by Jeffry R. Halverson
There are a lot of questions and speculation about the Ikhwan al-Muslimun (The Muslim Brotherhood, or MB) and their role in the future of Egypt. The coverage of the organization in the U.S. media has been better than expected. However, I am still struck by some of the more ominous rhetoric emanating from select corners. This rhetoric seems to focus on two main points of concern: 1) MB ties to violence, and 2) the implementation of “undemocratic” Islamic law (sharia). In the following analysis, I discuss why I think these points of concern are flawed or unwarranted when given some broader perspective.
As many know by now, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) was established in Egypt, specifically the town of Ismailia, in 1928, during British colonial rule (1882-1952). It’s founder and Supreme Guide (Murshid) was a primary school teacher named Hasan al-Banna (d. 1949). The history of the MB is long, complex, and deeply intertwined with modern Egyptian history. I will not recount that long story here, although I have discussed it in some detail in my book Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam, as well as the “Muslim Brotherhood” entry I wrote for a recently published encyclopedia, Religion and Violence. In essence, the MB is a conservative (albeit reformist) and hierarchical Sunni Muslim social movement that envisions Islam as a complete system of life and sees the differentiation of religion from the state as a foreign (and “unIslamic”) innovation. Their primary aspiration is the implementation or alignment of the state’s law with sharia (or an interpretation thereof).
Analysts warning about the threat the MB poses typically condense time, eighty years of history, to formulate attitudes about the contemporary Muslim Brothers. This is a serious error. To help explain the historical evolution (or variations) of the MB, I think it is helpful to think of the MB in terms of five main periods. I have broken down those five periods below, along with woefully abbreviated summaries relating the MB’s orientation and some important events in each period:
1. Anti-Colonial Social Activism: Founded in 1928, Neo-Sufi (reformist) oriented and centered on the person of Hasan al-Banna as Murshid; devoted to missionary (or counter-missionary) activities. The MB registers as a charitable organization providing social services, including education. The MB enjoys rapid popular growth and increased activity in Egyptian politics with outspoken opposition to British rule.
2. Anti-Colonial Political Engagement: WWII heightens anti-British sentiment and there is increased disorder in Egypt. All major political factions create militia wings. By 1943, MB leadership bows to younger zealous members and establishes its militia, al-Nizam al-Khass (Special Order). At the same time, the British crack down on Egyptian dissent (as they did in other colonies, such as India). By end of WWII, MB pursues greater political role and runs in parliamentary elections, but British intervene and all MB candidates lose despite support. When partition occurs in the British Mandate of Palestine, members of the MB’s militia serves in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war under the authority of the Arab League. Defeat of the nationalist Arab forces by Israel results in increased discontent and opposition to the British and the Egyptian monarchy in Egypt, resulting in further crackdowns and orders to dissolve the MB. Mass arrests follow and a 23 year-old MB member assassinates Egypt’s Prime Minister in 1948. A failed bomb plot follows in January 1949. Shortly thereafter, MB Murshid Hasan al-Banna is assassinated in the streets of Cairo by Egyptian secret services. MB is forced underground, but by now regional branches have emerged in most other Arab countries.
3. Repression under Nasser: Egyptian courts rule that coup allegations against MB are “without foundation” and the MB is legally reconstituted. The second Murshid, Hasan al-Hudaybi is selected to lead the MB. He repudiates violence and orders the Special Order militia officially disbanded. At this time, demonstrations for independence from Britain are nationwide. That same year, Egyptian writer and educator, Sayyid Qutb, returns from study abroad in the U.S.A. and joins the MB. In January 1952, a military coup takes place by “The Free Officers.” It overthrows the monarchy and asserts Egyptian independence from Britain. The Officers have ties to the MB, but quickly grow apart and establish a one-party autocratic Pan-Arab socialist regime (e.g. Nasserism). Gamal Abdel-Nasser emerges as President of Egypt. Relations between MB and the Officers deteriorate and the MB is officially dissolved. A member of the MB allegedly tries to assassinate Nasser. It serves as pretext for the regime to destroy the MB. Hudaybi, Qutb, and hundreds of others, are imprisoned and MB headquarters is burned. Six MB leaders are executed. Twenty-one are murdered in their prison cells in 1957. In response, Qutb writes increasingly extremist texts, such as Milestones (1965), that are smuggled out and published. Qutb is later executed for his writings in 1966. The following year, Nasser’s army is crushed by Israel in the Six-Day War and his revolutionary movement is discredited. Nasser dies in 1970.
4. Neo-Muslim Brotherhood of Tilmisani: Nasser is succeeded by centrist Anwar Sadat who brands himself as “the Believing President” and works against Leftist factions in Egypt. He later courts the USA and the MB to counter Leftist and Soviet influence. MB leader (Murshid) Hudaybi survives Nasser’s prisons but dies in 1973. He is succeeded by early member, Umar al-Tilmisani, as the third Murshid. After Nasser’s destruction, Tilmisani rebuilds the MB and reasserts its rejection of violence, including the extremist writings of Sayyid Qutb. Tilmisani asserts that Sayyid Qutb represented no one but himself. Some academics describe Tilmisani’s rebuilt MB as the “Neo-Muslim Brotherhood.” Tilmisani brings greater participation in party-politics and creates alliances to run in parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, tensions exist between MB and Sadat, and Tilmisani is imprisoned for his criticism of the regime, along with many others. Extremist Islamists, especially the Gamaat Islamiyyah and Tanzim al-Jihad, reject the MB’s strategies and call for revolutionary violence, and grow among the youth on university campuses. Extremists of al-Jihad infiltrate army and assassinate Sadat on Oct. 6 1981. Sadat is succeeded by his Vice-President, Hosni Mubarak, and relations between the regime and MB remain tense but sporadically tolerant – the MB remains officially outlawed.
5. Opposition and Reform: After Tilmisani’s death in 1986 (the first Murshid permitted to have a public funeral), the MB continues to be led by the “old guard,” privileging seniority over skill or charisma. In 2004, a member of the successor generation, Muhammad Mahdi Akef (b. 1928), is selected as Murshid, more commonly referred to as “Chairman” now. The MB acts as a leading opposition movement to Mubarak’s autocratic regime and it is critical of its relationship with the USA and Israel. Frequently the MB uses the language of human rights and cooperates with other non-Islamist opposition groups. In 2005, the MB fields a list of candidates as independents in parliamentary elections and wins 88 seats, despite voting irregularities, making it second only to Mubarak’s NDP (330 seats). However, failed promises of reform and repeated government crackdowns lead to a MB boycott of the 2010 elections, and only 1 seat is won. The NDP wins 420 seats. In January 2010, Akef stepped down (the first time a Murshid has done so) as Chairman of the MB. He is replaced by Dr. Mohammed Badie (b. 1943), a professor and specialist in veterinary medicine, as the eighth Murshid.
Given the historical complexities, it is an error to refer to an act of violence in the 1940s or the existence of the “Special Order,” dating from period #2, when speaking of the post-Nasser “Neo-Muslim Brotherhood” and the subsequent period. It is an error to take Sayyid Qutb’s extremist prison treatises as representative of the MB organization. It is also an error to conflate the Egyptian MB with all the various MB branches that sprung up in other Arab countries, most of which broke official ties to the Egyptian “parent organization” and exist completely independent of the MB. For instance, Hamas originated within a branch of the MB in the Gaza Strip as a religious alternative to Arafat’s secular-nationalist PLO, but it developed into a movement unto itself and it does not answer to Dr. Badie. Admittedly, the MB has demonstrated great hesitation when it comes to criticizing Hamas and makes apologies for acts of terror as “legitimate resistance” to Israeli occupation. Then again, one would also find many outside of the MB who demonstrate the exact same tendencies in the Arab world.
Critics of the MB seem to isolate negative or inflammatory comments by the organization’s current membership in order to collectively indict the Muslim Brothers. However, I find this no more persuasive than taking sound bites or statements from certain members of the Democratic and Republican parties and attributing a controversial view to all Democrats or Republicans. As NY Times columnist Scott Shane recently noted: “As the Roman Catholic Church encompasses leftist liberation theology and conservative anti-abortion advocacy, so the Brotherhood includes both practical reformers and firebrand ideologues.” In other cases, a text or statement dating from another period is cited as something reflective of the “true nature” of the MB, such as one of their traditional slogans (e.g. “The Qur’an is our constitution”). But this is equally unpersuasive, and has little relevance to the contemporary Muslim Brothers.
A recent column by Barry Rubin in the Israeli centrist-right English-language daily, The Jerusalem Post, provocatively entitled “Egypt’s Crisis Worst Disaster Since Iran’s Revolution,” warns that an anti-Israel and anti-American Islamist government allied with Iran may emerge in Egypt if Mubarak falls and the MB rises. Rubin cites “anti-Israel” and “anti-Semitic” comments made by MB members, such as parliamentarian Abdel Wahhab al-Messiri. But the fact is that the anti-Israel (or anti-Zionist) views that many in the West see as anti-Semitic are certainly not exclusive to certain MB members. These unfortunate views are widespread throughout the Arab world and Egyptian society, including secular-nationalists and communists. The “cold peace” preserved by Mubarak and the ruling NDP is not “pro-Israeli.” In fact, as of February 3, the NDP claimed that “pro-opposition” foreign journalists are actually “Israeli agents” (resulting in increased violence against journalists). The NDP takes a pragmatic stance designed to avert further war and facilitate economic prosperity backed by conditional U.S. aid that is dependent on the continuity of that peace, especially for the NDP elite. There will be no “pro-Israeli” government in Egypt, no matter who emerges in control. And in terms of U.S. relations, the MB is far less hostile to America, especially if America’s backing for Mubarak ends, and, most especially, if an Israeli-Palestinian peace were ever successful. Their issues with the U.S. generally stem from widely held political grievances, not from a cosmic conception of “fighting the infidels” as leaders of extremists like al-Qaeda see it. It is noteworthy to mention that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian ideologue of al-Qaeda (previously of Tanzim al-Jihad), has always been fiercely critical of the Muslim Brotherhood. Likewise, the revolutionary Twelver Shi’ite leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini (d. 1989), once denounced Tilmisani and the MB as “CIA agents.”
Regarding the question of another disastrous Arab-Israeli war, the MB is no more inclined to another war than the NDP or the Nasserists or any other. After all, it was the secular Pan-Arab nationalist-socialists (i.e. Nasserists) that led Egypt into the conflicts of 1956 and 1967. It was the pro-American centrist, Anwar Sadat, who went to war in 1973. The MB is no more likely to begin a new war because of its Islamist politics than the socialists or nationalists. I do not see a MB government going to war with a nuclear-armed Israel anymore than I do Saudi Arabia, which has never signed a peace treaty with Israel. However, Israel would most certainly find itself without the same negotiating and strategic partner it has enjoyed under Mubarak. That period is simply over. As an example of the sort of relationship that might emerge with increased MB participation in Egypt’s government, I suggest one look to Turkish-Israeli relations under “Islamist” Erdogan and the AK Parti; however, the Arab nationalist context will act as a significant modifier absent from the Turkish context. Indeed, the MB has always had a strong Arab nationalist element – which again is indicative of its history and its anti-colonial origins.
If the prospects of an Egypt under sharia concerns Americans most, we should know that the Egyptian constitution (largely suspended by Mubarak’s ‘emergency measures’ for three decades) was amended by Anwar Sadat to state that sharia is the principal source of law for Egypt (it previously stated “a principal source”). Family law, such as marriage and divorce, are already governed by sharia in Egypt (yes, restricted polygamy is legal). Furthermore, if horrific images of the hands of thieves coming off, “heretics” being imprisoned and condemned to death, or adulterers being stoned, concerns us, then why is Saudi Arabia a close partner of the U.S.? The most rigid and disturbing interpretations of sharia have been implemented in Saudi Arabia throughout the Wahhabite kingdom’s history. The American government and U.S. businesses continue a close relationship to the kingdom unabated. Many popular American brands, such as Apple, are owned in part by members of the ruling family. It seems hypocritical to condemn the MB on the grounds of sharia. Additionally, unlike the Saudi-backed Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the MB is not a group of uneducated tribesmen; they are medical doctors, lawyers, businessmen, professors and professionals, who are hardly averse to the modern world and they articulate a far more sophisticated and rich understanding of Sunni Islam than the Saudis or their “clients” abroad.
Overall, if the Muslim Brotherhood were to assume a leading role in the government of a post-Mubarak Egypt, I do not think it would result in a new “enemy state” or Iranian-style theocracy. Indeed, the Egyptian context is fundamentally different than the Iranian – perhaps that debate deserves a separate blog post. While concerns that the MB might curb democratic channels once in power are warranted, their base of support is not large enough to place them in such a position, nor has the current leadership demonstrated any such ambitions. The MB will act as a conservative religious party within a coalition government, not unlike religious conservatives in the U.S. Congress.