Stephen Glain meets with former Muslim Brotherhood figure, Kemal Helbawi, and assesses the implications of an MB success in the presidential elections.
On Saturday I met with Kemal Helbawi, who was an esteemed member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood before he angrily resigned from the group after the toppling of dictator Hosni Mubarak last year. He blamed senior leaders in the Brotherhood, or Ikhwan, for abandoning the ideals of the movement for the sake of controlling it.
“They were slow to join the movement and once they did they declined to sustain it,” said the 73-year-old Helbawi, who joined the Ikhwan at the age of twelve. “They had the resources to uphold the revolution’s demands of dignity and social justice but instead they invested in their own interests. They behave as if there never was a revolution.”
As Egypt embarks on historic presidential elections, criticism of the Ikhwan, even among those who respect the group for its opposition to decades of Egyptian dictatorship, is as common a refrain as the mullein’s call to prayer. They scorn its leaders for allegedly cutting back-room deals with the army generals who have been running Egypt since Mubarak’s departure, contesting and winning half the seats in parliament after declaring they would limit themselves to a quarter or so of the chamber, and fielding a candidate in this week’s presidential election after foreswearing any desire for executive power.
Established in 1928, the Ikhwan is the world’s largest Islamist movement with its own political machine, social welfare service and business empire. Having outlasted Mubarak’s autocracy through a dogged campaign of peaceful resistance, it emerged as a political powerhouse in the post-revolution era. Instead of playing the long game that was the key to its survival, however – lying low and reading the political terrain while coexisting peacefully with secular and non-Islamic society – Brotherhood leaders estranged themselves from many swing voters by promising one thing and doing another.
As voters prepare to vote in the first round of elections on Thursday, Mohammed Morsi of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Development Party has emerged as a frontrunner less for his vision and charm than for the immense logistical resources available to him. The Ikhwan is thought to have hundreds of thousands of members, each of whom have sworn fidelity to its leader, the Supreme Guide, as shock troops in the campaign. Morsi, an engineer by training, is widely tipped to survive the first round of the election and perhaps become president. There, he would face an economy in disarray and the crush of high expectations from an electorate that is eager to redeem the profits of its hard-won democracy. Few expect Morsi or the other campaign leaders – the former diplomat Amr Moussa, for example, or the exiled Brotherhood leader Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh – to be anything but one-term presidents.
Should Morsi prevail, the Brotherhood would control the executive and parliamentary branches of governments with all the responsibility for success or failure such power confers. It would become the political equivalent of a new Napoleon, another of Egypt’s many conqueror-kings, who famously said he would rather fight against a coalition of forces than fight with it.
And we all know what happened to him.