Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Understanding the Muslim Brotherhood: An Introduction

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The following article is Copyright Foreign Policy Research Institute (http://www.fpri.org/).


                    by Barry Rubin

Barry Rubin, a Senior Fellow of FPRI, is director of the 
Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center 
and editor of the Middle East Review of International 
Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His books include The Muslim 
Brotherhood: The Organization and Politics of a Global 
Islamist Movement (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010) and Islamic 
Fundamentalists in Egyptian Politics (Palgrave-Macmillan, 
2002). Other books include  The Long War for Freedom: The 
Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley, 
2005), The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007); 
and Israel: An Introduction (Yale University Press, 2012). 
His articles are featured at the website of the GLORIA 
Center and in his own blog, Rubin Reports.

Today, the Muslim Brotherhood is the most important 
international political organization in the Arabic-speaking 
world. It is the dominant party in Egypt’s parliament, 
having obtained about 47 percent of the vote there, and in 
the Tunisian government, having received 40 percent of 
the ballots. In the form of Hamas, now an explicit branch 
of the movement, it rules the Gaza Strip. 

It is the leadership of the opposition in the Palestinian 
Authority (West Bank) and in Jordan, while the local 
Brotherhood controls the internationally recognized 
leadership (the Syrian National Council) of the Syrian 
opposition in the civil war there. Much smaller Brotherhood 
groups exist in several other Arab countries.

Yet even that is not all. The Brotherhood has become the 
most important group among Muslims in Europe and North 
America, too, often directing communities and representing 
them in dealings with the government and non-Muslim society 
as well. It should be stressed, however, that it is a 
decentralized organization and there is no close 
coordination of the branches in different countries. 

What is most important to understand about the Brotherhood 
is that, despite its religion-based ideology, it should be 
viewed in political, not theological terms. It is and has 
always been a revolutionary organization seeking to seize 
state power and then to transform thoroughly the societies 
where it operates.   

This point does not imply any necessary opposition to 
democratic elections or playing within parliamentary rules. 
After all, the Brotherhood ran candidates for years in 
Egyptian elections under the Mubarak regime, though it was 
not allowed to run as its own party, and has played a 
parliamentary role for years in Jordan. In the Gaza Strip, 
however, after it ran in Palestinian elections and won, 
Hamas seized power by force. The Brotherhood’s most 
important ideological advisor, the Egyptian but Qatar-
based Yusuf al-Qaradawi, has strongly endorsed 
electoral politics for almost a decade. In response to 
al-Qaida, which rejected elections, al-Qaradawi said 
there was no reason not to run candidates, especially 
since the Brotherhood would win.


The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 in Egypt 
by the schoolteacher Hasan al-Banna. At that time Islam 
was at a relative low point in affecting politics. The 
direct inspiration for the new group was the abolition 
of the caliphate, which had existed at least nominally 
since Islam began twelve centuries earlier, by the new 
Turkish republic. For al-Banna and his friends, Islam 
had to be restored to center-stage not only socially 
but also politically.

At that time, nationalism was in the ascendancy. With 
British help, during World War One the Arab nationalists 
had revolted against the Ottoman Turkish sultan-caliph, 
to whom they supposedly owed fealty in Islamic terms. 
Arab countries had been formed that were tending toward 
relative secularism. Islamists were a small minority, 
many of them having been Arabs who had been on the 
losing side by continuing to back Ottoman rule.  

There had been a number of leading thinkers in Egypt, 
notably Muhammad Abdu and Rashid Ridda, who had 
argued that Islam was an important element in the 
country’s national identity and development. They 
tended, however, to favor a somewhat modernized 
Islam. The Brotherhood represented a more conservative 
reaction against the changes taking place in Egypt and 
the Arab world.

During the 1920s and 1930s, the movement grew quickly, 
establishing branches in other countries, notably Syria. 
It reached out to allies, most importantly the grand 
mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husaini, and developed 
contacts as far away as the Indian subcontinent. But 
overall it remained a relatively minor force in an 
Egyptian national life dominated by the king and 
relatively liberal parties that sought a more European-
style system and worldview for the country.

A key element in the development of the Brotherhood 
was its admiration for and eventual alliance with Nazi 
Germany. The Germans subsidized the Brotherhood before 
and during World War Two. The height of their 
cooperation came in 1942. As German forces approached 
Egypt from the west, the Brotherhood prepared an 
uprising and called for the massacre of the Jews and 
Christians in the country. Large amounts of German-
supplied arms were hidden to be ready for the revolt. 
But the British defeat of General Erwin Rommel’s 
forces and decisive British action in Cairo kept the 
country under control.

After 1945, Egypt was in an unstable situation. The 
Brotherhood organized a secret group for terrorist 
activities and also, in 1947, volunteers to fight to turn
all of Palestine into an Islamist state, armed with the 
guns the Germans had provided five years earlier. One of 
the soldiers was Yasir Arafat. 

As a revolutionary situation developed in Egypt, the 
monarchy closed down the Brotherhood in December 1948, 
the Brotherhood assassinated Prime Minister Mahmoud al-
Nukrashi, and al-Banna was then killed, probably by 
the government in retaliation.

Instead of the Brotherhood, however, a radical 
nationalist group in the army seized power, in 1952. 
The Brotherhood had worked with many of these people in 
the anti-British, pro-German movement. But the officers, 
led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, had no interest in sharing 
power or leaving such a powerful rival intact. 

After a controversial alleged assassination attempt on 
Nasser in 1954, the nationalists crushed the Brotherhood. 
Its leaders were arrested, sent to concentration camps, 
and treated very harshly. Three years later, the Syrian 
branch faced similar treatment by Nasser’s counterparts 
there. Among the prisoners in Egypt was Sayyid Qutb, an 
Islamist theorist who is responsible for much of the 
basis of modern Islamism. He was executed in 1966. 

From the mid-1950s, the Brotherhood went underground and 
into exile. Drawing on links with Saudi Arabia, which 
offered financing and safe haven, the Brotherhood built 
an international structure. An infrastructure was built 
in Europe, based in Germany and Switzerland, to help the 
movement survive. Although this was not the intention, 
these operations would prove invaluable in providing the 
Brotherhood a foothold that would, decades later, help it 
take a leading role in the new Muslim communities in 


After Nasser died in 1970, his successor, Anwar al-Sadat, 
wanted to strengthen his base against the left-wing 
faction in the regime that opposed him. He released the 
Brotherhood leaders from jail and allowed the movement to 
revive, albeit not officially. In return, the Brotherhood 
promised not to engage in violence in Egypt, though this 
did not keep them from continuing to support violence abroad.

Chastened by their suffering, the Brotherhood’s leaders 
were very cautious. They proclaimed that the current stage 
of politics was one of base-building and recruiting (da’wa) 
but not of revolutionary actions. Still, the revival of 
revolutionary Islamism thrust up new thinkers and 
activists in Egypt who were impatient with the Brotherhood’s 

Such people regularly left the Brotherhood to form smaller, 
more militant and sometimes violent groups. These included 
the Jihad movement, which assassinated Sadat in 1981 and 
whose surviving leaders eventually joined al-Qaida. Other 
such groups engaged in community organizing. A smaller 
group of relative moderates urged the Brotherhood to form 
the Wahda party and give up its revolutionary goals. But the 
reformers were stymied, eventually quit the Brotherhood, and 
became openly critical of it. 

Wrongly concluding that a revolutionary opportunity was 
present in the 1990s, the militant groups turned to 
terrorism and for several years Egypt was wracked by 
violence, with hundreds of people being killed. The 
Brotherhood stayed aloof and the government repressed the 

Thus the situation remained during the last two decades of 
the Mubarak regime. In its main expression of goals, 
Brotherhood leaders circulated a political platform in 
2007 platform stating that under its rule, “Islam is the 
official state religion and that the Islamic shari'a is 
the main source for legislation.” This would be compatible 
with democracy since this program “will be implemented in 
a manner that conforms to the [will of the] nation, by 
means of a parliamentary majority elected in free, clean, 
and transparent [elections].”

However, a Supreme Council of Clerics would be established 
to determine what laws are acceptable. While promising to 
protect non-Muslim citizens in their practice of religion, 
the state would be “ensuring that no ritual, propaganda, 
or pilgrimage contradicting Islamic activities are carried 
out,” which could be interpreted, for example, to forbid 
the construction or repair of churches among other things. 

The Brotherhood functioned effectively but without full 
legal sanction. It did well in various professional 
associations, generally ruling the doctors’, lawyers’, and 
other organizations. On several occasions it joined with 
other parties to run candidates under their partner’s 
auspices but was denied their full vote total. The 
Brotherhood even had members of parliament, though they 
were elected on the lists of other parties. 

Abroad, the Brotherhood advocated anti-Americanism, 
violence against the United States as well as terrorism 
against Israel; that country’s extinction; and anti-
Semitism, proclaiming that Jews were innately evil and 
the enemies of Islam. 

The Syrian branch of the Brotherhood tried a revolt in 
1982 which was suppressed by the regime there with 
heavy casualties. Its leaders fled to Europe. Brotherhood 
groups in Lebanon, Iraq, and other countries remained 
small. In Jordan, however, the branch grew, forming an 
Islamic Salvation Front to contest elections. While it 
did well in the balloting, this group was not allowed 
by the monarchy—which manipulated the rules and results—
to win and form a government. 

The big area of expansion, however, was in the West. 
As Muslim immigrants moved to Europe and North America, 
the Brotherhood was the only international Arab 
organization that was ready with a strong infrastructure, 
a clear ideology, and ample financing. In country after 
country it seized the leading positions even though it 
only enjoyed direct support from a tiny minority of the 

In the Gaza Strip, Hamas appeared from the small 
Brotherhood branch but was nominally independent. It 
generally, but not always, cooperated with the PLO, 
gradually increasing its attacks on Israeli civilians. 
Hamas rejected Arafat’s decision to enter into 
negotiations with Israel in 1993 but used the Palestinian 
Authority to build its own base. In 2000, it allied again 
with Arafat in another insurgency against Israel.  After 
winning elections, it made a deal with the Fatah 
nationalists but quickly broke it and launched a coup 
which seized the Gaza Strip in 2007. In 2011, following 
Egypt’s revolution, Hamas formally joined the Muslim 


In the fall of 2010 the Egyptian Brotherhood’s new 
leader, Muhammad al-Badi, made a dramatic speech changing 
the organization’s course and initiating a new 
revolutionary phase. The improvement and change that the 
[Muslim] nation seeks can only be attained through jihad 
and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that 
pursues death just as the enemies pursue life." 

According to his analysis, the moment to strike had 
come because the United States was weak and in retreat 
("experiencing the beginning of its end and is heading 
towards its demise"); Islamist groups had been defeating 
Israel; and the Mubarak regime—its leader ailing and his 
choice of son as successor extremely unpopular—was near 
collapse. One reason for that decline, al-Badi claimed, 
was that it had not fulfilled “Allah's commandment to 
wage jihad…so that Allah's word will reign supreme” over 
all non-Muslims.

The following February, liberal-radical groups with 
which the Brotherhood had been cooperating launched 
massive demonstrations centered in Tahrir Square. Aware 
that a high profile would make it subject to government 
repression and wanting to see if the movement succeeded 
before committing itself, the Brotherhood held aloof for 
a few days. Then, with the movement gaining momentum, 
it shifted to full participation.  

In Tunisia, which also had an army-assisted revolution, 
the Brotherhood branch gained 40 percent of the vote in 
the subsequent elections and took the leading role in 
forming the government. It was constrained, however, by 
the need to form a coalition with secular parties.

Once Mubarak had been forced out of power by the army 
in Egypt, the Brotherhood emerged into the light. In 
February 2011, a huge demonstration headlined by the 
Brotherhood’s most influential ideologist, Yusuf al-
Qaradawi, called out an estimated one million plus people 
in Cairo, dwarfing the liberals’ events. From that point 
on, the Brotherhood took the lead in the revolution. 

The Brotherhood had to make three difficult strategic 

--How bold should it be in seeking power? The 
Brotherhood had already decided to participate fully in 
elections, as it had done before under Mubarak, but at 
first it insisted that it would only run candidates for 
one-third of the parliamentary seats. Over the ensuing 
months, this was raised to one-half and finally to all of 
the seats. In the 2012 elections for the lower house of 
parliament it would gain 47 percent.

Similarly, the Brotherhood repeatedly stated that it 
would not run a presidential candidate but preferred to 
back a liberal or nationalist one. Rejecting this policy, a 
leading Brotherhood official and reputedly a relative 
moderate, Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh, declared his candidacy 
and was expelled. In the May 2012 first round, the 
Brotherhood’s Muhammad Mursi came in first with more than 
25 percent of the vote while Fotouh ran fourth with 19 

--Who should it identify as its main allies and enemies 
in Egyptian politics? The Brotherhood at times worked 
on making a deal with the military junta while at other 
times cooperated with liberal and radical secular groups 
against the transitional military regime. In the end, it 
was able to maintain decent relations with both.  

--How radical or moderate should it appear to be? The 
Brotherhood undertook a carefully coordinated charm 
offensive to persuade the West that it was now moderate. 
For example, its English-language blog highlighted such 
statements and omitted the positions taken by the 
Brotherhood in Arabic.

Many observers in the West—including government officials, 
academics, and journalists—argued that the Brotherhood 
had become moderate. They particularly cited personal 
contacts with Brotherhood leaders or activists; the 
organization’s alleged rejection of violence; and its 
participation in elections. It was also argued that 
participation in elections and in governance would 
inevitably moderate the Brotherhood.

A serious problem with this thesis, however, was when 
the Brotherhood adopted an extremely radical stance 
during the presidential elections, calling for a Sharia 
state and the restoration of the Caliphate. By then, 
many of those who had previously proclaimed the 
Brotherhood’s moderation transferred the label of 
“moderate Islamist” to Fotouh.

There were certainly those in Egypt for whom the 
Brotherhood was deemed insufficiently militant. Such 
groups, mostly descended from the 1990s’ dissidents, 
were collectively called Salafists. The most extreme 
engaged in violent attacks on churches and the Israeli 
embassy. Some, particularly in the Sinai, began assaults 
on police stations to obtain arms and repeatedly 
sabotaged the natural gas pipeline to Israel, forcing it 
to be closed down. 

While the Salafists gained about 25 percent in the 
parliamentary elections, their candidate was barred 
from the presidential elections on a technicality. Some 
of the Salafist groups endorsed Fotouh. It was not clear 
whether the Salafists would be able to work with the 
Brotherhood in the future, due to differences in tactics 
and rivalry for power, although their basic goals were 
quite similar.

The great change in the Brotherhood’s fortunes made it 
clear that the group would play a leading role in the 
governance of Egypt and possible that it would be the 
governing power. More broadly, the Egyptian Brotherhood, 
using the state to whatever extent, had placed itself at 
the head of a Sunni Islamist bloc including Hamas, which 
governed in the Gaza Strip; the Tunisian government; the 
Syrian branch, which was playing a leading role in the 
civil war there; and the Jordanian branch, along with 
smaller groups in Libya, Lebanon, and elsewhere.

With its leading role in many Muslim communities in 
Europe and North America, the Brotherhood has emerged as 
a considerable international force. Clearly the leading 
Sunni Islamist group in the world, it is arguably the 
most important revolutionary organization in the world 
as well.   

Suggested Readings:

John Calvert, Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical 
Islamism (Columbia University Press, 2010)

Steven A. Cook, The Struggle for Egypt (Oxford 
University Press, 2011)

Richard Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers 
(Oxford University Press, 1993)

Yvette Talhamy, "The Muslim Brotherhood Reborn," Middle 
East Quarterly, 19:2 (2012)

Eric Trager, “The Unbreakable Muslim Brotherhood: 
Grim Prospects for a Liberal Egypt,” Foreign Affairs, 
September-October 2011, Vol. 90, No. 3 

Lorenzo Vidino, The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West 
(Columbia University Press, 2010) 

Itzchak Weismann "The Politics of Popular Religion—
Sufis, Salafis and Muslim Brothers in 20th Century 
Hamah," International Journal of Middle East Studies, 
37:1 (2005)

Quintan Wiktorowicz, The Management of Islamic 
Activism: Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood, and State 
Power in Jordan (SUNY Press, 2000)  

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