A Closer Look: The Origins and Evolution of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwayn al-Muslimun) is the oldest and most influential Islamist organization in Egypt, most recently in the news when party member, Mohammed Morsi, became Egypt’s first democratically elected president. The Brotherhood’s legacy reaches back to 1928 when it was founded by Hasan al-Banna.

Hassan Al Banna, Founder of the Muslim Brotherhood

Banna, an imam, (Muslim religious officiant or leader) formed the Muslim Brotherhood as a rejection of Western values and imperial domination of Egypt. The Brotherhood aims to replace foreign influences with Islamic values, law and policies. Its original base of support was found among the marginalized lower-middle class who resented the socially stratified rule under Great Britain and the British colonial presence in general. The Brotherhood spent the first ten years of its existence expanding its support network and engaging in grassroots activism. By 1938, it had over 500,000 members in Egypt, and influence worldwide.

The Brotherhood’s first notable campaign was an effort to call attention and gather support for the Arab Revolt in Palestine, a 1936 movement that aimed to achieve a state independent of the British mandate system. This campaign is credited with giving the Palestine issue the prominence it has today in Arab-Israeli relations. In 1949, amid disagreements between the Brotherhood and the Egyptian government, Egypt banned the organization and froze its assets. Consequently, a young member of the Brotherhood assassinated the 2nd prime minister of Egypt, Mahmoud al-Nukrashi Pasha. Banna disavowed the assassination, calling it un-Islamic. Banna himself was killed the following year by an unknown assassin.

In 1952, the Muslim Brotherhood supported the successful Free Officers coup to achieve independence from Britain. As a result, Gamel Abdel Nasser, one of Egypt’s most charismatic and famous presidents, took power. However, the Muslim Brotherhood and Nasser differed ideologically, as the Brotherhood wanted the implementation of sharia law (a traditional Islamic system of laws), contrary to Nasser’s pan-Arab, socialist vision. As a result, the Brotherhood attempted an assassination of Nasser in 1954 and subsequently was banned again, driving the organization underground until Sadat’s presidency.

Sayyid Qutb, Muslim Brotherhood leader hanged for assassination plot against then President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966.

As a result of both being driven underground and the Brotherhood’s new leadership under Sayyid Qutb, the Muslim Brotherhood became quite militant in its vision. This more radical approach would later be used by groups like Hamas and al-Qaeda. The group was allowed to practice once again in the 1970s under the new leadership of Anwar Sadat. The Brotherhood then renounced its violent ideology and instead turned to the provision of social services in order to consolidate support among the population. The new ideology sought to Islamize society through a political “vanguard,” or elite, who would lead the masses towards the Brotherhood’s ideal society. The social services the Brotherhood provided were key to consolidating its support and often provided services the government could not.

In 2011, the Brotherhood received a golden opportunity to increase its political influence. The Arab Spring hit Egypt in full force, with millions of protesters filling Tahrir Square and demanding the end of the Mubarak regime. Mubarak ultimately stepped down and an election followed. Much to the Brotherhood’s delight, the liberal youth who organized and participated in the protests against Mubarak had no cohesive leadership and thus were unable to throw their support behind one candidate. Given its years of organization and strict hierarchy, it was easy for the Brotherhood to campaign effectively and get their candidate, Mohammed Morsi, elected.

Former Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, Muslim Brotherhood candidate, during his campaign. Later ousted in military coup.

Morsi took power in 2012 as Egypt’s first democratically elected president. He struggled with the military’s influence in government, purging top officials in the military. He also faced much opposition after decreeing his actions above judicial review, prompting some to call him “a new pharaoh.” Morsi was also tasked with creating a new constitution. The new constitution provided important limits of presidential powers and empowered the parliament, but at the same time gave much power to the military, contained no protections for women and religious minorities, and stated that all laws should be Islamic in nature.

Because of the restrictive new constitution and Morsi’s move to establish immunity from the courts, millions took to the streets in protest. Morsi responded with violence and attacks on the freedom of the press. It was with this pretext that the Egyptian armed forces, under then-Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah al-Sisi removed Morsi in a coup.

The military then began a bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, officially disbanding the group and prosecuting many of its former leaders. In 2015, Morsi and 105 other members of the Muslim Brotherhood were sentenced to death in what most international monitors deem “a show trial.” The suppression of the Brotherhood combined with the rise of Salafist movements like the Islamic State call into question the future influence and viability of this political institution.


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