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It seemed as if the Arab springs had awoken the Middle East and North Africa from a long political lethargy. These were countries where military regimes, dictatorships, corruption and violations of human rights had until then prevailed. The expectations were high and, as rebellions and protests followed one another, people began to believe in their right to a better future.

What did these claims have in common? From a wider perspective it was political Islam, the sole alternative mechanism for the transmission of consensus under a one party rule. The autocracies blocked the masses from expressing their political or social requests, but they could do nothing to prevent the imams and the mosques from interpreting and guiding a rampant social discontent. This explains why in most of the countries that underwent a change this was led by religious groups.

The rise

In the wider picture, the Muslim Brotherhood occupied the center of the scene. Compared to other political-religious groups, they were the first ones that consistently pursued a politicized view of religion or, if you wish, politics under religious guidance. The Muslim Brothers appeared in Libya during the revolution, took over power in Egypt, led the first armed rebellions in Syria, rule over Gaza through Hamas, are associated with Recep Erdogan's AKP in Turkey and have a great influence over the Al Islah party in Yemen.

During the initial stages of the Arab springs, the Muslim Brothers were in the forefront of the region's mutating political and social landscape. They are convincing, especially with those Western countries that are wary of their religious extremism. They obtain the support of the United States in Egypt, create political synergies with Turkey, they take the credit for spearheading a number of basic, but until then neglected claims: freedom, social equality, civil rights, fight against corruption.

It is almost taken for granted that, if the landscape in the Middle East and North Africa is indeed going to change, they will be the main actors. This circumstance widens their potential influence and attracts the interest of international interlocutors; they establish contacts and receive commendations like never before. Their radical ideas are exorcised by the fact that they are able to interpret the widespread need for social justice. All their main social activities are emphasized: schools, hospitals, support to the poorer sections of the population. In other words, they are being praised for the very same actions that earned the Confraternity such a large popular support.

abdul fattah al sisi
Gen. Abdul Fattah al Sisi

The downfall

But this is where the downfall of the Muslim Brothers also begins. This is because it is one thing to profess religious ideals while not in power, while it is much harder to turn those ideals into concrete governmental acts.

The Muslim Brothers took over power in Egypt democratically and started being what they were: a movement guided by an extremist view of their religion whose scope is to reform the societies it rules. They never pose themselves the question of whether what they are doing is right or democratic. They don't even try to take into consideration the ideas or other people's points of view. They have never done so in almost 100 years of history. The force of their beliefs leaves no room for doubt. Their concept of democracy implies imposing their religious precepts. Those who decide not to abide to their rules are not opponents, but enemies. Such a stance immediately lead to a clash with the secular fringes of Egyptian society, fueling yet more social unrest.

If compared to Ennadha's behavior in Tunisia, when facing the unrest that broke out following their social impositions, the Muslim Brotherhood was not capable, or decided against limiting their actions and taking into account the complaints of a mainly secular society. The drop in popularity that followed offered General Abdul Fattah al Sisi the opportunity he was waiting for. Ennadha, on the other hand, bargained a reduced political influence in exchange of a durable vital role in Tunisian affairs. The military's return to power in Egypt put's an end to the Brotherhood's rendez vous with history. The story ends here.

Dangerous crossings

The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria represented the historical opposition to Bashar al Assad's Baathist regime. They could have exploited this primacy to obtain both the political and military leadership in the attempt to topple the Alawite dictatorship. Instead, they were not able to do so and following an initial leading role of the opposition, they ended up being marginalized. This time around it wasn't the fault of the sole contrast between secular and religious groups, but rather of the leadership of the armed conflict being taken over by extremist Islamic fringes. The Confraternity found itself in the position of being a moderate group compared to the radicals. This is because if you try to rule with radical ideas you'll end up facing social unrest and this will undermine your role (as in Egypt), while if you try to turn your religious ideals into a military force you'll be marginalized by those groups that are way more radical than you are (as happened in Syria with Jabath al Nusra and ISIS). The experiences in Egypt and Syria have put an end to the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood: they were incapable of going from an opposition group to a government force, their religious radicalism was unable to inspire people to take up arms.

In Libya, for several years the Brotherhood was hunted down by Muammar Khadafi until an agreement was found: its affiliates would have been released from prison in exchange for them giving up their armed struggle. The deal was found through the mediation of Hamas and the Libyan dictator used it to deal yet another blow to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. After having filled the ranks of the rebels, the Brotherhood sought to play a key role in Khadafi's aftermath. The institutional chaos that still haunts Libya today did not enable them to take over the country's politics. Once again, the radical groups that continued their fight and did not disarm were the one that took over, as for instance did Ansar al Sharia in the Cyrenaica. The fall of Mohamed Morsi in Cairo dealt yet another blow to the movement's political aspirations in Libya, while not leaving any space for those wanting to continue the armed struggle.

The agenda of several regional actors has also had an influence on the Confraternity's actions in Egypt and the Middle East. Erdogan's AKP supported the Brotherhood and so did Qatar. Saudi Arabia, instead, was in favor of the Egyptian military. After all, the Turkish model of political Islam is what they had in mind for Egypt, while Qatar is playing its own regional and international spheres of influence game against the Saudis. Riyadh has never shared the vision of a political Islam, something which is against Wahabi beliefs.

mahmoud abbas
Mahmoud Abbas aka Abu Mazen

A meeting with History

Today the Muslim Brothers are persecuted in Egypt, or rather, they are now back to being persecuted as they were in the past. Labeled a terrorist organization, they now share the same status of Hamas in Gaza. At the same time, the scandals that have rocked Erdogan have diminished their influence in Turkey, while the Brotherhood has been marginalized by extremists in Libya and Syria. Their downfall is complete.

The ousting of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt has also had the consequence of weakening Hamas. Isolated in the Strip's tiny borders, the Palestinian group knows it cannot survive without the supplies coming in from the Sinai. Hamas has first sought a political solution to its isolation and signed a reconciliation agreement with the Palestinian National Authority lead by Mahmoud Abbas. The mediation was the result of both parties' weaknesses: Hamas' as a result of the Egyptian hostility, the ANP's because of an endless and bound to nowhere negotiation with Israel. The return of Hamas on radical stances and their current conflict with the Israelis is but a suicidal tactic whose outcome is still not predictable.

But, as previously stated, Arab countries have also used the Muslim Brotherhood for their own hegemonic aims. In the ongoing clash between Saudi Arabia and Qatar – Riyadh is against the Confraternity, has recently declared it a “terrorist organization” just like the Egyptians, while Doha continues to support the Brotherhood – the Muslim Brotherhood has been turned into a pawn in the hands of others. The stand off between Qatar and Saudi Arabia (supported by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) is against the Brotherhood's best interest and has lead them to losing the support of a good portion of the Arab world. The same is happening in Yemen, where the Confraternity's political branch – the Al Islah party – has become part of the clash between Doha and Riyadh and this could have a series of negative consequences on the organization.

So, has the Muslim Brotherhood missed it's rendez-vous with History? It is hard to say because the effects of the instability in the Middle East are truly unpredictable. Going from being in the opposition to being in power and viceversa is extremely easy in this part of the world. But the prestige and support the Confraternity had while they were in the opposition was soon lost when they abused the power they had conquered. This is to some extent the fate of all organizations that are born to fight the system, but when they become the system they seldom have a sufficient dose of experience or political intelligence to play their new role.