Do they have a common perspective, a vision of broader regional organization that surpasses the national boundaries and agendas?
In parallel to the Socialist International (SI) that was formed by communist parties in different countries, there is no international Muslim Brotherhood, said Marina Ottaway from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in remarks to Sunday's Zaman. In a review of Islamist parties for the Carnegie Endowment, Ottaway wrote, “Islamist movements of Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt have accepted the reality of the division of the Muslim world into nation-states and that they have become national parties.”
She claimed that Muslim Brotherhood in one country does not know very much about discussions taking place in another country, relying on an experience after hosting a conference which brought different versions of the Brotherhood together under the roof of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In the short term, the Islamist parties across the Middle East that came to power in the elections following the ousting of authoritarian regimes during the Arab Spring will focus much more on their national agendas. “All of the Arab parties have committed to the solution of the Palestine problem,” said Ottaway, but added that in practice it has low priority. At this point, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt does not want to address the issue.
The same thing is true also for Tunisia, Morocco and Libya. There are some matters that all of them agree upon but aren't focusing on for the time being, she stated.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928 in Cairo to develop a Muslim way of responding to the rapid political and cultural modernization of Egypt in particular and the whole Muslim world in general.
As most Muslim countries embraced Western political systems and institutions at the beginning of the 20th century, through the secularization of societies as part of a massive modernization program to catch up to the modern Western countries, the place and role of Islam was sidelined by governments in both the political and social spheres. This move was met with resentment and protest among Muslim groups and they proposed an alternative mode of government.
The ideas of Banna spread to other Middle Eastern countries, and different branches of the movement were established to represent a similar response to policies of militant secular regimes ranging from Morocco to Syria. However, although every movement relied on the same theoretical and ideological base, their evolution in relatively different sociopolitical environments took different paths.
Relations with Iran source of division within Muslim Brotherhood
Mahmut Osman, a member of the Syrian National Council (SNC), and an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood, said all branches of the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East are based on the same theoretical groundwork, ideology and organizational structure.
“There has been solidarity among them, a similar approach to national politics. However, they have taken different positions on some political issues,” he stated. Relations with Iran is a major source of division as some of them strictly oppose any kind of ties with Tehran, which has never ceased its bold backing of the Assad regime despite harsh criticism from many people and political groups across the region.
“The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, eastern Arab countries, Arabian Peninsula states, Iraq and Jordan all have uneasy feelings about Iran due to their geographical proximity and relations with the Persian country. Eastern Arabs feel the need to remain distant from Iran due to their concerns,” Osman said.
In comparison to this, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is not a keen opponent of Iran, underlying the fact that although there are genuine differences on regional matters, Iran is not an enemy. “They [the Egyptian MB] say: ‘Yes, we are different but we are not enemies. We approve when Iran does right, we disapprove of what it does wrong.' When the Syrian MB reiterates its uneasiness with this, the Egyptian movement points to Iran's support of Hamas as justification for its positive view of Iran.”
To Osman, the representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood see the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) as a version of the movement. “They see the AK Party as a success story. Some members of the Syrian MB think that the AK Party is the Turkish version of the movement and expect bolder action [from Turkey] on the Syrian crisis. They want a harsher policy even though they are happy with the Turkish stance on the issue in a general sense.” However, he noted, the National View movement led by former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan more closely resembles the Muslim Brotherhood than the AK Party. Many members of the MB movement across the Middle East feel closer to Erbakan's movement rather than the AK Party,” according to Osman.
“No country follows the footsteps of another country. Ennahda could not replicate the Turkish model despite having a lot of respect for the AK Party, which is seen as a successful example of an Islamist party that has entered politics and has established itself as a legal political party,” Ottaway said.
Muhammed Akta, a political activist with detailed knowledge of the inner workings of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, also underlined the common theoretical base upon which the various branches of the Muslim Brotherhood have relied on for generations. He argued that it is not possible to say that there are genuine or fundamental differences between these groups. He said all groups maintained interaction and communication through various channels before and during the Arab Spring.
In comparison to Ottaway, Akta underlines the continuing interaction between groups. A general meeting was held in Egypt in the spring to discuss what course of action could be taken through the assessment of each branch's experiences in the political processes of their respective countries. Every branch has a representative that communicates with the MB movements in the various countries, and frequently visits the other branches to ensure a strong line of communication as well as to discuss action in the face of new political developments. During the festering Syrian crisis, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood paid visits to the Egyptian MB and Ennahda to hear their experiences.
Akta underlined that some movements have their armed factions, like Hamas, but most do not. Until the Arab Spring, the Tunisian and Moroccan branches of the MB had political parties prior to the Arab Spring while the Egyptian branch only attempted to form a political body after the revolution.
The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) was founded as a political branch of the Muslim Brotherhood to pursue the movement's political ambition to shape the political future of Egypt, which was left in tatters following the ousting of Hosni Mubarak.
In Libya, the Brotherhood formed a party that includes other political colors, including liberals, with the hope that this move will allow the party to be more effective during the election process and at the polls.
Muslim Brotherhood and the democratic political game
The writings of Rachid Gannouchi, which laid the theoretical framework for the compatibility of liberal democracy and Islam to convince Islamists to become a part of the democratic political game in the 1980s, have made an impact on Islamist movements.
The Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood entered politics in the 1980s and 1990s after embracing the idea that they should realize their political goals through democratic political process. Ottaway said even before Erbakan won the elections in 1995, both Islamist movements in Tunisia and Egypt came with the idea that they should be involved in the political process.
Drawing a comparison between the Tunisian and Egyptian MB, she said Ennahda started off as a political party, while the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt started off as a religious organization, and only formed a political party a year ago, following the revolution.
In the meantime, Dalia Mogahed, an expert on Middle Eastern affairs and the executive director and analyst at the international survey group Gallup, said in remarks to Sunday's Zaman that the Turkish story should be examined carefully. According to her, Turkish politicians should never try to sell the “secularism” experience and story to the Middle East. The context and historical background is genuinely different, so there is little or no way to replicate or apply Turkish secularism into a different political environment and culture, such as that of Egypt. She stated that Erdoğan's remarks on secularism, which had a reasonable basis, met with criticism and skepticism in Egypt.