What Is The Muslim Brotherhood, and What Does It Mean for Egypt?

Posted by Sara Fletcher


Within the seemingly never-ending stream of op-eds about Egypt's political unrest, there's been much talk about the role of the Muslim Brotherhood. The country's largest opposition party was formed in 1928, but is technically banned from Egypt. After a late arrival to the public protests, the group has been actively vocal and participatory, standing alongside the Egyptian anti-Mubarak protesters and supporting potential presidential candidate and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei. In a statement February 3, the Muslim Brotherhood demanded a new government, saying in a broadcast to Al Jazeera,"We demand that this regime is overthrown and we demand the formation of a national unity government for all the factions." 

The Muslim Brotherhood has stated that isn't leading the protests or actively seeking a political takeover. The organization was undecided on whether to participate in the "Day of Rage" protests until it released a statement on January 23 encouraging youth members to take part peacefully. The Brotherhood has maintained that it is not leading the protests but is protesting in solidarity with fellow Egyptians citizens. The organization itself has dealt with repression from Mubarak, who strictly enforced the ban on the Brotherhood throughout his reign. Deputy general guide Mahmoud Izzat told al-Jazeera TV:

We are part of the people. The people are demanding the basics—mainly the necessities of life—and they have the right to do so. The people also demand their freedom and the dissolution of the fake parliament.

In light of President Hosni Mubarak's announcement February 1 that he will not seek re-election in September, many are questioning whether a rise to power is possible and if so, what kind of threat it may pose for Egypt and the globe. Though it has stated that it is not seeking power, the group's underlying intentions are still unclear. The organization has been called radical, and some are concerned about its ties to recognized extremist organizations, including Hamas and Al Qaeda. Though, as Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, points out for The New York Times:

The Brotherhood hates Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda hates the Brotherhood ... So if we’re talking about counterterrorism, engaging with the Brotherhood will advance our interests in the region.

Nevertheless, some people worry about the creation of an Islamic theocracy similar to the one that developed in Iran. An Egypt with a powerful Muslim Brotherhood presence may also pose a threat to the Israeli government and foreign relations in the area.

Does the Brotherhood deserve its bad rap?

Contributing editor for The Daily Beast Reza Aslan told the Madeleine Brand Show that an Egypt with a recognizably powerful Muslim Brotherhood "would look like a democracy. It would look like a country that is actually reflective of the mores and values and hopes and aspirations of the Egyptian people," though he goes on to note uncertainty as to the effect on the Israeli government. Aslan writes in The Washington Post "there can be no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood will have a significant role to play in post-Mubarak Egypt. And that is good thing."

The antropologist Scott Atran, writing for The New York Times, doubts that the Muslim Brotherhood even has the popular support to make it a force to be feared. He says

such support as it does have among Egyptians—an often cited figure is 20 percent to 30 percent—is less a matter of true attachment than an accident of circumstance: the many decades of suppression of secular opposition groups that might have countered it.

The New York Times op-ed contributor Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Muslim Brotherhood member, pushes for the success of the secular opposition in Egypt over the Muslim Brotherhood, warning that, "For Egypt and other Arab nations to escape the tragedy of either tyranny or Shariah, there has to be a third way that separates religion from politics while establishing a representative government, the rule of law, and conditions friendly to trade, investment and employment." Ali argues that finding a way to include Islam but exclude Shariah law is the next step for a secular success in upcoming elections. 

Professor of history at Ben-Gurion University Benny Morris, writing for The Guardian, looks ahead to the upcoming elections as well, saying, "The Brotherhood's aim is to take over the state through the democratic process, and is likely, as one of its first acts, to annul Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel." Morris looks to the history of the organization as an indicator that an Egypt with a powerful Brotherhood would more than likely look like the current Iran and Gaza Hamas.

That may be, but at this point, it's just conjecture. Shadi Hamid, this time writing for Slate, argues that the Brotherhood, if it were to come to power, would focus on domestic and not foreign affairs, citing statements from the organization that point to political pragmatism over ideology. Hamid speaks to those who would see an Egypt without the Muslim Brotherhood, saying, "Any future government that excludes Islamists will be perceived by Egyptians as unrepresentative and illegitimate."

Right now, on the streets of Cairo, legitimacy is what everyone's after. Whatever the actions of the opposition, Brotherhood and otherwise, it seems Egypt's vocal populace will choose the voice calling the shots in a post-Mubarak future.

photo (cc) by Flickr user Fighting Irish 1977

CORRECTION: Thanks for the heads-up about the typo in your comment Chris!