Understanding the Muslim Brotherhood
All eyes are on Egypt's biggest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. What are the Brotherhood's goals?
What is the Muslim Brotherhood?
The world’s largest and most influential Islamist movement. Founded in Egypt in 1928, the group was originally focused on ridding the country of corrupting secular influences brought by British colonial rule. Over the years, it established branches and affiliates in many countries to promote traditional Sunni Islamic morals, social justice, and the eradication of poverty and corruption. “The Islamic nation,” its charter states, “must be fully prepared to fight the tyrants and the enemies of Allah as a prelude to establishing an Islamic state”—ideally a re-established caliphate, stretching from Spain across the Middle East and Central Asia to Indonesia, to be governed according to Islamic sharia law. But today’s Muslim Brotherhood is not a monolithic organization, nor does it have a rigid doctrine. While many of its older members are deeply conservative, many of the younger ones are modern and reform-minded. Khaled Hamza, a voice of moderation within the group and the editor of the group’s official website, says the Brotherhood would never support a rule by the clergy, as in Iran. “We do not believe Islam requires a theocracy,’’ he says. “Democracy is the only way.’’
How does the Brotherhood operate?
Mostly through political activism and charity work. Even though it’s officially banned in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has hundreds of thousands of passionately committed members who provide health care and aid to the poor under the slogans “Islam is the solution” and “Jihad is our way.” The Brotherhood runs hospitals, schools, banks, day-care centers, community centers, and facilities for the disabled in cities and towns all over the country. While members can’t run for office under the Muslim Brotherhood banner, they do run as independents. In the 2005 election, members took 20 percent of the open seats in parliament to form the single largest opposition bloc. But in last November’s first round of parliamentary elections, which were heavily rigged by the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood won no seats and joined a general boycott. Widespread anger over those stolen elections is a major factor in the current uprising.
Why was the group banned?
Originally, it was implicated in a failed attempt to assassinate President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954. After that, thousands of Brotherhood members were tortured under the Nasser regime, and the group went underground. At that time, Sayyid Qutb, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, began arguing that Egyptians should wage jihad to bring about Islamic rule. His writings are a main inspiration to radical Islamist groups throughout the world, including al Qaida. The 1964 work Milestones, in particular, is influential for the way it splits the world into two camps: Islam and jahili, the state of ignorance. All governments and peoples who do not follow true Islam as the Brotherhood sees it are considered jahili and should be confronted and changed. Militant Islamist groups frequently invoke Milestones to justify the use of violence against the West.
Is the Brotherhood still violent?
Its leaders now renounce violence, at least publicly. The Brotherhood says its call to jihad is spiritual, and that it believes in advancing Islam through politics and teaching. Its members in parliament are educated professionals who have proved to be competent and savvy legislators, open to compromise. In fact, the group’s insistence on nonviolence caused Egyptian surgeon Ayman al-Zawahiri to leave the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1980s and eventually join Osama bin Laden as al Qaida’s No. 2. Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip and strongly advocates violent struggle, began as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. But Hamas’s ties to the Egyptian group are now tenuous.
What is its stance toward Israel and the U.S.?
Unremittingly negative. In past decades, the group had a blatantly anti-Semitic agenda, translating Hitler’s Mein Kampf and the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion into Arabic and disseminating them to foment hatred of the Jews. More recently, it has contented itself with railing against “U.S. and Zionist domination.” The Brotherhood does not recognize Israel, and it crossed sectarian lines to openly support the Shiite militant group Hezbollah during the 2006 Lebanese war with Israel. Recently, Brotherhood leaders have given mixed signals about whether they would actually seek to abandon Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
Will the Brotherhood wind up ruling Egypt?
That’s unlikely, most observers say. After Mubarak leaves, Islam will probably play a larger and more assertive role in Egyptian society. But unlike Iran’s Shiites, Egypt’s Sunnis see the clergy merely as spiritual advisors, not as rulers to be obeyed absolutely. They are rebelling for more freedom, not less, and the powerful military would resist an Islamic dictatorship. “The most the Muslim Brotherhood can hope for is 20 percent of the seats in the Egyptian parliament,’’ says Hani Shadi, an Egyptian journalist. Secular parties will likely emerge to balance that out. But experts are divided on whether the Brotherhood’s new, more moderate line marks a real change or a ruse. “It would be delusory to take the Muslim Brotherhood’s democratic protestations at face value,” says Leslie Gelb, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “No one really has any sound idea of how they might rule.’’
Role in the uprising
In the past, the Mubarak regime was quick to label any protest an Islamist coup threat and respond by cracking down hard on the Muslim Brotherhood. So the group kept a low profile in the current uprising. It did not officially join the protests for more than a week, and refrained from promoting its slogans or religious symbols. Now it has thrown its support to secular-opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency. “We demand that this regime be overthrown, and we demand the formation of a national unity government for all the factions,” the Brotherhood said in a statement last week. Going forward, the group is certain to have a key role in Egyptian politics. “If we really want democracy in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is going to be a big part of the picture,” said Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution. “Rather than demonizing them, we ought to start engaging them now.”