No Unity Without Compromise

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

When I met Mohamed Morsi for the first time in 2010, he seemed like any other Muslim Brotherhood operative. He got things done but didn’t appear to have a distinct set of views, besides, perhaps, his rather pronounced anti-Americanism. Morsi is now Egypt’s first democratically elected president. He has been thrust, by forces well beyond him, into an unlikely position.

Be careful what you wish for (or as the Algerian Islamist Abdelkader Hachani once said: “victory is more dangerous than defeat”). Morsi now faces a seemingly untenable situation, contending with an impatient public, a power-hungry military and an old regime apparatus that has little interest in seeing the Brotherhood succeed. Morsi would seem to have little of the charisma and natural political talents necessary for uniting Egyptians. But there are times when ordinary, pedestrian politicians become leaders, and Morsi may yet surprise us.

Confronting the armed forces requires opposition unity. Morsi, for now at least, seems to realize this.

I am reminded of Mir Houssein Mousavi, the leader of Iran’s Green Movement. Before the 2009 protests, which pushed him, after a long hiatus, back into the spotlight, he was a loyal foot soldier of the Iranian revolution. But he soon became a vehicle for the aspirations of millions of Iranians who opposed the regime. It didn’t really matter who he was, or what he stood for. It was the moment that mattered.

After alienating and angering Egypt’s leftists and liberals for months, Morsi and the Brotherhood have turned to a more conciliatory tone. While the election results were being tabulated, Morsi made a number of substantive concessions and assembled a “unity front” to counter Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces(S.C.A.F.) and other regime elements.When it comes to the military, the Brotherhood seems to be in a fighting mood. As one Brotherhood official recently told me, “we were too accommodating toward S.C.A.F. This, in retrospect, was a mistake.” Confronting the armed forces requires opposition unity. Morsi, for now at least, seems to realize this. But, in acting upon that realization, Morsi and the Brotherhood will have to become something that they currently aren’t.

At its core, the Brotherhood tends toward a majoritarian understanding of democracy. They believe they are right, and this tends to undercut any predisposition to self-criticism. We will find out, in due time, whether the Brotherhood and its awkward standard-bearer are capable of defying expectations — and their own recent past.