The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Challenge of the Renaissance Dam

An illustration for the Renaissance dam.

By Nath Aldalala’a

Not since its foundation in 1928, has the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt been beset with difficulties such as those it now faces. The primary challenge now confronting the movement results from the very privilege of its success, and it is my contention that after waiting for over eight decades, its power-base has come to fruition at precisely the wrong time. The current situation in the region is not one that will foster a lasting  popularity of the movement,  and I foresee a number of factors conspiring against any continued buoyancy in their fortunes.

Primarily, executive power in Egypt is not necessarily what may be perceived as civil governance: rather, it is grounded on notions that stem from the militarization of governing.  The foundation of the modern state in Egypt came about precisely through this militarized mode of leadership which commenced with the regime of Jamal Abdul Nasser and was completed by the rule of Mubarak.  Therefore, the absence of civil governance consolidated and normalized the militarized psyche of the Egyptian people. This was explicitly revealed in the trust accorded to the army by the people during the interim period following the fall of Mubarak. Thus, the adaptations to power undergone by the Muslim Brotherhood, represented by the personality of Mohammed Morsi, are not in line with the mentality of the majority, including many of those who voted for the brotherhood.

In Egypt there are two factors that traditionally determine the popularity of the political leadership: the first being the privileging of Arab concerns by the ruling elite; and the second relates to Egypt’s relationship, and its fluctuations, with Israel.  With regard to the former, (the most notable concern being the case of Palestine), this is blatantly absent from the agenda of the current Egyptian administration, as the situation of the Egyptian people presently seems to fare no better than that of the Palestinians.  In respect to the relationship with Israel, the MB finds itself having to tread a fine line of compromise. When they came to power, the MB were astute enough to know their rhetoric towards Israel would be closely  monitored and thus any inflammatory speech– which would indeed have brought them popularity internally, could still inspire deadly consequences on the international scene. Thus the irony of waiting eighty years and nurturing a confrontational politics grounded on the principle of  ‘if we do not govern, we do not wish to be governed’,  their presence was always clouded by negative hues which needed to be countered.  As they came to   power, it seems to have dawned on them that if they were to continue operating through such mechanisms they would quickly lose legitimacy.

The stewardship of the relations between Egypt and Israel is a constant imperative.  This relationship has reached an unprecedented level of complexity. Historically, Israel fought a number of wars with Egypt which gave rise to the peace treaty of 1979. The fall of Mubarak, while in many respects welcomed on the world stage, made the international community jittery about the possible nullification of the treaty.  In fact when the MB took the reins, the treaty was not tampered with in any way and actually gained a renewed legitimacy.  It became obvious to all that any anxieties in Israel and the United States were appeased by the unexpected and speedy concessions of the MB.  From this we must conclude that relations between Israel and the MB leadership are now quite harmonious.  Unless of course, someone would like to argue that a section, or may be even a significant number, of the Egyptian people are not entirely in accord with their elected government on this subject. Any response to this premise would suggest that the Egyptian people rebelled but paid a heavy price for change, and in effect, the obsequiousness of the MB towards Israel and the United States exceeds that of the previous Mubarak regime, even at the peak of the ‘love affair’ between the two sides.

A challenge to the MB is coming from Ethiopia now by the building of the Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile.  And while this is in progress, the choices for the MB are limited. The secretary of state John Kerry has announced the continuation of the annual 1.5 billion dollar support to Egypt.  When we make connections with Israeli investments in Africa, and its investment in energy sources in Ethiopia in particular, the dilemma of the MB over the use of military power is evident.  The MB is avoiding inflammatory militaristic speeches that could be construed as threatening to the international community.  But Mohammed Morsi revealed his colors on Monday in a speech to his supporters in which he announced that while Egypt has no desire for war, it will defend its rights over the Nile water. He also declared that all options remain open to Egypt. Yet in reality Egypt does not have many options, and it certainly does not have the option of a war.  There is no precedent for such a war— that could be called the water war— and hostility between Egypt and Ethiopia is not mature or entrenched enough to lead to such action being possible or supported.  It is notable that Anwar Sadat, who was the first to court the idea of war with Ethiopia, soon preoccupied himself in consolidating the peace with Israel. Thereby leaving the issue of water to be dealt with by the current generation.

The inflammatory rhetoric in Egypt emanating from the rank and file of the people along with the media, calls on the MB to engage in war to prevent Ethiopia from constructing the dam. It is a strange turn of events when it is the people rather than the MB leadership that calls for war. Prior to the MB being in office, the generals leading Egypt were the war personalities of the 1960s and 70s. Yet, this mood is indicative of general feeling that inherently relates to the location of Egypt on the regional map. During the reign of Mubarak, Egypt’s compliance with the policies of the United States and Israel left it shaken but not defeated.  Egypt’s role within the region diminished, and it was not able to take a major role in regional affairs and conflicts, and accordingly it would no longer have a political or strategic voice. Consider the Israeli killing of five Egyptian soldiers during period in which the Army ruled. Israel refused to apologize to either to the Egyptian people or to the Egyptian leadership.  We can infer from this that the hostile rhetoric against Ethiopia is not necessarily, or not entirely, generated by the building of the dam. It does not hugely impact on Egypt’s share of the Nile water. It is more a sign of an increasing general mood of national pride expressed through military aggression. But the MB is placed in a double-bind by the “no-war dilemma”.

The MB is all too aware that its popularity in the current atmosphere is not going to increase and current grassroots war rhetoric will soon be transformed into further discontent over its policies. Nevertheless, the MB can only appeal to the popular mood by trespassing on the will of the international community. All indications are that the Renaissance Dam will go ahead whether Egypt approves or not. If the MB continues to act in a pragmatic fashion towards its neighbors the chances of conflict will definitely be lessened. With that, its popularity within Egypt will certainly be on the wane, and the MB will become a burden to the psyche of the Egyptian people.  This all could be summed up by the statement that the dilemma of no-war status shall bring the MB down, that is not a call for war, but it is the makeup of the regional order. The MB cannot and would not be able to fight a war, it is too fragile and would soon stick out as an aggressor, and the Egyptian people are frustrated and disappointed with many factors chief of which is that their ‘Tahri’ (liberation) revolution brought not much of tahrir, rather brought about a new system of oppressive deficit with increasingly divisive militant Islamist mentality caused by the its followers.

– Nath Aldalala’a is a Professor of International Relations and Cultural Studies at the American University/Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He contributed this article to

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  1. Nath could have added: “and war is expensive, certainly NOT what the people need just now!”
    What is interesting (and depressing) is the suspicion that Egypt is as plyable to US and Israeli pressure now as it was in Mubarak’s time, so, as disabled to assist in Palestinian nation building as all the countries in the region are (is this the ‘real’ US/Israeli policy?).
    No one should expect Egypt to be an effective neighbour, or a strong nation. We and the Palestinians must look elsewhere for help in rebuilding Palestine. What a tragedy, given its common boarder!

  2. Muslim Brotherhood become a leader is not an easy struggle. After become a leader of the country, the problem still huge. We should not hope that Mursi can solve the problem just in a short of time. I still have a lot of hope for them because of their track record as peace organization.

    They have to treat military with good treatment to prevent the military coup such before. Give them time to prove their promise !

  3. Win win approach over the basin is appreciable.The so called historical rights and agreements of the 1929 & 1959 does have nothing to Ethiopia.Ethiopian never surrender their sovereign rights.Egyptian,I hope,should know the truth that Ethiopia are their brothers/sisters though the Egyptian Elites did against the interest of us.

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