How “Democratic” Is – And Has Been – The Muslim Brotherhood? – Part 1 (Kara Roberts)

The following is the first installment of a two-part series.

Within the past century, Egypt has experienced extreme fluctuations within its society and has been characterized by outside domination, conflicting demands for the identity of itself as a nation-state, and economic dependency on external superpowers. Due to the tumultuousness of Egypt’s framework, various religious movements and political parties arose as a response to Egypt’s desire for independence.

Of these responses, the Muslim Brotherhood has served to satisfy the religious demands of the nation, while simultaneously contributing to the establishment of a new Egyptian democracy. Despite—and due to — the conflicting perspectives on the Muslim Brotherhood, its role within the Egyptian landscape has not only been necessary, but has geared Egypt toward a democratic process unique to its people, culture, and time.

We must ask ourselves – did the Muslim Brotherhood, in fact, contribute to the establishment of a liberal democracy? The literature presents conflicting perspectives on the Brotherhood, its role in the Egyptian state and its revolutions, and in its ability to balance spiritual piety with political activism in a way that positively impacts the Egyptian people.

Due to the conflicts in perspective of the Brotherhood, I will explore the positives and negatives of the Brotherhood within the Egyptian context since its establishment in 1928. We must examine the Brotherhood’s influence on Egypt’s trajectory toward a democratic government, with the potential to be simultaneously guided by liberalism and state-sanctioned religious adherence.

Thus we come to the second  question – is an Islamist democracy —or a religious democracy, in general —possible? Further, would this democracy be compatible with a liberal human rights discourse, or is a democracy comprised of either constitutional liberalism, or Islamist rule the only answer for Egypt’s future?

Within the world’s modern landscape, whereby cultural ideologies are brought into closer contact, there are greater pressures for the developing nation-states to establish independence, which is characterized by political, economic, and cultural stability. As the outside pressures and internal instability accumulate, it is imperative that a nation-state organizes itself to the liking of the majority of the people. In the Egyptian context, the Brotherhood has contributed significantly to the various revolutions, the rise of fundamentalism, and to the conflicts between the freedoms of speech and religion.

Historical Context

Beginning in the 1830’s, British entry into and domination over the Middle East—and specifically Egypt—occurred as an economic and strategic decision to control the Suez Canal. British influence and occupation continued to varying degrees until the development of the Egyptian constitution in 1923, while Egyptian society accrued significant debt to British banks throughout this period.

The Egyptian Revolution of 1919—which was the culmination of Egypt’s struggle for full representation of its citizens, and one of the largest uprisings against the British—contributed to the British government’s recognition of Egypt’s independence in 1922, what Tarek Osman terms the “first comprehensive civic constitution in the Middle East” in 1923, and the creation of the Al-Wafd political party in 1919.

The 1923 constitution created “parliamentary representation, separation of authorities, universal suffrage and the respect of civil rights, and [the division of] the parliament between a house of representatives and a senate,” while the Al-Wafd campaign produced a new political system for Egypt, comprised of political pluralism, democracy, civil freedoms, and genuine constitutionalism.(33)  Egypt’s relationship with the outside world in the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century was characterized by domination, whereby Egypt had “traditionally been compelled to accept whatever political and cultural orientation was forced upon them.”(34)

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the rise of an Egyptian push towards independence, whereby various different actors, movements, and groups, all attempted to steer Egypt toward a more solidified sense of identity. While the 19th and 20th centuries contributed to the socio-economic advancements of South and East Asia, Eastern Europe, and Russia, Egypt’s society did not progress, and instead became a “breeding ground of aggression.”(9)

Towards the end of the first half of the 20th century, Egypt was mostly an agricultural society, though the remaining half of the 20th century produced a politically- and economically-damaged Egypt. Twentieth century Egypt experienced internal struggles between its government and armed forces, multiple uprisings against the regimes, attempts to redirect Egypt’s entire society, escalating tensions between religious groups, and the development of modern militant jihadism(10). Despite the eventual introduction of parliamentary elections and a multi-party system in the 1970’s, Egypt’s political system was characterized by coercion, oppression, cruelty, and the dilution of citizen’s rights. The consequences of such instability produced an economy characterized by a decrepit education system, poor health care, and embarrassing transportation systems within the 21st century.

An emerging sense of “Egyptianism” in the beginning of the 20th century contributed to the development of the Al-Wafd party, the Salafist Movement, and the Muslim Brotherhood as different approaches to Egypt’s search for identity. While the Al-Wafd political party supported transitioning Egypt from a dynastic rule to a constitutional monarchy with a nationally-elected parliament, the Salafist Movement strongly believed that the weakening of the Ottoman Empire beginning in the mid-19th century would dilute Islamic culture and would allow for “Western (infidel) subjugation of Muslims.”(35)

As two ideologically different responses to the challenges of establishing a nation-state’s independence, the Al-Wafd party advocated for a Western, liberal-democratic political model with an emphasis on capitalist economics, while the Salafist Movement advocated aversion towards a secular society and secular systems of education. Emerging as the “most important product” of the Salafist mobilizations, the Muslim Brotherhood arose, according to Nahman Tal, from the mind of Hassan al-Banna, who believed that “Islam has the power to reawaken the slumbering nation and recoup its national honor and political and social independence.”

Al-Banna has been revered as the most influential element of the entire Muslim Brotherhood and has “attained near iconic status within the movement.”(14) While the Brotherhood’s ideology, activities, and intentions contributed to its drastic rise in supporters from seven at its inception in 1928 to over 2 million in 1953(15), the extreme reverence for al-Banna as the charismatic teacher has overshadowed discussions of his ideas within Egypt.  A “personality cult,” in the words of Alison Pargeter, has developed around the figure of al-Banna, whereby there is a tendency within the Brotherhood to equate him with the Prophet due to the “special charisma” of his forceful personality, allowing him to “tap into the grievances of a generation.”(19)

Ultimately, al-Banna’s ability to mobilize and organize his people into a significant force created a hold over Egypt.  Though his ideas were “conceived almost a century ago in response to a set of very specific conditions inside Egypt,” they continue to characterize Egypt’s social landscape and have allowed for the Brotherhood’s expansion of activities throughout Egypt.(22)

Due to the significance of al-Banna’s personality in establishing and expanding the Brotherhood, a moderate look into his early years can shed light on his personal reasoning for Egypt’s need for the Brotherhood. Raised by a fundamentalist father, who encouraged “the puritan teachings of Ibn Hanbal,” al-Banna’s developing years, according to Christina Phelps Harris, were characterized by identification with nationality and with Islam.(143)

At age 13, when the anti-British rebellion of 1919 occurred, al-Banna was an active participant, expressing his loyalty to Egypt. At age 17, al-Banna went to study in Cairo, his first time living in a cosmopolitan city where he came “squarely face-to-face with the intellectual and the social problems engendered by westernization.” His transition from student to teacher in 1927 in the Suez Canal Zone and the continued establishment of British troops within this region crystallized his hostility toward Western influences into “emotional xenophobia.”(146)

While his official career title remained that of a governmental schoolteacher, al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 as “a reaction to the increasing penetration of Western culture, economics, and technology into Egypt.”(148) Claiming that Islam is more than a set of beliefs and rituals, al-Banna and the Brotherhood insisted that the establishment of an Islamic theocracy in Egypt, write Nahman, was the answer to Egypt’s contemporary society, which was “rife with decay and humiliation, caused by foreign conquerors who introduced alien values that in turn were adopted by the local rulers.”(20)

Due to the accelerated process of urbanization and the deep economic crisis of post-World War II Egypt, high levels of urban unemployment and severe shortages within the Egyptian villages contributed to the rapid rise of the Brotherhood and to its particular worldview. The Brotherhood’s core tenant advocates for a future Islamic theocracy due to Islam’s ability to encompass “the sense of nation (watan), nationalism, religion, creative spirit, the Holy Book, and the sword.”(21)

Thus, to accomplish this goal, the Brotherhood had intentions to wage war against Western influences and those that had contributed to Islam’s decline, and to eradicate imperialism, political parties, and foreign companies. Built on the principles of the Qur’an as its basic constitution, the Shura Council as its government, and on the ruler of the state as subordinate to the teachings of Islam, the Brotherhood advocates for an Islamist, shari’a-based state as the solution to Egypt’s profound instability.

While the Brotherhood began as a religiously pious movement, believing that a return to “pure, original Islam” would save the Egyptian state, its core ideological tenant combined with further instability in Egypt’s political and economic landscape contributed to its transition to a more politically-active organization.

The Political Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim Brotherhood’s history can be organized into two distinct periods: the “constructive period” from 1928-1949 and the “period of political factionalism” from 1949 onwards. Within the first period, the Brotherhood’s central activities were characterized by “religious missionary activity and by social welfare work” from 1928-1936, according to Phelps.(177)

Starting in mid-1930s, the Brotherhood began to develop into a politico-religious movement. The Brotherhood’s 1935 Organizing Congress began to demand complete obedience from all its members and dictated that any diversion from its program would be “an offense to the religion.” This dictatorial presentation of the Brotherhood, coupled with its military portion—the “Secret Organization,”which became operational in the late 1930s—had negative social implications and thus encouraged the liberal experiment of Al-Wafd and the liberal Islamists’ concept of “citizenship” whereby Egypt could become a secular state of religious plurality and equal rights for all citizens.

Further, the clandestine nature of the Secret Organization served to prove the Brotherhood’s intention to resort to violence to attain its goals, if necessary, as well as affirming its belief in the primacy of the jihadic principle within the Islamic movement. Though the Brotherhood had hinted toward a political future from its founding, the Palestinian Arab Rebellion of 1936-1939 became a turning point in al-Banna’s career as the Brotherhood began to spread outside of Egypt.

The nationalist Arab uprising in Palestine beginning in 1936 was a response to the government of the British Mandate and to the desire for Arab independence. The extension of the Brotherhood into Palestine during this uprising contributed to al-Banna’s growing desire for political authority. The Brotherhood launched a pro-Palestine campaign, raising funds and holding political rallies, which contributed to the establishment of the Palestinian question as a primary pan-Arab concern within the Middle East.

Similar to the activism of his youth, al-Banna’s activism within this uprising clearly expressed his desire for the marrying of social, political, and religious change to establish a society of pure values. While al-Banna became increasingly dictatorial, discord within the Brotherhood began in 1939, whereby some felt that the movement should focus solely on religious and social objectives.

The Brotherhood’s political status was helped further by numerous Egyptian politicians’ seeking of active support from al-Banna; simultaneously, al-Banna began to play down, according to Harris, the political aspects of the Brotherhood, insisting upon the “religious character of the Brotherhood,”(182) thereby developing a technique to gain greater power in the political sphere of the Egyptian landscape.

Beginning with the assassination of al-Banna in 1949, the Brotherhood began a reshaping of its organization to achieve influence once again.  The loss of al-Banna as their figurehead led the Muslim Brothers to readdress al-Banna’s original goals for the Brotherhood; the primary ideological intention of the Brotherhood to establish shari’a law and create an Islamic state contributed to the Brotherhood’s political rise even after al-Banna’s death.

On the eve of the 1952 Free Officers Coup, the Brotherhood had developed into a rather powerful political movement within Egypt. As an extra-parliamentary body, the Brotherhood gained its power from political groups that sought ties with the movement to dismantle their rivals and gain popular legitimacy. The Brotherhood expanded its activities to include more social involvement—such as education, preaching, and public relations—due to its conviction, as Nahman points out, that “society’s adoption of an Islamic way of life is the prerequisite for attaining the main goal of the Islamic theocracy.”(24)

Egypt’s socio-economic plight of the 1950s, its ever-expanding population without the necessary cultivatable land, the Brotherhood’s propagated message that Islam is a better alternative to the “unstable, unpopular regime,” and the Brotherhood’s powerful ideological motivation coupled with its pristine organizational skills all contributed to the desire of every regime in Egypt for the support of the Muslim Brotherhood.

While all three of Egypt’s post-monarchy regimes (Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak) opposed Islamic extremism, they each considered themselves Muslim modernists and did not aim to separate Islam from the state, but rather, “intended to integrate it as a controlled and functional component of their regimes,”(45) according to Michael Winter.

The relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the political regimes of the second half of the 20th century contributed to the development of the Brotherhood’s political clout in the Egyptian landscape. The military overthrow of the monarchy, which culminated in Nasser’s regime (1952-1970), led to a political system characterized by authoritarianism, a single-party, centralization of power, opposition to political plurality, outward expression of secularism and Arab socialism, and antithetical sentiment towards the Brotherhood.

Nasser’s policy and overarching ideology centered upon the idea of Arab socialism, which was a comprehensive program including land reform, narrowing social gaps, state control of the economy, and unification of educational and judicial systems. Ultimately, Nasser sought to integrate Islam into the state; as Nasser’s socialist regime failed to “alleviate the ills of Egyptian society,” however, the Brotherhood saw an opportunity upon his death.

Though the literature presents conflicting levels of certainty regarding the events of October 1954, it is assumed that the Brotherhood attempted to assassinate Nasser.  Its failed attempt, but assumed guilt, led to its illegality in December 1954. With Nasser’s ultimate death in 1970, the regime of Anwar Sadat (1970-1981) played a central role in implementing Nasser’s Islamic extremism.

While “an atmosphere of reconciliation pervaded the government’s relations with the Muslim Brotherhood,” writes Nahman(37), Sadat’s regime was characterized by increasing polarization in the struggle between the official, established Islam of the state, and the “politicized, radical Islam of the fundamentalists” (as Winter puts it), such as the al-Jihad Organization.(50)

Throughout Sadat’s regime, radical Islamic groups became the main threat to the regime, as tensions between Sadat and the Brotherhood grew. The friction between the Brotherhood and Sadat centered on four main areas.

First, the Brotherhood opposed Sadat’s open-door economic policy and Egypt’s transition into a Western-style free market.  Second, Sadat rejected the establishment of a political party with religious or ethnic characteristics.  Third, Sadat rejected Brotherhood’s demands that shari’a be implemented as the exclusive legal source in Egypt.  Fourth, the Brotherhood greatly opposed the signing of the Peace Treaty with Israel.

Further, Sadat’s spreading of a moderate version of Islam to counter the radicalism of his opponents, and his liberalization of domestic political life ultimately led to his assassination by members of al-Jihad. The democratization that Sadat began continued into the Hosni Mubarak regime (1981-2011), though Mubarak advocated for a gradual approach to the implementation of shari’a.

While the government was now characterized by freedom of expression, independence of the courts, and “considerable scope for political parties,” (53) there was simultaneously a popular demand for more religion in public life. Mubarak attempted to counter these pressures by attaining a sense of equilibrium between the religious and secular forces of Egypt’s social life, and by distinguishing between the moderates (represented by the Brotherhood) and the violent radical groups.

Ultimately, the government’s inadequate ability to meet the religious demands of the Egyptian public forced the government to make an agreement with the Brotherhood: the Brotherhood had authority to implement religious law without violence, and the regime would therefore have no obligation to grant the Brotherhood any sense of political legitimacy. This agreement led to the regime’s weakened control in the religious arena, the Brotherhood’s advancement of political authority, and the Egyptian people’s increasing trust in the religious goals of the Brotherhood.

Under the Mubarak regime, the Brotherhood expanded into multiple aspects of Egypt’s social and political life. Instilling social Islam, or what Nahman describes as the “vast, efficient network of public aid and welfare services,”(46) the Brotherhood introduced thousands of private, voluntary organizations, Islamic investment companies, new schools, and various successful companies within the fields of journalism, engineering, and economics.

These companies allowed Egyptians to invest in their own, privately-owned companies for the first time in Egypt history. The Brotherhood’s participation in the People’s Assembly in the 1980s did not necessarily imply that it agreed with human legislated justice—such as human rights and in opposition to shari’a law—but that it had recalled al-Banna’s argument for the Islamization of society and realized that if it were to attain this goal, parliamentary activity was necessary.

Since the Brotherhood was still considered illegal, it aligned with the Labor Party and the Liberal Party during the 1987 general elections, creating “the Islamic alliance”, whereby its underlying goals were to implement shari’a, advance the dissemination of religious information, and “purge people’s hearts and minds of Western concepts,” such as liberalism. As the Mubarak regime contributed to the Brotherhood’s expanse of influence throughout the public, the regime ultimately had to “revert to a policy of containment” toward the Brotherhood, though it failed to reduce the Brotherhood’s activity in education, health, and economics.(50)

While in the 1990s, the government succeeded in ousting the Brotherhood from the People’s Assembly and denying its participation in the 1995 general elections, the Brotherhood’s social influence and programs continued to permeate the region. During the Mubarak and early post-Mubarak era, three main currents within the Brotherhood contributed to the conflicting perspectives on the Brotherhood. First, there were those who favored pious religious activities over any political activity. Second, the largest faction consisted of religious conservatives who favored political participation. And third, there were those who chose to participate in politics but whose goals for Islam were more liberal.

This group, as characterized by James Gelvin, called for a reform of the Brotherhood’s authoritarianism, worked with secular colleagues, and “signaled the possibility of a secular liberal/liberal Islamist political bloc in the future.”(65) Though the last group had hope for a political future in Egypt, increasing discord among the political sphere eventually led to containment and confrontation of the Brotherhood in the 1990s.

In 1994, the Mubarak regime launched an aggressive campaign against the Brotherhood due to its claim that the Brotherhood had only made a limited contribution to preventing or reducing terror, and due to the uncovering of evidence that suggested the Brotherhood had links to radical Islamist groups. The regime continued to debilitate the Brotherhood throughout the 1990s to ensure it remained illegal and could not gain greater political power, fearing what might happen if radical Islamism came to power. However, these attempts only served to band together the anti-authoritarian secularists and the anti-authoritarian Islamists as they “squared off against an autocrat and his supporters” during the January 25, 2011 Revolution.(78)

Kara Roberts is a writer from San Clemente, California.  She is currently attending the University of Denver and pursuing degrees in Religious Studies MA and International & Intercultural Communication MA. She is an assistant editor for Religious Theory and the Production Editor for The New Polis.

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