July 19, 2024

How “Democratic” Is – And Has Been – The Muslim Brotherhood? – Part 2 (Kara Roberts)

The following is the second installment of a two-part series. The first installment can be found here.

The increasing civil unrest in Egypt in 2011, instigated by police brutality, unemployment, low minimum wage, lack of housing, food inflation, corruption, and lack of freedom of speech, contributed to an uprising whereby the social activists of the youth wing of the Brotherhood had the support of a broader coalition. The overthrow of the regime and the revolution’s success led to the Brotherhood’s establishment of its own political party (the Freedom and Justice Party [FJP]), whereby in January 2012, the FJP candidate—Muhammad Morsi—won the election as Egypt’s first post-Mubarak president.

Despite the win, Morsi saw himself and the Brotherhood on the defensive, sensing the opposition of the military. In attempts to deal with the potential crisis, Morsi gave himself full legislative authority over the military and made his rulings supreme over that of the judiciary’s. Increasing liberal opposition to the Brotherhood arose, whereby they complained of a lack of power-sharing and of the Brotherhood’s authoritarianism.

Further, James L. Gelvin describes the new constitution of December 2012 as “ambiguous when it came to such issues as human and women’s rights, the role of Islamic law, and religious freedom.”(76) However, the real mounting pressure of Egypt, which led to the military overthrow of the Morsi government in June 2013, was “the insoluble problem of the economy.”

Plummeting foreign reserves, the decline of Egyptian currency, fuel shortages, electricity blackouts, higher food prices, and decreasing tourism all contributed to the army coup on June 31, 2013, which suspended the 2012 constitution and ordered the drafting of a new one. Despite the “mutually reinforcing institutional paranoia of the military and the Brotherhood,” it is argued that the “Achilles’ heel of all the uprisings and the ruin of revolutionaries of all ideological persuasions everywhere in the Arab world,” was the economy.(80)

By the summer of 2013, the political landscape had shifted drastically: liberal opposition—fueled by their overt hatred for the Brotherhood rule—joined forces with the military to create a “new military-backed order.”(79) Conflicting perspectives within the literature present two distinct reasons for the failure of Morsi’s/the Brotherhood’s rule: economic factors, “and not any inherent shortcoming of Islamist parties,” were the reasons for the Brotherhood’s failed rule. On the other hand, states Gilbert Achcar, the liberals understood that the real problem was the Brotherhood itself—“they obey the Muslim Brotherhood’s rules, whereas we obey Egypt’s values.”

Due to these conflicting perspectives on the Brotherhood’s rule, and on the Brotherhood’s integration into Egyptian social life, it follows that the Brotherhood, both directly and indirectly, contributed to the advancement of an Egyptian democracy, but not to the advancement of a liberal democracy.

Egyptian Liberalism vs. Islamic Democracy

Regarding the Brotherhood’s establishment of an Islamic democracy in Egypt, definitions of “democracy,” “liberalism,” “illiberalism,” and “constitutional liberalism” are imperative to begin the discussion. According to Shadi Hamid, “democracy” is, at its simplest, “a political system that grants power based on what large groups of people want.” In the words of Shimon Shamir, however, “liberalism” embraces a variety of beliefs, such as the establishment of free enterprise, protection of individual welfare, and securing of basic liberties.(196)

“Illiberalism,” or “illiberal democracies,” advocates for a democratically elected president—based on the demands of the majority of the people—but these demands may not necessarily be in line with constitutional liberalism. “Constitutional liberalism,” then, is a political system that is “more about the ends of democracy rather than the means,” whereby it is marked by free and fair elections, establishment of the rule of law, separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties (such as speech, assembly, property, and religion).

While, in the Western experience, democracy and liberalism have historically gone hand-in-hand—such that, in popular usage, “democracy” refers to “liberal democracy”—Fareed Zakaria argues that democratization is directly linked to illiberalism and that the rise of illiberal democracies is occurring with greater frequency in the contemporarily developing nation-states. Thus, in the case of Islamists in the Egyptian context, their “illiberalism” was a product of their Islamism due to the distinctive nature of their ideological and intellectual ‘project.’

Under an autocratic rule—which the Egyptian people experienced throughout the 19th and 20th centuries—it becomes the primary goal of Islamists and secular liberalists alike to establish a democracy, “because, without it, nothing else can really happen.” Repression of a supreme rule within an authoritarian regime bands the ideologically distinct groups of Islamists and liberals together with the shared goal of toppling the dictator and an agreement to resolve their differences within a future democratic process.

This is precisely what occurred during the January 2011 Revolution, with liberals soon realizing that the Brotherhood’s presidency had only replaced one authoritarian regime with an Islamist one. With the conflicting movements and actors of the Islamists, the liberals, and the leftists all attempting to establish the meaning of Egypt’s modern nation-state—with Islamists focused on the Islamization of society and the liberals focused on the implementation of a Western, liberal, democratic framework—the various ideals for the Egyptian state are seemingly incompatible.

For instance, a liberal democracy demands the recognition of certain “inalienable rights;” Islamists, however, do not believe in these, creating a situation of colliding worldviews. For Islamists, the will of God “takes precedence over any presumed international human-rights norms.”

This collision of worldviews is further expressed in Morsi’s 2012 constitution—Egypt’s first post-revolution constitution—which violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and failed to protect gender equality, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion. The Brotherhood advocated for a bottom-up approach, whereby the transformation of society into an ideologically Islamist culture begins with the individual. A greater look into Egypt’s history of liberalism may shed light on the Brotherhood’s various positives and negatives within the Egyptian society.

Most writers on Egyptian liberalism agree that it is distinctly different from the liberalisms of other countries (Europe or the West, for instance), that it dominated Egypt in the first half of the 20th century, and that the Egyptian liberal age came to an end between 1930-1939. Liberalism was “perceived as a genetic code…of the generations of the monarchy period,” whereby it illuminated “patterns of domestic political institutions, economic enterprises, social relations, cultural activities, and interactions with the outside world.”(196) During the monarchical rule, liberalism founded the constitutional structure, educational systems, legal reform, philosophical and cultural advancements, and economic entrepreneurship. It may be necessary to establish a category of Egyptian liberalism that sits between Western secularism and Islamic orthodoxy due to its “intimate connection with what the society holds to be sacred.”(197)

Before the 1930s, a specific set of beliefs characterized the Egyptian liberal school of thought, which was squashed by the authoritarian nationalism of Egypt, post-1952. The Egyptian liberalism of the first half of the 20th century was characterized by the beliefs of reason, science, basic freedoms and civil liberties, religious pluralism and liberal guidelines for the legal system. Additionally, shari’a was recognized as a source of inspiration, secularism was “neither openly professed nor totally sanctioned,” and Islamic traditions were interpreted historically and allegorically to “render them acceptable to a modern Muslim.”(197)

Despite these liberal values unique to the Egyptian landscape, waves of radical Islam and authoritarianism plagued Egypt beginning in the 1930s, created by the economic crisis of the time, the growing participation of conservative masses in public life, the failures of European liberalism, and the rise of radical ideologies. An abrupt shift occurred from Egyptian Liberalism to conservative Islam, which ultimately led to the Brotherhood’s attempted creation of an Islamic democracy.

The 1952 Revolution had successfully supplanted Egyptian Liberalism with a new trend of liberalism, one faced with the task of confronting Islamic Fundamentalism. While liberalism’s progress was stunted by the authoritarian regimes of the second half of the 20th century, Egyptian Liberalism is “a basic option whose appeal may grow or diminish, but one that is constantly available.”(203)

Alison Pargeter describes how, within the fluctuating trends of Egyptian Liberalism, the Brotherhood arrives at conflicting conclusions regarding the Brotherhood’s advancements and set-backs of the Egyptian nation-state. There are two distinct threads within the discussion of the Brotherhood. The first considers the Brotherhood to be an extremist organization, part of the global jihadist network. The second perspective considers the Brotherhood to be the moderate face of political Islam and advocates engagement. (210)

From the perspective that views the Brotherhood as providing a positive influence in the Egyptian nation-state, it argues that while the Brotherhood “may have engaged in questionable practices in the past, a reformist current has now come to the fore that should be encouraged and strengthened.”(211) Further, Nachman Tal states that every regime since the monarchy had “failed to puncture the widespread and efficient social Islam system that the Brotherhood had established, which included health, education, and welfare institutions.”(160) These institutions answered the needs of the Egyptian people that the authoritarian regimes failed to address: they provided jobs, education, adequate medical facilities, and improved living situations.

The Brotherhood also proved its ability to accept working within the framework of “alternative political realities.”(216) With a leadership that has expressed no aversion to taking part in the democratic process, the Brotherhood has evolved by producing more progressive platforms and reform programs. Additionally, the establishment of an Islamist democracy would allow for Egyptian society to follow the same democratic political traditions of the West, but would provide the “Islamic contribution” comprised of a “code of ethics, a transcendent morality.”(222)

However, this leads to the question: do the social, political, and economic advancements of the Brotherhood represent a genuine change of heart or are they “simply an opportunistic attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to make itself more acceptable in the contemporary climate?”(217)

The thread that focuses on the negatives of the Brotherhood focuses primarily on the main goal of the movement: the establishment of an Islamic state. Since the Brotherhood cannot simply abandon this objective without alienating a significant portion of its support base, allowing the Brotherhood to come to power would do nothing to advance the nation-state of Egypt.

Further, the Brotherhood as a movement “has hardly been a beacon of democracy.”(223) The leaders within the Brotherhood allow no space for criticism or evaluation; the Brotherhood has been controlled by the same faces for lengthy periods of time. Though the Brotherhood has a reputation of being flexible with outside actors, the internal structure is characterized by hierarchy, obedience, and inflexibility, such that the Brotherhood appears “like a huge lumbering elephant to which change can come only at a snail’s pace.”(233)

For all their talk of democracy, the Brotherhood members are unwilling to relinquish their own hold on power. The Brotherhood also has equated itself with Islam, which has frustrated many other Muslims within the same society. An Egyptian journalist noted that the “real” problem with the Brotherhood centered on the fact that to disagree with them is to disagree with Allah. The journalist states: “they represent only one approach to Islam which is not distinguished by any particular holiness; they are not Islam itself.”(231)

Despite the glaring problems of the Brotherhood, it should also be understood that the fact that it has survived this long as a movement, “for almost a century without having to fundamentally alter its platform or core beliefs is a testimony to the fact that it has been able to encapsulate and articulate the demands and grievances of generations of Muslims in the Middle East and beyond.”(231) The Muslim Brotherhood, for all its failures and disgraces, serves a purpose to a relatively significant population of Egypt and beyond, who find hope within the ideals of the organization, “in an otherwise bleak landscape.”


Understanding the Muslim Brotherhood and its relationship with the Egyptian people is not a simple task. While its prevalence in the Egyptian landscape has benefitted large factions of the developing nation-state’s society, the Brotherhood contributed to the establishment of a religious, illiberal democracy as the primary political system of Egypt.

Though the Brotherhood has positively contributed to the development of a democracy, it has not—and most likely will not—contribute to the establishment of a liberal democracy due to the incompatibility of the ideological differences between liberals and Islamists. This does not mean, however, that liberalism has not existed in Egypt, nor that the Brotherhood can destroy the continuity of Egyptian liberal thought.

While it is possible to establish an Islamist democracy, the historical analysis of Egypt and the Brotherhood’s political activity has presented the understanding that this would not be compatible with a human rights discourse and there would be restrictions of various freedoms, such as speech and religion.

Considering the contemporary Egyptian push towards the establishment of a liberal democracy, an Islamist democracy would only contribute to more uprisings, an increase in fundamentalism, and greater restrictions on basic freedoms. Though the Brotherhood is no closer to its goal of establishing an Islamic state, it will most likely continue to represent an important force of reformist Islam, as long as the Middle East is plagued by instability.

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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