Before the coup: In April 2013, current ruler Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was still army chief and Mohammed Morsi, who died in prison, was Egypt's first democratically elected president. (Photo: Reuters)

Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood
Competitors in common

Sara Tonsy’s latest book "The Egyptian Army and the Muslim Brotherhood: Contemporary Political Power Dynamics" examines the long-standing rivalry between these two highly influential factions. In interview with Tugrul von Mende she focuses on the relationship between them and what it means for Egyptian society

In 2013 Egypt's first ever democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was deposed. The military claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood was a danger to society. Was there any evidence of this after the Arabellion?

Sara Tonsy: The Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated that, if necessary, it was capable of mirroring the Mubarak regime with its brutality and 'entourage system'. Even prior to the revolution in 2011, real disapproval of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood's agenda existed, making the rupture with its grassroots supporters in 2013 just the tip of the iceberg. The rift derived from the Muslim Brotherhood's failure to remain socially and economically present for its dependents once Morsi became president, a point that Marie Vannetzel highlights in her book: The Muslim Brothers in Society: Everyday Politics, Social Action, and Islamism in Mubarak’s Egypt.

The rivalry between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army, rekindled explicitly post-2011, is reminiscent of the situation in Egypt following the coup in 1952, with each party determined to dominate the discourse and "win over" the people. Ultimately, both ended up resorting to violence; those who controlled the narrative – the military under General Sisi – assumed power. Ever since 2013, all opposition to the current regime has been classified as a "danger to society". Even the "irhabiyyun" (terrorists) headlines recall articles published by al-Ahram in 1954.

Cover of Sara Tonsy’s "The Egyptian Army and the Muslim Brotherhood: Contemporary Political Power Dynamics" (published by Routledge)
Vivid portrayal of Egyptian power politics: Sara Tonsy delves deep into the cooperation, collaboration, rivalry, and enmity that characterises relations between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Using ethnographic material that includes interviews, observations, and other forms of expression, the author provides insights into understanding the differences between "madani" (civil), "‘askari" (military), and "dini" (religious), how they are used and projected on the Egyptian political field

What are the origins of this rivalry? How has the Muslim Brotherhood been regarded since Abdul Fattah al-Sisi became president?

Tonsy: The rivalry dates back to the 1940s and the aspirations of both a group of army officers – the Free Officers – and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership to acquire more political power. Such ambitions need to be seen within the context of the nationalist movement against the British occupation at the time. During this period membership of the Muslim Brotherhood began to grow, thanks in part to an agenda adopted at the movement's 5th conference in 1939. The Free Officers are frequently mentioned in works written about the 1940s in Egypt and the political scene, including Tariq al-Bishri’s book, "Political Life in Egypt" (al-hayat al-siyasiya fi misr).

In the memoirs of Khalid Muhi el-Din, a Free Officer and close friend of Gamal Abdel Nasser, an incident is recorded where Nasser meets the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Supreme Guide Hassan al-Banna. Nasser mocks Banna for suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Free Officers join forces against the occupation. One of my interviewees, an ex-Brotherhood member from the Guidance Bureau, stated that the Free Officers and the Muslim Brotherhood were unable to agree a date for what eventually became the 1952 coup d’etat.

Looking back at 2011, how much do you think did the relationship between them has changed?

Tonsy: The rivalry between them was rejuvenated in 2011, when both groups became political contenders in the struggle for power. More than anything, relations between them are based on mutual understanding and experience.

Attempts at co-operation or negotiation failed post-2011, however, owing to an inability to compromise on power and status. As with any contemporary regime, politics is a process characterised by continuity and schism. The interesting thing about the Egyptian army/Muslim Brotherhood power dynamic was the rekindling of this relationship. How did their respective discourses interact? How did their organisational similarities and the dissemination of their political message affect their rivalry and, ultimately, politics in Egypt?

In the introduction you describe the book as "an attempt to outline the 'contradictions of consciousness'" and assert that the events that took place in Egypt are "part of a pattern and a continuation of the Egyptian state". Could you explain "contradictions of consciousness" and does this term imply that the Egyptian revolution was a failure?

Tonsy: I believe it is too early to declare defeat or "failure". There are too many people still facing the consequences of the 2011 revolution for anyone to "call it a day". Its continuation is in the dynamics at play, the political actors at the forefront – and the absence of the civilian population when it came to laying down the rules of the political game. As I mentioned earlier, it is a pattern that has been repeated, which is as much about the continuity of the Egyptian state as it is about the political actors involved.

Looking at what happened in 2019 and the demonstrations in Cairo and other cities, do you think that these were a continuation of or a break with the 2011 revolution?

Tonsy: The demonstrations in 2019 cannot be compared to the 2011 Arabellion. The state and the political actors had changed. Yet if we look at events over the last couple of years in other countries such as Algeria or Sudan, there are a lot of similarities that could render a future comparison pertinent. In both cases, as in 2011, there were mass demonstrations and uprisings. The people were able to gather, with the armies of each country undecided on which side to take. This is still affecting the way Algeria and Sudan are heading today. 

In what way have Egypt's relations with the West changed since 2011?

Tonsy: After 2011, many academics, especially those present in Egypt at the time, were among the first to call out those who claimed the country had no civil society or popular movements. At a more strategic level, Russia upped its involvement in the region, with explicit interventions in Syria and, through different modes of material support, in Egypt. For a while after the Arabellion, relations between Egypt and the United States were rocky, but relations were eventually re-established, with Egypt entering into a range of different partnerships with other Western countries.

Interview conducted by Tugrul von Mende

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