Here's a recent paper I wrote for course I've been taking in Middle Eastern Politics, Enjoy!
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood:
Hassan al-Banna to the Jasmine Revolution.
“The rising interest in Islamic militant movements in the West may be fully justified on grounds of ‘national interest.’ However, there is a creeping danger of ‘Neo-Orientalism’ in the garb of Western social science… the tendency to lump together all Islamic movements in all countries of so-called ‘crescent of crisis’ glosses over the historical specificities… (Roy 1994, 36).”
American media outlets have at times described the Muslim Brotherhood as an extremist organization while often implying ties between the MB and Al-Qaeda. These claims have most recently been expanded into the claim that the Muslim Brotherhood’s future role in the newly forming Egyptian government will pose a terrorist threat to the US. As Oliver Roy states above there exists a tendency to lump all Islamic movements together in order to form general assumptions about their ambitions or attitudes towards America. If we take the time necessary to examine the ‘historical specificities’ of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood we can come to better understand its place in America’s ‘National Interests.’ In this paper I will argue that, as Daniel By man believes, that the Muslim Brotherhoods potential role within the Egyptian government would not lead Egypt to becoming a new base for Al-Qaeda or any other extremist platform but may still pose a series of possible conflicts and benefits for American interests in the region.
There are three questions we should try to answer. First, does the Brotherhood really oppose modern institutions? Second, are American political ideals regarding a democratic society threatened by the efforts of the Muslim Brotherhood in advancing it’s own political objectives in Egypt? Or is its structure and construction actually mimicking many important aspects of modern western systems of education and governance? Finally will the Brotherhoods goals or objectives cause them to be unwilling to cooperate with other political groups within Egypt or with the United States as a whole?
Birth of the Brotherhood
We should begin at the beginning with the Brotherhoods founder Hassan Al-Banna. He was born in 1906 in the province of Beheira and raised by his father Shaykh Ahmad ‘Abd al Rahman al-Banna also known by other orthodox Sunni Muslims as the ‘watch maker.’ His father was a follower of the Hanbalite School and his son attended a series of elementary schools that focused on this sects puritan teachings (Harris 1964, 143). Most importantly Hassan was a member of three Islamic associations during his early teens. These included the “Society for Ethical Education” which required its members to strictly observe the pillars and moral prohibitions of Islam by imposing small monetary fines on its members in accordance to individual offences (Harris 1964, 145). Hassan later stated that such institutions where far more effective than any theoretical lessons or academic teaching when it came to shaping society as a whole.
Hassan continued to become involved in many other Islamic organizations including ‘Jam’iyyat al-Hasafiyyah al-Khayriyyah’ a group that opposed Evangelical Missionaries in his hometown and the Young Men’s Muslim Association. When he turned seventeen he attended the Dar al-Ulum, a state teachers college in Cairo. During the four years he spent in Cairo he observed the influence of western liberalism as ‘a deterioration of behavior, morals, and deeds, in the name of individual freedom… (Harris 1964, 146).’ Hassan’s observations and reactions to western influences throughout Cairo and Egypt were summed up in a graduate composition he completed as part of his graduation in 1927. The paper included many generalities about the duties of men and self-sacrifice in the name of reform. More importantly it outlined his ‘two great ambitions’ bringing happiness to his family and friends and working as a reformer through his teaching, writing, and traveling in the name of Islam (Harris 1964, 147).
In 1928, while occupying a government teaching position in Ismailia within the Suez Canal Zone, Hassan established the Muslim Brotherhood. After being visited by the six al-Hamid brothers Hassan was deeply influenced by their impassioned pleas for a ‘practical path, which will lead to the glory of Islam and the welfare of the Muslim people.’ Hassan at first chose to form an informal organization stating that “We are brothers in the service of Islam and therefore we are the ‘Muslim Brotherhood (Harris 1964, 150).’” In 1929 Hassan formally established the Brotherhood as a religious revivalist movement. Over time it would slowly grow from its early religious roots, as a group very similar to the religious groups Hassan was a member of in his youth, into a politico-religious society eventually gaining considerable political influence. Hassan was the central figure of the movement using his well-known charisma, eloquent speaking ability, and mastery of the Arabic language to expand the movement. In Max Weber’s classifications of political leadership Hassan would exemplify a leader who rested “on devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of (that) individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him," although Weber’s classification of a charismatic leader in no way captures the continued success of the movement today, this is found in the manner in which Hassan constructed and structured the Brotherhood. In this way Hassan emulated the role of the modern bureaucratic leaders of today.
From Propaganda to Modern Objectives
Hassan developed his own propaganda to win over converts to the Brotherhood. It was based on the tactics of early medieval subversive Islamic movements like the Isma’ilis combined with the spiritual appeal of Sufism. All of this was backed by Hassan’s education in logic and psychology from the Dar al-‘Ulum (Harris 1964, 152). In doing so he developed an elaborate system of dissemination for the Brotherhood’s teachings and propaganda. Hassan trained an elite group of disciples to spread the movement across Egypt. These men where held to a high standard, not only morally and in physical appearance, but also in their knowledge of the political and religious position of Islam in Egypt and across the world (Harris 1964, 153). In essence Hassan had created his own brand of Muslim men, flesh and blood examples of what it was to be a good Muslim. In many respects al-Banna took on the position of spiritual leader in much the same way a traditional Sufi Sheikh receiving un-quested loyalty and devotion from his followers. The majority of the original Brotherhood consisted of lower class workers, peasants, and impoverished students (Harris 1964, 157).
All of the business of the Brotherhood was approved and regulated through the central office of the Dar. Hassan met with close advisors here in a building located closely to al-Aznar University and the Royal Palace. Local branch offices where established across Egypt which each were required to hold literacy programs, lectures on Islam, committees and programs for welfare and charitable work, health programs and various other functions according strictly to the Brotherhoods overall objectives (Harris 1964, 154). These activities helped feed and care for large numbers of poor and raise the standard of living in order to prove that the Egyptian people could be self-sufficient. This system was over all largely dependent on a modern western system of economic and social organization. They even in many respects depended on such western systems in the creation and operation of brotherhood medical clinics, factories, and publishing companies all administered by modern western standards (Harris 1964, 156). These included the Muslim Press Company, Ikwan Spinning and Weaving Company, and a Commercial and Engineering Firm with capital investments totaling more then 200,000 Egyptian pounds.
Hassan was deeply concerned about the threat that westernization and secularism posed to Islam. What is also clear from the above examples is that Hassan recognized the impertinence of modern innovation insofar as they supported the objectives of the Brotherhood (Harris 1964, 161). Hassan attempted to draw a fine distinction between westernization and the previous examples of modernization that did advance Islamism and to improve the lives of Muslims. He was unclear on how to replace Egypt’s legal code with Shari’ah law admitting ‘that compromises between the Shari’ah and existing Egyptian laws would have to be reached (Harris 1964, 166).’ When it came to secular education Hassan went even further permitting Muslim brothers and even sisters to attend secular universities. Hassan stated:
The status of woman should be remedied in such a way as to assure their progress in accordance with the teaching of Islam. The problem of women, which is the most important social problem, should not be allowed to develop unchecked and under the unguided influence of self-interest, eccentrics, and extremists (Harris 1964, 167).
Hassan went further to state that educated women made the best mothers, and that it was permissible for them to become teachers and doctors. This being said Hassan’s statement eluding to women as being an important social problem could be taken as having a somewhat inflammatory meaning.
Hassan was a strict Hanbalite and believed that the Koran and Sunnah should be the soul basis for doctrine and law (Harris 1964, 161). Hassan also supported the restoration of the Islamic concept of Jihad but in repeated publications asserted that the Brotherhood should never condone the use of force to gain its objectives. Hassan politically supported a return to Islamic government asserting that such a government would essentially be democratic in nature. Although Hassan was always vague on the details of such a government even going so far as to skirt the issue of whether or not the Brotherhood supported the return of the Muslim Caliphate (Harris 1964, 162). Hassan declared it ‘was the duty of all Egyptian Muslims to be loyal to Egypt, loyal to the ideal of Pan-Arabism, and loyal to the ideals of Islamic internationalism… (Harris 1964, 164)” Hassan never gave indication as to the order of these priorities but he did publish an all-inclusive statement on the Brotherhood’s objectives in the form of a letter to the rulers of various Muslim countries.
The first section was an indictment of western civilization although he wasn’t specific about ‘prescribing kindness and generosity’ towards minorities such as Christians and Jews so long as they where peaceful towards and loyal to the future Muslim governments of Egypt (Harris 1964, 169). He emphasizes a strong military and the importance of education in the sciences while stressing the importance of avoiding the ‘pitfalls of secularization (Harris 1964,170).’ The second part focused on a step to be taken by Muslims to reform the modern world. These included the dissolution of all political parties, a strong all Muslim army, and the Islamization of the civil service to mention a few. Hassan went on in the letter to outline the implication of a long series of moral reforms in order to unify the citizens of all Muslim nations.
In 1935 the Brotherhood sent ‘Abd-al-Rahman al-Banna’, Hassan’s brother to Palestine to meet with the Mufti of Jerusalem. During the Palestinian revolt of 1936, ‘the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood carried out propaganda activities while protesting against the British. In April 1948 the Brotherhood sent three battalions of volunteers to fight alongside Egyptian troops in the war against Israeli (Abu-Amr 1994, 3). These Brotherhood forces established some 25 branches of the Brotherhood throughout the Gaza Strip and West Bank. These troops would later return to Egypt and pose a major security threat to the Secular regimes of Egypt. In this way the Egyptian Brotherhood would go on to spawn many militant Islamic groups today (Munson 2001, 487) This period in the Brotherhood’s History would lead directly to modern western accusations about the Brotherhood’s involvement with terrorist organizations. Throughout the post war years Hassan’s power as a leader would grow. With the raise of the Wafd party and the revolution in Egypt that would eventually lead to the abdication of King Farouk, Hassan found himself in a position to gain a seat on the Chamber of Deputies in 1942. Ultimately Hassan was forced to step aside during the election under fear of arrest. The Egyptian Parliament then officially dissolved the Brotherhood in 1948 (Munson 2001, 489). Brotherhood members retaliated by assassinating Prime Minister Mahmud Fahmi al-Nuqrashi this action lead to the assassination of Hassan al-Banna by pro-government forces in 1949 (Harris 1964, 185).
The Modern Egyptian Brotherhood
The Brotherhood spent most of the subsequent two decades underground, having most of its key membership placed under arrest. Throughout the 70s’ and 80s’ the Brotherhood renounced violence and began to redevelop the organization as a primarily social welfare organization in line with the groups earliest days. The re-born Brotherhood focused on the domination of Egypt by foreign powers, the poverty of the Egyptian people, and the declining morality of the state and individuals living in it (Munson 2001, 489). The organization remained vague as ever when it came to specific policy issues instead choosing to focus on social welfare programs and education (Munson 2001, 490). In doing so the Brotherhood adopted a Federated Structure. It was focused around a central headquarters in Cairo and several branch offices across Cairo’s many suburbs and Egypt’s other towns and villages.
Organizational structure and ideology became intertwined. Modernization and globalization had produced vastly deferent interests for Egypt’s many classes and social groups (Munson 2001, 498). Industrial Workers in the heart of Cairo, the peasant farmers of the Nile delta, and the poor and destitute inhabiting Cairo’s slums and cemeteries all have vastly different social and political interests and concerns (Munson 2001, 498). The Brotherhood had been carrying its message to the people through pamphlets and through a core of highly literate representatives cast in much the same form as Hassan’s original disciples. In urban educated areas it becomes a voice for democracy; in poorer areas a defender of faith and provider of basic social services (Munson 2001, 498). Its central leadership was not so central being shifted from branch to branch based on a planned pattern to avoid government crackdowns on the group. This nimbleness inherent in its federated system allowed the Brotherhood to develop and respond in a manner reminiscent of the American democratic system. Brotherhood leadership has not in the past been subject to election but they have been responding to the direct input of its most local members gaining it legitimacy from a form of grass roots support. In this way the organization does not endorse fanatical or extremist ideologies instead adapting a lack of distinctiveness on highly contested issues (Munson 2001, 504). ‘It did not advocate a return to the [golden age of Islam]… Or propose ideas that where anti-modern or even anti-Western (Munson 2001, 504).’
In the case of the recent Jasmine revolution the Brotherhood adapted this system to social networking sites like Facebook® and Twitter®. In this way the Brotherhood embraced the Internet as a tool to educate young activists in the core teachings of the Brotherhood and involve the young generations directly in the processes of reform. Shaid Hamid, Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Center, questioned the Brotherhood’s most prominent ‘reformist’ Abdel Monem abul Futouh about its strategy throughout the revolution. He responded stating, “The revolution is led by the youth, and we have to respect that this is their revolution. The Brotherhood youth didn’t get permission from the leadership to participate – they did this on their own… And if Mubarak doesn’t leave, then they won’t leave.” This statement seems easily verified when placed in the context of the Brotherhood’s federated structure. More importantly Mubarak left and over the following weeks Egyptian Youth remained active, cleaning the streets, organizing political parties, and taking individual responsibility for the well being of Egypt as a whole. This is a direct reflection of the Brotherhood’s core values in action.
Although as Shaidi Hamid has stated the Brotherhood ‘is not a force for liberalism, nor is it likely to become so anytime soon. The group holds view that most Americans would be uncomfortable with, including on women’s rights and segregation of the sexes.’ In the sense Hamid is right though when he says ‘we’re not voting in Egyptian elections; Egyptians are.’ If we examine past United States Foreign policy we can find countless examples of attempts by our government to choose the leadership of Middle Eastern countries. From bringing the Shah of Iran to power to Hamid Karzai’s election in Afghanistan Americans are often left suffering buyers’ remorse. For this reason alone the United States should not interfere with Egypt’s coming elections. Instead we should proceed as Hamid from the Brookings Institute has suggested and, ‘begin a substantive dialogue with the Brotherhood in order to exchange views on key issues of concern, particularly in the realm of security cooperation.’
Some may object to the United States Government engaging in diplomatic relations with a religious organization. We need only look to the United States continued diplomatic relations with the Vatican. The U.S. currently maintains a diplomat in Rome and during the cold war diplomatic relations with Russia facilitated by the Vatican helped to prevent the outbreak of war and lead to mutual disarmament. The same approach could be taken with the Brotherhood allowing an open diplomatic relationship with the organization as it shapes the new Egyptian body politic.
Hopefully it is clear from the many examples of al-Banna support for modern advancements in economics, medicine, publications, and institutional organizations that the movement in its original form was not anti-modern. The Brotherhood today has gone on to embrace social networking and a federated structure which mimics much of the democratic system here in the U.S. Clearly the Muslim Brotherhood will not support liberal secularism but its structure in such a way as to easily embrace basic democratic institutions. Finally any future Egyptian government will be heavily influenced by the Brotherhood. This will most likely mean the United States will not, as it did with Mubarak’s regime, enjoy outright obedience on the part of Egypt. Instead the U.S. will have to develop new diplomatic relations with Egypt and work to develop common ground with whatever new government comes to power in Egypt. In all the Muslim Brotherhood is not a terrorist organization bent on destroying the west, but it is also not in any way a force for the kind of ideal liberal democracy the U.S. has attempted to create around the Middle East. The truth of the Muslim Brotherhood instead, as we’ve seen, lies somewhere in between.
Abu-Amr, Ziad. 1994. Islamic Fundmentalism in the West Bank and Gaza: Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Jihad. Indiana University Press. Bloomington.
Roy, Oliver. 1994. The Failure of Political Islam. Harvard University Press. Cambridge: Massachusetts.
Harris, Christina Phelps. 1964. ''Nationalism and Revolution in Egypt: The Role of the Muslim Brotherhood.'' Mouton and Co.: Stanford, California.
Munson, Ziad. Social Movement Theory and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Autumn, 2001) pg. 487-510.
Hamid, Shadi. (April 24, 2011) Should we fear the Muslim Brotherhood? Retrieved (April 24, 2011): http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2011/0202_egypt_hamid.aspx
Hamid, Shadi. (April 24, 2011) The New Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. Retrieved (April 24, 2011): http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2011/0308_egypt_muslim_brotherhood_hamid.aspx