360° Analysis

The Muslim Brotherhood: A Threat Or An Opportunity In Egypt?


July 17, 2011 13:47 EDT

Naimeh Masumy gives a brief history of the Muslim Brotherhood and highlights its strengths and weaknesses in handling the political leadership in Egypt.

              The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 in Egypt by the Islamic scholar and schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna. The Brotherhood (also known as the Ikhwan) is the largest political opposition organization in several Arab states. It is the world's oldest and most influential Islamist group, and one of the largest. The Brotherhood, whose slogan is “Islam is the Solution,” began as a social organization, preaching Islam, teaching the illiterate, setting up hospitals and even launching commercial enterprises. As it continued to amass influence, it began in 1936 to oppose British rule in Egypt. After the 1948 Arab defeat in the First Arab-Israeli war, the Egyptian government dissolved the Brotherhood, arrested its members and assassinatedal-Banna. After the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, which the Brotherhood supported, it was once again banned and repressed. Brotherhood members suffered mass arrests under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, whose regime suspected them of plotting to overthrow Egypt’s secular government and replace it with an Islamic Caliphate.

 The Brotherhood’s role in the uprising

Many Western observers viewed the protests as an attempt by the Brotherhood to take over the country. Indeed, the Brotherhood took an active part in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, though its participation was somewhat limited by the group’s unpopularity among Egypt's youth. During the turmoil, the Western media, especially in America, expressed grave concern about the potential for antidemocratic influence on a fledgling government by Islamist political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood. John Bolton, former President George W. Bush’s neoconservative U.N. ambassador publicly assailed the legitimacy of the group, alleging that it adheres to Jihadism. In post-Mubarak Egypt, fresh doubts have arisen over their status: does the Islamic group seek political domination? Is the Brotherhood inspired by Jihadist aspirations?

While much is still uncertain in Egypt, it is clear that the threat of an Islamist takeover is being grossly overestimated. First, the Brotherhood does not have a cohesive organizational consensus to maintain leadership in the political arena; and second, it does not enjoy broad political appeal among Egyptian.

An organization on the verge of disintegrating              

   The post-revolutionary Muslim Brotherhood is facing unprecedented challenges. The group has been excluded from the legal polity for decades, and has been subject to cycles of partial toleration and repression, causing both organizational and intellectual divisions to emerge within it. The group responded to repression by constructing a vague intellectual agenda that gained wide support by masses, reflecting a decision to compromise ideological clarity for the sake of organizational consensus. Consequently, the group failed to construct a coherent program that could have fared better in the political arena.

              In addition, the process of engaging in collective action during the internal distress which brought Mubarak’s regime to its knee has deepened some of the internal divisions within the group’s leadership. During the recent turmoil, members of the Brotherhood met with Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman for the first time to discuss the upheaval that had brought Mubarak’s regime to its knees. Being part of the negotiations was a coup for a group that had been demonized by the regime. But the limelight had its drawbacks, too: it caused and exposed friction within the group to a wary Egyptian public.  ­­

The group's youth movement, the Brotherhood Youth, assembled on Tahrir Square at the very beginning of the protests — three days before senior leaders officially threw their weight behind the uprising. So when news circulated that the Brotherhood was negotiating with the regime, many young members were infuriated. It seemed to them as if they their elders were not representing the group’s youth. While there were some within the Brotherhood who embraced the idea of talking to the regime, protesters in Tahrir Square firmly believed that anyone who met the government before Mubarak stepped down no longer represented Egyptians who sought freedom.

 Thus, the tensions caused by distance between the Brotherhood's stated goals and its response to civil turmoil have intensified and prevented the organization from acting as a driving force in the upheaval. The group is therefore unlikely to play a dominant role in Egypt’s political future. Walid Kazziha, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo, said that the Brotherhood’s fate mirrors that of other Islamist movements in Egypt, which have traditionally been weakened by their inability to unite around a common political program.

Spontaneous revolt or orchestrated uprising

Once the civil uproar in Egypt began, some in the Western press promoted unfounded speculations that the Muslim Brotherhood was masterminding the protests as part of an Islamist campaign to seize control of the nation. But as coverage from reporters on the ground indicated, the protests arose spontaneously and were by no means orchestrated by any groups affiliated with Islamist movements.

Reporters on the scene in Cairo said that the protesters, and a majority of Egyptians, simply wanted Mubarak overthrown more than they sought the installment of the Muslim Brotherhood in power. Immediately after the revolution, those who participated in revolution was quick to acknowledge that the Brotherhood did not start the revolution while recognizing that the group is essential to maintaining the revolutionary momentum. Since its founding, the Brotherhood has always seen itself as a social movement. Al-Banna strived to be a populist. Under his leadership, the Brotherhood founded social institutions such as hospitals, pharmacies and schools. During the uprising, the group was deeply involved in providing treatment for the hundreds of protesters injured by the regime’s mobsters.  Medically well supplied, they managed all the health facilities: a hospital, an orthopedic clinic, a pharmacy and others. This is the kind of organizational prowess for which the Brotherhood gained renown. It has long operated schools, hospitals and charities in Egypt better than Mubarak’s administrators ran government facilities, which accounts for the group’s popularity as a civic institution rather than as a political movement.

It is important to remember that the Muslim Brotherhood simply does not enjoy broad political approval by the public. In the last parliamentary election in 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood gained only 20 percent of the nation’s vote. To be sure, the Brotherhood is the largest and most influential opposition group in Egypt, but nearly all opposition parties are still outlawed in Egypt. The Brotherhood’s candidates have had to run as independents because Egyptian law has prohibited them from running as affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood party. Obviously, the group’s positive social credentials have not enhanced ability to seriously compete in parliamentary elections.

Threat or Myth?

  The post-revolution celebration was short-lived for Egyptians who sought freedom. The Muslim Brotherhood was immediately met with predictable concerns from American policymakers, who feared that the group might not only hijack the inspired revolution that had brought down Hosni Mubarak, but would also lead the country down the path of an Iran-style theocracy. Sharp observers began to publicly denounce the group’s adherence to Jihadist ideology.  Skeptics, most notably neoconservatives along with Western Medias, noted the group’s association with some Jihadists and began to crusade the aftermath role of the Brotherhood

Notwithstanding its ties to some prominent Jihadists, one should not conclude that this group is a bloodthirsty threat to liberty. They renounced violence years ago, and their relative moderation has made them the target of extreme vilification by more radical Islamist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Hamas. The Muslim Brotherhood began as a legalist, anti-colonialist and nonviolent movement that claimed legitimacy through armed resistance against Zionist expansionism in Palestine during the period before World War II. The writings of Hassan al-Banna between 1930 and 1945 reveal staunch opposition to colonialism and the fascism of regimes in Germany and Italy. He rejected the use of violence in Egypt, though he considered it legitimate in Palestine in resistance to the Zionist Stern and Irgun terror groups. He believed that the British parliamentary model represented the kind of government closest to Islamic principles.

              While in recent years some Brotherhood members have advocated jihad, the basic premise of the group has remained unchanged. Al-Banna had never preached a fundamentalist Islamism and always advocated a progressive approach. Al-Banna was a practical revolutionary who never instructed his votaries to prepare for violence. Violent attacks have never been Brotherhood objectives nor does the group believe it necessary to complete the revolution by the institution of sharia, Islam’s legal-political framework. 

Mohammad ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Association and Egypt's new opposition leader, has formed a loose alliance with the Brotherhood because he knows it is the only opposition group capable of mobilizing masses of Egyptians, especially the poor. Also, many experts on political Islam consider the Brotherhood the most rational and moderate face of Islamic politics in the Arab world today.  So why do skeptics still fear that ElBaradei will be swept along by more radical forces?

 It is noteworthy that in the Middle East, after the overthrow of repressive regimes, it is often the case that religious parties become more influential, and not only for the worse. In the transitional phase of states where repressive rulers have been overthrown, religious and often openly Islamist political parties are on the rise.

 Since the Egyptian military took control over the government, the Brotherhood has had to work with the military along with people of all political backgrounds to navigate a period of martial law before anticipated democratic reforms can take effect. 

The Election, A Final Exam

  The upcoming election will bring Egyptians to a crossroads. They will have to decide whether they want to take the road of Western-style democracy or that of an Islamist theocratic agenda. In a recent poll published by the New York Times, Egyptians were found equally divided between those who sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists and those who spurn them, with about 30 percent undecided. But though polls reveal broad Egyptian sympathy towards the Brotherhood, the group is taking pains to show that they are moderate. Now that the Brotherhood finally has thrown its hat into the ring of national politics, scholars are speculating on their potential role in a post-revolution government. The Brotherhood and its political offshoot, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), will most likely be predominant in September’s parliamentary election. Skeptics worry that Egypt is going down the path of an Iran–style theocracy. In Iran, a very strict Islamic regime assumed power after the Shah’s dictatorship was overthrown; the post-revolution atmosphere in Egypt could lead the country down a similar path, they fear.

It is obvious that such alarmist speculations, especially as they relate to the Muslim Brotherhood’s ambitions, are false on two levels.

  First,in various respects Egypt is very different from other countries in the Middle East. The Egyptian population, while 90 percent Muslim, is much more diverse and secular than Iran’s, for instance. Egypt also has a significant minority of Christians who make up about 10 percent of the population — much higher than in countries like Iran. Moreover, it is important to note that the Muslim Brotherhood has for many years now publicly supported democracy a and religious tolerance and has named a Christian as deputy head of the group, a gesture that clearly spoke for freedom. 

Second,the Egyptian economy is also much more developed than in some countries in the region, with a relatively strong middle class that is less likely to be swayed by the propaganda of radical Islamic groups. Plus, the movement still needs to reassure society, especially minority groups such as Coptic Christians, women, liberal movements and Egypt's tiny Shiite minority that it will respect the constitution and laws if they become a political majority.

 Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and a watchdog entrusted with the protection of minority rights in Egypt, has welcomed the integration of former Jihadists within the Brotherhood into Egypt's political arena, saying that political participation could steer the movement away from violence. But they still need to convince the Egyptian public that the Brotherhood does not intend to turn the country into an Islamic Caliphate, Ibrahim added.

 Now that the new Egypt has banned the religious parties from the post-revolution legal polity, members of the Brotherhood are ought to present themselves as secular figures. It is not clear yet whether or not the secular façade will go down once they hold power, but it seems apparent that voters will be quick to disregard any extremists coming from the group.

International Support will spark future optimism in Egypt             

               The Muslim Brotherhood is an organization whose leadership’s main aim is to retain the ability to shape Egyptian society. International policy makers and media analysts should expect the Brotherhood to do what it has so often done: to work with, not against, the people it represents. It is important to note that Egyptians over the past years have been vocally explicit that they are finished with authoritarianism.

              The international community must remember that religious freedom is part of a set of universal human rights which are also the core principle of many Western states’ foreign policy toward the Middle East. They include the right to choose one’s own leaders. Yet religious freedom is not a stand-alone idea but rather embedded in a series of commitments that are practical in to protecting human dignity. Religious freedom tends to increase when other positive changes are also occurring, especially political and economic transformation, and is best pursued by people themselves as they define their own approach to democracy and advance their own economies.

Egypt’s post-revolution government can be strengthened through creative and cooperative policymaking by not the Muslim Brotherhood and other political forces in Egypt such as the reform movements, Salafi and Sunni Islamic fundamentalists, among others. They can help facilitate the building of robust political institutions and constrain the power of autocratic rulers. The more political orientations are involved, the more people are involved, which is already providing a solid basis for democracy.


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