Editor’s Note: As part of this year’s U.S.-Islamic World Forum, many of our participants are writing posts on Markaz to share their thoughts on one of the diverse topics discussed at the Forum. We hope you will join us by watching live webcasts from Doha, Qatar, on June 1-3, 2015, or following the conversation on Twitter with #USIslam15.
A notable theme in the academic literature on Islamists over the past decade or so has been their capacity for internal criticism, reform, and change. In light of this, at the 2015 U.S.-Islamic World Forum I’m looking forward to meeting with youth activists from Islamist movements and discuss how Islamists are interpreting Egypt’s recent trajectory and adapting lessons for their own situations. While this raises important questions both for Egyptian Islamists and their counterparts from other countries, the way these debates are playing out among youth activists, and how these intertwine with recent structural changes in the Brotherhood, are particularly interesting.
I am interested to hear youth activists who will be attending the Forum discuss what they think went wrong in post-Mubarak and post-2013 coup Egypt. What are the specific decision points they believe played a critical role in setting Egypt’s current trajectory? Was it the Brotherhood’s decision to contest all parliamentary seats? To nominate a candidate for president? To attempt to reform the security state through cooperation rather than confrontation? Should the Morsi administration have been more conciliatory with the opposition, or were they already bargaining away too much? An important question—and one I’ve struggled with myself—is whether or not there existed a realistic alternative pathway for Egypt (and the Brotherhood in particular) that did not end with military intervention.
Of course, the diagnosis of what went wrong leads to broader questions about the ability of—and the context necessary for— Islamist movements to reform. In this vein, I’ll be interested to hear if the discussions about “lessons learned” reveal any generational divergences: Do youth activists and established movement leaders differ over how they answer the above questions? Is there any sense that the movement’s established leadership fundamentally misread the situation during Egypt’s brief democratic interlude, or does confidence in the movement leadership remain high? Do participants believe their concerns (to the extent that they voice them) are being heard by higher ups?
In addition to generational differences in opinion, I also wonder if there exist conflicting interpretations along national lines. For instance, what are the lessons that activists in other countries draw from the experience of the Egyptian Brotherhood in power? Further, how does the Egyptian case influence internal debates inside non-Egyptian movements? Put differently, do different internal factions elsewhere reference events in Egypt to buttress their own positions or attack the arguments of others- on issues such as political participation, cross-ideological cooperation, relations with the state, et cetera?
Finally, the Egyptian Brotherhood has reportedly embarked on a number of structural changes, including the devolution of responsibilities to local figures, a shuffle of the leadership, and even the appointment of a new general guide. Do participants think that this will make reform more or less likely? Are these changes driven by anything more than just reaction to repression in Egypt? Do these changes address the fundamental challenges Islamist groups face, or are they just tactical accomodations?