Inside Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood
Two years after the dawn of the Arab Spring and six months after Mohamed Morsi was elected president, democracy is still a work in progress in Egypt. Moment’s Daphna Berman talks with Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
What is the origin of the Muslim Brotherhood?
It was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, a schoolteacher. The goal was to create a vanguard that could Islamize all its members, then society and the state and from there, pursue a regional Islamic order. The Brotherhood has two streams of thought: One is called Duat la Qudat, which means preachers, not judges. These are people who want to focus on social services, outreach and preaching, not politics. The second stream is called the Qutbists, named for Sayyid Qutb, who believed the Brotherhood should be a political vanguard for achieving power and confronting secularization and westernization. Mohamed Morsi is very much a Qutbist. Actually, the Brotherhood leadership is Qutbist, and those who subscribe to the other school have basically been ousted.
How did the group fare under presidents Gamel Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak?
The Muslim Brotherhood grew very rapidly in the 1930s and 1940s and cooperated with Nasser during the 1952 Officers’ Revolution that ousted the monarchy. But shortly thereafter, Nasser came to recognize the Brotherhood’s political strength as a threat to his authority, so he executed a mass crackdown. This crackdown picked up after the Muslim Brotherhood allegedly tried to assassinate Nasser, so from the 1950s to early 1970s, its leadership was imprisoned, exiled or underground. Anwar Sadat briefly loosened the reins on the Islamists to boost his own domestic credibility, but they began to pose a threat to him, especially after he reoriented Egyptian policy toward the West and signed a peace treaty with Israel. Sadat, too, cracked down. And after Islamists in the military who were not connected to the Brotherhood assassinated Sadat in 1981, Hosni Mubarak once again loosened the reins until he too came to see the Brotherhood as a threat. In 1995 he cracked down and many Brothers were arrested and imprisoned. So this organization has operated under repressive conditions for many years, and there is no question that this affects its view of the world. This is why no one should have expected the Brotherhood to rule democratically: Its experience in politics has been in a very repressive, autocratic setting.
Was the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood predictable after the fall of Mubarak?
After the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood was the only organized opposition group in Egypt. Despite the intense repression, it still had the sanctuary of mosques because the regime did not have the legitimacy to completely penetrate the mosques. So Islamists had a safe place to organize, whereas non-Islamists—liberals, leftists, socialists, communists—didn’t. The Muslim Brotherhood also has a system of recruitment and internal promotion that enabled it to survive even the worst abuses under Mubarak. The very process of becoming a Muslim Brother takes five to eight years, and during that time Muslim Brothers are promoted through five levels of membership. At each stage, they are vetted for their completion of a segment of the Brotherhood’s curriculum, their commitment to the cause and their ability to take orders from the leadership. This process ensured that no one would become a Muslim Brother who would give information to the regime. It’s a uniquely strong organization in that all of its members have been vetted over the years for their commitment to the cause. In that sense, it’s much more like a cult than a political party, but with hundreds of thousands of not just members, but foot soldiers.
Did the opposition have a chance at the polls?
The opposition lost the elections because it’s deeply divided among leftists, socialists, Nasserists, communists, Christians and old regime figures. In each of those categories, you typically have multiple parties, whereas the Brotherhood can consistently move a critical mass of people in every district. If the Egyptian opposition coalesces, they would get hundreds of thousands of people to oppose Morsi.
How close is Morsi with the Brotherhood?
Morsi was for many years one of the key players in the Brotherhood’s political strategy. From 2000 to 2005, he served in Parliament as head of the party’s parliamentary bloc. From 2007 to 2011 Morsi held two important roles: He was the enforcer of the Brotherhood’s hardline tactics and ideology and he was the Mubarak regime’s point of contact within the Brotherhood. He was chosen for that position because he’s seen as a hardliner who will not concede anything. The regime, meanwhile, viewed him as an accurate representation of what the Brotherhood was doing or thinking.
Is support for the Brotherhood waning after the outcry over the constitution?
For all the hundreds of thousands protesting him, you have tens of millions who stay at home—the real question is why. Do they want stability and will therefore support Morsi’s maneuver? Or are they afraid of Brotherhood domination but are not the types to protest? We don’t really know. What we do know is that because the Muslim Brotherhood has cells across the country, known as families, it can always mobilize a critical mass of people to vote for its candidates in practically every district. These are not two-party races. There could be 30 or 40 candidates, and so if you can reliably mobilize 20 percent of the people in enough districts, you’ll have enough to make it to a second round and perhaps win the election.
Do most Egyptians want an Islamic state?
If you are looking at the outcome of last year’s parliamentary elections then yes, most Egyptians voted for Islamists. If you look, however, at the presidential election, specifically the first rounds, Islamist candidates only got 42-43 percent of the vote. So we still don’t have enough data on what the median Egyptian voter wants.
What kind of Egypt does the Brotherhood envision?
They envision a country that is economically prosperous, with less corruption and more social justice. If that vision sounds vague, it’s because they haven’t defined what any of those things mean or how they’re going to get there. What that Islamic state would look like has never been defined because the Brotherhood is so focused on preserving its organizational integrity as a vanguard for pursuing power that it hasn’t gotten to a serious discussion about what it would do with power.