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Feb 3, 2011 | 06:00 GMT

Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood: A Special Report

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

With Egypt's nearly 60-year-old order seemingly collapsing, many are asking whether the world's single-largest Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), is on the verge of benefiting from demands for democracy in Egypt, the most pivotal Arab state.

Western fears to the contrary, the MB is probably incapable of dominating Egypt. At best, it can realistically hope to be the largest political force in a future government, one in which the military would have a huge say.

The MB and the Egyptian State

The fear of Islamism for years allowed the single-party state to prevent the emergence of a secular opposition. Many secular forces were aligned with the state to prevent an Islamist takeover. Those that did not remained marginalized by the authoritarian system. As a result, the MB over the years has evolved into the country's single-largest organized socio-political opposition force.

Even though there is no coherent secular group that can rival the MB's organizational prowess, Egypt's main Islamist movement hardly has a monopoly over public support. A great many Egyptians are either secular liberals or religious conservatives who do not subscribe to Islamist tenets. Certainly, the bulk of the people out on the streets in the recent unrest are not demanding that the secular autocracy be replaced with an Islamist democracy.

Still, as Egypt's biggest political movement, the MB has raised Western and Israeli fears of an Egypt going the way of Islamism, particularly if the military is not able to manage the transition. To understand the MB today — and thus to evaluate these international fears — we must first consider the group's origins and evolution.

Origins and Evolution of the MB

Founded in the town of Ismailia in 1928 by a schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna, the MB was the world's first organized Islamist movement, though Islamism as an ideology had been in the making since the late 19th century. It was formed as a social movement to pursue the revival of Islam in the country and beyond at a time when secular left-leaning nationalism was rising in the Arab and Muslim world.

It quickly moved beyond just charitable and educational activities to emerge as a political movement, however. Al-Banna's views formed the core of the group's ideology, an amalgamation of Islamic values and Western political thought, which rejected both traditional religious ideas as well as wholesale Westernization. The MB was the first organizational manifestation of the modernist trend within Muslim religio-political thought that embraced nationalism and moved beyond the idea of a caliphate. That said, the movement was also the first organized Islamic response to Western-led secular modernity.

Its view of jihad in the sense of armed struggle was limited to freedom from foreign occupation — British occupation in the case of Egypt and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. But it had a more comprehensive understanding of jihad pertaining to intellectual awakening of the masses and political mobilization. It was also very ecumenical in terms of intra-Muslim issues. Each of these aspects allowed the movement to quickly gain strength; by the late 1940s, it reportedly had more than a million members.

By the late 1930s, there was great internal pressure on the MB leadership to form a military wing to pursue an armed struggle against the British occupation. The leadership was fearful that such a move would damage the movement, which was pursuing a gradual approach to socio-political change by providing social services and the creation of professional syndicates among lawyers, doctors, engineers, academics, etc. The MB, however, reluctantly did allow for the formation of a covert militant entity, which soon began conducting militant attacks not authorized by al-Banna and the leadership.

Until the late 1940s, the MB was a legal entity in the country, but the monarchy began to view it as a major threat to its power, especially given its emphasis on freedom from the British and opposition to all those allied with the occupation forces. The MB was at the forefront of organizing strikes and nationalist rallies. It also participated, though unsuccessfully, in the 1945 elections.

While officially steering clear of any participation in World War II, the MB did align with Nazi Germany against the United Kingdom, which saw the movement become involved in militancy against the British. MB participation in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war further energized the militants. That same year, the covert militant entity within the movement assassinated a judge who had handed prison sentences to a MB member for attacking British troops.

It was at this point that the monarchy moved to disband the movement and the first large-scale arrests of its leadership took place. The crackdown on the MB allowed the militant elements the freedom to pursue their agenda unencumbered by the movement's hierarchy. The assassination of then-Prime Minister Nokrashy Pasha at the hands of an MB militant proved to be a turning point in the movement's history.

Al-Banna condemned the assassination and distanced the movement from the militants but he, too, was assassinated in 1949, allegedly by government agents. Al-Banna was replaced as general guide of the movement by a prominent judge, Hassan al-Hudaybi, who was not a member of the movement but held al-Banna in high regard. The appointment, which conflicted with the MB charter, created numerous internal problems and exacerbated the rift between the core movement and the militant faction.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian government's October 1951 decision to abrogate the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty set off nationwide agitation against British rule. Armed clashes between British forces and Egyptians broke out. The MB's militant faction took part while the core movement steered clear of the unrest. It was in the midst of this unrest that the 1952 coup led by Gamal Abdel Nasser against the monarchy took place. The MB supported the coup, thinking they would be rewarded with a political share of the government. The cordial relationship between the new Free Officers regime and the MB did not last long, however, largely because the military regime did not want to share power with the MB and, like the monarchy, saw the MB as a threat to its nascent state.

Initially, the new regime abolished all political groups except the MB. The Nasser regime, in an attempt to manage the power of the MB, asked it to join the Liberation Rally — the first political vehicle created by the new state. Unsuccessful in its attempts to co-opt the MB, the Nasser regime began to exploit the internal differences within the movement, especially over the leadership of al-Hudaybi. The MB leader faced mounting criticism that he had converted the movement into an elite group that had reduced the movement to issuing statements and had taken advantage of the notion of obedience and loyalty to the leader to perpetuate his authoritarian hold. However, al-Hudaybi prevailed, and the MB disbanded the covert militant entity and expelled its members from the movement.

In 1954, the regime finally decided to outlaw the MB, accusing it of conspiring to topple the government and arresting many members and leaders, including al-Hudaybi. Meanwhile, the military regime ran into internal problems with Nasser locked in a power struggle with Gen. Muhammad Naguib, who was made the first president of the modern republic (1953-54). Nasser succeeded in getting the support of al-Hudaybi and the MB to deal with the internal rift in exchange for allowing the MB to operate legally and releasing its members.

The government reneged on its promises to release prisoners and the complex relationship between Nasser and al-Hudaybi further destabilized the MB from within, allowing for the militant faction to regain influence. The MB demanded the end of martial law and a restoration of parliamentary democracy. Cairo in the meantime announced a new treaty with London over the Suez Canal, which was criticized by the al-Hudaybi-led leadership as tantamount to making Egypt subservient to the United Kingdom.

This led to further police action against the movement and a campaign against its leadership in the official press. The Nasser government also tried to have al-Hudaybi removed as leader of the MB. Between the internal pressures and those from the regime, the movement had moved into a period of internal disarray.

The covert militant faction that was no longer under the control of the leadership because of the earlier expulsions saw the treaty as treasonous and the MB as unable to confront the regime, so it sought to escalate matters. Some members allegedly were involved in the assassination attempt on Nasser in October 1954, which allowed the regime to engage in the biggest crackdown on the MB in its history. Thousands of members including al-Hudaybi were sentenced to harsh prison terms and tortured.

It was during this period that another relative outsider in the movement, Sayyid Qutb, a literary figure and a civil servant, emerged as an influential ideologue of the group shortly after joining up. Qutb also experienced long periods of imprisonment and torture, which radicalized his views. He eventually called for the complete overthrow of the system. He wrote many treatises, but one in particular, "Milestones," was extremely influential — not so much within the movement as among a new generation of more radical Islamists.

Qutb was executed in 1966 on charges of trying to topple the government, but his ideas inspired the founding of jihadism. Disenchanted with the MB ideology and its approach, a younger generation of extremely militant Islamists emerged. These elements, who would found the world's first jihadist groups, saw the MB as having compromised on Islamic principles and accepted Western ideas. Further galvanizing this new breed of militant Islamists was the Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel and the MB's formal renunciation of violence in 1970.

Anwar Sadat's rise to power after Nasser's death in 1970 helped the MB gain some reprieve in that Sadat gradually eased the restrictions on the movement — but retained the ban on it — and tried to use it to contain left-wing forces. After almost two decades of dealing with state repression, the MB had been overshadowed by more militant groups such as Tandheem al-Jihad and Gamaa al-Islamiyah, which had risen to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s. Close ties with Saudi Arabia, which sought to contain Nasserism, also helped the organization maintain itself.

While never legalized, the MB spent the years after Sadat's rise trying to make use of the fact that the regime tolerated the movement to rebuild itself. Its historical legacy helped the MB maintain its status as the main Islamist movement, as well as its organizational structure and civil society presence. Furthermore, the regime of Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak, was able to crush the jihadist groups by the late 1990s, and this also helped the MB regain its stature.

The MB thus went through different phases during the monarchy and the modern republic when it tried to balance its largely political activities with limited experiments with militancy, and there were several periods during which the state tried to suppress the MB. (The first such period was in the late 1940s, the second phase in the mid-1950s when the Nasser regime began to dismantle the MB and the third took place in the mid-1960s during the Qutbist years.)

MB beyond Egypt

Shortly after its rise in Egypt, the MB spread to other parts of the Arab world. The Syrian branch founded in the late 1930s to early 1940s grew much more radical than its parent, wholeheartedly adopting armed struggle — which sparked a major crackdown in 1982 by Syrian President Hafez al Assad's regime that killed tens of thousands. In sharp contrast, the MB in Jordan in the early 1940s very early on established an accommodationist attitude with the Hashemite monarchy and became a legal entity and founded a political party.

Until the Israeli capture of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 war, the Palestinian and Jordanian branches constituted more or less a singular entity. The Gaza-based branch was affiliated with the Egyptian MB, which Israel used to weaken the Palestine Liberation Organization. Those elements went on to form Hamas in 1987, which has pursued its activities on a dual track — political pragmatism in intra-Palestinian affairs and armed struggle against Israel. Hamas also emerged in the West Bank though not on the same scale as in Gaza.

Similarly, in the Arabian Peninsula states, Iraq and North Africa, there are legal opposition parties that do not call themselves MB but are ideological descendants of the MB. The parent MB, by contrast, was never legalized and has never formed a political party per se. While the MB in Egypt is the parent body and there is a lot of coordination among the various chapters in different countries, each branch is an independent entity, which has also allowed for a variety of groups to evolve differently in keeping with the circumstances in the various countries.

Despite dabbling in militancy, Egypt's MB always remained a pragmatic organization. Egypt's true militant Islamists in fact represent a rejection of the MB's pragmatism. Decades before al Qaeda came on the scene with its transnational jihadism, Egypt was struggling with as many as five different jihadist groups — born out of a rejection of the MB approach — fighting Cairo. Two of them became very prominent: Tandheem al-Jihad, which was behind Sadat's assassination, and Gamaa al-Islamiyah, which led a violent insurgency in the 1990s responsible for the killings of foreign tourists. The jihadist movement within the country ultimately was contained, with both Tandheem al-Jihad and Gamaa al-Islamiyah renouncing violence — though smaller elements from both groups joined up with the al Qaeda-led transnational jihadist movement.

Global perceptions of the MB and of political Islamists have not distinguished between pragmatist and militant Islamists, especially after the 9/11 attack and rising fears over Hamas' and Hezbollah's successes. Instead, the MB often has been lumped in with the most radical of the radicals in Western eyes. Very little attention has been paid to the majority of Islamists who are not jihadists and instead are political forces. In fact, even Hamas and Hezbollah are more political groups than simply militants.

There is a growing lobby within the United States and Europe, among academics and members of think tanks, that has sought to draw the distinction between pragmatists and radicals. For more than a decade, this lobby has pushed for seeking out moderates in the MB and other Islamist forces in the Arab and Muslim world to better manage radicalism and the changes that will come from aging regimes crumbling.

Assessment

Because Egypt has never had free and fair elections, the MB's popularity and its commitment to democracy both remain untested. In Egypt's 2005 election, which was less rigged than any previous Egyptian vote, given the Bush administration's push for greater democratization in the Middle East, MB members running as independents managed to increase their share of the legislature fivefold. It won 88 seats, making it the biggest opposition bloc in parliament.

But the MB is internally divided. It faces a generational struggle, with an old guard trying to prevent its ideals from being diluted while a younger generation (the 35-55 age bracket) looks to Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a role model.

The MB also lacks a monopoly over religious discourse in Egypt. A great many religious conservatives do not support the MB. Egypt also has a significant apolitical Salafist trend. Most of the very large class of theologians centered around Al-Azhar University has not come out in support of the MB or any other Islamist group. There are also Islamist forces both more pragmatic and more militant than the MB. For example, Hizb al-Wasat, which has not gotten a license to operate as an official opposition party, is a small offshoot of the MB that is much more pragmatic than the parent entity. What remains of Tandheem al-Jihad and Gamaa al-Islamiyah, which renounced violence and condemned al Qaeda, are examples of radical Islamist groups. And small jihadist cells inspired by or linked to al Qaeda also complicate this picture.

Taken together, the MB remains an untested political force that faces infighting and competitors for the Islamist mantel and a large secular population. Given these challenges to the MB, confrontation with the West is by no means a given even if the MB emerged as a major force in a post-Mubarak order.

The MB is also well aware of the opposition it faces within Egypt, the region and the West. The crumbling of the Mubarak regime and perhaps the order that damaged the MB for decades is a historic opportunity for the movement, which it does not wish to squander. Therefore it is going to handle this opportunity very carefully and avoid radical moves. The MB is also not designed to lead a revolution; rather, its internal setup is such that it will gradually seek a democratic order.

The United States in recent years has had considerable experience in dealing with Islamist forces with Turkey, under the AKP, being the most prominent example. Likewise in Iraq, Washington has dealt with Islamists both Sunni (Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi for many years was a prominent figure in the Iraqi chapter of the MB called the Iraqi Islamic Party) and Shiite (Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, Muqtada al-Sadr, etc.) as part of the effort to forge the post-Baathist republic.

That said, the MB of Egypt is viewed as a very opaque organization, which increases U.S. and Israeli trepidations. Neither of these powers are willing to place their national security interests on the assumption that the MB would remain a benign force — as it appears to be — in the event that it came into power. Concerns also exist about potential fissures within the organization that may steer the movement into a radical direction, especially when it comes to foreign policy issues such as the alliance with the United States and the peace treaty with Israel.

The possible looming collapse of the 60-year Egyptian order presents a historic opportunity for the MB to position itself. Even though the movement has remained pragmatic for much of its history, seeks to achieve its goals via constitutional and electoral means, and has opted for peaceful civil obedience and working with the military as a way out of the current impasse, its commitment to democratic politics is something that remains to be seen. More important, it is expected to push for a foreign policy more independent from Washington and a tougher attitude toward Israel.

At this stage, however, it is not clear if the MB will necessarily come to power. If it does, then it will likely be circumscribed by other political forces and the military. There are also structural hurdles in the path of the MB's taking power. First, the ban on the movement would have to be lifted. Second, the constitution would have to be amended to allow for religious parties to exist for the MB to participate as a movement. Alternatively, it could form a political party along the lines of its Jordanian counterpart. Being part of a future coalition government could allow the United States to manage its rise. Either way, the MB, an enormously patient organization, senses its time finally may have come.

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