The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood

In this article, we shall discuss the history of the political Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen) in Egypt. We will analyze its origins, the initial goals of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as how they increased their following in the early decades after the establishment of the organization. We will also examine the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s relationship with former Egyptian leaders Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak. We will also discuss the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to enter into the electoral space in Egypt.

We will then examine the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to political power following the Egyptian Arab Uprisings in 2011. Here, we will discuss the Muslim Broterhood’s positions on a series of social, political, and economic issues, looking both at their domestic policies, as well as into their international relations positions. From here, we will discuss the politics of the Brotherhood, both internally in the organization, as well as externally with other Egyptians parties and organizations, which include but are not limited to the politics with the Egyptian military.

Then, we will examine the 2013 military coup by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the military, and the events that followed. We will end by examining the state of the Muslim Brotherhood today in Egypt (elsewhere, we discuss related groups, such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, and the Jordan Muslim Brotherhood).

History of the Muslim Brotherhood

In order to understand the modern history of Egypt, it is imperative that one examine the creation and expansion of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood formed as a protest organization in 1928 by Hassan Al-Bannah. Al-Bannah was witnessing an ignoring of Islamic values in Egyptian society, and elsewhere in the Middle East. In fact, following the end of the Ottoman Empire, many looked away from Islam, and towards other ideas for running a state and  society, ideas that included secularism and later, a range of different nationalisms such as Pan-Arab nationalism. In fact, many saw Islam as one of the problems with Egypt and the Middle East, and for that reason, distanced themselves from the faith.

But for Al-Bannah and the early members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Islam was not the problem, but rather, “Islam is the solution” (which is the slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood). The Muslim Brotherhood was created so that individuals in Egyptian society would not abandon their Islamic ideals. But rather, the goal was for these individuals to use Islam and Islamic principles to right the wrongs of the society in which they lived. Thus Al-Bannah, along with six additional people created the organization in Isma’iliya. At the time, there were many Muslim groups, a number of them under Al Bannah. In the first years of the organization, there was an emphasis on membership numbers. In the early 1930s (1932), the organization moved to Cairo. Following the first year in the city, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt expanded activities by establishing a publication, and also holding the first general conference (Munson, 2001). Throughout this time, and as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood grew, they continued to find ways to advocate for a return to Islamic principles as a guide. For the Brotherhood, there was what they believed a disconnect between how Islam should be lived, and what was transpiring in Egypt. To the organization, “the Ikhwan leadership blamed the deterioration of the condition of Islam squarely on the ‘ulama’ of al- Azhar. Notwithstanding his close relationship with the rector of al-Azhar, Shaykh Mus- tafa al-Maraghi, al-Banna and the Ikhwan upbraided the ‘ulama’ of al-Azhar for their failure to be spokesmen “for a living and dynamic Islam.” They had not fulfilled their role as defenders of Islam against imperialism, and were incompetent. “The ‘ulama’,” commented al-Banna, “saw and observed and heard and did nothing” (Teitelbaum, 2011: 221).

While there was this attention to organization growth, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt initially stayed out of politics, devoting much of their attention to religion, as well as social services in Egypt. However, for Al-Bannah and the Egyptians, their political positions in the 1930s made them quite popular. The Muslim Brotherhood members were angry at the current state of affairs within the country. Britain was still in control of Egypt, a relationship that was rather solidified after Britain bought stakes in the Suez Canal in the 1870s. Along with Britain (and their rather strong disregard for the local population, as well as their culture and religion), Egypt was also run by King Fuad, a king that continued to work with the British, which kept him in power, but at the cost of serious upsides for the general Egyptian population. The members of the Muslim Brotherhood recognized that the King was not there to help Egyptians, but rather, to help himself. So, the target of their anger was at the British, as well as the King for the level of control and oppression of Egyptian society.

Lastly, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was also critical of the events in Palestine at the time. As we know from the history of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, the events in Post-World War I Palestine led to increased tension between the Zionists at the time (who wanted Palestine to be a homeland for the world’s Jewish community), and the Palestinians, who felt that British policies were allowed the Jews to overtake the politics and land that belonged to them. The Muslim Brotherhood was an early advocate for the rights of the Palestinians. In fact, it was in part the events in Palestine in the 1930s that shifted their attention to taking up this cause. As Munson (2001) writes: “The immediate catalyst for this change was the Arab general strike in Palestine. The Society provided extensive support for the strike, generating Egyptian sympathy and collecting funds in support of the strike effort” (488).

All of these positions made them quite popular in Egypt. Then, their popularity increased further in the 1940s when the once popular Wafd Party (who was also quite critical of the King and of Britain’s colonialism) agreed to work with the King in the politics of Egypt. This was seen as a complete shift from the positions of the previous Wafd Party. Thus, following this, even more individuals gravitated towards a Muslim Brotherhood that was staunch in their stances against British colonialism in Egypt, in their critiques of the Kingship, as well as now, their distrust and anger at the Wafd Party. It was said that in 1949, the Muslim Brotherhood had anywhere from 300,000 to 600,000 total members (Munson, 2001), which was evidence of their influence and high levels of support among the Egyptian public.

Furthermore, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood also got involved in elections as early as the 1940s. For example, “[t]he group formally entered the political arena when it announced its own candidates for the 1941 Parliamentary elections. It then began to hold increasingly large public rallies and demonstrations, calling for social reform and an immediate withdrawal of British troops from Egypt” (Munson, 2001: 488). This of course led to increased scrutiny by the King, and the British government, who, in 1941, called for the exile of Hassan al-Bannah along with other top figures within the organization. The anti-Muslim Brotherhood position by the British increased when the Brotherhood criticized “the British War effort[,]” which then led to the banning of Muslim Brotherhood meetings [even though this was not permanent (given the attention to World War II)] (Munson, 2001).

However, it was not just their political stances that drew Egyptians to the Muslim Brotherhood. This was clearly a large part of their increased following, but it was only one aspect of it. There were a series of other factors that allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to grow in popularity. For example, one must also look at the organizational resources of the group.

The Muslim Brotherhood made sure that they organization could grow. Thus, they encouraged the formation of new branches throughout Egypt. However, what distinguished the Muslim Brotherhood from many other political organizations in Egypt was the way that their organization was structured. While most groups were vertical in nature (a leadership, and a chain of command in some instances), the Brotherhood was rather horizontally organized. There was a national leadership, but they were quite hands off with the different branches that formed. These branches were local, and were led by local leadership. Because of this, the branches were more trusted in the communities–because they themselves were from within the communities. The leaders were not unknown, and the issues that the branches focused on were tailored to the specific needs of the neighborhoods in which they branches were founded. This sort of organizational structure also helped the Brotherhood in cases when the government would crackdown on political groups. In a top-down vertical structure, neutralizing the top branch made much of the rest of the organization dysfunctional. However, for the Brotherhood, even if the Cairo branch was monitored or minimized, other branches could continue to do their work (Munson, 2001).

In addition, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood also differed from other organizations in that it had a multi-tiered membership structure. Namely, there was the first level, called the “assistants,” who would be those individuals who signed on as members and paid a membership fee. The second level was called the “related” members who would know a bit more about the principles of the organization, and would be more involved in organizational activities. These were people who went to meetings consistently, and also pledged “an oath of allegiance.” Then the third level were the “active” members who dedicated much of their entire lives to the organization. This system was effective in that it allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to increase the size of their membership, all the while not imposing strict guidelines for membership (other groups did this, and it significantly impacted enrollment) (Munson, 2001).

Along with the political opportunity structure and the organizational resources, one of the other most important factor that led to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood’s popularity in Egypt was because of their organizational activities. Namely, the Brotherhood focused heavily on providing social services for their society. This was central to their expansion, even early on as the group was founded.. As Munson (2001) writes:

“After its founding in Isma’liya, the Muslim Brotherhood began construction of a mosque, using funds from membership dues and grants from local businesses. A boy’s school, girl’s school, and social club were subsequently added to the complex as the organization grew.” Munson (2001) goes on to say that this was not an isolated approach. Rather, “Each new branch of the Society followed a similar pattern of growth. The organization would establish a branch headquarters and then immediately begin a public service project–the construction of a mosque, school, or clinic, the support of a local handicraft industry, or the organization of a sports program. This private social service infrastructure grew quickly and became an important part of the Egyptian social, political, and economic landscape” (501). This was so large that the government in Egypt continued to fund these programs in periods where the Brotherhood was banned (Munson, 2001).

Such social service activities tend to be the common approach by many Islamist groups (along with many other political organizations around the world). By doing this, not only are you helping civil society (and in many cases, your immediate community), but you are gaining their trust, you are building ties, you have a place where you can control the content of your message (this was especially the case in the mosques), and also showing that the government is not providing that said resource. To this day, the Muslim Brotherhood continues to be one of the most active service organizations in Egypt.

The last important factor for the increased rise of the Muslim Brotherhood is their content of ideas (Munson, 2001). While many of the Islamist (and non-Islamist organizations) were adamant about the type of ideas that they wanted all of their followers to believe, the Muslim Brotherhood was quite open about what sort of positions their members took. Munson (2001) argues that “[t]he chief feature of the organization’s ideology, in fact, was its lack of distinctiveness or highly contested ideas…[T]he Muslim Brotherhood did not hold a particularly radical ideology; it did not advocate a return to the glorious age of Islam…[,]” nor did it focus on literal readings of the Quran (Zubaida, 1993). It was for this reason that the government found them to be a “political threat, not an ideological one” (Munson, 2001: 505).

Thus, because of their willingness to take on unpopular political issues such as colonialism, the King, and other regional matters, their structural organization, their support for social services, and their openness on the sorts of religious ideas the members may have espoused allowed them to grow greatly in the years and decades following the formation of the organization.

The Muslim Brotherhood and Gamal Abdel Nasser

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt had a very interesting relationship with Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the late 1940s, the Muslim Brotherhood was seriously challenged by the King (Farouk). Namely, the Egyptian police found a number of weapons that belonged to the organization. A year after, they also found a car with explosives that belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. As a result, they group was dissolved in the year 1948, which in turn led to members of the Muslim Brotherhood (through the “special apparatus”) “assassinating the Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmud Fahmi al-Nuqrashi, the man responsible for the ordering of the Muslim Brotherhood’s dissolution” (Munson, 2001: 489). Following this, the police responded by killing Hassan al-Bannah (Munson, 2001).

However, despite the murder of al-Bannah, the Muslim Brotherhood continued to operate in Egypt. When Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers took power from the King, the Muslim Brotherhood was rather supportive of this move. There were a number of Free Officers that were sympathetic to the Brotherhood. Furthermore, “[t]he regime released many of the organization’s members from prison and allowed them to resume their public recruitment and propaganda activities” (Munson, 2001).

However, the relationship between the Brotherhood and Gamal Abdel Nasser turned cold rather quickly, particularly as the two tried to compete for influence in Egypt. Furthermore, The Muslim Brotherhood hoped that Nasser would push and Islamist agenda, which he did not. This led to an assassination attempt in 1954. In response, Nasser banned the group. However, given their increased presence in Egyptian civil society, and their active extension in various social services, the Brotherhood was far from minimized.

The Muslim Brotherhood and Anwar Sadat

Furthermore, their relationship improved under Anwar Sadat, who was more willing to allow the Muslim Brothers in Egypt to operate (as long as they did not challenge Sadat politically). In addition, this was a leader that unlike Nasser, was willing to use more religious symbolism in his rule. For example, he referred to himself as the “believer president” (Shehata, 2012: 24), something that the Muslim Brotherhood members seemed to appreciate. In addition, He also “introduced Sharia, or Islamic law, into the Egyptian constitution. Article 2 of the 1971 constitution declared that “the principles of the Sharia are principle sort of legislation” (Shehata, 2012: 25).

However, there was criticism of Sadat, particularly when he was willing to work with Israel. In the late 1970s, he approached Israel, speaking at the Knesset in 1977. Then, in 1978, he, along with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and U.S. President Jimmy Charter signed a peace deal with Israel (these were the Camp David Accords). This deal led to high levels of frustration with Sadat, and for some, an act that was viewed as turning away from the Palestinian cause. This, coupled with an increasingly authoritarian approach by Sadat led to increased hostilities by some within Egyptian society. Then, in 1981, Anwar Sadat was assassinated. However, it was not the Muslim Brotherhood that killed him, but rather, a group Islamic Jihad in Egypt (Shehata, 2012).

The Muslim Brotherhood and Hosni Mubarak

Hosni Mubarak continued upon a strong control over the political space in Egypt. For example, he re-established emergency rule, something Sadat suspended. However, he did this slowly. At first, he tried to push “democracy in doses,” as he put it (Brownlee, 2002). Then, he moved even more toward authoritarianism, where the Muslim Brotherhood was one of the groups that were targeted by Mubarak.

Initially, Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood had “a delicate balance” in which the government was willing to work with the moderate Brothers, using them to counter the increase in radical Islamists in Egypt.  Mubarak allowed them to operate in Cairo, and also let them continue their publications. However, “[i]n exchange for this new-found freedom, the group refrained from voicing harsh criticism of the regime, while continuing its grassroots activism through social welfare organizations and expanding its power base throughout the country” (Campagna, 1996).  However, the 1984 elections, in which the Brotherhood won 8 seats, led to a shift in how the government perceived the organization. It was at this time that additional scrutiny of the Muslim Brotherhood took place (Campagna, 1996). Then, in 1987, the Muslim Brotherhood, aligned with liberal as well as social labor political parties, won 36 electoral seats. In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood was gaining more influence among professional organizations in Egypt, winning key elections in medical, engineering, pharmacy, and the most noted law association in Egypt (Campagna, 1996). In 1989, some within the government began speaking out against the organization for what was viewed as tied to radicals (Campagna, 1996).

Thus, in 1990, the government-under Mubarak–further shifted its position away from the Muslim Brotherhood. It was in this year that the Muslim Brotherhood decided to boycott Parliamentary elections because of concerns that the government could threaten the legitimacy of the voting. The boycotters viewed the government as having a show-democracy. This upset officials in the regime, who did not want to be called out like this by the Brotherhood, or others in Egypt.

In 1991, the Muslim Brotherhood spoke out against the Egyptian government’s involvement in the Madrid talks with regards to the Israel-Palestine Conflict. As a result, many Muslim Brothers were arrested. Then, in 1992, the government was facing rising radicalism–and attacks–in the country. However, while the Muslim Brotherhood spoke out against violent Islamism, some statements made suggested an ambiguity in their position (Campagna, 1996), further concerning the state.

Thus, these factors, the rising influence in civil society, the criticism of the regime, and questions about their willingness to fully condemn violent extremism led the state to increase its crackdown on the organization. Brownlee (2002) writes that “The regime’s ongoing and costly military campaign against Islamist militants (the annual death toll from which peaked in 1993 at more than 1,000) provided the pretext for a new drive of repression against nonviolent political opponents as well. When members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)—which was formally outlawed but allowed to organize without formal party status—won the leadership elections of the doctors’, engineers’, pharmacists’, and lawyers’ syndicates in the early and mid-1990s, legislation was enacted to bring most of the syndicates under the management of government-appointed judicial committees. The regime sent 54 Brotherhood members to prison by military trial in 1995 and detained thousands more without charge” (8). These prison sentences were between three and five years (with  the sentence also having hard labor for the prisoners) (Campagna, 1996).

Ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood

One of the questions surrounding the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt revolves around questions of what their political and religious ideologies are. Many have suggested that the Muslim Broterhood is a jihadist Islamist group. However, the Muslim Brotherhood has renounced the idea of expansion within the framework of global jihad, much to the despite of many radical jihadist groups (Leiken & Brooke, 2007). Even many in the West have tried to frame this organization as “radical Islamists” or “a vital component of the enemy’s assault force…deeply hostile to the United States” (in Leiken & Brooke, 2007). Some have also spoke on what they view as President Obama trying to suggest support towards the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that some have called an “Islamist militant group” (Gertz, 2015). What many individuals continue to fail to accept is that while the Muslim Brotherhood organization leaders have committed human rights abuses in Egypt (while in power), they have has renounced violence for decades, and have not shown an interest in spreading a violent jihadist message. Furthermore, even if there are some that are to the right, many members of the Muslim Brotherhood are happy to operate within democracies, and have no interest in global expansion. In fact, other scholars argue as much, saying that “U.S. policymaking has been handicapped by Washington’s tendency to see the Muslim Brotherhood–and the Islamist movement as a whole–as a monolith” (Leiken & Brooke, 2007: 107).

The Muslim Brotherhood and Democracy

A related question has been the question about the Muslim Brotherhood has been their level of commitment to the idea of democracy and democratic governance. There tended to be (and arguably, continues to be) primarily two opposing camps with regards to whether the Muslim Brotherhood is dedicated to democracy. For some (which include a movement in the United States that looks to discredit the Muslim Brotherhood, along with some secular currents in Egypt), the Muslim Brotherhood has no interest in long-term democracy. As Lynch (2008) explains, “The Egyptian government and many Egyptian skeptics alike accuse the MB of lying about its democratic commitments and working within the system in order to overthrow it. Inevitably, the specter is raised of an organization that would, in effect, subscribe to the position “One man, one vote, one time”—and which, if given the opportunity, would impose a despotic religious law over an unwilling population. If this alarming picture were shown to be accurate, then many Americans would back away from promoting democracy—as the United States has, indeed, done over the last year and a half” (1).

The Muslim Brotherhood has responded by trying to portray itself as a group fully engaged and committed to democracy. They have pointed to their comments and continued statements about the importance of democracy as proof that they are serious about living within this form of government. So, the question, as Lynch (2008) lays out, has been: “Which view of the Muslim Brotherhood is more accurate.”

To Lynch, it is important to look at the times in which they are not in power, when they are challenged, and who they would respond. Looking at the response of the Muslim Brotherhood to oppressive policies under Mubarak (and these policies extended into late 2010), the Brotherhood continued to stay on the democratic course. They did not resort to violence; they maintained their support for the notion of democracy in Egypt.

At the same time, Lynch argued (in 2008) that there were some continued concerns with the Muslim Brotherhood with regards to their commitment to democracy. For example, he pointed to discussions within the organization itself where sometimes the group will make comments that while seeming to appeal to the base, concern the public, who feel that the Brotherhood is not serious about democracy (Lynch, 2008).

While Lynch wrote this in 2008, one could use the events following the 2013 overthrow as another example of how the Muslim Brotherhood responded to oppression from a military regime. In a time with the Muslim Brotherhood could have given up on the idea of democracy (given that they won fair elections, only to be taken out of power by the military), the fact that they have continued to stay on the course of democracies, and not resorting to violence, does seem to show an organization wanting to work and operate within a democracy, even though they have been severely limited by el-Sisi and his increased authoritarianism in Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the Question of Violence

It is true that the Muslim Brotherhood had a militia (the special apparatus) in the years years of the organization. It is also true that they were involved in fighting British colonialism, and did carry out killings, which included a judge who ruled against a Muslim Brotherhood member who attacked British military forces. However, the question, even then, was how much Hassan al-Bannah was able to control this group, with a belief that some of the actions may have even been carried out without him knowing (Shehata, 2012). In fact, al-Bannah himself spoke out against the political assassination of al-Nuqrashi (Shehata, 2012). In addition, others also question whether the top figures in the Muslim Brotherhood supported later violence. Take the issue of the assassination attempt against Nasser. Many believe this action was not the organized plan of every Muslim Brotherhood leader.

There were clearly some within the Brotherhood, individuals such as Sayyid Qutb, who felt that violence was the answer to dealing with political leaders (Muslims who he viewed as living un-Islamically). In fact, “The 1960s were a particularly dark period for the movement. The Brotherhood was radicalized by Sayyid Qutb, a writer intensely critical of Western civilization, of Egypt under Nasser, and of authoritarian governments in Musim countries” (Shehata, 2012: 24). However, many of the Muslim Brotherhood members distanced themselves from Qutb and his ideas, also renouncing violence. In fact, as a counter to Qutb’s ideas, Hassan al Hodeiby, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood published Preachers, Not Judges in 1969, in which he spoke about the rejection of Qutb’s idea of takfir (a Muslim who is acting un-Islamically, and thus, being labelled a non-Muslim). Hodeiby also criticized violence as a means for change in Egyptian society (Shehata, 2012: 24).

Thus, it must be noted that the Muslim Brotherhood has renounced violence for decades now, operating in civil society, and more recently, in the political electoral space.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Foreign Policy

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has been quite critical of United States foreign policy, and in particular, the various U.S. administrations’ support for Israeli (Leiken & Brooke, 2007). Once in power, the Muslim Brotherhood (under Mohammed Morsi) continued the US-Egyptian relationship, speaking with one another, and was in part because of continued United States aid to Egypt.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood took a stronger position against Israel. Many were asking them whether they would cancel the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and the leadership continued to say that they would evaluate all agreements and while they would support it, they may have to change parts of it (Shehata, 2012). These comments concerned Israeli leaders, who believed that the Brotherhood would not be on good terms with them. This feeling was intensified when the Mursi visited Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The relationship between the two was stronger than when Mubarak was in power (then, he continued the blockade into Gaza, and also backed a steel barrier to prevent smuggling into Gaza) (although the Brotherhood still were unwilling to completely change the previous policy on the blockade) (Yaghi, 2012). And since El-Sisi has come to power, he has continued to be a strong supporter of the blockade, and has also went to additional lengths to fight radical groups in the Sinai Peninsula.

The Muslim Brotherhood and Women’s Rights

The Muslim Brotherhood has been strongly criticized for their positions with regards to gender rights in Egypt. They have been supportive of work rights, education, along with women running in office (Shehata, 2012). However, there is much to suggest that some members of the Brotherhood continued to restrict full equality with regards to women’s rights. For example, “The Brother’s 2007 draft political party platform drew sharp criticism for stipulating that women and Coptic Christians should not be eligible for the presidency.” Furthermore, some members of the Freedom and Justice Party (the electoral wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in the post-2011 period) continued to hold this position about restricting a woman for the top political post.

It is also important to note that the Muslim Brotherhood does have a branch within the organization called the Muslim Sisters. While these members are active on election campaigns, as well as in the operation of Muslim Brotherhood social services work, “the Sisters’ role is not equal to that of their male counterparts. Women are not members of either the Guidance Bureau or Shura Council, the Brothers’ governing bodies” (Shehata, 2012). And while the Brothers have had women as candidates (Shehata, 2012), there continued to be a large discrepancy between the number of women that ran compared to men within the Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood and Religious Minority Rights

One of other serious criticisms of the Muslim Brotherhood has been some of the statements made by members with regards to the religious minorities in Egypt, and more specifically, the Egyptian Coptic Christians.

The violence against Coptic Christians increased significantly following the 2013 coup by el-Sisi, with belief by some within the community that the Muslim Brotherhood supporters were behind the attacks. This of course does not mean that the Muslim Brotherhood leaders carried out, called for, or supported the attacks. The Muslim Brotherhood leaders say that while there have been tensions between the different religious groups in the country since 2013, it is not because of religious differences, but rather, because of politics; the Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been critical of those who back the policies of el-Sisi.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the Arab Spring

The Muslim Brotherhood took a strategic approach with regards to the Egyptian uprising in early 2011. With the overthrow of Tunisian leader Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Egyptians were themselves taking to the streets to protest the policies of Hosni Mubarak.

The Muslim Brotherhood, recognizing that Hosni Mubarak cracked down on the group’s political candidates and political supporters months before, knew that if they were in the spotlight leading the protest movement that the government could further repress the group. This explains their delayed response in the protest movement. As Murphy (2011) writes: “The Brothers, ever cautious and aware that they bear the brunt of regime repression when they join protests, were slow to participate in the demonstrations that broke out on Jan. 25.”

In addition, along with upsetting the government, even when they did get involved in protest politics, they did so carefully, also recognizing that taking too much of an outward position might also upset many of the seculars–who themselves were very active in organizing the protest movement. For these reasons, the Muslim Brotherhood, while acting in the protests, were not the ones leading the movement; “The organization seemed to be eager to avoid upsetting either the protesters or the government” (Muedini, 2012: 5). It is for this reason that the Muslim Brotherhood was active, but in more supportive roles (providing microphones, security, food and drink to protesters, as well as medical aid) (PBS Frontline, 2012).

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Time in Power: Late 2011-2013

Following the Muslim Brotherhood’s coming to power in late 2011, there began to be increased tension between the Muslim Brotherhood and the secularists, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and military. In terms of the latter relationship, following the overthrow of Mubarak, both sides tolerated one another, and both felt that they had some control of Egypt (Ashour, 2015). However, in the months and year that followed, the Muslim Brotherhood and the seculars (that include members of the military) entered into a hostile relationship that ended in a 2013 coup which took Morsi out of power.

Many blame much of the Muslim Broterhood’s fall in Egyptian politics on decisions made by the old-guard conservative heads of the organization. This groups has been at the front of the decision-making body within the Muslim Broterhood. Their rise to power within the organization came primarily in 2005, when the organization did quite well in the national elections. Mubarak responded to this by oppression the Brotherhood so that they would not run in elections again. However, the conservatives used these events to overtake the Brotherhood, using Mubarak as a counterpoint to the activities they wanted to push. They were able to gain power because of the new opposition that mobilized them (Kouddous, 2013). This hardline only increased in power in 2007, and then in 2009, after electoral victory within the organization (defeating many reformists).

Then, in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood initially said that they would only contest a percentage of seats (1/3rd). However, they ended up running in the vast majority of races, and won 46 percent of all seats. Then, what led to addition tension within Egypt was when the Muslim Brotherhood also decided to field a presidential candidate. Many in Egypt were hoping that in the name of a new democracy, they would not run a presidential candidate, allowing other political segments a change at more voice in this new democratic system. What made this such an issue was that the organization continued to say that they would not go for the Presidency. It must be noted that there were divisions within the Muslim Brotherhood on whether they should approve the nomination of Khairat Al-Shater (one of the most influential members of the Muslim Brotherhood at the time). However, the hardliners were able to get their way, and Al-Shater was put forward (Kouddous, 2013). And despite his disqualification from running (due to past crimes), the Muslim Brotherhood decided to put forth another name: Muhammad Morsi (Kouddous, 2013).

Mohammad Morsi’s Presidency

Following Morsi’s electoral victory in mid-June (where he won 52 percent of the Presidential runoff vote), he gets into office on June 30th, 2012. Things got off to a rocky start from the very beginning. For example, on July 10th, the parliament met, despite a court ruling that the elections were illegal. The Freedom and Justice Party (Muslim Brotherhood), and the Noor Party were the primary seat holders in the Parliament. The idea for this session was to have it be “a symbolic show of support for Morsi…” (Williams, 2013). In addition, “It is also a display of Morsi’s intent to recover authority from the secular military over key aspects of security and the economy” (Williams, 2013).

Shortly after, in August 2012, recognizing that many of the military elites were among some of the strongest opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi decided to remove these individuals from their post, and instead, putting in those seen as closer to the Brotherhood. This action, while giving him greater authority, all the while weakening the military’s influence in Egypt.

Then, shortly after, Morsi says (and does) a number of things that further suggest his attempt to turn the Egyptian system into an authoritarian state, with him at the head of power. For example, he not only began to speak about limiting the freedom of speech in Egypt, but he also pushes a law that allows the president to make decisions without checks from  the judiciary. This, on top of his already strong influence (where the President had great power compared to Parliament) led to further anger by opposition groups (Williams, 2013). And although he reversed course on this, those in the streets were already protesting the entire regime.

Then, in December 22, the Muslim Brotherhood and other allies (such as al-Noor) are able to win a vote (64 percent of the public being in favor) on the new constitution. Among other things, the constitution noted that Egypt was an Islamic state, something that terrified secularists in the country (Williams, 2013).

Protests and riots continue in Egypt. As a response, Morsi calls for emergency powers in certain towns where the protests have intensified.  Then, on March 30th, 2013, “Egyptian state prosecutors order the arrest of popular television satirist Bassem Youssef for allegedly insulting Islam and Morsi. The order reflects an accelerated campaign to stifle protest and opposition to the Islamist president as it follows the arrest a week earlier of five prominent pro-democracy activists.” This repression of free speech is just another example of Morsi’s move to authoritarian rule (Williams, 2013).

Additional actions seen as provocations did not help matters. This included the opening of an alcohol-free hotel, and then later, a changing of the cabinet to reflect more Muslim Brotherhood control only further angered many in Egypt. Continued arrests against those the government viewed as trying to destabilize Egypt’s Brotherhood dominated regime led to even more domestic and international anger (Williams, 2013).

Then, Morsi also made a couple of controversial foreign policy decisions that led the military to lose trust in his ability to rule. The first event took place on June 2nd, 2013. Then, “politicians meeting with Morsi — unaware that they were on live television — suggested sabotaging an Ethiopian project to build a dam on the Nile by arming Ethiopian rebels, launching a campaign to boast of Egypt’s military might and finishing the job with Egyptian fighter jets. Morsi refrained from giving them explicit support, but he also said later that “all options are open” to defend Egypt’s water supply” (Birnbaum, 2013).

The second controversial event took place on June 15th, in which “Morsi participated in a pro-Syrian-rebel rally at which Sunni clerics repeatedly called for “holy war” in Syria — an implicit push for sectarian violence against Shiites and Alawites. Morsi himself did not call for violence, but he spoke immediately after an ultraconservative Salafist preacher who called Shiites “infidels,” and he said nothing to distance himself from the remarks. Instead, he asserted that the Egyptian “nation, leadership and army will not abandon the Syrian people,” according to Egypt’s flagship state-run al-
Ahram newspaper” (Birnbaum, 2013). This was at the end of other controversial comments related to Egypt’s peace deal with Israel.

Then, it was on July 3rd, 2013, that the military removed Morsi from power.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood After the 2013 Coup

Following the July 3rd, 2013 coup against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, El-Sisi has not only consolidated power, but he has take many measures to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence from Egyptian society. They have done this through the killing of Brotherhood protesters, as well as the jailing of Muslim Brotherhood leaders such as Mohammad Badie and Mohammad Morsi. In addition, they have shut down the political organizations of the Brotherhood, as well as their social service activities. The goal for the regime is to not only make the Muslim Brothers run, but it is to eliminate the group from the country.

It has attempted to do this through a number of ways. First, after overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood from power, El-Sisi jailed not only Morsi, but many other leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood. These members faced a quick trial (8 minutes), and have been sentenced to death. Plus, most of Brotherhood leaders that were able to avoid being caught have left the country, with a number of Muslim Brotherhood members now living in Turkey (Brooke, 2015).

El-Sisi not only went after the structure of the organization, but he has also tried to suppress the social service activity of the group. For example, in September of 2013, the Cairo Court of Urgent Matters stated that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terror group. With this announcement, they also formed a committee that would loo into potentially seizing assets owned by the organization (although this has become more difficult when it is individuals who own these said assets) (Brooks, 2015).. Then, “At the end of December 2013 the committee completed its preliminary investigation of the Brotherhood’s assets, and the lists of the group’s affiliated social service organizations soon leaked in the Egyptian press. The initial list included 1142 individual entities spread across each of Egypt’s 27 governorates” (Brooks, 2015: 1-2). In addition, around that time period, there was also another list published, this one noting schools affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood (Since then, despite resistance, the government continues its attempts to take over the schools) (Brooks, 2015).

Having done significant damage to the Muslim Brotherhood politically, the El-Sisi regime has moved to ensure that the Muslim Brotherhood does not rise back up politically through their social services. As we discussed before, this is one of the major ways that the Muslim Brotherhood grew in the early years of the organization. However, while this is an attempt to stop local support, the government is believed to face challenges if they themselves do not step in and provide the social services previously offered by the Brothers. So, what has happened is that instead of closing these institutions completely, rather, “Egypt’s new rulers are appointing new management teams-composed of government bureaucrats and security service figures-to oversee these facilities. In effect, they are gambling that forcing out those individuals most likely to be a bridge between the Muslim Brotherhood’s organizational infrastructure and these facilities will reduce the risk the Brotherhood leverages their network to contest the regime while producing only minimal social disruption” (Brooks, 2015: 3).

Again, this is indeed risky for a number of reasons. For one, it is not guaranteed that the new operators and facilitators will do as good of a job compared to the previous individuals running these institutions. Furthermore, any possibility of corruption could further weaken the state’s image to those who are not seeing the same services as before the takeover.

In addition, these actions may not lead to government goals of ending Muslim Brotherhood provided social services, but rather, the social service model may change. Before, the Brotherhood’s services were for everyone. It was used to recruit people. Now, not only will some of the services be pushed underground, but scholars argue that the organization may provide them only to those committed to the cause (Brooks, 2015).

Lastly, while this might be limiting the Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement, scholars have suggested that it might actually lead to what the government does not want: increased radicalism and increased violence in Egypt (Brooks, 2015).

The Muslim Brotherhood Leaders in 2016

In late May of 2016, following the trials of Muslim Brotherhood leaders, an Egyptian court issued a sentencing verdict on Mohamed Badie (the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhoood), along with 35 other members of the Muslim Brotherhood to life in jail. However, for Badie, this comes after another sentencing of death for the leader (Yahoo, 2016).

In June of 2016, an Egyptian court handed down death sentences to two Al Jazeera journalists for what the court said was providing state security-related documents to Qatar, and also a TV entity also in Qatar. In addition, at this time, Mohammed Morsi was also sentenced; “Morsi, the case’s top defendant, and two of his aides were also sentenced to 25 years in prison. Morsi and his secretary, Amin el-Sirafy, received an additional 15-year sentence for a lesser crime. El-Sirafy’s daughter, Karima, was also sentenced to 15 years in prison” (Hendawi, 2016) (Mohammad Mursi’s death sentence was overturned by Egypt’s Court of Cassation on Tuesday, November 15th, 2016) (Reuters, 2016).

The arrests and sentencing of the different Muslim Brotherhood leaders and also Brotherhood members had left many wondering what the future of the Muslim Brotherhood was in Egypt. On top of the crackdown on the organization, reports noted the infighting within the Islamist group.  For example, “Late last year [in 2015] Muhammad Montasser, a pseudonym for the group’s combative spokesman, was sacked by some of its leaders. But other leaders rejected the move, which, they said, did not follow procedure. The disagreement is symptomatic of a deep conflict inside the Brotherhood over its leadership and priorities. After 88 years of religious, political and social activity, which inspired the creation of similar groups across the region, the Brotherhood is tearing itself apart” (The Economist, 2016).

The divisions are based on “the old guard,” or members who have been a part of the Muslim Brotherhood for decades, and are trying to put forward a survival strategy within the Egyptian state under El-Sisi, and the opposition within the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt “the new guard,” a number of whom “wan tot take a more confrontational stance” (The Economist, 2016). Some of these differences are on the issue of violence; the older guard within the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is against this strategy, and they seem to argue that the “younger guard” is however willing to use violence as a response to the Egyptian government (The Economist, 2016). However, this has been countered by some within the “new” group in the Brotherhood, who argue that part of the problem is that the “old guard” within the Brotherhood in Egypt has been “stagnant” in its actions, which has been the cause of some of the younger members moving towards violent actions (The Economist, 2016).

The United States and the Muslim Brotherhood

There has been much discussion about the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States. There have been some members of Congress who have spoken about the Muslim Brotherhood in a highly negative manner, arguing that this group is sent on expanding their influence to the United States, with goals of pushing Islamic law in America. In February of 2016, “The House Judiciary Committee voted 17-10 along party lines Feb. 24 to require the State Department to take action against the Islamist group or justify its refusal to.” The push by some has been to label the Muslim Brotherhood a terror organization. While some view this as a push by Republicans, others think that foreign states such as the United Arab Emirates, as well as El-Sisi himself may be behind this initiative. This is not the first bill on this issue; Michelle Bachmann tried to get a similar bill passed in 2014 (to no avail), and “Republican candidate Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has introduced identical legislation [to the one from the House Judiciary Committee] in the Senate” (Pecquet, 2016).

Future of the Muslim Brotherhood

Following the sentencing of Morsi, along with other leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, there have been questions about the direction that the Brotherhood would take. As al-Anani (2016) writes, “The audacious decision of Tunisia’s Ennahda movement to separate politics and religion has raised the question of whether Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood would follow Ennahda’s course. Pundits think the current crisis of the Brotherhood might prompt its leaders to consider taking a similar move and separating the two realms. Furthermore, while some of the Brotherhood’s exiled figures highlighted that they are weighing the idea of separating political and religious activities, others reject it as not viable or realistic. No matter the outcome of the Brotherhood’s ongoing discussion over this issue, assuming it exists, the movement faces many hurdles that preclude reaching a decision similar to that of Ennahda’s.”

However, Al-Anani (2016) argues that there are a few reasons that he believes the Brotherhood may not separate religion from politics. For one, Hassan al-Bannah, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, was very clear that the Brotherhood would have a spiritual and political role in Egypt. In addition, he argues that “Another hurdle is the Brotherhood’s ideological indoctrination. Unlike quietist Islamist groups, the Brotherhood adopts a highly politicized platform that keeps members engaged in everyday politics. The indoctrination programs within the Brotherhood promote certain values that go beyond religion and help create politicized identity. Moreover, the Brotherhood trains its members not to be not only preachers but also social activists and politicians. Forsaking politics would mean a fundamental change in the Brotherhood’s indoctrination and socialization programs, something the movement cannot afford to do.”

Moreover, the way that the Muslim Brotherhood is organized adds further difficulty to removing themselves from political activity. Because of the closeness of the members, these members have been very active in religious and political affairs. It would be difficult to separate the two, and it may actually hurt recruitment.

Lastly, he argues that with El-Sisi’s crackdown, there are many fractures within the Brotherhood. If there are calls for a separation of politics and religion, these differences could become even more pronounced.


The Muslim Brotherhood has had a long legacy in Egyptian politics. However, given the recent events the past couple of years, El-Sisi has made sure that this organization not longer has a presence in Egypt. Yet, millions continue to support the Brotherhood. The question is: what will future events do to shape the relationship between the government and protesters who feel that they were robbed for an elected government? This question, along with others (such as what the future of the organization may look like) continues to play out with the additional unfolding of events in Egypt.



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