is worth noting that the Muslim Brotherhood and its role in Egyptian politics and society in the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring”, is a highly contested subject with drastically different viewpoints. Some researchers portray the Muslim Brotherhood as a group suppressed by the Egyptian government and try to depict the popular uprising against Mohamed Morsi’s rule as a coup d’état. Other researchers view the group as an undemocratic force that adopted policies which undermined social cohesion and fomented social unrest — particularly during Morsi’s short-lived presidency (2012-2013).
Vannetzel’s book is more aligned with the second viewpoint. Her main focus is to show the two-faced nature of the Muslim Brotherhood, where in public it aims to portray itself as “the virtuous neighbor” in an attempt to attract sympathizers. Meanwhile, in private, the group advocates for the transformation of society according to their own vision of Islam.
Vannetzel also offers an ethnographic analysis of MB policies and social activities in three districts of Greater Cairo (Madinat Nasr, Helwan and 15 Mayo) and how the group adopted unique mobilization tactics to attract different societal groups.
Vannetzel also analyzes ways in which the MB has participated in Egypt’s elections, by benefiting from the informal rules set out by the regime that hindered organized political parties from playing an active role, which left room for the MB to operate and organize through charity groups and associations. This has allowed the MB to develop a strong grassroots presence, as electoral politics in Egypt are closely tied to welfare provisions, according to Vannetzel’s assessment.
The author traces political reemergence of the MB in Egypt back to the 1970s when leading figures were released from jail during the era of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. In order to counter remnants of the previous government of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sadat utilized the MB and encouraged them to regroup in order to assert his power against Nasserists.
The assassination of Sadat at the hands of an Islamist terrorist in October 1980, motivated incoming president Hosni Mubarak to adopt a more accommodating attitude towards the group. Under Mubarak, MB members were described as “moderate Islamists”. The group was able to continue its activities through universities, charities, and professional syndicates (doctors, engineers, pharmacists etc). However, when these professional syndicates became too powerful in the 1990s, the government ordered the syndicates to disband.
The MB continued to exercise influence through charity organizations. Members who ran as independents secured 88 seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections, comprising 20% of the People’s Assembly — the lower house of the parliament. The MB capitalized on their newfound political power and opened several offices under umbrella groups where local residents could come to them with their grievances. This level of organization was unprecedented since the 1950s.
Again, Vannetzel asserts that the MB owed their success to their effective use of patron-client relationships that underpin the electoral system in Egypt. As a result, they were able to redeploy the resources and competencies they had gained in areas not directly seen as political, such as universities, charities, and unions for electoral purposes.
When trying to analyze the electoral success of the MB in the Mubarak era, Vannetzel presents two seemingly contradictory arguments. On the one hand, she attributes the success to the group’s strong social base, and on the other hand she argues that its success is a result of ideological voting practices.
Vannetzel resolved this contradiction, and explained the MB electoral success by what it terms the “symbolic economy of disinterestedness”. One dimension of this symbolic economy was exploiting Islam in order to profit from it in their election campaign. Another dimension was establishing themselves in religious charitable structures, which enabled them to portray themselves as being “on the side of the people”. This strategy helped the MB compensate for the limited access they had to public resources, when compared to the “National Democratic Party,” the ruling party during Mubarak’s era.
However, this strategy doesn’t negate the fact the MB utilized businessmen to help finance their campaigns. Vannetzel asserts that these tactics were central to the economy of disinterestedness that the MB relied upon in its electoral mobilization.
Utilizing State Resources
Vannetzel analyzes the ways in which MB MPs were able to exercise their roles thanks to their organizational resources, their access to the state apparatus and their social embedding at a local level, while they were part of a banned organization.
She argues that MB presence in a constituency led to the emergence of a specific organizational structure, which is only partially integrated into the “Tanzim”. MB MPs tried to utilize the prerogatives associated with their position in the parliament in order to provide services for their constituency.
On the other hand, the “Tanzim” — which Vannetzel described as a juxtaposition of three different dimensions: administrative, educational, and corporate — was organizing activities not related to state resources, and which was conducted mainly by MB activists. Vannetzel made it clear that the administrative dimension of the tanzim followed the Brotherhood’s internal regulations quite closely.
Politics of ‘Goodness’
Vannetzel argued that the MB tried to portray themselves as “ethical actors”, thus trying to distinguish themselves from other political players — namely those affiliated to the National Democratic Party. These mechanisms allowed the MB to engage in subtle forms of politicization that appealed to people’s moral sensibilities and emotions.
This development could be traced back to the Sadat regime, who himself supported the expansion of Islamic charities so that they could take responsibility for the social services that the state was abandoning in the wake of its adoption of economic liberalization policies.
The state and the regime, as well as the Brotherhood and other social actors, were together involved in “relocating welfare” through their charitable activities and in reducing politics to the micro-level of social services. Perceptions of who serve, and who do not serve, were determining criteria in popular judgments of political elites, often expressed in the moral of “goodness”.
During the 2005-2010 parliament, Brotherhood MPs used the slogan “Together we are bringing goodness to Egypt”, encapsulating both the Brotherhood’s commitment to the spirit of service and the pivotal role played by religion in the politics of goodness.
The staff of Brotherhood MPs typically engaged in four kinds of social services. The first was education and leisure activities, which were intended to enlarge the audience for MB social services by reaching out to different sections of the population, from the poorest of the poor, to the lower middle class who had also been negatively impacted by the shortcomings of the public education system and had little money to spend on leisure activities.
The second service was organizing various public events on an annual basis, including prize-giving ceremonies for valedictorian students, and exemplary mothers or workers. The third type of activity included public service campaigns, ranging from mobile medical clinics or medical caravans, to street-cleaning operations. The fourth type of service was the handling out of financial, medical, or food aid to residents.
The pervasiveness of these networks of services allowed the MB to connect with pious individuals willing to take part in “goodness” (Khayr) activities. In addition, these activities were intended to achieve another goal, which was to establish the MB as a morally superior entity, and as a model to be imitated by others from the wider population. Thus, ethical conduct was one of the main foundations of MB politics.
A Double-Edged Sword
Vannetzel discusses how dynamics of social embedding and ethical conduct cultivated by the MB led to significant tensions within the organization that increased in the post-2011 period, leading to the opposition and disengagement of some members and the increasing discontent of others.
She explains how distinctive personalities embodying ethical conduct were shaped in the MB’s innermost circles. Members felt connected to each other through special bonds, while at the same time being connected to society.
Vannetzel explained that MB members were trained to serve as exemplary models for other Muslims and were made to feel their own moral superiority to others. Consequently, their relationships with people outside the organization were complex. They were caught up in a contradiction between their everyday activities as virtuous neighbors within local communities and the need — flowing from their conviction of moral and religious superiority — to keep to their own MB circles.
Thus, MB members would get married to the sisters or daughters of their peers, send their children to MB-run schools, secure jobs in MB-owned companies and go to MB doctors and hospitals and so on. They would also distribute money to members in need, including to prisoners’ families.
Fall From Grace
Vannetzel argues that the MB politics of goodness collapsed during the crucial period between 2011 and 2013, which increased polarization within the group, and fragmented its internal organization.
According to the author, the MB relied on a special strategy which was to distinguish themselves from their competitors by means of symbolic economy of disinterestedness. The main mechanism of this economy was the promotion of individual and collective forms of behavior that was used as the vehicle for the social embedding of the Brotherhood.
The main contradiction came in 2012, when the MB entered the parliament, as their MPs ignored their local offices, and dedicated themselves to legislative work, despite the fact they lacked basic law making skills. This shift disgruntled voters, who were angry at the MB’s neglect of local issues. At the same time, MB MPs were trying to pass legislation to sideline officials of the Mubarak regime, which angered former NPD officials
Furthermore, the group’s grip on the new “Freedom and Justice Party” prevented it from serving as a vehicle for any greater societal good. Morsi — the first MB member to become president — became quickly viewed as a “loser” who was unable to govern. In addition, Morsi adopted a neoliberal agenda that contradicted the principles of “khayr” that the MB championed. This, coupled with his dedicated efforts to subordinate the state to the MB, made him hugely unpopular with many groups.
All these factors led to the eventual demise of the MB and on December 25 2013, the group was finally declared a “terrorist organization”. Only six months after Morsi’s removal, the Muslim Brotherhood had become public enemy number one.
Vannetzel’s book offers a deeper look at the causes that led to the eventual demise of the MB, which were related to popular disillusionment with the MB, after society saw how members utilized their newfound powers to enhance their influence at the expense of other social groups in Egyptian society. Thus, Vannetzel’s explanation of the group’s demise contradicts other narratives, which tried to simply portray the MB as a democratic force which was suppressed by Egypt’s security forces.