The Muslim Brotherhood (known in Arabic as al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen) is Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamist organization, and has spawned a variety of Sunni Islamist groups throughout the Arab world. Long banned from politics, the group renounced its aim of violent overthrow of the Egyptian government in the 1970s while earning popular support by providing social services and growing its organization underground. After the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm took over from the deeply unpopular Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, winning parliamentary elections and electing Mohammed Morsi, considered a conservative pragmatist, to the presidency.
Many analysts thought the Brotherhood’s political fortune to be a test of whether they remained ideologically committed to their founders’ Islamist tenets or would be moderated by the exigencies of governing. However, Morsi’s tenure, which ended abruptly in July 2013 after a military intervention, was tarnished by widespread frustration about economic mismanagement, poor governance, and authoritarian tendencies. Experts continue to speculate on the future role of the Brotherhood in Egyptian political life.
A History of Violence
Founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood is widely considered the world’s most influential Islamist organization, 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 Center. The Brotherhood’s original mission was to Islamize society through the promotion of Islamic law, values, and morals. A revivalist movement from its early days, it has combined religion, social welfare, and political activism in its work.
The Brotherhood earned legitimacy among its core constituency, the lower middle class, as the most effective organized resistance against British domination (1882-1952), New Yorker staff writer Lawrence Wright notes. Banna "rejected the Western model of secular, democratic government, which contradicted his notion of universal Islamic rule."
Cooperation between the Free Officers, the military junta led by Gamal Abdel Nasser that ousted the British-sponsored Egyptian monarchy, and the Brotherhood turned to conflict once King Farouk abdicated in 1952. The military, promoting socialism and secularism, envisioned Egypt at the helm of a pan-Arab movement, while the Brotherhood rejected egalitarianism and nationalism as un-Islamic and called for sharia to regulate all aspects of life. These tensions culminated in an attempt on Nasser’s life. As Nasser’s popularity soared, thousands of suspected Brothers, including Sayyid Qutb, Banna’s successor, were imprisoned. Banned by Nasser from participating in government, the Brotherhood gradually became ubiquitous in society, building allegiance as a populist alternative to the Egyptian state, which provided neither prosperity nor welfare and suffered repeated military defeats by Israel.
Qutb, whose worldview was largely formed while studying in the United States, developed his doctrine of jihad, or armed struggle, against the regime in Egypt and beyond while writing from prison. Qutb’s work, particularly his 1964 manifesto Milestones, has provided the intellectual and theological underpinnings for numerous militant Sunni Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda and Hamas. Extremist leaders often channel Qutb, who was hanged in 1966, to argue that governments not ruled by sharia are apostate, and therefore legitimate targets of jihad.
The Brotherhood has spawned branches across the globe. But while these organizations bear the Brotherhood name, their connections to the founding group vary. Ed Husain, a senior fellow at CFR, cautions against making the Muslim Brotherhood "responsible for the actions of all of its intellectual offspring."
Toward Pragmatic Politics
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood runs numerous institutions, including hospitals, schools, banks, businesses, foundations, day care centers, thrift shops, social clubs, and facilities for the disabled. The group renounced violence at the insistence of Anwar al-Sadat, Nasser’s successor, who allowed the Brotherhood to preach and to advocate in exchange for its support against his political rivals, Nasser loyalists and leftists. Nasser paid lip service to sharia and freed imprisoned Islamists, little realizing he was endangering himself. (Members of al-Jihad, who resented Sadat’s nominal commitment to the principles of sharia, as well as the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, assassinated him in 1981. Al-Jihad, Wright notes, had objectives similar to those of the Brotherhood, but wanted to "wreck the state" rather than work within legitimate political channels to achieve them.)
The Brotherhood considered the Egyptian regime "stultifying, corrupt, and oppressive, but hardly on the level of foreign occupation," Nathan Brown of George Washington University wrote in 2010. He says the group reconciled its ongoing commitment to Qutb with its renunciation of violence by focusing on the concept of a "vanguard" (Qutb had studied Marx). In this conception, the group seeks to Islamize society "through a [political] elite" as much as it does "through mass work and engagement."
In the last three decades, the Brotherhood increased its advancement 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. Brotherhood-affiliated candidates first participated in local and parliamentary elections as independents in 1984. "Although the Brotherhood entered the political system in order to change it," writes Carrie Wickham of Emory University, "it ended up being changed by the system." She notes that interactions with politicians and members of civil society outside the Islamist camp have moderated some of the Brotherhood’s political positions. And while a reform-oriented wing broke from the Brotherhood in 1996 to form a new party, Hizb al-Wasat, there remains diverse opinion within the Brotherhood, with members varying in the orthodoxy of their interpretations of Islam and ideological versus pragmatic inclinations.
Political Challenges Since the Revolution
Following Mubarak’s resignation amid mass protests in February 2011, the Brotherhood emerged as a dominant political force in Egypt largely due to its credibility as the opposition, party discipline, and grassroots organization.
In parliamentary elections that lasted from November 2011 to February 2012, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) won nearly half the seats in the lower house and 90 percent of seats in the upper house. Following a first round of voting in May, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi won a narrow majority (51.7 percent) in a June runoff against Mubarak-era prime minister Ahmed Shafiq.
However, these electoral victories were marred by a number of power struggles with the judiciary and the military. In June 2012, the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the People’s Assembly, the lower house of parliament, on a technicality. The court also revoked a law that would have barred former regime officials from holding office, allowing Shafiq to contend against Morsi in the presidential election.
After taking the mantle from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in June 2012, Morsi began consolidating power. In August, the president issued a decree sending the military back to the barracks, a move welcomed by much of the officer corps, which was conscious of growing public resentment during its nearly one and a half years at Egypt’s helm. Yet with the parliament dissolved, Morsi was left with sole control of government, with both executive and legislative authority.
In late November 2012, as Morsi was lauded internationally for brokering a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, he declared himself, the Shura Council (Parliament’s upper house), and the constitutional assembly immune from judicial review. The decree prompted immediate backlash, including public demonstrations against what opponents called a power grab and the formation of the National Salvation Front (NSF), a secular opposition coalition. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, an NSF leader, said Morsi had made himself "a new pharaoh." Morsi’s supporters noted that the judiciary was filled with holdovers from the Mubarak regime eager to stymie the revolution’s goals. (Intense popular opposition led Morsi to annul the decree in December.)
At the center of this struggle has been the effort to rewrite the country’s constitution. Created before the lower house was disbanded, the constitutional assembly was dominated by Islamists : the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist al-Nour Party. Liberals and Christians withdrew from the assembly, citing concerns about the role of sharia as the basis of law, protections for women’s rights, and freedoms of speech and worship. (Many Salafists, too, took issue with the constitution, believing the affirmation of "principles of Islamic law"—as the Egyptian constitution had had since 1971—was weak and religious scholars should have veto power over legislation deemed contrary to Islamic law.) While establishing term limits, the constitution accorded broad powers to the president.
The constitution was approved in a nationwide referendum, with 63.8 percent voting in favor but low turnout recorded. Secular opposition leaders, Christians, and women’s groups were among those who protested the charter.
The standoff between Morsi and the judiciary continued when the Supreme Administrative Court overturned a presidential decree calling for April parliamentary elections, questioning the constitutionality of election law provisions.
Some experts, including scholar Robin Wright, criticize Morsi’s tactics as heavy-handed ; Wright refers to his style of governing as majoritarianism—"autocratic rule by the largest party." After Mubarak’s overthrow, the Muslim Brotherhood vowed not to pursue parliamentary majorities or the presidency, yet they came to dominate both—and pushed through a constitution critics argued was hastily written by a non-representative body. The perceived authoritarian trends came to a head in mid-June 2013 with the appointment of seventeen Brotherhood-affiliated governors, including a member of Gamaa Islamiya in Luxor, a town where the group killed dozens of tourists in 1997.
When the army ousted Morsi on July 3, 2013, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi suspended the new constitution, but notably said the document would be amended rather than abrogated. The Brotherhood wrote in provisions to get buy-in from major constituencies : the military, Islamic scholars of the al-Azhar seminary, and ultraconservative Salafis. Thus, the Brotherhood’s constitution seems poised to outlive its rule, although substantial alterations may yet come.
The Ballot or the Bullet ?
Following the 2011 revolution, the specter of the 1979 Iranian revolution loomed large for many in the West who have long feared an Islamist regime in Egypt. CFR’s Steven Cook notes that Mubarak used the organization 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." Israeli leaders too, feared a replay of 1979.
Despite Morsi’s sometimes inflammatory rhetoric, Israeli fears have not panned out. Morsi maintained the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, brokered a cease-fire and continued to mediate between Israel and Hamas [PDF], and cracked down on jihadis operating in the Sinai.
Establishing an Islamic state based on sharia was at the center of Qutb’s ideology, but analysts say the Brotherhood gained prominence not through its political agenda, but rather, by operating a "shadow state" that effectively provided social welfare—particularly education and health care—where the security state failed. Thus the goal of a neo-caliphate or modern Islamic state was largely ceded to more prosaic objectives. Indeed, by renouncing violence years ago, the Brotherhood has been denounced by al-Qaeda and other radical Islamists. CFR’s Husain writes, "Islamism in power has helped dilute anti-Western ideology."
The question of whether the act of governing has an inherently moderating effect, however, remains unclear. Citing "restrictive cultural policies," Wael Nawara, an activist and visiting fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, contends that "the Muslim Brotherhood’s assault on Egyptian identity, culture, and way of life," rather than poor governance and unresolved economic issues, was the "core cause of protests."
After winning power at the ballot box and losing it by force, many believe the Brotherhood is at a crossroads. Much seems to depend on if it will be allowed to participate in electoral politics, which the United States supports, and if so, whether they will continue to see politics as the best route to legitimacy and power.
In the immediate aftermath of Morsi’s removal, with Morsi and many Brotherhood officials detained and pro-Morsi protestors clashing with security forces, the Brotherhood announced it would "refuse to participate in any action with power usurpers" and called for an "intifada"—uprising—against those who would "steal their revolt with tanks and massacres."
Whatever the outcome, Morsi’s ouster will have consequences for Islamist parties throughout the Middle East, for whom the Egyptian Brotherhood was long the archetype. The episode has "instilled caution among some Islamists against pushing their agenda too hard, but it has also strengthened hard-liners long opposed to democracy," the Associated Press reports. The outcome of Egypt’s "experiment in reconciling political Islam with modern government" will have regional consequences, inspiring "renewed violence by Islamists who feel shortchanged by democracy and secularism," Husain writes, adding that "Arab secularists ignore this greater narrative at their peril."
George Washington University’s Brown believes that the Brotherhood’s strategy going forward will depend on how the organization diagnoses the Morsi presidency, which he calls "one of the most colossal failures in the Brotherhood’s history," in the coming weeks and months. The Brotherhood may exit politics altogether, returning to its traditional domains of religious outreach and social welfare ; approach politics with greater caution ; leave politics to the FJP ; or "play politics—but no longer by peaceful rules," writes Brown.