Experiencing authoritarianism does not automatically make one a democrat. The Muslim Brotherhood has faced the worst kind of political repression over the past three decades yet the group still exhibits authoritarian tendencies. With the collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, the Islamist group’s undemocratic face is being increasingly revealed.
Last week, dozens of young Brothers held their first public conference, calling for sweeping reforms within the organization. Inspired by the 25 January revolution, these young people are striving to transform the orthodox Muslim Brotherhood into a more democratic and transparent group. However, the movement’s leadership seems deaf to their demands.
At the conference, the youth declared their loyalty to the movement, as they usually do on such occasions, yet the event still managed to irk senior Brotherhood leaders. Their refusal to even engage with the conference reveals their deep sensitivity towards any internal criticism. Despite the fact that the conference’s recommendations on party-building were not novel, their symbolism might hurt the Brotherhood’s established orthodoxies.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and largest political movement in Egypt, still sticks to its traditional ideology, structure and strategies, which are ill-equipped to deal with the political changes brought about by the 25 January revolution. Living under three dictators — Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak — has shaped the Brotherhood narrative. Over six decades, the Brotherhood has used its experience of political repression as a pretext to suppress any calls for internal change. The group sought to maintain its internal homogeneity at the expense of democratic structures and decision-making processes. Perhaps this explains why the Brotherhood, over generations, has not witnessed any real cleavages or splits.
The Brotherhood has tolerated internal opposition in a manner similar to the former ruling National Democratic Party: with arrogance, underestimation, and punitive measures meted out to dissidents. Members are not allowed to publicly criticize their leaders, ask for structural changes, or seek personal promotion. Not surprisingly, these three taboos have created a good deal of resentment and discontent among the group’s young members. Only time will tell what fate awaits those who organized the conference.