The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has seen its political fortunes go from sitting in the presidency to sitting in jail, exile and even in hiding. It is in a difficult predicament and needs to reconsider its strategic options very closely.
The strategy the Brotherhood has employed thus far is to pursue peaceful protests against the interim government.
Privately, the Brotherhood realises that Mohammed Morsi is not returning to the presidency, so what is its aim? To push for presidential and parliamentary elections? These are due to take place anyway, according to the military-backed road map. Indeed, that process itself seems not the least bit affected by these protests.
If the aim of the protests is to gain sympathy, domestically and internationally, this also seems flawed. It is abundantly clear that the military enjoys overwhelming popular support from the Egyptian population.
The media depicts the Brotherhood as essentially a terrorist organisation – and this narrative does not appear to be shifting as a result of the protests.
With pro-Morsi militants carrying out violence in Sinai and elsewhere, many pro-Brotherhood protesters are likely to die in clashes against a police force that has shown little restraint, and has done so with very little public outcry.
Internationally, while some governments have expressed concern over the excesses of the security services in Egypt, no government is willing to apply sufficient pressure to make the strategy of the Brotherhood worthwhile.
The US may temporarily suspend some aid, but that measure is designed to encourage the continuation of the process towards elections. If there had been no violence, there would have been no recalibration of US-Egypt relationships.
The strategy that the Brotherhood should adapt – but one few have been willing to support in public – is one they still find tough: withdrawing from confrontation while contemplating the future.
Whenever the Brotherhood mobilises against the state in protests, it will be lumped together with violent groups. For this reason, it appears that non-Islamist groups, that nonetheless oppose the military, such as April 6 and the Revolutionary Socialists, have restrained their participation in protests.
Moreover, against the backdrop of political violence against the state, the civil rights and human rights sector is being drowned out in its criticisms of abuses by the state. With that in mind, the Brotherhood ought to consider that absenting itself from confrontation is advisable, in its own interests.
This last option is a painful one: and the interim government’s policies are hardly making it easier for the Brotherhood to entertain it.
The loss of life suffered in the violently excessive dispersal of the pro-Morsi sit-ins, and more recently in the violent repressing of the October 6 protests, will mean that few will want to entertain a strategic retreat. Stopping peaceful protests would be regarded as treachery by hard-core factions within the group.
It is difficult for the leadership of the Brotherhood to make these choices when much of their senior leadership is being detained.
If the interim government wants to encourage the group to change its tactics, it would be advised to consider its own policies as well.
Beyond those Islamists who are imprisoned, there are still those who ostensibly lead the Anti-Coup Alliance who have been calling for protests, as well as leaders of the Brotherhood further afield.
They must realise that mobilisation for protests comes at a price – and it is a price that they may be willing to pay, but it seems unlikely they will get much for their trouble. Will there be a price even without mobilisation?
In all likelihood, yes – but it will be certainly far, far less than the price paid with protests. This is the option, ironically, that the Turkish Islamist movement took in the 1990s when it was forced from power by Turkey’s military. The Brotherhood admires that movement greatly and is grateful for its symbolic support.
The alternative to the protest strategy is to withdraw from protests, and take a hard look internally. The Brotherhood has lost popular support – and it needs to ask itself why?
While it engages in that process, it can either withdraw from front line politics, or it can back the least harmful factions to their interests.
If it genuinely engages in reform, it might find itself even in agreement with those non-Islamist, pro-reform movements that seek to build a pluralistic and progressive Egypt. Even if not, it may find a distinctive role for itself in the next phase.
Egypt is in dire need of reform and restructuring. The Brotherhood needs to consider what its best possible contribution is going to be in that regard, and how it can also help other forces interested in reform within Egypt.
The continuation of unarmed protests is a dubious candidate for the best option.