The following writing is from the Muslim Brotherhood section of my Political Islam class with Dr. Lybarger.
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is the beginning and end of many Islamist movements in the Middle East. I have found that the group is often misunderstood for a multitude of reasons: the complexity, fragmentation, and wide reach of its members, along with the argument around moderation. In the book The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement by Carrie Wickham, she asserts her own definition of moderation that the reader could then form their opinion of the group around. For Wickham, she is interested in the extent of democracy on a spectrum, and whether there has been a worldview adjustment within the group. However, applying a value set is only a small part of understanding the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood; understanding the complicated history of the group is also important.
From the establishment of their group in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has been under attack from its own government. The group focused largely on grassroots education and charity work, drawing in support from disenfranchised Muslims. However, because al-Banna’s goal was to implement traditional Sharia law in every sphere of life, the group also worked towards political goals. This prompted a lot of backlash from the British that was occupying Egypt at the time, along with Egyptian leaders that would later come to power in 1953. This laid the foundation of torture and martyrdom that the Old Guard in the Brotherhood would use to form their worldview. The Old Guard can be defined as the older generational unit in the Brotherhood – they are anti-system, very patriarchal, and have a deep commitment to the preservation of the organization. Their ideas and motives were formed in the prisons of Egypt under President Nasser. These experiences caused them to have shared pathos of suffering that binds them deeply; it also heightened their distrust of the state.
However, after the 1960’s things started to shift in Egypt. It was during this time that the biggest fracturing within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood occurred. Instead of being tortured in prisons, Egyptians were being educated in universities. Different ideas were being shared and accepted – this is when the Middle Generation was formed. This transitional generation of Muslims was much more comfortable with other groups, like Copts, women, and secularists. They also acknowledged that to gain traction in the wider ideas being spread in Egypt that they needed to form legitimate political parties. However, this proved to be difficult because the entire Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood had conflicting ideas about the implementation of traditional Sharia law. While the Old Guard wanted to take the traditional Sharia route, the Middle Generation could not find a way to make it compatible with democracy. In the end, it came down to this: in order for traditional Sharia law to be harmonious with democracy, it would have to be completely reinterpreted.
While this internal conflict played a major role in how the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood acted and presented itself, a larger problem was occurring: the heinous crimes, corruption, and repression under the state’s leaders. Muhammed Mubarak, the fourth president of Egypt, ruled Egypt with an iron fist. Any political opposition would be imprisoned and he imposed non-democratic elections for decades. For some Muslims, democracy was more important than an Islamic State. It was because of this, the influence of the Middle Generation, and what was happening in Tunisia that the Arab Spring occurred. In 2010, Muslims from many walks of life came together in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, Yemen, and Syria to protest state violence. The documentary Arab Spring by BBC showed three different Muslims in Egypt who were involved in the uprising: Akmed, Gigi, and Tahir. Akmed was a young man, terrorized by the state, who thought that participating in the revolution would bring about democracy and increase his social status. Gigi was a socialist, American-educated woman who was heavily involved despite the risk. Tahir was a Salafi Islamist who was imprisoned and tortured under Mubarak, but due to the uprising, began a political career. All three represent a different offshoot and suffering of Egyptian society in the past 20 years, and present different versions of how they perceive democracy to look like in post-regime Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood encapsulated all three value sets, which made its participation in the Arab Spring very slow. The younger generation needed to participate, but the Old Guard only gave them permission if it was under a different name than the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. As the uprising continued, fragmentation in the Brotherhood increased but the Old Guard also started to come to a realization: if the regime wasn’t toppled, they would be the first to be punished by Mubarak. It was this intense fear, heightened by their memories of life in prison, that pushed them to come together as a collective group and fight for the resignation of Mubarak. In 2012, the dictator finally stepped down and Mohamed Mursi, a prominent member of the Brotherhood, took his place. After being given a seat at the table, the Brotherhood was quick to promote the idea of a state ruled by Sharia. This was largely influenced by the Brotherhood’s relationship with the Salafi-Wahhabi parties in Egypt. It was those traditionally backed actions, combined with a far too rapid transition from military rule to a new state that led people to question the authenticity of the Brotherhood’s intentions. Also, after being elected, Mursi reconfigured the government to give him nearly unlimited power. This disappointed many who supported the Brotherhood’s promises to not have majority power in the new government.
Soon, protests began against this decision which empowered the Egyptian military to overthrow Mursi. Once again, Egypt was being controlled by a militant stronghold.
For many, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is a radical Islamist movement that seeks to implement Sharia and destroy democracy. For others, it is a group that has provided their children with an education and food to eat, at no price besides loyalty. Because the group is so internally complex there will never be one way to view it. When presented with situations like Mursi’s short-lived rule, it is easy to cast the Brotherhood as a perpetrator of rational actor theory. By that, I mean that the entire movement is motivated to only help themselves. But this is problematic because the actors in the movement do not move collectively – they are constantly dynamic and subject to change their values and worldview at any given moment. Because of that, it is also difficult to determine the Brotherhood’s worldview adjustment over time.
The group has been violently opposed from the beginning, it has been given labels that don’t apply to every cleavage within the movement, it has faced fragmentation in value sets within itself – these have all contributed to why the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood hasn’t garnered enough traction in mainstream politics. Despite pushing very hard to grow from the bottom up, it has been severely trodden on. I’m not dismissing its violent offshoots, its varying support of the implementation of Sharia law, or its endorsement of guerilla warfare throughout history. However, it is not the only movement to do so, but its lack of being able to fully support democratic values, “Western values”, has seriously harmed its legitimacy on the international stage.
Citation: Wickham, Carrie Rosefsky. The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement. Princeton University Press, 2015.