The Muslim Brotherhood (known in Arabic as al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen) is Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamist organisation. Founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, it is widely considered the world’s most influential Islamist organisation, with numerous branches and affiliates.
It is “the mother of all Islamist movements,” says Shadi Hamid, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution’s Doha centre.
The group has emerged as Egypt’s biggest opposition movement. Many analysts expect the Brotherhood to play a larger role in the country’s future, following the anti-government protests of 2011 in which hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to call for political and economic reforms and the ouster of autocratic President Hosni Mubarak.
“Without the Muslim Brotherhood, there’s no legitimacy in whatever happens in Egypt anymore,” says Ed Husain, a senior fellow at CFR.
But there are concerns over the group’s aim to establish a state ruled by sharia or Islamic law, questions over its support for the Mideast peace process and its policy toward Israel and the United States, and ambiguity over its respect for human rights.
A History of Violence
The Brotherhood’s original mission was to Islamize society through promotion of Islamic law, values, and morals. An Islamic revivalist movement from its early days, it has combined religion, political activism, and social welfare in its work. It adopted slogans such as “Islam is the solution” and “jihad is our way.” It played a role in the fight against British colonial rule and was banned for a short time in 1948 (BBC) for orchestrating bombings inside Egypt and allegedly assassinating Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Nuqrashi. It then experienced a short spell of good relations with the government that came to power through a military coup, which ended British rule in 1952. But following a failed attempt to assassinate President Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1954, the group was banned again.
At this time, Sayyid Qutb, a prominent member of the Brotherhood, laid down the ideological ground for the use of jihad, or armed struggle, against the regime in Egypt and beyond. Qutb’s writings, in particular his 1964 work Milestones, has provided the intellectual and theological underpinnings for the founders of numerous radical and militant Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda. Extremist leaders often channel Qutb to argue that governments not ruled by sharia are apostate and, therefore, legitimate targets of jihad.
The Brotherhood has spawned branches all across the globe. These organisations bear the Brotherhood name, but their connections to the founding group vary. Detractors of the Brotherhood argue that the group continues to have some links to Hamas, an organisation termed as a terrorist group by the United States, European Union, and Israel, and originally a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestinian territories. But other analysts argue the nature of links is not entirely clear. In addition, some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists were once Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members, including Osama bin Laden’s top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
But CFR’s Husain says it is wrong to make the Muslim Brotherhood “responsible for the actions of all of its intellectual offspring.” Since 9/11, prominent members of the Brotherhood have renounced violence publicly and tried to distance themselves from al-Qaeda’s violent practices. The Brotherhood’s foray into electoral politics has also widened the schism between them and groups like al-Qaeda. Zawahiri had been openly critical of the Brotherhood’s participation in 2005 parliamentary elections.
But like other mass social movements, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is hardly a monolith; it comprises hardliners, reformers, and centrists, notes terrorism expert Lydia Khalil. And some hardline leaders have voiced support for al-Qaeda or use of violent jihad. For instance, as recently as 2006, Khalil points out, a member of Brotherhood elected to parliament, Ragib Hilal Hamida, voiced support for terrorism in the face of Western occupation. Instances like these raise questions over the group’s commitment to nonviolence.
Toward Pragmatic Politics
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has more than three hundred thousand members and runs numerous institutions, including hospitals, schools, banks, businesses, foundations, day care centres, thrift shops, social clubs, and facilities for the disabled.
Since the 1970s, the group has not engaged in violent activity and though officially banned, the Egyptian government has allowed it to operate within limits, keeping it in check with frequent arrests and crackdowns. In the last three decades, it has increased its advance into the political mainstream through alliances with other opposition parties and through members running for parliament as independents.
Some analysts say the group has evolved to become more moderate and embrace democratic and liberal principles such as transparency and accountability. Analysts Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher point out in this 2006 Middle East Report how the group has “settled on a strategy of political participation.” Brotherhood-affiliated candidates first participated in local and parliamentary elections as independents in 1984, and its most successful electoral showing was in 2005, when its candidates won 80-eight seats, or 20 per cent of the legislature.
“The Ikhwan followed the path of toleration and eventually came to find democracy compatible with its notion of slow Islamization,” wrote Middle East experts Robert S. Leiken and Steven Brooke in a 2007 Foreign Affairs article. But they note that many analysts “question whether the Brotherhood’s adherence to democracy is merely tactical and transitory–an opportunistic commitment” to electoral politics.
A further sign of the Brotherhood’s pragmatic politics (RFE/RL), some experts say, came early in the 2011 protests when the group voiced support for the secular Nobel laureate and former International Atomic Energy Agency chief, Mohamed ElBaradei, as opposition leader. Hamid points to the group’s low profile in the protests, too, as signals of the politics of compromise and survival. “They know the world is afraid of the rise of Islamists in Egypt, and they don’t want to give the regime a pretext to clamp down on the protestors,” he says. He says that “at its core, the Muslim Brotherhood is a pragmatic organisation” and to continue its social and charity work with relative freedom of movement, the group studiously avoids all-out confrontation with the Egyptian regime. In March 2007, the Mubarak government amended the constitution to ban political parties based on religion, a move that Washington-based watchdog group Freedom House says ensures “the continued suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood (PDF).”
An Islamic State?
Establishing an Islamic state based on sharia is at the centre of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, both in Egypt and among the group’s many offshoots abroad. But the Brotherhood in Egypt has often said it is committed to gradual and peaceful Islamization and only with the consensus of Egypt’s citizens. In recent times, some leaders have dismissed the idea of an Islamic state and expressed commitment to work with other secular and liberal parties. The group’s leaders have begun to deemphasize their focus on sharia in recent years but as this Backgrounder notes, there is still great ambiguity in how they would legislate Islam if given the chance. “They care about Islamic law, but they don’t really know what they mean by that,” says Hamid. There is similar ambiguity in their call for greater human rights, especially with regard to women’s rights.
The specter of the 1979 Iranian revolution looms large for many in the West, who fear an Islamist regime in Egypt if the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power. CFR’s Steven Cook notes how Mubarak has used the organisation as his bogeyman for three decades to “stoke the fears of successive American administrations and, in turn, secure Washington’s generous diplomatic, political, and financial support.” These concerns rose to the surface again in the West following the 2011 public protests in Egypt to remove Mubarak. Israeli leaders too, feared a replay of 1979. Meanwhile, Iran’s clerics and officials hailed these protests, attempting to paint them as a rallying call for Islamism (Guardian) with their origin in Iran’s revolution.
Some analysts dismiss these fears (ReligionDispatches), pointing to the differences between a powerful Shia clergy in Iran and a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. “Sunni Muslims don’t have a doctrine of owing implicit obedience to their clergy, and the clergy are not as important in Sunni religious life as the Shiite Ayatollahs are in Iran,” writes Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan. Also, experts point out that the Muslim Brotherhood is hardly the most important religious group in the country. The Quietist Salafist movement and Sufis are part of the main religious groups in the country.
However, CFR’s Husain says Egypt going the Iran way is a genuine fear. “Then, secular democrats triggered a revolution only to be brushed aside by fundamentalists. Today, ordinary Egyptians lead demonstrations, but the Brotherhood waits in the background (FT); an indispensable force in national life.” He says the United States must begin to engage the Muslim Brotherhood today.
Implications for the United States
Egypt is an important strategic ally of the United States in the region, specifically in the pursuit on an Arab-Israeli peace process. As this 2011 Congressional Research Service report notes, since 1979, Egypt has been the second-largest recipient, after Israel, of U.S. foreign assistance (PDF). For the United States, its most important foreign policy goals in Egypt are: Egypt’s peace with Israel, U.S. access to the Suez Canal, and general bilateral military cooperation. And therefore, Washington would like a government in Cairo that is supportive of these goals.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s stance on many of these issues makes U.S. concerns regarding the group legitimate, say most analysts. “It does not share America’s view on the security architecture in the region, says Hamid, adding “It is strongly anti-Israel . . . and does not support the peace processes.” The movement has also said it would hold a referendum on the 1979 Camp David peace accords with Israel if it comes to power.
Leslie Gelb, CFR’s president emeritus who has served as a senior official in the U.S. State and defence Departments, says if the brotherhood rose to power in Egypt, it “would be calamitous for U.S. security (Daily Beast).” He adds: “It would be delusory to take the MB’s democratic protestations at face value.” Former CIA Officer Bruce Riedel, an expert of Middle East and South Asia, adds: “living with it won’t be easy, but it should not be seen as inevitably our enemy.” He recommends: “We need not demonize it nor endorse it.”
But some analysts point to changing realities on the ground to advocate engagement with the organisation. Isolation of the group, some argue, means Washington would lose leverage with any future governments the Brotherhood is a part of. CFR’s Husain cautions Washington should neither isolate the group nor strengthen them unwittingly. Engagement, he says, must be based on issues. “Pluralism, human rights, and Israel must therefore be at the heart of talks with Egypt’s Islamists.”
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