Written by Nassar Ibrahim
When analysing the crisis currently facing Hamas, it is crucial to examine the history of the Muslim Brotherhood as an ideological-political movement, its place in the Arab world and what its downfall reveals about the political climate in Palestine and the Middle East.
The Muslim Brotherhood was established in Egypt as an ideological movement of political Islam in 1928, and in 1987 it officially founded the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, after years of activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. For much of its existence, the Brotherhood has operated as a secretive underground movement due to severe restrictions of many Arab nation states, including Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria. Muslim Brother members were frequently arrested and until recently the organization was generally suppressed throughout the region.
In many ways, it was this suppression that helped garner support for the Brotherhood and, through its steadfastness and philanthropic works, advance its political legitimacy amongst sympathisers. Popularity for the movement steadily grew as the Muslim Brotherhood presented a radical alternative to the oppressive dictatorships of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and the authoritarian monarchies of the Gulf. In the face of these regimes, and their pandering to liberal Western interests, political Islam came to represent a true opposition to both external imperial forces and internal socio-economic disenfranchisement.
Much like other radical underground political movements, the Muslim Brotherhood focused its energy on ideology, discourse and slogans rather than national socio-economic strategy. As a global movement, the structure of the organisation dictated that the various branches of the Brotherhood owed their loyalty first and foremost to its centralised leadership. The leadership contended that the agenda and strategy of the organisation were to take precedence over local needs interests, and that any power gained should be used to promote the Muslim Brotherhood agenda. The state was perceived as a tool to impose their wider political ideology. Ultimately, it was this focus on the interests of the organisation over the needs of the people that – much like the communist movement - created the greatest challenge to the Muslim Brotherhood's legitimacy as it gained regional power.
As the Brotherhood stepped further into the public eye following events of the ‘Arab Spring’, it wished to present itself as a viable alternative to the toppled regimes. In order achieve this, the movement needed to transform almost 100 years of radical Islamist ideology into practical national strategy that could pull states out of post-revolution social, political and economic crises.
Downfall of Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas
Although the Brotherhood formed strategies for transition from underground party to national government, some key errors and assumptions would sow the seeds of their downfall: firstly, the governments of Egypt and Gaza sought to serve the broader agenda of the global Muslim Brotherhood movement before the needs of the peoplethey were elected to represent, sometimes even in direct contradiction with the needs of their populations.
Secondly, the religious discourse they employed to unite the movement in its abstract and ideological form did not translate to the reality of societies with large and diverse populations. When faced with this diversity, instead of expanding their discourse to attract a broader base of support, they sought instead to forcibly homogenise society by making their ideology compulsory.
These strategies were characterised by, for example, the re-writing of the constitution in Egypt, and it was here that the Muslim Brotherhood revealed a fatal flaw in their understanding of the role of the state and national constitutionsinsociety. The fundamental principles of national constitutions are envisioned as sacrosanct laws that represent the long-term needs and aspirations of a society in its entirety. These laws do not concern themselves with and are not subject to the changeability of ever-fluctuating national and global political frameworks, but are instead established to safeguard the very nature of that society.
According to traditional norms, a constitution bestows power upon the people by superseding any and all statutory laws that a government could impose upon the population it governs, thereby protecting their inviolable constitutional rights from political tyranny. After their election in Egypt however, the Muslim Brotherhood misunderstood this basic tenet, and demonstrated its belief that the role of a national constitution was to protect the government, the structures of political power, and to bestow authority upon the governing party.
This complete misinterpretation demonstrated yet again that as a political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood believed all structures, whether social, national or constitutional, could – and more importantly should - be moulded to serve perpetuation of the Brotherhood, its ideology and wider regional agenda. The state and its population were treated as extensions or embodiments of the Brotherhood's needs and aspirations. Ironically, it was this self-serving egotism of survival at all costs - embodied partly by its overt willingness to submit to the crippling conditions of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in exchange for Western favour - that sealed its fate in Egypt.
Meanwhile in Gaza, Hamas –one of the first publicly elected branches of the Brotherhood - was facing its own series of crises. Despite years of support from Bashar al-Assad, Hamas quickly abandoned the Syrian regime in favour of U.S. backed Brotherhood members in the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), aligning themselves with Turkey, Egypt and Qatar - and by extension, their allies the United States and Israel. With the fall of the Morsi government in Egypt, the increasing unpopularity of Erdoğan in Turkey and the continuing failure of the Free Syrian Army to topple the Assad government, Hamas found itself isolated in the region with nothing but weakened allies.
Hamas, much like the Morsi government in Egypt, misunderstood both its role in Palestinian society and the roots of its popular appeal. The Muslim Brotherhood has long perceived that its appeal lay in the very foundations of its ideology – its interpretation and politicisation of Islam. Instead of outlining and executing national strategies for social concerns such as employment, food security, economic prosperity, development, colonial occupation and external hegemony, the Brotherhood sought to make the population better Muslims; instigating gender segregation in schools, campaigning for the hijab and enacting increasingly severe public morality laws. One Egyptian woman summarised this feeling perfectly: “But we are good Muslims, and have been for more than 1400 years! We did not elect the Muslim Brotherhood to teach us how to pray, we know this, but to resolve our political, social and economic problems”.
Hamas: can it survive the current crisis?
If Hamas wishes to survive this crisis, it must realise first that Islam, as a religious concept, is not a magic bullet that bestows them with legitimacy as political representatives of the Palestinian people. The second necessary realisation is that if Hamas continues to prioritise needs of the Muslim Brotherhood over national needs, it will undoubtedly fail; Hamas must understand Gaza as a Palestinian territory, not a Brotherhood territory. The third and final requisite to its political survival is for Hamas to understand the origins of their popularity, primarily stemming from their rejection of a corrupt Palestinian Authority and resistance to Israel, and to prioritise strategies that embody these strengths, namely continued opposition to Israeli occupation and siege, and meeting the immediate national socio-economic needs of Gaza.
In the Middle East, and Palestine in particular, the popular power of parties that promote resistance to Western and West backed imperialist forces cannot be underestimated. It is here that Hamas can learn from the enduring popularity of Hezbollah which, while religious in nature, has taken the opposite approach to the Muslim Brotherhood by focusing on discourse and acts of resistance rather than processes of exclusivity and social Islamisation. By taking this approach, Hezbollah has avoided the trap of isolating itself from the diverse society in which it operates and thus maintains support of its actions by, for example, Christian, Sunni and Druze groups.
Reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah?
In regards to a possible Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, it is an unfortunate reality of current Palestinian politics that the leading parties seek to gain legitimacy on the back of the failure of their opponents: Fatah built its legitimacy on the failure of the Pan-Arab movement, and Hamas in turn built its legitimacy on the failure and corruption of the Palestinian Authority, dominated by Fatah. As such, Fatah perceives the current weakening of Hamas as an opportunity for political retaliation, thinking that, as the more dominant party, it can impose more restrictions and conditions in reconciliation negotiations.
This type of party-exclusive opportunism is predicated on the false belief that a weak opposition creates a strong political position. While it might momentarily bolster the status of favoured party elites, the creation of these false dichotomies damages the overall diversity and strength of Palestinian political movements and possibilities for unity in the face of Israel and its allies.