This piece was published in the Global Issue Print Edition (Volume 12)
The Muslim Brotherhood has been a constant of Egyptian and Middle Eastern politics since the early 20th century. Its role in recent years has been increasingly influential; in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood was catapulted to power in the aftermath of the Egyptian Arab Spring. Their sudden rise to power called into question their ambivalent relationship with democratization, secularism, and other values. This paper explores the historic relationship between the Muslim brotherhood and Egyptian democracy and argues that democratic values are not central to the organization. Instead, they are strategically used for political opportunism. The Brotherhood is entrenched within Egyptian society through its social networks, political advocacy, and charitable organizations—it is this multiplicity of roles that I argue contributed to the organization’s downfall in 2012. In a broader context, the Muslim Brotherhood is an important case study into the role of political Islam in the Middle East and in the West, especially since offshoots of the Brotherhood have defined Middle Eastern conflicts such as Hamas in Palestine. Additionally, I argue that the Brotherhood’s potency forced a strategic alliance between the West and Gulf Monarchies. Ultimately, the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be seen as an anomaly or an extremity. It is a deeply entrenched social construct that will dictate the future of democratization in Egypt.
On January 25, 2011, popular demonstrations exploded across Egypt to demand the ousting of Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime. Curiously, the democracy-driven revolution enjoyed the backing of Egypt’s most powerful Islamist organization: the Muslim Brotherhood. Since its conception in the early twentieth century, this organization has sustained itself within Egyptian identity by opportunistically adapting to the moment’s socio-political fervor. Given its ambivalent relationship with democracy, the Brotherhood’s contributions to the 2011 revolution beg the question: can the organization be committed to democracy? Analyzing the Brotherhood’s ideology, leadership, and relationship with the military lends validity to the argument that democracy is not a central belief of the organization. However, given that Egypt’s only democratically elected President was a member of the Brotherhood, the organization has sufficiently proven its adaptability to democracy,
This paper argues that periods of internal strife following the death of its founding member, particularly the isolationism of the older generations, and its ideological warfare with Gamal Abdel Nasser reduced democracy to an ideological accessory often sacrificed for more lucrative ideological goals. The Muslim Brotherhood exercised multiple roles – it was a social idea, a political organization, a militant group and a religious advocate. During critical periods, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime and the 2011 Revolution, it utilized those roles strategically. It is this multiplicity and adaptability of agendas that has characterized the Brotherhood as preachers, terrorists, and activists simultaneously, ultimately precipitating the demise of its democratic experiment.
The Formative Years: Dawa’a at Coffee Shops
A schoolteacher in rural Egypt, Hasan Al-Banna found himself disillusioned by the exploitation of British colonialism. He believed that Egyptian society could only be saved from imperialist exploitation through religion,inspiring the Brotherhood’s iconic slogan: “Islam is the Solution.” Since the organization’s founding in March 1928, the Brotherhood was marred by an organizational detail that would haunt the organization till its demise: an ill-defined relationship between the leader than the followers. Originally, the Brotherhood’s goals were a return Egypt to purist Sunni Islam. It planned to utilize dawa’a (act of inviting one to Islam), political organization, cultural-educational unions, and commercial companies to achieve this goal. It was a social idea, malleable in form but rigid in ideology. The organization sought to permeate every facet of Egyptian society, alarming secularist, nationalist, and liberal groups.
In his memoir, The Call and the Preacher, Hasan Al-Banna explains his dawa’a approach and in doing so invents a morphing Islamist organization. He argues that Islamic teachings have been missing from Egyptian society,convincing his peers that their first dawa’a should be to people at coffee shops in order to reach ordinary Egyptians.Al-Banna’s approach defined the Brotherhood’s identity and cemented its role as a socioreligious actor. This organization would not be a Muslim organization preaching to Muslims in a Mosque; it would be applying Islamic teachings to everyday life. So, while democratic values were absent during the Brotherhood’s formative years, its practicality, inclusivity, and adaptability made it a formidable socio-political force regardless. Notably, despite the Brotherhood’s potency and discontent with the state of affairs it did not challenge the government. The organization, through Al-Banna’s heavy-handed guidance, distinctly self-defined itself as an activist group, not a political organization. The fact that the goals of the organization revolved around those of the leader pointed to a broader struggle for authority within the organization: what would happen when Al-Banna is gone? Especially given that Al-Banna personally believed democracy provided accountability, his criticisms revolved around colonialism.
Until 1952, most organized groups in Egypt were obsessed with the singular task of ridding the country of colonial influences – an obsession that proved to be favorable in expanding the Brotherhood’s presence. Al-Banna, during the 1919 Revolution, explained that service to the nation is a Jihad (struggle) that cannot be shied away from. In this regard, the Brotherhood collaborated with secular nationalist groups, like the nationalist Free Officers Movement. Even their fiercest critics, like Gamal Abdel Nasser, had short-lived membership within the Brotherhood because of its extensive infrastructure. It is during this time that the Brotherhood established its paramilitary organization, the Special Apparatus, to combat colonial influences and support the Palestinian nation-state against Zionism. The evidence that suggests Al-Banna was willfully blind to the militancy of the Brotherhood demonstrates the group was loosely defined, particularly in the militant realm.  Nonetheless the significance was profound – the Brotherhood’s transnational ambitions were realized in the establishment of the Brotherhood’s Palestinian offshoot, Hamas. More significantly, it signified that the organization grew faster than it could keep up wherein the multiplicity of its roles were increasingly difficult to discern – less and less Egyptians identified the Brotherhood as a social organization. Despite early religious and social activities, the internal struggle for direction after Al-Banna’s death and clash with Nasser forced an expansion into politics and militancy – fertile ground for radicalization – where the organization could best survive.
The Prison Years: Radicalism, Qutb and the Nasserist State
Following the assassination of Al-Banna in February 1949, the Brotherhood’s General Guideship fell to Hasan Al-Hudaybi, a man unable to tame factions within the organization, especially the Special Apparatus. Al-Hudaybi’s personal struggle with Nasser led an all-out war with the State costing the Brotherhood precious socio-political capital. This period significantly fragmented the Brotherhood and transformed the organization into one that was unrecognizable to the Egyptian people. It was at this point that the Brotherhood adapted to a hostile environment, when its ideological goals were threatened radicalism and militancy became a convenient justification for rank-and-file members.
When the Free Officers and the Brotherhood each took credit for the departure of colonialism from Egypt, the organizations engaged in an ideological war. Clearly, the Brotherhood’s own ideological force was much stronger than the Free Officers. Nasser’s confidant conceded that their movement rested on “transcendental hopes”. Nasser’s recognition of this deficiency forced him to marginalize the Brotherhood from all spheres of influence. Although this frustrated Al-Hudaybi, Nasser had no interest in power-sharing or democracy. Nasser’s ability to obtain political legitimacy through non-democratic means normalized autocracy and contributed to an illiberal culture that would hamper the Brotherhood in 2011. Since democracy lacked intrinsic value and because it was politically costly, the Brotherhood chose an alliance with Nasser that guaranteed its temporary survival. However, years of Nasser-manufactured criticism created a menacing image of the Brotherhood in the eyes of the public as an organization that restricts private life and monopolizes the definition of a Muslim. It is this public campaign led by one of Egypt’s most popular figures that contributed to a generational fearfulness and mistrust of the Brotherhood. In 2011, when the Brotherhood would compete in elections they could not recast their image. They could not be both activist and terrorist.
The attempt on Nasser’s life by the Special Apparatus in 1954 caused Nasser to ramp up his repression of the Brotherhood and gave rise to a radical adaptation of Al-Banna’s social idea. As a consequence of the vague relationship between the leader and the led, radicalism caused factionalism within the organization. Nasser used the attempt on his life to exterminate the Brotherhood from public life; show trials painted the Brotherhood as terrorists, many members were jailed without charge, and more died in prison. During these years, the Brotherhood’s cohesion dissipated and, in its place, as justification, radicalism spurred.
Among those arrested was the Brotherhood’s propagandist, Sayyid Qutb who theorized about the Islam’s role in society and the concept of jihad while in prison. In his book, Social Justice in Islam, he explains that the separation of religion and politics is “Western” and should not be accepted in Islamic societies. In this, Qutb envisioned a role for Islam that would be rejected by most Egyptians but embraced by many Brothers. While Al-Banna believed in the political system, Qutb had no use for it at all. Those prisoners suffering at the hands of repression adopted Qutb’s extremist view, depicted in his manifesto, Milestones. In that, he explains that no political or material power should hinder one’s ability to preach Islam and that those thinkers who say Islam has only prescribed defensive war are not real Muslims. Qutb’s distortion of the conventional understanding of jihad to an existential war resonated with some members who would carry out actions that would depict the Brotherhood more as terrorists than preachers.  Additionally, Qutb expands the understanding of the Muslim homeland and radicalized transnational ambitions. It was under these pretenses and this argument, that some inmates undertook a radical mission upon release, including Mustafa Shukro who established the militant group Al-Takfir wa al-Hijra. Other followers of Qutb’s Milestones were Al Qaeda’s Dr. Ayman Al Zawahiri and the Islamic State’s Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. That radicalism’s deep penetration of the Brotherhood undermined its charitable and social activities. Factionalism created both a new perception of the Brotherhood in the eyes of Egyptians and in the eyes of the West.
The prison years temporarily disarmed Nasser’s rivals, but it also allowed Qutb’s radical and violent agenda to fester in Egypt’s prisons. Nasser’s defeat in the Six-Day War killed Pan-Arabist ambitions in the region and created an ideological vacuum.  It was an opportunity for the Brotherhood to exercise its transnational goals and expand its reach across the region. Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, allied himself with the U.S. for this reason; he recognized the efficacy of the Brotherhood and the threat it posed to Egypt’s national interests. Qutb’s influence in particular exemplified both an internal schism but also the weaponization of his theoretical teachings. While the 1948 Palestinian War saw the Brotherhood’s first regional military excursion, Qutb’s beliefs were operationalized in the creation of Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and ISIS in Iraq. Qutb’s successful inspiration of the militant forced the West to endorse monarchical regimes, weakening the cause of democracy in Egypt and the Middle East. While this radicalization made its way into factions, the core Brothers attempted to work within the system under President Mubarak.
The Mubarak Years and the 2011 Revolution: Everything to Everyone
Hosni Mubarak’s loosening of political organization restrictions provided an opportunity for the Brotherhood to advocate for mainstream legitimacy.  After the Mubarak regime agreed to hold parliamentary elections following pressure from the Bush Administration, the Brotherhood won 20% of the seats in Parliament, making it the second biggest bloc after Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.  Under Mubarak, some leading reformists in the organization argued that the Brotherhood’s message was being misconstrued and that Islam requires government to be chosen by the people but governed according to Islamic rule. These arguments from traditionalist factions became so intense that when protests erupted on the 25th of January, the Brotherhood chose to take no sides at all. In retrospect, siding with democratic reforms is an easy choice but by design, the old guard of the Brotherhood hampered quick decision making. The Brotherhood’s leadership hesitancy conditioned to reject reform caused a repeat of the organization’s position in the 1952 Revolution. When it tried to be preacher, activist, and politician, the Brotherhood could not successfully be any of them at all.
The youth groups that organized demonstrations against the Mubarak regime consisted of many of the Brotherhood’s own youth leaders. Young Brotherhood leaders, like Islam Lotfy, joined the protests despite orders expressly forbidding it. It was this division between the traditional old guard occupying the leadership posts and the reformist youths that carry out day-to-day operations which exemplified an Al-Hudaybi era factionalism. When the Brotherhood finally endorsed the protests, it took an Islamic approach that was rejected by those at the centre of the revolution – young Brotherhood members, by virtue of the leadership structure, were forced to resign or be sidelined. Lotfy was forced to resign for his dissent, but he still believes that had he followed instructions, Mubarak would have remained in power. Members like Lotfy demonstrate the ways that the Brotherhood became victims of their own actions. As Al-Hudaybi engaged with Nasser only to be imprisoned by him, his successors did the same with Mubarak only to face the same fate by the people, not the state. A consequence of monolithic leadership and lopsided relations with the state, reform, democratic or otherwise, became unwelcome and ideology and the religious advocate role reigned supreme.
In 2011, the Brotherhood leadership’s hesitancy to reform saw a missed opportunity to capitalize on beneficial democratic reforms. Following Mubarak’s ouster senior leadership at the Brotherhood entered talks with the Mubarak regime in this it betrayed the revolution but secured its survival. , The Brotherhood attempted to be everything to everyone, from a status quo actor benefitting from the mercy of the military regime to a proponent of reform and democratization. The multiplicity of roles became harder to maintain. Many Egyptians saw the Brothers as opportunistic, religious fear-mongers or terrorists. Still, the Brotherhood enjoyed the largest socio-political infrastructure in the country and so when Parliamentary and Presidential elections came in 2012, they won a majority and the Presidency.
Despite the decision to include Christians and minorities within the political wing of the Brotherhood, the organization was opposed by powerful actors in the Egyptian society. The armed forces moved to take away key parliamentary powers and limit the civilian powers of the President. The Mubarak-era media continued to exaggerate and sometimes falsify its reporting on President Mohammad Morsi, even suggesting that he was planning the sale of the Pyramids of Giza. One might argue that criticism of government is a healthy and central aspect of democracy. However, Egypt’s lack of democratic culture that began with Nasser and an inherent resistance to Islamist ideals made criticisms ill-willed. It’s carefully crafted image in 2011 could not be accepted by those powerful agents. However, the is not without blame. It’s unwillingness to compromise made it ineffective, often authoritarian, within party politics. Having failed to receive a popular mandate, despite elections, the armed forced removed President Morsi in 2013. The organization’s history cannot be separated from that of the military regime, in fact, its survival rested on it. Unlike under Nasser, the internal strife and multiplicity of roles could not withstand repression, but the movement continued to spread abroad.
The Transnational Movement
For most of its history, the Brotherhood has acted as a shadow government, influencing the decisions of the military regime and while it never achieved power permanently, it inadvertently affected domestic and foreign policy decisions. In 1948, the Brotherhood lent both material and ideological support to a cause that would later be adopted by Hamas, an organization that would threaten Egypt’s relationship with Israel. Its anti-Israel sentiment destabilized the military regime. One of its former members assassinated Anwar Sadat. There is no doubt that its alliance with other Islamist groups like Hamas have contributed to the Palestine-Israel conflict since 1948. The repression of the Brotherhood, particularly after the Manshiyya incident and Morsi’s ouster, created an exile community in the Middle East and Europe that have succeeded in creating an unlikely transnational movement envisioned by Al-Banna and Qutb. While some have argued this has created a web of jihadist cells, others insist that in Europe the Brotherhood was able to reconcile with secular democratic governance. Perhaps this is evidence that democratization of Brotherhood values is possible, just not in the Middle East where the opportunity to monopolize power is too great. Furthermore, its ideological opposition to communism jeopardized Nasser’s relationship with the Soviet Union. If the Brotherhood could wield power, it could tip the scales in the Arab Cold War and end Soviet influence in Egypt. The ideological influence of Qutb in the Afghanistani mujahideen even contributed to the USSR’s defeat in 1989.
Situated outside the religious realm, the Brotherhood challenged the regional interests of established theocracies in the Middle East. Regional alliances particularly in the Gulf region are interested in crushing the Brotherhood because of the threat it poses to their monopoly over religious authority. These Gulf nations allied with West who were equally fearful of jihadism. It is this co-dependent policy between Gulf monarchies and Western nations to dispel Islamist influences in the region that may be chiefly responsible for the lack of democratization. This is not to say that the Brotherhood would have surely succeeded absent this policy, but it severely undermines democratic political culture in the region. The rise of the Brotherhood in the 2011 forced the U.S. to decide between geopolitical interests or moral ones – evident by President Obama’s late backing of the revolutionaries, the Brotherhood’s rise unveiled American hesitancy with a non-secular conception of democracy. The Brotherhood’s ability to unify Islamist groups played an important role in policy towards Palestine, the Arab Cold War and the West’s Middle East policy. While it may not have established an Islamic caliphate, the Brotherhood has influenced governments and guided the course of Islamist movements around the world.
As activists, militants, politicians, and preachers, the Brotherhood has changed the socio-political landscape of the Arab world. At conception, the organization was designed around the ideals of its leader and became subject to internal struggle over the judgement of that leader. Throughout its history, internal divisions emerged to reflect and adapt to social currents of the time. It was the inability of the structure, enabled by leadership, that made the values of the Brotherhood vulnerable to radicalism, like Sayyid Qutb, and reform, like Islam Lotfy. Ideologically, the Brotherhood has shown that it can operate within a democratic system, but its factionalism served to its detriment. Internationally, its potency changed the course of Western-led democratization in the Middle East and forced relationships with Arab monarchies. And while a Brotherhood-led democracy in Egypt would complicate the strategic Western interests in Israel and Egypt, the chances of its success are slim. The internal splintering – a symptom of the organization’s structural leadership – compounded by foreign interference and hostile domestic culture cannot equip the Brotherhood with the necessary discipline to compete in democratic elections. Its ideological adaptability has proven to be a blessing and a curse; ideology helped the Brotherhood survive the Nasserist state, but doomed its only chance at power. Throughout its history, survival, and opportunity motivated the Brotherhood’s stance on democracy – not an intrinsic belief. Perhaps, the Brotherhood re-emerges in another revolution but, at that time, it must contend with its roles and divisions.
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