This is the second post in a four-post series called Egypt: The Brotherhood, the Christians and the Americans. The first post lays out the major groups in Egypt. The second post looks at what’s next for the Muslim Brotherhood. The third post is concerned with the fate of Christians in Egypt. The fourth post is about America’s role in the current Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan meaning “brothers” in Arabic) has branches in many countries and operates uniquely in each. At different times and in different places, the MB has been a charitable organization, a force for social justice, a religious fundamentalist body and, sometimes, a terrorist group. In order to escape the complexity of geographic differences, my focus is only on the MB in Egypt.
Then: 1928 – 2011
In terms of Islamic history, the Muslim Brotherhood is a young organization. It was founded in Egypt by a charismatic teacher named Hassan al-Banna in 1928. The MB attracted many followers through their example and outreach to the community, and within two decades became the largest social program and welfare provider in Egypt, claiming hundreds of thousands of followers (some say over a million). The MB preached strong Islamic upbringing, taught adherence to sharia law and focused on issues of social justice.
The MB became associated with violence in 1947 after the formation of the state of Israel when it sent fighters to aid Palestine. It was also responsible for several assassinations, and al-Banna himself was killed by government assassins in 1949.
When Gamal Abdel Nasser came to power after a 1952 coup, he dissolved the Brotherhood, which he saw as a threat and rival, and his attempts to crush it sent it underground. Over the next fifty years, the Brotherhood continued its welfare role, but largely in secret. It was briefly accommodated by Anwar Sadat in the 1970s, but then cracked down on again over political differences. Ultimately, the Brotherhood was outlawed in Egypt. It maintained its social aid projects, but also saw the formation of numerous terrorist groups under its banner. It maintained its conservative, sharia-based creeds, which appealed to some, but alienated many others.
Now: 2011 – Present
Though the Muslim Brotherhood was marginalized under the thirty year rule of Hosni Mubarak, the government tolerated them because they filled a welfare role that the state couldn’t. The Brotherhood initially opposed the January 25 Revolution that set off the toppling of Mubarak, but quickly jumped on the bandwagon when they recognized the opportunity to fill the vacuum in Egypt’s political apparatus.
Once Mubarak was ousted, the MB was legalized and became the largest and best organized political group. Mohammed Morsi, an MB candidate in the 2012 democratic elections, won the presidency on the popularity of his organization and its social programs, as well as promises of an improved economy and a move toward democracy.
Morsi, however, was quickly perceived as a nepotist and traitor. He used the presidency to consolidate power among his MB comrades, he pushed a constitutional agenda that many saw as too Islamic and he was unable to make any real improvements in the flailing Egyptian economy.
After a year in office, in June of this year, Morsi was ousted by the military at the behest of the majority of Egyptians. Naturally, the Brotherhood was furious, calling the move a coup. Since then, over the last six weeks, pro-Morsi and pro-military forces have been holding rival demonstrations, which, especially in the last week, have turned very violent. Unsurprisingly, the Brotherhood isn’t willing to cede their long-awaited and hard-fought shot at power so easily.
Despite remaining the largest opposition group in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has lost considerable support, with many Egyptians labeling them a terrorist group and granting the military a mandate to crush to them. There appear to be three possible outcomes for the MB.
1. Reintegration: The Brotherhood might eventually acclimate to the order of the new Egypt. They could accept that their candidate, Morsi, failed in his chance at governance and decide to cut their losses. This would cede the highest positions of power, but it would allow them to be included in decisions going forward. The MB could participate in elections, contribute to the new constitution and become just one of many parties in a (hopefully) democratic system. From a Western perspective, this is both the best scenario and the least likely.
2. Marginalization: The MB may return to its Mubarka-era, 2010 status, a group that is excluded in an official sense, but is still socially tolerated. In this scenario, the organization could still send representatives to parliament and survive as a powerful social and political force in Egypt. Obviously, the Brotherhood doesn’t want to go back to illegality and ostracism, but its shot at national leadership has been squandered, and this may be the best it can hope for if it wants to survive and, potentially, flourish in the near term.
3. Radicalization: In this worst case scenario, the MB will return not to what it was in 2010, but what it was in the 1990s. At that time, the Brotherhood was seen as a terrorist organization, associated with a number of jihadist groups known for killing tourists, Christians and secularists. Presently, many Egyptians are again calling the MB terrorists. They point to sit-ins turned violent, terrorism in the Sinai and attacks on churches and federal buildings. If the Brotherhood feels it cannot truly participate in politics, that it can’t exist peacefully or that it was illegitimately robbed of power, segments of the group might radicalize and resort to violence.
Egypt is not Syria; the MB probably doesn’t have the resources or popularity to launch a civil war, but splinter groups could hide away in mosques and backrooms, stirring up trouble and carrying out attacks around the country. This won’t jeopardize Egypt’s overall stability — though the bludgeoned economy might — but it would be a serious plague on an indefinite timeline.