The Muslim Brotherhood (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 its early aim of overthrowing the Egyptian government, 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 parliamentary elections, and its candidate Mohammed Morsi was elected president. 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 marked by widespread frustration with economic mismanagement and poor governance, and his administration was ousted by the military in July 2013. A violent crackdown followed in which Morsi, much of the Brotherhood’s leadership, and thousands of its supporters were arrested, and more than one thousand supporters were killed, according to rights groups. The military-backed government banned the Brotherhood once again at the end of 2013, excluding it from mainstream political channels.
A History of Violence
Founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood is widely considered the world’s most influential Islamist organization. Banna "rejected the Western model of secular, democratic government, which contradicted his notion of universal Islamic rule," noted Lawrence Wright in his book The Looming Tower. But while the Brotherhood’s original mission was to Islamize society through the promotion of Islamic law, values, and morals, it has long combined preaching with social welfare and political activism.
The group earned legitimacy among its core constituency, the lower-middle class, as the most effective organized resistance against British domination (1882–1952). The Muslim Brotherhood joined with the Free Officers, nationalist military leaders who sought to wrest Egypt from the British-backed monarchy, but rivalry between the military and the Brotherhood ensued after King Farouk abdicated in 1952 and a military junta took charge with Gamal Abdel Nasser at the helm. The military envisaged Egypt at the helm of a socialist, secular, pan-Arab movement, while the Brotherhood rejected egalitarianism and nationalism as un-Islamic and called for the implementation of sharia.
These tensions culminated in an assassination attempt on Nasser in 1954. In response, thousands of suspected Brothers, including Sayyid Qutb, Banna’s successor, 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.
Qutb developed a doctrine of armed struggle against the regime in Egypt and beyond while writing from prison after his arrest for the assassination attempt. His work, particularly the 1964 manifesto Milestones, has provided the intellectual and theological 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 an Islamic state based on sharia was at the core of the Brotherhood’s agenda, the group gained prominence by effectively providing social services where the security state failed.
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. He was assassinated in 1981 by members of al-Jihad who had split with the Brotherhood and resented Sadat’s notional commitment to sharia, as well as the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
The Brotherhood considered the regime Mubarak inherited from Sadat "stultifying, corrupt, and oppressive," scholar Nathan Brown wrote. He said the group reconciled its ongoing commitment to Qutb’s principles with its renunciation of violence by focusing on the concept of a "vanguard," in which 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. Within the Brotherhood, members vary in the orthodoxy of their interpretations of Islam, as well as their ideological versus pragmatic inclinations, but the conservative and insular old guard has dominated in recent years.
Political Challenges Since the Revolution
The Brotherhood emerged as a dominant political force in Egypt following Mubarak’s removal from office amid mass protests in February 2011 in part because its 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 winter 2011–2012 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, in June 2012 the Mubarak-appointed Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the People’s Assembly and 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 Morsi won a narrow majority (51.7 percent) in a June runoff against Shafiq.
After his election, Morsi ordered the military, which had been acting as an interim government, to its 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, 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 immune from judicial review. The move provoked an immediate backlash, including public demonstrations against what opponents called a power grab. Though Morsi argued that the judiciary and much of the bureaucracy was dominated by feloul, or remnants of the Mubarak regime eager to impede the revolution’s goals, intense popular opposition led him to annul the decree a month later.
Though the 2012 constitution was approved with a 64 percent majority in a nationwide referendum, just a third of the electorate voted in the December referendum. Opponents were concerned about the role of Islam as the basis of law, feared insufficient protections for women’s rights and freedoms of speech and worship, and distrusted the broad power accorded to the presidency.
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 criticize Morsi’s tactics as heavy-handed. Middle East expert Robin Wright referred to his style of governing as "majoritarianism," meaning "autocratic rule by the largest party." Opposition to Morsi’s rule came to a head in June 2013 with his appointment of seventeen Brotherhood-affiliated provincial governors, including a member of the former militant group Gamaa Islamiya as governor of Luxor, where the group massacred dozens of tourists in 1997.
Following a new round of mass protests, the army, now led by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, ousted Morsi on July 3, 2013, and suspended the new constitution. A fifty-member committee that convened to amend the constitution included just two Islamists, neither of whom represented the Brotherhood. Egyptians voted on the new constitution January 14 and 15, 2014.
The revised document keeps much of the 2012 text, analysts say, but tempers references to Islam as the basis of Egyptian law and bolsters the authority and autonomy of the military and judiciary. It also restores the 1971 constitution’s ban on political parties with a religious foundation or reference, which could bar the FJP from electoral politics. Passage is expected, given public support for the new government, the Muslim Brotherhood’s boycott of the vote, and a crackdown that has stifled dissent. Egyptian authorities said they will view a high voter turnout as a benchmark of legitimacy, and Sisi appears poised to use a resounding approval of the constitution as a launching pad for a presidential bid.
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," using the Iranian analogy 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, and brokered a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas [PDF].
In the immediate aftermath of Morsi’s removal, the Brotherhood announced it would "refuse to participate in any action with power usurpers." The group called for an uprising against those who would "steal their revolt with tanks and massacres," staging massive sit-ins to protest the transitional government. Security services responded with mass arrests and violent crackdowns.
Morsi stands accused of treason, inciting violence, and collaborating with Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas, among charges that critics say are politically motivated and, in some cases, implausible. As Morsi’s first trial began in early November 2013, he rejected the court’s authority and insisted that he remained Egypt’s legitimate leader. Judges presiding over the trial of the Brotherhood’s head, 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 had refused to allow the accused to attend their trials.
The government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, attributing to it a car bomb detonated in late December 2013 at a headquarters of the security services in the Nile Delta. But the government did not furnish evidence implicating the Brotherhood, which denounced the attack, and the Sinai-based militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis claimed responsibility. The declaration followed a September judicial ruling that banned the group’s activities and seized its funds, and the adoption of a protest law that gives the police broad authority to restrict public gatherings. These laws, analysts say, preclude the possibility of political reconciliation.
The group’s future trajectory will depend as much on its self-evaluation following the Morsi presidency as it will on whether the Egyptian state pursues a strategy of containment or eradication, Middle East Institute analyst Khalil al-Enani wrote. If the government chooses a strategy of containment, the Brotherhood could return to its roots in preaching and welfare and spin off the FJP as an independent political party in the mold of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, though this option seems to have been ruled out for the foreseeable future. If instead the government continues with a strategy of eradication, the Brotherhood’s insularity and ideological cohesion will increase, and violent confrontation with the state security apparatus will be likely, el-Enani argued. While some analysts say the Brotherhood may retreat from politics altogether, others fear that without legitimate channels for it to contest the emergent order, the terrorist designation may become self-fulfilling.
Al-Qaeda quickly cited the Muslim Brotherhood’s trajectory in Egypt as validation of its own narrative that democracy is not a viable path to power. 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 wrote, adding that "Arab secularists ignore this greater narrative at their peril."