Muslim Brothers in Power: a Cultural Clash


Are Muslim Brothers in Egypt failing because they are Islamists? Are Islamists incompatible with democracy?  Is it the very essence of Islam that explains the Brothers’ inability to design a sound economic policy?

History and sociology are of critical importance when it comes to better understanding the difficult political transition in Egypt. Religion is only one part of the story, and maybe not the main one.

When a clandestine group takes over 

The Muslim Brothers (MB) have been, for the past 80 years, persona non grata in most of the region. They evolved and matured in clandestine undergrounds to eschew political repression. Their DNA is made of a deeply-engraved culture of secrecy and even paranoia.

They were  compelled to develop an extremely organized modus operandi to build up a grassroots community despite the political repression. This cannot happen without a very strong chain of command and a deep-seated sense of respect for authority and hierarchy.

Finally, the Muslim Brothers see themselves as the real historical dissidence against Baath dictatorships. They feel they are a much older dissidence than the youngsters twitting in Tahrir on January 2011. The MB have, over the years, paid a high price for this resistance status: decades in exile or jail, torture, unfair trials… This explains a certain sense of martyrdom, righteousness and the lack of humor in the exercise of power.

The culture of secrecy, obedience and the esprit de serieux that characterizes the style of MB government is not spontaneously in tune with the spirit of the younger generation that spearheaded the Nile Revolution. The expectations of a more open and inclusive decision-making process, of a more transparent and accountable executive power were quickly met with unilateral decisions and the rejection of check and balance mechanisms….leaving no other option than the street.

More importantly, the new, more relaxed relationship to authority[1] of the younger generation was met with rather rigid reminders that humor and mockery will not be tolerated when it comes to authority figures (religious, political or military altogether).

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Mulsim Brothers and Direct Democracy

A Frenchmen (or women) observing the Muslim Brothers first steps in power would recognize the charms and dangers of a democracy a la Rousseau, or Direct Democracy.

Following their electoral landslide victory, The Egyptian Brothers felt entitled to speak directly in the name of the Vox populi. The democratic legitimacy of the ballot box only increased the preexisting sense of legitimacy they acquired during decades of dissidence and extensive local charity work.

This habit to deal directly with the Egyptian people and cater for their needs, outside of the institutions, explains why the Muslim Brothers don’t particularly fancy “intermediary bodies” (such as NGOs) and tend to reject any attempt by other institutions at limiting their decision making power (the judiciary, in particular).

In fact, the transformation of the MB from a social, grass rooted movement into a political party with a real project for State institutions might be one of the most difficult challenges in the months and years to come.

The Frenchmen observing the MB would also know that Direct Democracy or “majority democracy” (the winner-takes-it-all kind of mentality) does not easily make space for minority rights and positions. The imaginary of direct democracy prefers to refer to the nation as a united, homogeneous political body.

In a nutshell, the Muslim Brothers might be democrats, but no liberals[2].

From Charity to Public Policy

The Muslim Brothers developed over time a comprehensive and efficient charity system that filled the gaps left by the State institutions, in particular in the more popular urban areas.

There, the MB charity organizations grew to become a parallel, informal welfare state providing much needed first aid kits (food, shelter) but also full-fledged services such as education and healthcare. They became overtime an important, intimate part of the local social fabric.

The sudden need to shift from a local charity operator into a national policy-maker represents a radical change of logic and a key political challenge for the MB in power. The stakes are high at a time when the country desperately needs the right policy choices to stabilize the economy and kick-start growth and job creation.

To better grasp the far-reaching change this shift implies, let’s compare the logic and principles of two “ideal types” (Weber): the man of charity versus the statesman.

–          Reformism vs. Conservatism

The charity man focuses on alleviating poverty, while the statesmen intends to address the root causes of poverty (in theory, at least). In a way, despite a sincere concern for the poor, charity is conservative. The ideal of equality specific to Islam might however tip the balance in favor of reformism.

–          Brotherhood vs. Citizenship

Muslim Brothers refer to the other as “brother” or  “sister” in Islam, while the statesman should think in terms of citizens with equal rights. To be fair, public services must be defined as universal as opposed to  favoring a group or discriminating against another (minorities). Moving from brotherhood to citizenship will imply a  deep paradigm shift that the MB might not be ready or willing to undertake.

–          Private Network vs. State Institutions

Charity reaches its beneficiaries through private, religious associations and informal networks, as opposed to public subsidies that go through state institutions. This will imply more constraints (bureaucratic lags, negotiation with public administration who might not be fond of the MB cf. the “deep State”) and duties (annual vote of the budget, spending accountability).

–          Donations vs. Taxes

Charity is based on the voluntary donations of individuals who feel compelled by religious or moral duties. This model is radically opposed to the concept of compulsory taxes that finance public services. Also, statesmen are often faced with painful dilemmas and policy trade-offs  whereby they must cut subsidies for a segment of the population to redistribute to other groups or allocate to other goals. The thing is, the charity man is used to giving, not to taking back…


This article is but a small contribution to the ongoing discussion on the fate of the Arab spring that many have condemned as an “Islamic winter”. The current focus on philosophical, essentialist questions such as the compatibility of Islam with Democracy, women and minority rights actually blurs our understanding of  local dynamics. It prevents us from getting what is really at stake in this critical transition phase.

It is our firm belief that a deeper look at history and sociology can shed a much more pertinent light on this “complicated Orient” we are all struggling so hard to understand.

[1] The proliferation of Street graffiti’s, twits, songs, comedy shows, caricatures, comic magazines or satirical newspaper  such as Tok Tok or El Koshary making fun or criticizing the former regime as well as the new Muslim Brother authority are a sign of a deep change in the way Egyptian youth look at and deal with traditional authority figures. This is even happening within the Muslim brother organizations.

[2] We refer to “liberal” in the political sense. In the economic field, many MB have converted to the market economy.

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