February 10, 2011
What the Brotherhood Is and How it Will Shape the Future
Carrie Rosefsky Wickham
CARRIE ROSEFSKY WICKHAM is 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.
Meanwhile, the Brotherhood itself has been stunted in comparison to its analogues in Morocco and Turkey because of its constant vulnerability to repression combined with the parochial mindset of its aging leaders. Nevertheless, important changes, representing a departure from the group’s anti-system past, have occurred. Over the last 30 years, Brotherhood leaders have become habituated to electoral competition and representation, developed new professional competencies and skills, and forged closer ties with Egyptian activists, researchers, journalists, and politicians outside the Islamist camp. Calls for self-critique and self-reform have opened heated debates on policy matters that were once left to the discretion of the General Guide and his close advisers. And although the Brotherhood was never a monolith, its leadership is more internally diverse today than ever before.
The factions defy easy categorization, but there seem to be three major groups. The first may be called the da’wa faction. It is ideologically conservative and strongly represented in the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau and local branch offices. Its main source of power is its control over bureaucratic operations and allocation of resources. Because it has also managed to control the socialization of new recruits, it has cultivated loyalty among the youth, particularly in rural areas. The second faction, who we might call pragmatic conservatives, seems to be the group’s mainstream wing. This group combines religious conservatism with a belief in the value of participation and engagement. Most of the Brotherhood’s members with legislative experience, including such long-time parliamentarians as Saad al-Katatni and Muhammad Mursi, fall into this category. The final faction is the group of reformers who chose to remain with the Brotherhood rather than breaking off. Advocating a progressive interpretation of Islam, this trend is weakly represented in the Guidance Bureau and does not have a large following among the Brotherhood’s rank and file. Yet ‘Abd al-Mun’em Abu Futuh, arguably the Brotherhood’s most important reformist figure, has become an important model and source of inspiration for a new generation of Islamist democracy activists — inside and outside the Muslim Brotherhood. Interestingly, Futuh first suggested that the Brotherhood throw its weight behind a secular reform candidate last February, prefiguring the Brotherhood’s support for Mohamed El Baradei, the opposition’s de facto leader, today.
Individuals affiliated with the reformist faction of the Brotherhood, whether still active in the group or not, appear to be the most involved in leading Egypt’s popular uprising. It is not surprising, for example, that the reformist blogger Mustafa Naggar is one of the chief spokesman for El Baradei’s National Coalition for Change. Still, the Brotherhood’s participation has been low profile. It did not officially mobilize until January 28, days after the protests began. And unlike in previous demonstrations, when members of the Brotherhood held up copies of the Koran and shouted slogans such as “Islam is the solution,” religious symbols have been conspicuously absent this time.
The Brotherhood knows from experience that the greater its role, the higher the risk of a violent crackdown — as indicated by the harsh wave of repression that followed its strong showing in the 2005 parliamentary elections. Its immediate priority is to ensure that President Hosni Mubarak steps down and that the era of corruption and dictatorship associated with his rule comes to an end. To achieve that, the Brotherhood, along with other opposition groups, is backing El Baradei. The Brotherhood also knows that a smooth transition to a democratic system will require an interim government palatable to the military and the West, so it has indicated that it would not seek positions in the new government itself. The Brotherhood is too savvy, too pragmatic, and too cautious to squander its hard-earned reputation among Egyptians as a responsible political actor or invite the risk of a military coup by attempting to seize power on its own.
Still, it is unclear whether the group will continue to exercise pragmatic self-restraint down the road or whether its more progressive leaders will prevail. Such reformers may be most welcome among the other opposition groups when they draft a new constitution and establish the framework for new elections, but they do not necessarily speak for the group’s senior leadership or the majority of its rank and file. It remains to be seen whether the Brotherhood as an organization — not only individual members — will accept a constitution that does not at least refer to sharia; respect the rights of all Egyptians to express their ideas and form parties; clarify its ambiguous positions on the rights of women and non-Muslims; develop concrete programs to address the nation’s toughest social and economic problems; and apply the same pragmatism it has shown in the domestic arena to issues of foreign policy, including relations with Israel and the West. Over time, other parties — including others with an Islamist orientation — may provide the Brotherhood with some healthy competition and an impetus to further reform itself.
The Brotherhood has demonstrated that it is capable of evolving over time, and the best way to strengthen its democratic commitments is to include it in the political process, making sure there are checks and balances in place to ensure that no group can monopolize state power and that all citizens are guaranteed certain freedoms under the law. In the foreign policy domain, the Brotherhood rails against “U.S. and Zionist domination,” demands the recognition of Palestinian rights, and may one day seek to revise the terms of Egypt’s relationship with Israel through constitutional channels. The Brotherhood will likely never be as supportive of U.S. and Israeli interests in the region as Mubarak was. Yet here too, the best way for the United States to minimize the risk associated with the likely increase in its power is to encourage and reward judiciousness and pragmatism. With a track record of nearly 30 years of responsible behavior (if not rhetoric) and a strong base of support, the Muslim Brotherhood has earned a place at the table in the post-Mubarak era. No democratic transition can succeed without it.