What is the Muslim Brotherhood?


What is the Muslim Brotherhood?

Mubaraz Ahmed

08 Sep 2015

The rise and fall of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has seen it go from the presidential palace to having most of its leadership in prison. Mubaraz Ahmed looks at the group's origins, aims, and whether it will re-emerge.

The Muslim Brotherhood is one of the world's oldest and largest Islamist organisations. The group, known in Arabic as al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun, was founded in 1928 in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna with the intention of spreading Islamic morals and doing charity work in the face of what he saw was the decay of modern society. The group was founded while Egypt was under British rule, subsequently, liberation from colonial governance became a major objective for al-Banna and the Brotherhood.

The Muslims Brotherhood has branches in a number of countries across the Middle East, North Africa, and East Africa. Even in the West the group has a following, with offices in the US and the UK. Even though the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is seen as the central body of the organisation, other affiliate groups are often considerably more traditional.

Basing its ideological framework on the Quran, the Brotherhood sought to promote a return to Islamic values in the face of an increasingly secular Egypt. The group is based on two key pillars: the use of the Sharia as the foundation for governing state and social affairs, and the unification of Islamic, predominantly Arab, nations and liberation from foreign imperialism. Along with the group's push for the promotion of Islamic law, values, and morals, the Muslim Brotherhood has been actively engaged in social welfare programmes and political activism.

Sharia as the basis of legislation is a key objective for the group.

Not long after the inception of the Brotherhood as a religious organisation, the group ventured into the political realm to oppose British colonial rule in Egypt and to stem Western influences in the country. The official stance of the organisation does not permit the use of violence to achieve its goals, however, some offshoots of the Brotherhood have been linked to attacks in the past. As resistance against the British intensified, armed brigades belonging to the Brotherhood emerged.

The 1948 assassination of Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmad Fahmi al-Nuqrashi was believed to have been carried out by an armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. This marked a shift in the Brotherhood's approach to achieving its Islamic revolution, departing from gradualism and education to take on a more violent approach. Al-Banna himself was assassinated in 1949, possibly at the behest of the government. Following the assassination of al-Nuqrashi, the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed and went underground. Decades of oppression followed, with subsequent regimes continuing to pursue policies that kept the Brotherhood out of the picture. Many members were imprisoned, while others fled the country.

A prominent and influential member of the Brotherhood after al-Banna's death was Sayyid Qutb, who joined the group in 1950 after his return from studying in America. In his writings he expressed his disdain for jazz music, American sports, and the behaviour of American women. His motivation for joining the Brotherhood is believed to be the perception that the oppressive Egyptian regime was standing in the way of the establishment of an Islamic state, rather than an attempt to address the perceived moral corruption that he witnessed during his time in the US. He held a number of roles in the organisation, including editor-in-chief of the Brotherhood's weekly magazine, head of the group's propaganda wing, and later on the Guidance Bureau, the group's governing body.

Along with other members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb was arrested and jailed over a plot to assassinate President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954. While in prison he wrote Milestones, a book that would become the theological and intellectual foundation of a number of Sunni jihadi groups including al-Qaeda and Hamas. Qutb's work is often cited by Islamists to declare rulers who do not enforce the Sharia to be apostates, and thus legitimate targets for a violent jihad. Qutb was executed in 1966 under the rule of Nasser, but he continues to have a significant impact on the Muslim Brotherhood and many other groups today.

In the 1970s, under Anwar Sadat's presidency, the Muslim Brotherhood was given more freedom as the government sought to counter the rising influence of pro-Nasser leftist groups. Part of this relaxing of attitudes included the release of many Brotherhood members from prison, although the group was still outlawed. One of the key demands of the Brotherhood at the time was the application of the Sharia, and after a lengthy review into Egyptian law, the constitution was amended to place the Sharia as the primary source of legislation. Also helping to reinvigorate the group were the new, young members joining its ranks. Universities and colleges proved to be great recruiting grounds, and the new members pushed the Brotherhood towards greater political activism. The Muslim Brotherhood was also allowed to publish its monthly newspaper 'al-Dawa' (the invitation) during this period. Though banned as an organisation and still under restrictions, this publication became its mouthpiece, allowing it to express opinions and attract recruits. Opposition to the Sadat regime grew in later years, and measures against the Brotherhood were tightened. Nevertheless after Sadat's assassination by Islamist militants in 1981, there was again an opening for the group.

A renewed crackdown in the early 1990s amidst a low-level Islamist insurgency coincided with some internal struggles for the group. The inner circle of the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau was predominantly made up of the elder statesmen of the group, who clashed with younger generations of Brotherhood members who felt the organisation needed fundamental change. They called for greater political cooperation with prevalent trends, openness in the internal discussions of the group, and the adopting of a more liberal understanding of Islam.

Rising political participation further grew the Brotherhood's influence and the group surprised observers in the 2005 elections by winning 20 per cent of the seats in Egypt's parliamentary elections via 'independent' candidates running under the slogan 'Islam is the Solution'. It was not until after the 2011 revolution that the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood was lifted.

The Brotherhood played a relatively subdued role in the 2011 uprising.

Despite its extensive networks and resources, the Brotherhood played a relatively subdued role in the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak. The official stance of the group was to hold back from engagement in demonstrations, endorsing only the mass demonstration on 28 January 2011. The group took its place under the broader opposition including secular figures such as Mohammed El-Baradei. Many demonstrators and international observers were concerned that the Muslim Brotherhood would seek to dominate the post-Mubarak political landscape, but at the time the group sought to allay these fears, even as it won the plurality of seats in the November 2011 parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, despite earlier promises not to run a presidential candidate, in June 2012, Guidance Council member Mohammed Morsi was elected as President of Egypt. While his victory came under the banner of the supposedly independent Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the party was widely acknowledged as the political extension of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the wake of the Muslim Brotherhood's coming to power, it was accused, despite its obvious success at the polls, of being ideologically antithetical to democracy. In response, the Brotherhood accused its critics of failing to respect the result of a democratic process. The Muslim Brotherhood's participation in the democratic process was viewed by its opponents as hollow and opportunistic, while its failure to change its ideology and leadership model highlighted its democratic inconsistencies.

Undoubtedly the challenge faced by Morsi and the Brotherhood when they came to power was enormous. They had to maintain a balance between the Brotherhood's core religious identity and implementing the type of democracy that the Egyptian masses had demanded, while also addressing the social and economic mess that they had inherited.

As time wore on, popular perception of the failure of the Brotherhood to meet that challenge grew. There was a perception among those who had not voted for the Muslim Brotherhood, some 48% of the population, that it posed a threat to the civil state, that it was plotting to introduce religious rule, and that it had hijacked the revolution started by others. Others viewed Morsi's brief tenure as president to be focused on consolidation of political control rather than addressing the deep economic and political problems that Egypt was facing. As a result, the Muslim Brotherhood became the target of vehement opposition from elements of Egyptian society ranging from liberals to Mubarak-era officials, and popular unrest in June 2013 led to Morsi's removal in a coup.

Morsi's successor, Field Marshal (later President) Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government pursued a major crackdown against the Brotherhood. Hundreds of the group's supporters were killed in August 2013 when security forces stormed two protest camps in Cairo that were demanding Morsi's reinstatement. In September 2013, the group was declared a terrorist organisation, resulting in a blanket ban on activities and its funds being seized. Thousands have been imprisoned and scores sentenced to death, including Morsi and the group's General Guide Mohammed Badie, as well as many other members of its hierarchy.

Many feared the Brotherhood was plotting to hijack the revolution.

Having held a number of administrative positions in the organisation, Mohammed Badie became the leader of the Brotherhood in 2010. As the General Guide or Murshid of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, exercised control over the domestic affairs of the group, but had little impact on its international affiliates. In addition to being responsible for the group's Guidance Council, Badie also oversaw the Freedom and Justice Party during its brief existence. As the protests against the Morsi gained momentum, Badie courted controversy by saying " overthrowing Morsi was more criminal than carrying an axe and demolishing the Kaaba in Mecca."

In addition to the external troubles facing the Brotherhood, internal power struggles are also taking their toll. The organisation is unrecognisable compared to the unbeatable Brotherhood of 2011 and 2012, and there are divisions over the proper course of action for the group to take. Despite the group's commitment to non-violent means of exerting pressure, having incurred heavy losses and been driven to the brink of extermination, some members of the Brotherhood believe that there is no viable alternative to taking up arms against the Sisi regime. This has led to more widespread pressure on the Brotherhood to take up sporadic, but targeted, acts of violence aimed at institutions that are considered unpopular.

The Muslim Brotherhood stands at a crossroad, with an internal struggle between the young and the old, balancing the group's historic ideology with the existential dangers it faces today. Many of the old guard presume the status quo of the Brotherhood must remain; orders from the top should be acted upon by those at the bottom. But the fervour, experiences, and recent rise to prominence of the younger generations of Brotherhood members means that they are now taking the lead, exercising authority, and expressing their own understanding of how the organisation should operate.

These divisions present the possibility of disenfranchised youth members breaking away from the Brotherhood and joining more militant Islamist groups. Jabhat al-Nusra's leader has already called on members of the Brotherhood to abandon its ways and take up arms. Frustration among the younger Brotherhood members will likely increase if centralised, authoritarian dictates continue.

ISIS in Egypt threatens to draw from the Brotherhood's ranks.

ISIS' Egypt-based affiliate, Sinai Province, previously known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM), also threatens to draw from the Muslim Brotherhood's ranks. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis disagrees with the Muslim Brotherhood and even considers ex-President Mohammed Morsi an apostate, criticising the group's involvement in politics and labelling its engagement with democracy as blasphemous. However, following the crackdown on the Brotherhood, ABM called on Egyptians to exact revenge for the "violation of your dignity." ABM has used the crackdown on the group to justify its own violent activities as being in defence of oppressed Muslims. The call to arms combined with an attack on the Brotherhood's religious credentials demonstrates the challenge facing the group not only from the government but also from more extremist elements outside.

Nevertheless, while the Muslim Brotherhood is definitely down, it is not yet defeated. While Saudi Arabia has actively pursued policies against the group in Egypt in the past, there have been attempts to improve relations between the two. The shift in positions may not be a long-term strategy, but with Saudi Arabia feeling vulnerable from growing Iranian influence in the Middle East and a Muslim Brotherhood that has been effectively incapacitated, the easing of relations is likely to benefit both sides. King Salman has altered the focus from the Muslim Brotherhood as an Islamist enemy to being party of a broader coalition of Sunni allies that are needed to stem the perceived threat of Iran.

Meanwhile, popular Islamist sentiment will not wither away in Egypt. Support for the Muslim Brotherhood across the country remains, but the loss of members, funds, and harsh government sanctions have undermined its operations. Being driven underground is not a new phenomenon for the Muslim Brotherhood. The current crackdown, like previous ones, may enable it to regroup, reorganise, and redefine exactly what its objectives are.


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