The Muslim Brotherhood has recently captured American headlines with the recent Egyptian revolution that began on January 25th of this year. There are many stories and perceptions that surround this organization. Some are true, however, many are false.
In order to answer the broader question that is on the forefront of U.S. foreign policy concerning America’s relationship with the group, it is important to have a firm understanding of this Islamic organization. Questions like how and why it was created, what are its goals and policy views , and how it operates within a society must be answered.
The Muslim Brotherhood, it is important to keep in mind, is a mass social movement. Like all movements, the Brotherhood is far from homogeneous. Within the group there is varying views and beliefs; the gamut ranges from hardliners who support al-Qaeda and jihad to the moderates who work hard for democracy.
The Creation of the Muslim Brotherhood
The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) was founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, a schoolteacher. It is the oldest and largest Islamist organization in Egypt. As such, it is considered the world’s most influential Islamist group and has many different branches. It is founded on the belief that Islam is not simply a religion but a way of life.
Many scholars expect the MB to play a generous role in shaping Egypt’s unstable future after the uprising in 2011. In March, thousands of Egyptians took to the streets calling for political and economic reforms and the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.
It should be noted that from the very beginning, the MB has had a formal non-violent approach to how it resolves problems. However, this stance caused conflict within the group itself and some sectors of the MB broke away in order to take a more militaristic stance.
The MB originally began as solely a religious organization that aimed to influence society by preaching Islam, teaching people how to read, and setting up hospitals. It wanted to influence society indirectly by promoting values, morals, and the law.
Throughout the years, the MB has oscillated between periods of acceptance by and banishment from Egyptian society.
A Murky Past: Violence and Democracy
In 1936 the MB became directly involved with politics when it militantly opposed British rule in Egypt and the infiltration of “corrupt” Western values. During this time many Egyptians accused the MB of violent killings and the group was repressed. In the years that followed, the MB moved more and more into the political sphere and organized protests against the Egyptian government.
The 1940s brought with it a string of violent attacks thought to have been orchestrated by the MB, including the assassination of Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Nugrashi. During this time the group was repressed and banned from society. It later enjoyed a brief era of good relations with the government, however, was banned again in 1954 when blamed for the failed assassination attempt of President Gamal Abdul Nasser.
Years of oppression by Egyptian government forced the group underground. Many of its leaders fled the country while others were jailed. Up until this past revolution, the group was illegal under Egyptian law that forbid any religious political organization.
Between the 1950s and 60s, the MB began taking up the jihad (armed) struggle against Egypt and the Western world. Brotherhood member Sayyid Qutb, was instrumental in pushing for this extreme view. Under Qutb, it was a common belief that any government not ruled by sharia law has committed heresy and is therefore a target of jihad. Many mainstream Muslims questioned and challenged his understanding of Islam and advocacy for physical violence.
Likewise, there have been many branches of the MB that have sprouted all over the world. The offshoots appear much more conservative in views. For example, the Kuwait branch advocates denying women the right to vote. However, the splinter groups’ connection to the original group is often murky and unknown. While Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden’s top deputy, is said to be a former Brother, Osama himself came out in opposition to the Brotherhood, decrying its “betrayal” of jihadist ways.
Edward Husain, senior fellow at Council for Foreign Relations (CFR), says it is wrong to make the MB "responsible for the actions of all of its intellectual offspring."
Post-1970s the MB has engaged in no violent attacks. Furthermore, many members of the MB have distanced themselves from al-Qaida’s jihadists’ views on violence and have actually advocated for democracy in Egypt.
Important in Egypt
Due to its banishment from Egyptian society during most of its history, the MB was forced underground. By doing so, many MB members developed relationships with other political parties in order to influence the political game. Likewise, many MB candidates would run under the title “independent.” So, while the MB may not have always been formally recognized, it has always had an influence in Egyptian politics since 1929.
Until last year, according to CNN, the independents (otherwise known as the MB) had 88 seats in the legislature. The Brotherhood has widespread support among Egypt's middle classes, and its members control many of the country's professional organizations.
The Muslim Brotherhood has also been used as a scapegoat for many Egyptian rulers. Stephen Cook, with the Center for Foreign Relations, claims that:
“The Brothers have been Mubarak's bogeyman for three decades. The regime has played on the ghosts of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran to stoke the fears of successive American administrations and, in turn, secure Washington's generous diplomatic, political, and financial support.”
However, it was not the MB who stoked the fires of revolution in Egypt this time around. The uprising comprised of all of Egypt’s political tendencies and the left has been igniting the current events.
It’s Role in Shaping the New Egypt
The MB has played a secondary role in the current uprisings, according to Stephen Cook. The MB is expected to be a factor in the post-Mubarak government, however, the Egyptian youth, the heart and soul of the revolution, have not exactly welcomed the MB with open arms. The MB has a history of compromising with the Mubarak regime and to many of the youth is seen as part of the detested establishment.
John Esposito, Georgetown professor and founding director for the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, explains that the Brotherhood will no doubt continue to have an influential role in shaping Egypt’s society. He says, however, that with an open and more pluralistic political climate, the MB will be one of many players. The Muslim Brotherhood, like Tunisia’s Ennahada gained influence in past elections because they were “the only game in town” absent other political choices.
According to Esposito, the MB garnered the votes not only of their members and supporters, but also of those who wanted to express their opposition or disfavor with the government. He expects that support for the MB will come from 25 percent of the population at best. With more political opposition in free and fair elections, the MB will be influential but not necessarily a dominant factor.
“And,” Esposito states, “Muslim Brothers like all other Egyptians have a right to participate in elections and be represented in government. “
However, the Brotherhood has indicated that it will not run a candidate for president nor seek cabinet positions in the upcoming election.
Implications for the U.S.
Egypt is an important ally to the US and, according to the 2011 Congressional Research Service report, has been the second largest recipient of U.S. aid, following Israel.
The U.S., according to the Center for Foreign Relations, sees its most important foreign policy goals as: Egypt's peace with Israel, U.S. access to the Suez Canal, and general bilateral military cooperation.
The MB does not share many of these same goals and therefore the idea of a MB running Egypt makes many Americans anxious. Mainly, the MB has shown no signs of supporting the Arab-Israeli peace process, as it is very anti-Israel.
Many experts claim that the US should carefully engage the MB if it becomes a prominent power of the new Egypt. Engagement, Husain says according to CFR, must be based on issues. "Pluralism, human rights, and Israel must therefore be at the heart of talks with Egypt's Islamists."
Former CIA Officer Bruce Riedel, an expert of Middle East and South Asia, according to CFR, adds: "living with it (a Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Egypt) won't be easy, but it should not be seen as inevitably our enemy." He recommends, "We need not demonize it nor endorse it."