Part I of II: Through the Historical Lens of the Muslim Brotherhood
To answer this question, part one of this article traces the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the Egyptian state, from the group’s inception in 1928 up until the eve of Morsi’s election as president in 2011. This outline provides the context to understanding why Morsi’s presidency was controversial for both the regime and the population.
The Egyptian revolution erupted on January 25, 2011, and seemed to finally set in motion the wave of change Egyptians had long yearned for.
The Egyptian revolution erupted on January 25, 2011, and seemed to finally set in motion the wave of change Egyptians had long yearned for. Longstanding dictator Hosni Mubarak, in power since 1981, resigned on February 11, 2011, after 18 days of mass protest. The nation embarked on the process of democratization, drafting a new constitution, electing a new parliament and president, and delivering justice to corrupt officials in Mubarak’s entourage.
As in Morocco and Tunisia, Islamists swept up record numbers of seats in November’s parliamentary elections. Less than a year later, on June 30, 2012, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi was sworn in as president after beating contender Ahmed Shafik, ostensibly reflecting the will of the people.
Yet, Morsi’s popularity tanked only a few months later. By November, millions of Egyptians took to the streets again, calling for leadership change. One year after his success at the polls, in July 2013, the Egyptian military ousted Egypt’s first and only democratically-elected president. What is the lesson from this seemingly contradictory attitude towards Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood?
This overview highlights, first, that the regime—under Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak—had gone through recurring episodes of containment versus confrontational policies with the Brotherhood. Therefore, without a radical shift in power structure—which did not occur during the 2011 Egyptian revolution—the existing political institutions would never have allowed the MB to rule for long.
Second, knowledge of the MB’s history reveals that the group had long been divided—meaning that Morsi did not enjoy the same level of popularity that the Brotherhood did. Finally, the MB was inexperienced when it actually took hold of the reins of power, having never had much opportunity to rule prior to 2011.
A Brief History of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood, or al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn in Arabic, is the world’s oldest Sunni revivalist organization in the Arab world.
The Muslim Brotherhood, or al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn in Arabic, is the world’s oldest Sunni revivalist organization in the Arab world. Its model of charity work combined with political activism has inspired similar movements in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Bahrain, Palestine, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, and others.
Founded by the Egyptian Islamic scholar and teacher Hassan al-Banna in Cairo in 1928, the group began as a small religious and charitable society that aimed at spreading Islamic values and purging Egypt of its British occupiers.
Under its famous slogan, “Islam is the solution,” the group built religious schools, provided social services, and combatted the spread of Western cultural values. It advocated Islam as a comprehensive system of governance distinct from the secular political systems in the West. Yet, the group was vague with regards to the specific Islamic government it aimed to form, setting the stage for conflicting interpretations in the future.
The MB membership expanded rapidly in its first two decades of existence. The group recruited members at mosques, coffeehouses, and in private homes. The number of branches increased from four in 1929 to 2,000 with an estimated 500,000 members throughout the country by 1949.
The early Brotherhood existed on the fringes of formal politics. Most of the group’s activities targeted incremental societal reform from the bottom up, although al-Banna and his supporters did advocate armed struggle. The MB’s leadership formed a paramilitary wing, known as the “Secret Apparatus,” that conducted bombings and assassinations against the British, “Zionists,” and domestic targets including other opposition groups and members of the Egyptian regime.
In December 1948, the Egyptian government dissolved the MB following the Secret Apparatus’ assassination of a well-known judge the previous March along with other charges of its fomenting violence.
In the 1952 coup, the MB cooperated with the Free Officers movement that ousted the British and brought Nasser to power in 1952.
In the 1952 coup, the MB cooperated with the Free Officers movement that ousted the British and brought Nasser to power in 1952. However, the MB soon split from the regime over differences between Nasser’s secularist leanings and the Brotherhood’s Islamic ideology.
Those clashes intensified in October 1952, when a member of the Secret Apparatus, Mahmood Abd al-Latif, attempted to assassinate Nasser at a rally. Although the MB leadership denied involvement in or knowledge of the attack, the Nasser regime used this pretext as grounds for crushing the group. It arrested thousands of its members and hanged six.
Subsequently, Egyptian authorities arrested the leading MB figure, Sayyid Qutb, after he had attempted to assassinate Nasser in 1954. The regime again used the incident to justify its crackdown on the group. Qutb continued advocating violence against the Egyptian state from prison. He was briefly released in 1964 but rearrested a few months later for plotting to overthrow the regime, and executed in 1966. The arrest and later execution of Qutb hardened the rift between the MB and Egyptian regime throughout the remainder of Nasser’s rule, and it conducted a series of crackdowns on the Brotherhood, arresting and torturing thousands and forcing scores of others into exile.
The regime’s persecution of Qutb marked a shift within the Brotherhood’s ideology. On one hand, Qutb’s writings drew a parallel between the Egyptian secular regime and its policies under Nasser and jahiliyya (literally the period of “ignorance” before Islam). He called for the overthrow of Muslim governments and the establishment of a sovereign, universalist state based on Islamic law. Qutb also took aim at Hasan al-Hudeibi, the MB’s Supreme Guide, rejecting his authority.
The Brotherhood’s establishment, led by Al-Hudeibi, refuted Qutb’s teachings and committed itself to a gradualist Islamic reform.
On the other hand, the Brotherhood’s establishment, led by Al-Hudeibi, refuted Qutb’s teachings and committed itself to a gradualist Islamic reform. It emphasized that an Islamic state was not necessary for Muslims to follow Islamic law in their own lives. Subsequently, the MB formally renounced violence in the 1970s and purported to adopt democratic principles in 1995. Several other Islamist groups, however, had drawn on Qutb’s writings to justify armed struggle and the creation of an Islamic state.
Anwar Sadat softened the regime’s approach to the MB when he came to power in 1970, though the Brotherhood remained an illegal organization. Sadat reoriented Egypt away from Nasser’s socialist and economic policies. In the hopes of sidelining Nasser’s supporters, Sadat encouraged Islamists to take over professional associations and student organizations. He granted amnesty to the Brotherhood and released many of its prominent members from prison. The MB was allowed to resume publication of its da’wa (the practice or policy of conveying the message of Islam to Muslims and non-Muslims) magazine until it was banned in 1981. The new Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood, Uman al-Tilmisani, reaffirmed the group’s rejection of violence in the pages of the da’wa.
While the Egyptian constitution formally banned political parties founded on religion, six MB members were elected to parliament in 1976. The group’s involvement in formal politics affirmed its decision to reform from within, rather than from outside, the formal political framework. In 1979, al-Tilmisani asked Sadat to allow the Brotherhood to form a political party, but the president rejected the request.
In the late 1970s, the Brotherhood grew increasingly critical of Sadat’s policies and it particularly hated Sadat’s signing of the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty in 1979 following the 1978 Camp David Accords. The group openly challenged the regime’s religious legitimacy for the first time during the negotiations, driving Sadat to take a more combative stance against it.
By September 1981, the MB had grown too powerful for Sadat, prompting the regime to carry out a harsh crackdown on the group.
By September 1981, the MB had grown too powerful for Sadat, prompting the regime to carry out a harsh crackdown on the group. Security forces arrested thousands of political opponents, including prominent Brotherhood members. Less than a month later, Khaled el-Islambouly, a member of Islamist al-Jihad, shot and killed Sadat on October 6, 1981, over Sadat’s signing of the peace treaty.
A week after Sadat’s assassination, Hosni Mubarak was sworn into office. Like his predecessor, Mubarak’s presidency began with a reversal of the harsh policies against the MB. He aimed to secure his presidency and maintain a firm grip on the country by making the Islamist movement a key political player.
To appease Sadat’s political opponents, Mubarak released imprisoned activists, including Supreme Guide Uman al-Tilmisani and other members of the MB, who had been arrested during the September 1981 crackdown. He also announced his willingness to collaborate with nonviolent Islamist groups, although he maintained repressive policies against the radical ones. The MB reciprocated by voting with the president’s National Democratic Party and endorsing Mubarak’s presidential candidacy in 1987.
In the mid-1980s, a new generation of Brothers emerged, who wished to take a more active role in politics. The MB upped its participation in public and political life succeeding at the polls, gaining control of student and professional associations, and providing social services.
In the 1984 parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood formed an unusual alliance with the secular Wafd party and won eight seats in parliament. Three years later, in the 1987 elections, it allied itself with the Socialist Labor and Liberal parties, again showing its willingness to cross ideological lines in pursuit of its political goals. It unexpectedly won 36 of the alliances 60 seats, emerging as the single largest opposition bloc for the first time in its history.
In parliament, the Brotherhood disrupted the status quo. It called for the gradual application of shari’a law, improvements in education, public services, and wages. It also condemned the extension of national emergency laws that had been in place since the 1950s. The MB’s increasingly powerful and well-organized parliamentary bloc demonstrated its capacity to challenge Mubarak. Concerned with the MB’s growing influence, Mubarak had the Supreme Constitutional Court rule the election results illegal in 1987 and dissolved parliament.
The MB, having lost access to formal political platforms, used increased involvement in student and professional associations to grow its political base. In 1986, it won the majority of the seats on the executive board of the doctors’ association and in 1987, it won 54 of 61 executive board seats in the engineers’ union. It similarly gained control of several other important organizations by the early 1990s, such as the pharmacists’ and scientists’ associations and the lawyers’ bar. It catered to Egyptian youth and professionals excluded from public sector employment by offering access to its social support network.
The Brotherhood also played a similar role in student associations, using its extensive social resources to help students with living and educational costs. It made gains in faculty clubs at several Egyptian universities, including Cairo, Asyut, and Zagazig Universities.
The MB’s social network was one of the most significant pillars of its power in the 1980s and 1990s, according to an article in the Harvard International Review entitled “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.”
The MB’s social network was one of the most significant pillars of its power in the 1980s and 1990s, according to an article in the Harvard International Review entitled “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.” In the 1992 Cairo earthquake, for example, the MB offered medical tents, temporary shelters, food, blankets, and other basic necessities to thousands of victims. In that manner, the MB won the backing of the lower and working classes and was seen by many as more responsive to humanitarian and social needs than the regime. Journalist Robert Kaplan observes that “The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt functions to a significant extent as a community self-help organization . . . .”
Its growing popular influence, however, exacerbated a split in the Brotherhood between the old guard, which dominated the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, and more reformist oriented middle-generation activists, who felt entitled to more power within the organization. Middle-generation members created a reformist faction within the Brotherhood, calling for revisions of traditional positions on the importance of shar’ia law and the role of women in a modern society as well as greater individual freedom, political pluralism, and focus on human rights.
The factions also clashed over whether the MB should advocate for political party status or remain at the margins of formal politics. The old guard argued in favor of retaining the group’s illegal status, which the leadership believed would give it greater control, while the reformist faction wished to influence politics from within the political system. The fissure between the two factions remained a matter of internal dispute for a decade until clashes with the regime forced the matter into the public sphere in the mid-1990s.
The MB’s success also revealed its capacity to organize, raise finances, and mobilize supporters. Mubarak’s alarm at the MB becoming a formidable threat to his power heightened throughout the 1980s, though the regime maintained a policy of non-confrontation for most of the decade. This policy, however, began to shift in 1989. The regime ramped up arrests of MB members during 1989 and 1990, while the group became more critical of the regime. In 1990, the MB and other opposition parties boycotted the parliamentary elections, stating that they “refused to contribute to the creation of a false democratic facade.”
The real pivot in Mubarak’s policy towards the MB—from one of containment and tolerance to one of confrontation and elimination—occurred with the 1992 Salsabil affair. In February, the police raided the office of the Salsabil computer company owned by influential MB members. Authorities uncovered documents that they believed revealed the group’s intentions to seize power. The regime proceeded to shut down the company, imprisoned most of its employees, and radically shifted its policies towards the MB.
In 1995, Mubarak survived an assassination attempt in Ethiopia when assailants fired on his convoy. The Egyptian media speculated on the role of the MB in the attack while Mubarak squarely blamed it for its involvement in planning the murder. As Mubarak began to prepare for upcoming elections, his security forces cracked down on the MB again in an effort to weaken the group. They arrested scores of its members throughout 1995 and, in November, the Supreme Military Court sentenced 54 leading Brotherhood members to three to five years in prison, charging them with membership in an illegal organization.
During the 2000 elections, the MB sought to avoid direct confrontation with the authorities by deciding to run for a fraction of the seats it had tried for in previous elections. Nonetheless, it won 17 seats, making it the largest opposition force in parliament. The MB’s success at the polls also demonstrated that the regime’s ongoing policy to eradicate the group had failed and resulted in its endurance instead.
Meanwhile, popular anger against the Mubarak regime began to build in the new millennium: first, with rising corruption and second, with the emergence of Mubarak’s son, Gamal Mubarak, as a public figure being groomed for power. In February 2000, for example, Mubarak named his son General Secretariat of the ruling National Democratic Party.
Under growing pressure from the West to democratize, Egypt adopted new electoral laws in the 2005 elections to permit greater political participation. The MB ran 161 candidates, more than twice the number it ran in the 2000 election, from its own list and under the slogan “Islam is the Solution.” The regime allowed mostly free and fair elections for the first round.
However, early gains by the MB, triggered the regime to intervene in and manipulate the results of the second round. It cracked down on opposition groups, such as the MB, through campaigns of harassment, intimidation, and arrests. In spite of the authorities’ brutal policies, the MB won 88 seats, significantly more than any competing opposition group.
The regime unleashed a new policy of containment against the group over the next six years.
Shocked by the outcome of the election results, the regime unleashed a new policy of containment against the group over the next six years. It was further emboldened by reduced pressure from the U.S. to uphold democratic norms due to what the U.S. perceived to be an increase in extremism abroad, which included the electoral victory of Hamas in Gaza in 2006 and the Israeli war against Hezbollah that same year.
The Egyptian regime’s campaign against the MB involved defamation in the official media and accusations that the MB had formed a paramilitary group. It also included a new wave of arrests in June 2007, when authorities arrested hundreds of Brothers shortly before the Shura Council elections. The regime furthermore froze some 70 companies headed by members of the MB in an effort to target the group’s funding.
This overview of the tumultuous relations between the Muslim Brotherhood and the regime over the last 90 years reveals cycles of tolerance followed by repressive measures against the Brotherhood whenever it made political gains. It underscores that the Egyptian regime has long perceived the MB to represent a major threat to its authority and existence. In this light, Morsi’s rise to power in 2011 was almost certainly not destined to be a smooth power transition.