The Muslim Brotherhood is Egypt’s oldest and largest Islamist organization, with offshoots throughout the Arab world. The Brotherhood renounced violence 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 group’s political arm won a plurality of seats in Egypt’s lower house of parliament and its candidate, Mohammed Morsi, was elected president. But Morsi was ousted by the military in July 2013, and the Brotherhood’s members were imprisoned, went into exile, or were forced underground. As part of a wide-ranging crackdown on political opposition, the Egyptian government has labeled the group a terrorist organization, as have Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). U.S. President Donald J. Trump has expressed interest in following suit, but many experts say a designation—whether of the original Egyptian group or of kindred groups throughout the region—would stretch the bounds of the law and also complicate U.S. diplomacy across much of the Middle East and North Africa.
A History of Violence
Founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood is the world’s most influential Islamist organization. The Brotherhood’s mission is to Islamize society through the promotion of religious law, values, and morals. It has long combined preaching and political activism with social welfare to advance this objective.
The group earned legitimacy among its core constituency, the lower-middle class, as the most effective organized resistance against the British occupation of Egypt (1882–1952). The Muslim Brotherhood joined with the Free Officers, nationalist military leaders who sought to wrest Egypt from a British-backed monarchy. After a coup d’état that forced King Farouk out of power in July 1952, the military junta that took charge and the Brotherhood became rivals. This conflict was over power and ideology; the Brotherhood rejected the military’s vision of Egypt as the leader of a socialist, secular, pan-Arab movement.
In 1954, a suspected member of the Brotherhood attempted to assassinate the leader of the Free Officers, Gamal Abdel Nasser. In response, thousands of suspected Brothers were imprisoned. Though Nasser barred the group from 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.
Among those arrested was a member of the Brotherhood named Sayyid Qutb, who developed a doctrine of armed struggle against the regime in Egypt and beyond while writing from prison. His work has provided the underpinnings for many militant Sunni Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda and Hamas. Extremist leaders often cite Qutb, who was hanged in 1966, to argue that governments not based on sharia are apostate and therefore legitimate targets of jihad.
Toward Pragmatic Politics
Though establishing a state based on Islamic principles was at the core of the Brotherhood’s agenda, the group gained prominence by effectively providing social services where the state failed.
The Brotherhood renounced violence at the insistence of Nasser’s successor, Anwar al-Sadat, 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. He was assassinated in 1981 by members of al-Jihad, an extremist group whose leaders opposed Sadat’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel—though they were not the only ones—and sought the violent overthrow of the Egyptian political system because it was not based on religious law.
Although Egypt was not a democracy, it did hold parliamentary elections. Brotherhood-affiliated candidates first participated in parliamentary elections in 1984, even as the party officially remained banned. An alliance with the officially recognized Wafd Party, which stood for nationalism and economic liberalism, won 65 of the parliament’s 450 seats. Running as independents in the early 2000s, Brotherhood candidates won still more seats, forming the largest opposition bloc.
Grappling With Power
The Brotherhood emerged as a dominant political force in Egypt following Mubarak’s removal from office amid mass protests in February 2011. The Brotherhood’s organizational capacity was unmatched, but the group’s electoral victories were tarnished by power struggles with the judiciary and the military. Battles over the drafting of a new constitution were a particular flash point.
In the 2012 parliamentary elections, 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). Pushing back against the Brotherhood’s increasing power, the Mubarak-appointed Supreme Constitutional Court issued a decision in June 2012 that led to the dissolution of the People’s Assembly. At the same time, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which had been in control of Egypt since Mubarak’s fall, gave the military exclusive control over defense and national security policy, diminishing the power of the president.
Just before Mubarak had stepped aside, the Brotherhood said that it would not seek the presidency, but it nevertheless put forward Khairat el-Shater, its deputy spiritual head, as a candidate. After Shater was disqualified, Morsi took his place. In a contest that posed a choice between Ahmad Shafiq—who had been a government minister during the Mubarak years and briefly prime minister after the January 2011 uprising—and the Brotherhood’s candidate, Morsi was announced the winner in June 2012.
With the lower house of parliament dissolved, Morsi had both executive and legislative control of the government. In late November 2012, Morsi declared himself, the Shura Council (previously a consultative body without legislative authority), and the constituent assembly (which was charged with writing a new constitution) immune from judicial review. Morsi had justified the move by arguing that the judiciary and much of the bureaucracy was dominated by remnants of the Mubarak regime intent on impeding the revolution’s goals. But after an immediate backlash, including public demonstrations, he annulled the decree.
The new constitution, which enshrined Islamic law as the basis for legislation, also stirred controversy. Though a similar principle existed in Egypt’s prior constitution, the new draft raised concern with Egyptian liberals suspicious that the Brotherhood would take it as license to codify its worldview in the law. Many Egyptians also feared insufficient protections for women’s rights and freedoms of speech and worship and distrusted the broad power accorded to the presidency. The constitution was approved with a 64 percent majority in a nationwide referendum, but only a third of the electorate voted.
The conflict 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 secular opposition had previously called for a boycott of the vote.
Many analysts criticized Morsi’s tactics as majoritarian, and Egyptians critical of the Brotherhood coalesced around the group Tamarrod (Rebellion), which claimed to gather twenty-two million signatories to a petition calling for Morsi to step down. As the Tamarrod movement gained steam, Egyptians complained of a breakdown in security and about Brotherhood vigilantism. Bringing things to a head, Morsi appointed a member of the former militant group Jamaat al-Islamiyya as governor of Luxor, where the group had massacred dozens of tourists in 1997.
As millions of protesters massed in the streets, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces—the same body that had forced Mubarak aside—issued an ultimatum to Morsi, giving him forty-eight hours to meet their demands. On July 3, 2013, SCAF, led by Defense Minister Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, ousted Morsi and suspended the new constitution.
The following month, security forces responded harshly to sit-ins protesting the coup, killing more than 1,150 demonstrators, Human Rights Watch found. The main encampment, Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, became a rallying cry for opposition to the new regime.
The Brotherhood After the Coup
The government outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, forcing it underground once again. Under Sisi, who became president in May 2014, the regime has taken strong steps to repress the opposition, using accusations of membership in the Brotherhood to repress dissent of all stripes.
Thousands of the group’s leaders and members have been imprisoned, and others went into exile. The group’s charities have been shuttered and their assets confiscated. Morsi, who had been on trial ever since his ouster, died in June 2019 after being denied medical care while held in solitary confinement, according to Human Rights Watch. It was the seventh anniversary of his election.
Unable to seek a voice through political or civic participation, some members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood could split off into radical factions and resort to violence, analysts say. In this way, the group could be forced in a direction far different than that of its offshoots, many of which have taken part in parliamentary politics as socially conservative parties.
Qatar and Turkey have cultivated ties with the Brotherhood and its offshoots, and many exiled members of the Egyptian group have settled in those countries. In contrast, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have worked to suppress Brotherhood-affiliated movements, seeing their populist appeal as an ideological rival to their absolute monarchies. They have advocated a broad-brush U.S. terrorist designation. That would treat disparate movements and parties around the region as if they were all part of a monolithic organization, when in reality the original Egyptian organization’s influence over the diffuse network has been diminished, officials and experts say.
After Sisi’s April 2019 visit, the White House directed national security officials to pursue a terrorist designation for the Muslim Brotherhood. Even the narrower approach of designating just the Egyptian branch could have far-reaching consequences and invite legal challenge. The move, former U.S. officials Daniel Benjamin and Jason Blazakis write, would expose hundreds of thousands of the movement’s followers to potential U.S. sanctions while alienating the United Nations and European Union—which have long followed U.S. designations—and “providing cover for Sisi’s government to expand an already brutal crackdown.”