The Muslim Brotherhood After Mubarak

A well-researched paper covering the history and future of the Muslim Brotherhood from Carrie Rosefsky Wickham.

Foreign Affairs

The Muslim Brotherhood After Mubarak
By Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, Associate Professor of Political Science at Emory University.

With the end of the Mubarak era looming on the horizon, speculation has turned to whether the Muslim Brotherhood will dominate the new Egyptian political landscape. As the largest, most popular, and most effective opposition group in Egypt, it will undoubtedly seek a role in creating a new government, but the consequences of this are uncertain. Those who emphasize the risk of “Islamic tyranny” aptly note that the Muslim Brotherhood originated as an anti-system group dedicated to the establishment of sharia rule; committed acts of violence against its opponents in the pre-1952 era; and continues to use anti-Western, anti-Zionist, and anti-Semitic rhetoric. But portraying the Brotherhood as eager and able to seize power and impose its version of sharia on an unwilling citizenry is a caricature that exaggerates certain features of the Brotherhood while ignoring others, and underestimates the extent to which the group has changed over time.

Founded by Hasan al-Banna in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has had the longest continuous existence of any contemporary Islamist group. It was initially established not as a political party but as a da’wa (religious outreach) association that aimed to cultivate pious and committed Muslims through preaching, social services, and spreading religious commitment and integrity by example. The group saw its understanding of Islam as the only “true” one and condemned partisanship as a source of national weakness. It called on Egyptians to unite to confront the forces of Zionism and imperialism and pursue economic development and social justice.

The Free Officers’ Movement, which seized power in Egypt in 1952, was influenced by the Brotherhood and shared many of its concerns. But the new regime headed by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser did not support the Brotherhood’s call for sharia rule and viewed the group as a potential rival. After a member of the Brotherhood attempted to assassinate Nasser in 1954, Nasser had the pretext he needed to try to crush the organization — interning thousands of its members in desert concentration camps and forcing others into exile or underground.

The leaders of the Brotherhood learned very different lessons from their experience during the Nasser years. Some, like the Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb, became radicalized and concluded that the only way to confront the vast coercive powers of the modern state was through jihad. Hasan al-Hudaybi, who succeeded Banna as the Brotherhood’s General Guide, or leader, advocated moving toward greater judiciousness and caution. Umar Tilmisani, who succeeded Hudaybi in 1972, renounced violence as a domestic strategy altogether when then President Anwar el-Sadat allowed the group to join the political fold.

Beginning in 1984, the Brotherhood started running candidates in elections for the boards of Egypt’s professional syndicates and for seats in parliament — first as junior partners to legal parties and later, when electoral laws changed, as independents. Some of the group’s leaders opposed participation, fearing that the Brotherhood would be forced to compromise its principles. But Tilmisani and others justified political participation as an extension of the Brotherhood’s historic mission and assured critics that it would not detract from the Brotherhood’s preaching and social services.

Although the Brotherhood entered the political system in order to change it, it ended up being changed by the system. Leaders who were elected to professional syndicates engaged in sustained dialogue and cooperation with members of other political movements, including secular Arab nationalists. Through such interactions, Islamists and Arabists found common ground in the call for an expansion of public freedoms, democracy, and respect for human rights and the rule of law, all of which, they admitted, their movements had neglected in the past.

By the early 1990s, many within the Brotherhood were demanding internal reform. Some pushed for revising the Brotherhood’s ideology, including its positions on party pluralism and women’s rights. Others criticized the old guard’s monopoly of power within the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, demanding greater transparency, accountability, and stricter conformity with the internal by-laws governing the selection of leaders and the formation of policy.

In 1996, increasingly frustrated with the old guard’s inflexible leadership, some prominent members of the “reformist” wing broke from the Brotherhood and sought a government license to form a new political party, Hizb al-Wasat (Center Party). Wasat leaders who used to be in the Brotherhood, along with a few reformers who remained in its fold, helped launch the cross-partisan Movement for Change, known by its slogan, Kefaya (Enough) between 2004 and 2005. They worked with secular democracy activists on such projects as creating a civic charter and a constitution, preparing for the time when a new democratic government came to power. During the past week of protests, members of these cross-partisan groups were able to quickly reactivate their networks to help form a united opposition front. These members will likely play a key role in drafting Egypt’s new constitution.

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