The Muslim Brotherhood (in Arabic, al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen) is Egypt's oldest and largest Islamist organization and has spawned Sunni Islamist groups throughout the Arab world. Banned from politics for one of its early aims, a violent overthrow of the Egyptian government, the Brotherhood renounced that goal in the 1970s and earned popular support by providing social services such as pharmacies, hospitals, and schools. After the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring protests of 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm won parliamentary elections and elected as president Mohammed Morsi.
Many analysts saw the Brotherhood's political ascendance as a test of whether it remained ideologically committed to its founders' Islamist tenets or would be moderated by the exigencies of governing. However, Morsi's tenure was tarnished by widespread frustration about economic mismanagement and poor governance, and ended abruptly in July 2013 after a military intervention. His ouster was followed by a violent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, including the detention of over a thousand of its members and supporters, including Morsi.
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. The Brotherhood's original mission was to Islamize society through the promotion of Islamic law, values, and morals. It has long 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). Banna "rejected the Western model of secular, democratic government, which contradicted his notion of universal Islamic rule," notes Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower.
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, envisaged Egypt at the helm of a pan-Arab movement, while the Brotherhood rejected egalitarianism and nationalism as un-Islamic and called for sharia law to regulate all aspects of life. These tensions culminated in an assassination attempt on Nasser. In response, thousands of suspected Brothers, including Sayyid Qutb, Banna's successor, were imprisoned. Banned by Nasser from participating in government, the Brotherhood nevertheless 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 developed his doctrine of 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 cite Qutb, who was hanged in 1966, to argue that governments not ruled by sharia are apostate and therefore legitimate targets of jihad.
Toward Pragmatic Politics
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.
The Brotherhood renounced violence at the insistence of Anwar al-Sadat, Nasser's successor, who allowed the group to preach and advocate in exchange for its support against his political rivals, Nasser loyalists and leftists. Sadat paid lip service to sharia and freed imprisoned Islamists, little realizing he was endangering himself. (Members of al-Jihad—many of whom broke off from the Brotherhood in pursuit of more radical politics—resented Sadat's nominal commitment to the principles of sharia, as well as the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and assassinated him in 1981.)
The Brotherhood considered the regime Mubarak inherited from Sadat "stultifying, corrupt, and oppressive," Mideast expert Nathan Brown 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." In this conception, the group seeks to Islamize society "through a [political] elite" as much as it does "through mass work and engagement."
Brotherhood-affiliated candidates first participated in local and parliamentary elections as independents in 1984, and some analysts say the group has evolved to become more moderate and embrace democratic and liberal principles such as transparency and accountability. "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." Wickham says interactions with politicians and members of civil society outside the Islamist camp have moderated some of the Brotherhood's political positions. A reform-oriented wing broke from the Brotherhood in 1996 to form a new party, Hizb al-Wasat. Still, 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. However, its electoral victories were marred by power struggles with the judiciary and the military, and critics charged that Islamists misinterpreted narrow margins of victory as mandates to rule with carte blanche.
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 (People's Assembly), and Islamists took 84 percent of the seats in the upper house (Shura Council). In June 2012, the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the People's Assembly on a technicality. The court also revoked a law that would have barred former regime officials from holding office, allowing Mubarak-era prime minister Ahmed Shafiq to vie for the presidency. 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 Shafiq.
After his election, 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.
With the lower house of parliament dissolved, however, Morsi was left with both executive and legislative control of the government. (Prior to the ratification of the 2012 constitution in December, the Shura Council, a consultative body, had no legislative authority.) In late November 2012, Morsi declared himself, the Shura Council, 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 protested 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 in June 2012, 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. While establishing term limits, the constitution accorded broad powers to the president.
The constitution was approved in a nationwide referendum, in December 2012, but while 63.8 percent voted in favor, turnout was low. Secular opposition leaders, Christians, and women's groups were among those who protested the charter.
The standoff between Morsi and the judiciary continued in March 2013 when the Supreme Administrative Court overturned a presidential decree calling for April parliamentary elections, questioning the constitutionality of election law provisions. The NSF had previously called for a boycott of the poll.
Many analysts criticize Morsi's tactics as heavy-handed; scholar Robin 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 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.
Led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army ousted Morsi on July 3, 2013 and suspended the new constitution. A fifty-member committee convened to amend the constitution includes just two Islamists, neither of whom represents the Brotherhood. A draft of the constitution, which will be put before a national referendum, is expected in early December.
The Ballot or the Bullet?
Following the 2011 revolution, the specter of the 1979 Iranian revolution loomed large for many in the West who feared an Islamist regime in Egypt. CFR's Steven Cook says 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 did not pan out. The Morsi government kept security and intelligence cooperation strong, maintained the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, brokered a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas [PDF], and cracked down on jihadists operating in the Sinai.
Following the summer 2013 crackdown by security forces in the weeks after Morsi's overthrow, and the Brotherhood's retaliatory violence, short-term political reconciliation is unlikely, analysts say. In the immediate aftermath of Morsi's removal, 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," staging massive sit-ins to protest the transitional government. As of October, more than one thousand Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters had been arrested, while a draft protest law threatened to stifle nonviolent dissent.
Morsi stands accused of inciting the murder of protestors outside the presidential palace in December 2012. As his trial began in early November, he rejected the court's authority and insisted that he remained Egypt's legitimate leader. Meanwhile, judges presiding over the trial of Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and his deputy, Khairat al-Shater, among others, withdrew in protest of what they saw as illegitimate proceedings; Egyptian security forces refused to allow the accused to attend.
The lessons learned from the Morsi presidency could determine the Brotherhood's future. Analyst Tarek Osman predicts a bifurcation within the organization's up-and-coming generation, as some cling to a traditional narrative of victimhood and engage in violence while others devote themselves to making the FJP an effective, modern political party in the mold of Turkey's AKP.
Morsi's ouster 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. Al-Qaeda, denouncing democracy as a path to power, has been quick to capitalize on the Brotherhood's failure. 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," CFR's Ed Husain writes, adding that "Arab secularists ignore this greater narrative at their peril."