Egypt And The Muslim Brotherhood: A Stratfor Special Report
If indeed as Credit Suisse speculated gold's move was predicated by concerns that the Muslim Brotherhood may end the peace treaty with Israel, then the relationship between Egypt and the country's largest Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, deserves a special focus. Below we publish a special report by Stratfor focusing precisely on this relationship, and what the future may hold for either.
Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood: A Special Report
With Egypt’s nearly 60-year-old order seemingly collapsing, many are
asking whether the world’s single-largest Islamist movement, the Muslim
Brotherhood (MB), is on the verge of benefiting from demands for
democracy in Egypt, the most pivotal Arab state.
Western fears to the contrary, the MB is probably incapable of
dominating Egypt. At best, it can realistically hope to be the largest
political force in a future government, one in which the military would
have a huge say.
The MB and the Egyptian State
The fear of Islamism for years allowed the single-party state to
prevent the emergence of a secular opposition. Many secular forces were
aligned with the state to prevent an Islamist takeover. Those that did
not remained marginalized by the authoritarian system. As a result, the
MB over the years has evolved into the country’s single-largest
organized socio-political opposition force.
Even though there is no coherent secular group that can rival the
MB’s organizational prowess, Egypt’s main Islamist movement hardly has a
monopoly over public support. A great many Egyptians are either secular
liberals or religious conservatives who do not subscribe to Islamist
tenets. Certainly, the bulk of the people out on the streets in the
recent unrest are not demanding that the secular autocracy be replaced
with an Islamist democracy.
Still, as Egypt’s biggest political movement, the MB has raised
Western and Israeli fears of an Egypt going the way of Islamism,
particularly if the military is not able to manage the transition. To
understand the MB today — and thus to evaluate these international fears
— we must first consider the group’s origins and evolution.
Origins and Evolution of the MB
Founded in the town of Ismailia in 1928 by a schoolteacher named
Hassan al-Banna, the MB was the world’s first organized Islamist
movement (though Islamism as an ideology had been in the making since
the late 19th century). It was formed as a social movement to pursue the
revival of Islam in the country and beyond at a time when secular
left-leaning nationalism was rising in the Arab and Muslim world.
It quickly moved beyond just charitable and educational activities to
emerge as a political movement, however. Al-Banna’s views formed the
core of the group’s ideology, which are an amalgamation of Islamic
values and Western political thought, which rejected both traditional
religious ideas as well as wholesale Westernization. The MB was the
first organizational manifestation of the modernist trend within Muslim
religio-political thought that embraced nationalism and moved beyond the
idea of a caliphate. That said, the movement was also the first
organized Islamic response to Western-led secular modernity.
Its view of jihad in the sense of armed struggle was limited to
freedom from foreign occupation (British occupation in the case of Egypt
and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land). But it had a more
comprehensive understanding of jihad pertaining to intellectual
awakening of the masses and political mobilization. It was also very
ecumenical in terms of intra-Muslim issues. Each of these aspects
allowed the movement to quickly gain strength; by the late 1940s, it
reportedly had more than a million members.
By the late 1930s, there was great internal pressure on the MB
leadership to form a military wing to pursue an armed struggle against
the British occupation. The leadership was fearful that such a move
would damage the movement, which was pursuing a gradual approach to
socio-political change by providing social services and the creation of
professional syndicates among lawyers, doctors, engineers, academics,
etc. The MB, however, reluctantly did allow for the formation of a
covert militant entity, which soon began conducting militant attacks not
authorized by al-Banna and the leadership.
Until the late 1940s, the MB was a legal entity in the country, but
the monarchy began to view it as a major threat to its power —
especially given its emphasis on freedom from the British and opposition
to all those allied with the occupation forces. The MB was at the
forefront of organizing strikes and nationalist rallies. It also
participated, though unsuccessfully, in the 1945 elections.
While officially steering clear of any participation in World War II,
the MB did align with Nazi Germany against the United Kingdom, which
saw the movement become involved in militancy against the British. MB
participation in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war further energized the
militants. That same year, the covert militant entity within the
movement assassinated a judge who had handed prison sentences to a MB
member for attacking British troops.
It was at this point that the monarchy moved to disband the movement
and the first large-scale arrests of its leadership took place. The
crackdown on the MB allowed the militant elements the freedom to pursue
their agenda unencumbered by the movement’s hierarchy. The assassination
of then-Prime Minister Nokrashy Pasha at the hands of an MB militant
proved to be a turning point in the movement’s history.
Al-Banna condemned the assassination and distanced the movement from
the militants but he, too, was assassinated in 1949, allegedly by
government agents. Al-Banna was replaced as general guide of the
movement by a prominent judge, Hassan al-Hudaybi, who was not a member
of the movement but held al-Banna in high regard. The appointment, which
conflicted with the MB charter, created numerous internal problems and
exacerbated the rift between the core movement and the militant faction.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian government’s October 1951 decision to
abrogate the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty set off nationwide agitation
against British rule. Armed clashes between British forces and Egyptians
broke out. The MB’s militant faction took part while the core movement
steered clear of the unrest. It was in the midst of this unrest that the
1952 coup led by Gamal Abdel Nasser against the monarchy took place.
The MB supported the coup, thinking they would be rewarded with a
political share of the government. The cordial relationship between the
new Free Officers regime and the MB did not last long, however, largely
because the military regime did not want to share power with the MB and,
like the monarchy, saw the MB as a threat to its nascent state.
Initially, the new regime abolished all political groups except the
MB. The Nasser regime, in an attempt to manage the power of the MB,
asked it to join the Liberation Rally — the first political vehicle
created by the new state. Unsuccessful in its attempts to co-opt the MB,
the Nasser regime began to exploit the internal differences within the
movement, especially over the leadership of al-Hudaybi. The MB leader
faced mounting criticism that he had converted the movement into an
elite group that had reduced the movement to issuing statements and had
taken advantage of the notion of obedience and loyalty to the leader to
perpetuate his authoritarian hold. Al-Hudaybi, however, prevailed and
the MB disbanded the covert militant entity and expelled its members
from the movement.
In 1954, the regime finally decided to outlaw the MB, accusing it of
conspiring to topple the government and arresting many members and
leaders, including al-Hudaybi. Meanwhile, the military regime ran into
internal problems with Nasser locked in a power struggle with Gen.
Muhammad Naguib, who was made the first president of the modern republic
(1953-54). Nasser succeeded in getting the support of al-Hudaybi and
the MB to deal with the internal rift in exchange for allowing the MB to
operate legally and releasing its members.
The government reneged on its promises to release prisoners and the
complex relationship between Nasser and al-Hudaybi further destabilized
the MB from within, allowing for the militant faction to regain
influence. The MB demanded the end of martial law and a restoration of
parliamentary democracy. Cairo in the meantime announced a new treaty
with London over the Suez Canal, which was criticized by the
al-Hudaybi-led leadership as tantamount to making Egypt subservient to
the United Kingdom.
This led to further police action against the movement and a campaign
against its leadership in the official press. The Nasser government
also tried to have al-Hudaybi removed as leader of the MB. Between the
internal pressures and those from the regime, the movement had moved
into a period of internal disarray.
The covert militant faction that was no longer under the control of
the leadership because of the earlier expulsions saw the treaty as
treasonous and the MB as unable to confront the regime, so it sought to
escalate matters. Some members allegedly were involved in the
assassination attempt on Nasser in October 1954, which allowed the
regime to engage in the biggest crackdown on the MB in its history.
Thousands of members including al-Hudaybi were sentenced to harsh prison
terms and tortured.
It was during this period that another relative outsider in the
movement, Sayyid Qutb, a literary figure and a civil servant, emerged as
an influential ideologue of the group shortly after joining up. Qutb
also experienced long periods of imprisonment and torture, which
radicalized his views. He eventually called for the complete overthrow
of the system. He wrote many treatises, but one in particular,
Milestones, was extremely influential — not so much within the
movement, as among a new generation of more radical Islamists.
Qutb was executed in 1966 on charges of trying to topple the
government, but his ideas inspired the founding of jihadism.
Disenchanted with the MB ideology and its approach, a younger generation
of extremely militant Islamists emerged. These elements, who would
found the world’s first jihadist groups, saw the MB as having
compromised on Islamic principles and accepted Western ideas. Further
galvanizing this new breed of militant Islamists was the Arab defeat in
the 1967 war with Israel and the MB’s formal renunciation of violence in
Anwar Sadat’s rise to power after Nasser’s death in 1970 helped the
MB gain some reprieve in that Sadat gradually eased the restrictions on
the movement (but retained the ban on it) and tried to use it to contain
left-wing forces. After almost two decades of dealing with state
repression, the MB had been overshadowed by more militant groups such as
Tandheem al-Jihad and Gamaa al-Islamiyah, which had risen to prominence
in the 1980s and 1990s. Close ties with Saudi Arabia, which sought to
contain Nasserism, also helped the organization maintain itself.
While never legalized, the MB spent the years after Sadat’s rise
trying to make use of the fact that the regime tolerated the movement to
rebuild itself. Its historical legacy helped the MB maintain its status
as the main Islamist movement, as well as its organizational structure
and civil society presence. Furthermore, the regime of Sadat’s
successor, Hosni Mubarak, was able to crush the jihadist groups by the
late 1990s, and this also helped the MB regain its stature.
The MB thus went through different phases during the monarchy and the
modern republic when it tried to balance its largely political
activities with limited experiments with militancy, and there were
several periods during which the state tried to suppress the MB. (The
first such period was in the late 1940s, the second phase in the
mid-1950s when the Nasser regime began to dismantle the MB and the third
took place in the mid-1960s during the Qutbist years.)
MB beyond Egypt
Shortly after its rise in Egypt, the MB spread to other parts of the
Arab world. The Syrian branch founded in the late 1930s to early 1940s
grew much more radical than its parent, wholeheartedly adopting armed
struggle — which sparked a major crackdown in 1982 by Syrian President
Hafez al Assad’s regime that killed tens of thousands. In sharp
contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan in the early 1940s very early
on established an accommodationist attitude with the Hashemite monarchy
and became a legal entity and founded a political party.
Until the Israeli capture of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967
war, the Palestinian and Jordanian branches constituted more or less a
singular entity. The Gaza-based branch was affiliated with the Egyptian
Muslim Brotherhood, which Israel used to weaken the Palestine Liberation
Organization (PLO). Those elements went on to form Hamas in 1987, which
has pursued its activities on a dual track — political pragmatism in
intra-Palestinian affairs and armed struggle against Israel. Hamas also
emerged in the West Bank though not on the same scale as in Gaza.
Similarly, in the Arabian Peninsula states, Iraq and North Africa,
there are legal opposition parties that do not call themselves MB but
are ideological descendants of the MB. The parent MB, by contrast, was
never legalized and has never formed a political party per se. While the
Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is the parent body and there is a lot of
coordination among the various chapters in different countries, each
branch is an independent entity, which has also allowed for a variety of
groups to evolve differently in keeping with the circumstances in the
Despite dabbling in militancy, Egypt’s MB always remained a pragmatic
organization. Egypt’s true militant Islamists in fact represent a
rejection of the MB’s pragmatism. Decades before al Qaeda came on the
scene with its transnational jihadism, Egypt was struggling with as many
as five different jihadist groups (born out of a rejection of the MB
approach) fighting Cairo. Two of them became very prominent: Tandheem
al-Jihad, which was behind Sadat’s assassination, and Gamaa
al-Islamiyah, which led a violent insurgency in the 1990s responsible
for the killings of foreign tourists. The jihadist movement within the
country ultimately was contained, with both Tandheem al-Jihad and Gamaa
al-Islamiyah renouncing violence though smaller elements from both
groups joined up with al Qaeda-led transnational jihadist movement.
Global perceptions of the MB and of political Islamists have not
distinguished between pragmatist and militant Islamists, especially
after the 9/11 attack and rising fears over Hamas and Hezbollah’s
successes. Instead, the MB often has been lumped in with the most
radical of the radicals in Western eyes. Very little attention has been
paid to the majority of Islamists who are not jihadists and instead are
political forces. In fact, even Hamas and Hezbollah are more political
groups than simply militants.
There is a growing lobby within the United States and Europe, among
academics and members of think tanks, that has sought to draw the
distinction between pragmatists and radicals. For more than a decade,
this lobby has pushed for seeking out moderates in the MB and other
Islamist forces in the Arab and Muslim world to better manage radicalism
and the changes that will come from aging regimes crumbling.
Because Egypt has never had free and fair elections, the MB’s
popularity and its commitment to democracy both remain untested. In
Egypt’s 2005 election, which was less rigged than any previous Egyptian
vote, given the Bush administration’s push for greater democratization
in the Middle East, MB members running as independents managed to
increase their share of the legislature fivefold. It won 88 seats,
making it the biggest opposition bloc in parliament.
But the MB is internally divided. It faces a generational struggle,
with an old guard trying to prevent its ideals from being diluted while a
younger generation (the 35-55 age bracket) looks to Turkey’s Justice
and Development Party (AKP) as a role model.
The MB also lacks a monopoly over religious discourse in Egypt. A
great many religious conservatives do not support the MB. Egypt also has
a significant apolitical Salafist trend. Most of the very large class
of theologians centered around Al-Azhar University has not come out in
support of the MB or any other Islamist group. There are also Islamist
forces both more pragmatic and more militant than the MB. For example,
Hizb al-Wasat, which has not gotten a license to operate as an official
opposition party, is a small offshoot of the MB that is much more
pragmatic than the parent entity. What remains of Tandheem al-Jihad and
Gamaa al-Islamiyah, which renounced violence and condemned al Qaeda, are
examples of radical Islamist groups. And small jihadist cells inspired
by or linked to al Qaeda also complicate this picture.
Taken together, the MB remains an untested political force that faces
infighting and competitors for the Islamist mantel and a large secular
population. Given these challenges to the MB, confrontation with the
West is by no means a given even if the MB emerged as a major force in a
The MB is also well aware of the opposition it faces within Egypt,
the region and the West. The crumbling of the Mubarak regime and perhaps
the order that damaged the MB for decades is a historic opportunity for
the movement, which it does not wish to squander. Therefore it is going
to handle this opportunity very carefully and avoid radical moves. The
MB is also not designed to lead a revolution; rather, its internal setup
is such that it will gradually seek a democratic order.
The United States in recent years has had considerable experience in
dealing with Islamist forces with Turkey, under the AKP, being the most
prominent example. Likewise in Iraq, Washington has dealt with Islamists
both Sunni (Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashmi for many years was a
prominent figure in the Iraqi chapter of the MB called the Iraqi Islamic
Party) and Shiite (Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Islamic Supreme
Council of Iraq leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, Muqtada al-Sadr, etc.) as
part of the effort to forge the post-Baathist republic.
That said, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt is viewed as a very opaque
organization, which increases U.S. and Israeli trepidations. Neither of
these powers are willing to place their national security interests on
the assumption that the Muslim Brotherhood would remain a benign force
(as it appears to be) in the event that it came into power. Concerns
also exist about potential fissures within the organization that may
steer the movement into a radical direction, especially when it comes to
foreign policy issues such as the alliance with the United States and
the peace treaty with Israel.
The possible looming collapse of the 60-year Egyptian order presents a
historic opportunity for the MB to position itself. Even though the
movement has remained pragmatic for much of its history and seeks to
achieve its goals via constitutional and electoral means and has opted
for peaceful civil obedience and working with the military as a way out
of the current impasse, its commitment to democratic politics is
something that remains to be seen. More important, it is expected to
push for a foreign policy more independent from Washington and a tougher
attitude toward Israel.
At this stage, however, it is not clear if the MB will necessarily
come to power. If it does, then it will likely be circumscribed by other
political forces and the military. There are also structural hurdles in
the path of the MB taking power. First, the ban on the movement would
have to be lifted. Second, the Constitution would have to be amended to
allow for religious parties to exist for the MB to participate as a
movement. Alternatively, it could form a political party along the lines
of its Jordanian counterpart. Being part of a future coalition
government could allow the United States to manage its rise. Either way,
the MB — an enormously patient organization — senses its time finally
may have come.
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