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The Deeper Social Meaning of the Muslim Brotherhood (Part 1/2)

Popular checks will make a comeback in Egypt. This is the first of a two part series.

Enough time has passed since the June 30 revolution against Mohammed Morsi’s regime, which brought millions of Egyptians to the street to call for the removal of their first elected president. Many of these Egyptians demanded for the army — whom they had protested against a mere two years prior – to step in and broker a transition to another period of military rule. Since the military heeded the call, this portion of Egypt’s recent dramatic events can be called a military coup — but only this portion. Thus, the entire episode cannot simply be reduced to a “coup.” 

There is a strong chance that significant popular checks against military rule will be back in place in the coming months. For now, unfortunately, given the current worship of General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and the army, this will happen only after abuses multiply and begin to feel more familiar to Egyptians who have only recently revolted against military rule. At present, palpable relief at the end of Muslim Brotherhood rule is so overarching that impunity of the military regime continues to worryingly grow. 

On the question of the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the angles we can now explore with more analytic distance is the difficult to understand, yet essential historical dialectic between the Brotherhood’s theological grounding and the political realm in which they insistently operate.

A Historical Perspective: The Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna in the town of Ismailiyya. The movement held the ethos of “Islam is our Constitution,” and grew throughout Egypt’s monarchic period — a time where they exercized tremendous political power, often in league with the king himself. During the era of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1952-1970), the group began to clash seriously with Egyptian authorities, culminating with the death by a firing squad of Sayyid Qutb, a Muslim Brotherhood ideologue and intellectual.

Anwar el-Sadat’s presidency (1970-1981) began with a famous reapproachment with the Islamists, who Nasser had jailed in very large numbers. Sadat released prisoners incarcerated during Nasser’s era to buttress Nasserists, communists and other leftists, who he feared would challenge him. This strategy ended ironically and tragically with Sadat's assassination at the hands of Gama’at Islamiyya militants — an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, who were radicalized once forced underground again after their opposition to the Camp David Accords — who conspired with the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in 1981.

During Hosni Mubarak’s presidency (1981-2011), the Muslim Brotherhood functioned almost exclusively as a bogeyman that he could present both to a domestic and international audience; the policy was: “If not me, an authoritarian military dictator, then it's them — terrorists.” 

In 1948, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated an Egyptian prime minster, Mahmud Fahmi Nokrashi. The Brotherhood’s secret apparatus, a militant wing of the organization, was accused of an attempt on President Nasser’s life in 1954, driving them underground again.

The Muslim Brotherhood's long influence in universities — their major realm of operation since Sadat would not let them organize into a political party — contributed to the “Islamization” of student culture and activism, and has led to debates over literature and art, including several attempts at banning them, and debates over scientific innovation. More and more young women took the veil as a result of the Brotherhood's influence — Egyptians returning from work in the Gulf also had an impact upon the veil. 

Perhaps most importantly, the Brotherhood's exact stance on Islamic law and the state is uncomfortably unclear to Egyptians. It is likely that the group today keeps this stance strategically ambiguous, whereas imposition of shari'a was a very explicit goal of the organization until Mubarak’s era.

A case in point here was the Morsi regime’s absolute insistence on parliamentary elections — even after the November 2012 constitutional decrees. This was at a time when his government was in a deep crisis, and while many Egyptians thought it had lost basic democratic legitimacy.

The inevitable result of these parliamentary elections would have been a majority Islamist parliament to add to the executive — a fact the Muslim Brotherhood knew very well because of their far superior elections machinery, in comparison to any other organized political group in Egypt, with the exception of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP).  

But here is the key point: At the same time that the Muslim Brotherhood argued for the absolute necessity of immediate parliamentary elections, the temporary Shura council — composed of many Salafi allies who were likely to have been voted into an official parliament — were debating whether to lower the marriage age of young girls to nine-years-old. 

Typical of their strategy, the Muslim Brotherhood made no statements about this and other such controversial initiatives. Rather, the Brotherhood kept their talking points to a simple insistence on formal structure for their own sake — knowing full-well the unpopular practical results that were sure to follow.

Simply put, therefore, I believe, based on the Muslim Brotherhood’s intellectual and actual history, that they continue to nurse the vision of Islamizing the Egyptian state today, whether in the short- or long-term. 

Finally, in Muslim Brotherhood literature, one finds a marked de-emphasis on Egypt as a contiguous homeland for Egyptians with borders that have been more or less in place for 7,000 years. Instead, a pan-Islamic vision is favored that deemphasizes and even condemns these basic nationalist sentiments.         

*[Read the final part on October 10.]

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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