Since the 1970s, the Muslim Brotherhood has been gaining valuable political experience by participating is student and trade union union activism, as well as parliamentary elections. This level of engagement political affairs was unknown to the Brotherhood prior to the July 1952 revolution, when the group had virtually no parliamentary or trade union representation. At the time, the Brotherhood organized social and religious activities and maintained a strong presence in student circles, but had no political representation.
Over the last 30 years, the Brotherhood has faced the challenge of maintaining an institutional framework, established by its founder Hassan Al-Banna in 1928, that combines political activism and religious outreach. As a result, the Brothers have viewed political activism as central to their work. The Brotherhood’s recent decision to form a political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, is a step toward separating its political and religious activities; it marks the beginning of the movement’s “second founding.”
There are some indications that the Freedom and Justice Party will operate simply as a political arm of the movement, remaining under the Brotherhood’s organizational jurisdiction. Despite these discouraging signs, the establishment of a political party will eventually lead to a historic transformation in the movement’s membership. For the first time in Brotherhood history, new members will join on the basis of political convictions, not as a result of religious outreach. Ordinary Egyptians will thus be able to influence the party’s future and shape its relationship with the Brotherhood movement.
As it moves forward, the Freedom and Justice Party will face two major challenges. First, the party must maintain the broader movement’s values without adopting its organizational program. It must strive to uphold Islamic principles without simply becoming the Brotherhood’s political arm. Many political parties in the United States and other democratic countries have been influenced by strong religious, social and political movements. But wherever political parties have emerged as mere extensions of religious movements (i.e. in Sudan and Afghanistan) they have been unsuccessful. By contrast, the Turkish and Malaysian experiences suggest that Islamist parties who maintain some autonomy from the movements from which they emerged are more likely to achieve political success.
Second, the Freedom and Justice Party faces the challenge of establishing a civilian and democratic party with a religious frame of reference. The party will be subject to all civilian and democratic rules governing the political process, after decades of political failure for which both successive Egyptian regimes and Islamist movements are to blame.
The Muslim Brotherhood has a unique opportunity that has not been afforded to other ideological currents, such as the leftists and nationalists. The unprecedented democratic wave in the Arab world offers a historic opportunity for the peaceful integration of Islamist currents, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, within a democratic framework. The only condition for integration is that Islamist movements respect the democratic rules of the game and the tenets of a civil state, as well as recognize the priorities of the Egyptian people —namely, securing bread, dignity, freedom, and national independence.
Any party with a religious frame of reference can successfully contribute to Egypt’s renaissance if it respects democratic and civil principles. Such parties must also recognize that their religious character does not grant them privileged status over other parties. Such status can only be afforded on the basis of a party's political program. Much like other political forces, the Brotherhood is at a crossroads. The movement can either contribute to Egypt’s renaissance or become entangled in an ideological battle that takes it back to the pre-revolutionary era. The Brotherhood must recognize that it can only gain the trust of the Egyptian people by offering tangible solutions to the myriad political and economic problems facing post-Mubarak Egypt.