Soon after I began teaching, a student came to my office hours because she had been ill and missed a portion of the class. That was not unusual -- but what did seem a bit out of the ordinary was that she brought her mother. I explained to the student that she could take an incomplete but that I advised this only as a last resort, since it would not be easy to make up the work after she had begun a new set of courses the next semester. Her mother piped in, "He's right honey. You know how I feel about incompletes." I had encountered my first "helicopter parent"-- those who hover closely over their grown sons and daughters, monitoring their choices, offering unsolicited advice, and intervening in their daily interactions.
There is no image that better captures the behavior of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood toward the political party it claims only to be launching, and that may be a problem for Egyptian democracy. The new Freedom and Justice Party will be free, says the parent Muslim Brotherhood, to make its own choices. But the Brotherhood as helicopter parent cannot resist suggesting to its offspring who the new party's leaders will be, what it stands for, how it will be organized, who should join it, and who its candidates will be. The party is completely independent in decision making -- so long as it does precisely what it is told. And actually, it is not only the party that is being told what to do -- individual members of the Brotherhood movement have been told to join no other party and to obey movement discipline in the political realm. This kind of relationship between movement and party is already making the Brotherhood a difficult partner for other political actors; over the long term, it may make the Islamists awkward electoral actors.
A close relationship between party and movement was to be expected, but this relationship is more than close; it is micromanaged. In a recent meeting of the Muslim Brotherhood's Consultative Council (a policy making body with approximately 100 members that had not been able to gather in the Mubarak years for fear of arrest), as well as in a series of other decisions widely reported in the Egyptian press, the protective parent movement has taken the following steps:
When pressed about their close management of the party, movement officials react defensively: this is only to get the party off the ground, they claim. Once it is founded, it is free to evolve as its members see fit. But with its structure, leaders, members, and program so closely shaped by the movement, it is not likely it will evolve very much at all.
The movement is currently exploring its options in realms far from the political sphere. It has suggested intentions of forming youth clubs, broadcast media, and even soccer teams (leading to some Egyptians joking that Brotherhood players will follow the path of the political party by seeking only to tie every game). If the Brotherhood does develop in so many different directions while keeping close control over the various aspects of the movement, it will post difficulties for Egyptian democratic institutions. Historically, it is precisely the Brotherhood's broad focus and diverse interests that has made it a difficult coalition partner. When a secular political leader sits down with someone from the Brotherhood, he or she finds that the potential partner is cautious, anxious to protect a broad range of activities, and wary about committing to specific agendas or compromise over programmatic issues.
Recently the Brotherhood's general guide explained that while the movement stands for democracy and freedom, it did so within an Islamic reference and that "democracy cannot make permitted what is forbidden, or forbid what is permitted" in religious terms, "even if the entire nation agrees to it." Such a general formula actually has an ironically populist resonance in what remains a fairly conservative and religious society. The problem will come when the movement's leaders watch closely to ensure that the party interpret that general formula in accordance with its own strict instructions. Other political actors will likely find that a Brotherhood party tied closely to such a movement to be a difficult partner in the rough-and-tumble game of democratic politics. And indeed, the revolutionary coalition that brought down Husni Mubarak is already showing serious signs of fraying over precisely such issues. The Brotherhood absented itself from some recent meetings and demonstrations held by other political forces with an oppositional flavor. But it did not hesitate to send its representatives to an official sanctioned gathering.
The close relationship with the movement will probably serve the party well in the electoral realm -- in the short term. It will have a nationwide army of dedicated workers to organize its campaign. But in the long term, the movement and party have very different organizational impulses. A party interested in winning elections wants to attract large numbers of voters. A movement interested in an ideological mission is more concerned with the level of commitment of its core supporters. In recent days, a former Brotherhood parliamentarian was videotaped telling Brotherhood members that they should only marry within the movement. It is that sort of insular attitude -- one that served the movement well under harsh authoritarian conditions -- that makes the transition to mass democratic politics such a challenge. But with the close watch the movement is keeping over the party, the tension between seeking large numbers of votes and fulfilling the movement's mission is not likely to be felt over the short term.
To compare the Freedom and Justice Party to my student contemplating an incomplete is not an exact analogy. When it comes to democratic transformation, the party's helicopter parent is giving its offspring the precise opposite advice to that provided by my student's mother: it is very much recommending an incomplete.
Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The Middle East Channel offers unique analysis and insights on this diverse and vital region of more than 400 million.