Al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood: Alternative Visions of an Islamist Egypt

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 16

Egyptian President Mohammed al-Morsi (Source: AP)

In late July, Sheikh al-Mujahid Hussam Abd al-Raouf a prominent al-Qaeda ideologue, member of its strategy committee and editor of Vanguards of Khurasan, the magazine of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, presented a lengthy examination of the steps Egyptian president Muhammad al-Mursi should take in transforming Egypt into an Islamic state. In an article carried on jihadi websites  entitled  “If I was in Mursi’s place and sat on the Throne,” Abd al-Raouf suggests the new Egypt should be a self-sufficient state based on social justice and preparation for jihad, both defensive and offensive (, July 25). According to the sheikh’s austere vision of a “New Egypt”:

  • The Islamic Shari’a must form the constitution of the country. It is a powerful force that can overcome any obstacle or challenge to comprehensive reform. Its implementation and progress should be explained in a monthly public broadcast. Senior figures of the old regime should be prosecuted “in all fairness and efficiency” and the funds that were looted in the past three decades should be recovered and deposited in the state treasury, “a battle that will not be easy or short.”
  • There must be a comprehensive change in the lifestyle and behavior of the Egyptian President. This should begin with a move from the opulence of the presidential palace in Heliopolis to much more modest quarters in the suburbs as a first sign that the president intends to follow “a policy of austerity, justice and humility.” The presidential palaces, grounds and furnishings should be put up for rent or sale, as should most of the fleets of cars and aircraft, leaving only what is essential for the operations of the president. Further austerity measures should include the abolition of Egyptian embassies in countries that do not have direct political, economic or military ties to Egypt as well as the cancellation of official celebrations and festivals.
  • All international conventions must be reviewed, according to the rule of law, with an eye to eliminating those conventions and treaties that have created in Egypt a cycle of poverty, underdevelopment and defeatism. Payments on enormous international debts created through usury should be canceled “on the spot.” Alternatives to such borrowing should be examined, including interest-free short-term loans, relying on Arab and Islamic solidarity for their provision.
  • Investment from domestic capital and Arab and Islamic countries should be encouraged to exploit the business advantages offered by Egypt, including security, cheap labor, technical competence and low wages for professionals in comparison to those of Western or Asian countries.
  • All Islamist political prisoners should be released immediately and the Ministry of the Interior cleansed of all those officials still loyal to the former regime. These steps should be accompanied by a review of the judicial system as a whole, including the qualifications of judges and amendments to the curricula of law schools and colleges.
  • Rather than be appointed by the president of the republic, the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar should be elected directly by religious scholars. The awqaf system (religious endowments) and its control by a government ministry should be reviewed and reformed, while salary increases and bonuses to improve the social status of scholars and preachers will encourage academically outstanding students to study Islamic law and the Arabic language.
  • The Culture and Information sectors should be cleansed of corrupt officials and those promoting apostasy, immorality and vice.
  • Immorality fostered by tourism is linked to corruption and decadence in Egypt. Given the impossibility of cancelling this sector due to the employment and hard currency it provides, tourism should be “Islamized” by encouraging domestic tourism and visits from other Arabs and Muslims. “Foreigners” would be welcome if they agreed to abide by community ethics and behavior consistent with Islamic law.
  • Citizens should be held accountable in their observance of the pillars of Islam, such as the performance of prayers, fasting and pilgrimage for those who can afford it. Of special concern should be employees of the state who do not perform prayers or who break the fast during Ramadan.
  • The problem of male youth unemployment and resultant issues of crime could be eliminated by removing women from the work force. Working women may spend more than their salary on transportation to and from work, nursery fees, meals, clothing and accessories while their children develop mental and physical health issues in their absence. Why not then return women to their homes where they are protected and can avoid mixing with men? In a reversal of the modern assembly-line technique of mass production, the sheikh suggests that women who seek to supplement their husband’s income can be trained by television in home production techniques and have raw materials delivered to their homes and finished products picked up later. Uneducated women can pursue sewing, embroidery, knitting and carpet production while educated women can assemble products such as watches and electronic devices. 
  • The performance of government departments and state facilities must be improved, especially government hospitals.
  • Sectarian conflict must be extinguished in Egypt.  According to Abdul-Raouf, the current leaders of the Coptic Church in Egypt continue to follow policies of the late Pope Shenouda III that fuelled sectarian disputes by attempting to create a Christian “state within a state.” Christians must not form part of the nation’s senior leadership as there are a sufficient number of Muslims with “experience and competence.”
  • All citizens must be provided with food security and adequate housing. Agricultural scientists and scholars of animal production must be employed in efforts to bring self-sufficiency in food to Egypt, which currently relies heavily on foreign imports. With many Egyptians living in slums, shanty houses and tents, the state must dedicate itself to creating new urban communities where borrowing from “Arab and friendly countries” can be used to provide housing to Egyptians with interest-free and affordable payments.
  • Working from the axiom that people who do not have guns do not have freedom, Egypt should abandon military assistance from the United States “which it does not need” and instead focus on becoming self-sufficient in arms production, even if this means an immediate decline in the quality of available arms. Abd al-Raouf points to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as proof that “miracles” can be achieved with even backwards arms and limited ammunition against the most powerful military forces if Egyptians “put their trust in God.” The state must become militarized in preparation for the “epic battles” to come between Muslims and infidels, with military service binding on “every sane adult.” As Islam does not acknowledge only defensive jihad, but must sometimes attack in a pre-emptive war “to nip aggression in the bud,” the responsible government department must change its name from “the Ministry of Defense.”   

While new Egyptian President Muhammad al-Mursi is likely to take his advice from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau rather than al-Qaeda, the document is nevertheless interesting as a detailed proposal of how an Islamist state should be formed and organized according to al-Qaeda, which has been especially weak in dealing with such issues in the past, preferring to devote most of its ideological production to the conduct, aims and methods of global jihad.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Reformation

Sheikh Ibrahim Munir, the Secretary General of the International Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood (and a close friend of al-Mursi) has identified Egypt’s entrenched bureaucracy and the still extant “deep state” power structure as major obstacles to the new president’s reform mission:

President Mursi has to overcome obstacles, obstructions, and corrupt concepts that have accumulated during decades of individual pharaoh rule during which loyalty for the person of the ruler was put before loyalty to the country and the people. Thus, what are now called "deep state" practices, which do not distinguish between what is allowed and what is prohibited in dealing with the money, honor, or blood of the subjects, have been formed together with a terrifying backward bureaucracy that destroys any progress and efficiency, and that does not know the meaning of transparency, and regression has taken place in all the state institutions and their cultural, financial, medical, educational, services, and foreign policy actions that are related to the independence and interests of the country (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 11).

To overcome these obstacles, Sheikh Ibrahim suggests al-Mursi must do three things – surround himself with “a good entourage,” overcome the bureaucracy by correcting the culture of those working in it and subject every member of the government at every level to the statutes of the law and constitution.

Internal Dissent

As Egypt’s new leaders struggle to form a government, a vast post-revolutionary social upheaval continues. Labor strife persists; the 870 protests and strikes on the nation’s railway system alone have cost the state an estimated $120 million (al-Masry al-Youm, August 2).

Al-Mursi  will also have to deal with different visions of the New Egypt even within the Muslim Brotherhood movement, whether from “liberal” Islamists like Dr. Abd al-Moneim Aboul Fotouh (a former member of the movement’s Guidance Bureau who resigned to contest the presidential election) or voices like former Brotherhood spokesman Kamal al-Halbawi, who denounced al-Mursi’s July 12 visit to Saudi Arabia (his first official visit abroad as president), which he described as “an enemy of the Egyptian Revolution” (El-Balad TV, July 31; Fars News Agency [Tehran], July 31).

Al-Mursi, who taught at California State University in the 1980s, is often regarded as a protégé of Khairat al-Shater, the wealthy chief strategist of the Muslim Brotherhood, who sponsored his rise through the ranks of the Brotherhood. His detractors regard al-Mursi as a stand-in for al-Shater, who promoted al-Mursi as a presidential candidate only after his own candidacy was disqualified by the military in April on the grounds that he had recently been in prison, a violation of the election rule that a candidate must not have been imprisoned in the previous six years (Egypt Independent, June 22).


With the vital tourism industry off by a third since the revolution, Egypt is scrambling for ways to restore the nearly 15 million visitors it hosted in 2010. Important tombs of the ancient period that have not been open to visitors for decades are being made available to tourists and a new Egyptian Museum is scheduled to open in 2014. Though the Muslim Brotherhood appears to understand the importance of Egypt’s ancient monuments to the national economy as a source of foreign currency, Egypt’s Salafists regard all such sites as products of the pre-Islamic jahiliya (time of ignorance) and would just as soon eliminate “idolatrous” visits to Egypt’s ancient monuments (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, December 22, 2011). Fortunately for the industry, Salafist efforts to obtain the post of Minister of Tourism were unsuccessful, with the post going to an experienced technocrat, Hisham Za’azou. Nevertheless, efforts are underway by Islamist businessmen to promote Egypt as a center of “Halal Tourism” for families “committed to Shari’a.”  Approved hotels and tourist facilities would not serve alcohol, would provide halal meat and offer segregated facilities for men and women.  [1]


Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta, an institution responsible for issuing fatwa-s [religious rulings] under the supervision of Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Ali Goma’a, issued a fatwa earlier this month declaring it was unacceptable for Muslims to eat or drink in public during Ramadan, calling such activity “a violation of public decency” (Daily News Egypt, August 2; Bikya Masr, August 2). Should the government decide to enforce the fatwa it will mark a major change in Egyptian society, where restaurants and cafés typically remain open during Ramadan.

On July 30, al-Mursi released and pardoned over a dozen Islamists imprisoned for trying to kill leading Egyptian officials (Ahram Online, August 1). Al-Mursi has pledged to obtain the release of Sheikh Omar Abd al-Rahman from an American prison, where he is serving a life sentence for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.  Egypt has also asked for the release of Egyptian jihadi Tariq al-Sawah, who has been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay since he was captured in the battle for Tora Bora (AFP, August 2).

Egypt’s New Cabinet

The composition of the new cabinet reveals that several of the most important ministries remain in the hands of the pre-revolution power structure. In the Interior Ministry, responsible for internal security, Major General Ahmad Gamal al-Din has been appointed as minister despite being a former aide to the previous and much criticized interior minister, Muhammad Ibrahim (Ahram Online, August 1). The general will have to deal not only with an internal security service that has largely collapsed since the revolution, but one that has been trained for decades to regard Islamism as a major internal security threat to Egypt.

The Nour Party, the most successful of the Salafist groups to take part in the parliamentary elections, has refused to join the new cabinet, rejecting new Prime Minister Hisham Qandil’s offer of the Environment Ministry as being “unworthy” of the party (Ahram Online, August 2; al-Masry al-Youm, August 1). Until parliament is reconvened or new elections are held, this effectively leaves the Salafists on the outside of the new government, a situation they are unlikely to tolerate for long. Al-Nour had sought the Ministry of Public Enterprise, which would have given it effective control of nearly 150 state-owned corporations.

Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein al-Tantawi will retain the post of defense minister, which he has held since 1991, thus ensuring there will be little civilian oversight of the armed forces. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has suggested creating a National Defense Council that would include both military and civilian leaders to work out legislation regarding the military and its budget before its presentation to parliament. The president would only have the power to declare war after obtaining the approval of the National Defense Council and parliament, effectively limiting the president’s ability to control foreign policy and command the national armed forces (Egypt Independent, August 2).

Reports that Muhammad Yousri Ibrahim, a leading Salafist and failed parliamentary candidate for the Salafist al-Asala Party, was al-Musri’s choice to take over the role of Ministry of Religious Endowments created immediate controversy at all levels in Egypt. Though educated at al-Azhar University, Muhammad Yousri is a noted critic of the institution and his candidacy was quickly opposed by the Grand Sheikh of the Islamic university, Ahmad al-Tayeb, on the grounds that the Minister of Endowments is traditionally chosen by the Grand Sheikh (Daily News Egypt, August 2).  Muhammad Yousri is a close associate of Khairat al-Shater and it seems likely that the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood was behind the appointment. The ministry is central to the religious direction of the nation as it is responsible for mosques, licensing imams and regulating the substantial endowments of property that fund the religious establishment. The announcement was widely condemned as a sign that Saudi-style Salafism had arrived with the approval of the Muslim Brotherhood and was loudly opposed by the nation’s still influential Sufi leadership, which has endured attacks on its shrines from Salafists since the Revolution (Egypt Independent, May 17; al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], March 30, 2011).  Muhammad Yousri is also well-known for leading demonstrations against the Coptic Church. Amidst a deluge of criticism, al-Musri’s decision was quickly reversed and the ministry given into the hands of Osama al-Abd, the vice-chancellor of al-Azhar.

The Coptic Question

Despite early protestations of Coptic-Muslim cooperation in the early days of the Revolution, tensions between the Coptic and Muslim communities are now at an all-time high, requiring only a tiny spark to set off street violence that security forces show little interest in controlling. Most recently, major clashes erupted in the Dashour district of the Giza Governorate after a Coptic launderer accidentally burned a Muslim customer’s shirt with his iron. The incident soon developed into street riots, looting of Coptic-owned shops and even the attempted arson of the Mary Guirguis Church, which was only narrowly prevented by security forces using tear gas (Ahram Online, August 2; al-Masry al-Youm, August 2; Bikya Masr, August 2). As many as 150 Coptic families may have fled the district. Following the clashes, Christian demonstrators who claim sectarian violence has intensified since al-Mursi became president appeared outside the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis bearing signs that said “Down with the rule of the Supreme Guide [i.e. of the Muslim Brotherhood]” (Ahram Online, August 2).

The interim leader of the Coptic Church, Bishop Pachomius, was critical of the cabinet appointments, which included only one Copt in the Ministry of Scientific Research, which Pachomius referred to as “a semi-ministry.” The Bishop, who is filling in as leader until a new Pope can be elected after the death of Shenouda III, also denounced the security services for standing by “with arms crossed” during the sectarian riots in Dahshour (AFP, August 4).


The election of al-Mursi is just the beginning phase of the Brotherhood’s 25-year Renaissance Project, a comprehensive effort to bring Egypt’s administration, business sector and society in line with Islamic values. The chairman of the project’s steering committee is Khairat al-Shater, who appears to be emerging as the real power behind the Egyptian throne.

The Brotherhood’s Renaissance Project will inevitably collide with the interests of SCAF and the rest of Egypt’s “Deep State” apparatus, which will be exceedingly difficult to dislodge. SCAF still holds supreme power in Egypt and controls all decisions regarding the military. The determination of the Renaissance Project to make the military’s large share of the Egyptian economy abide by free-market rules rather than continuing to use free labor (military conscripts) and free natural resources in its industries is certain to create friction (Egypt Independent, July 31). An antagonistic relationship was worsened in mid-June with the implementation of the Supplement to the Constitutional Declaration, which limited the president’s powers and increased those of SCAF, including the right to intervene in the drafting of the new constitution (Egypt Independent, August 1). The ongoing political struggle has convinced many experienced technocrats and secular politicians to turn down government appointments, leaving al-Mursi with an inexperienced Prime Minister, no parliament, no vice-president, no power over the military and a corps of advisors with ties to Khairat al-Shater. Control of the most important ministries (Defense, Justice, Finance) remain outside the hands of the Brotherhood and promises of greater representation in the cabinet for women and Christians have been thoroughly dashed. The secular and progressive forces that filled Tahrir Square 18 months ago see too many familiar faces from the old regime in the “new” government and are unlikely to be inspired by the relative unknowns who are new appointments. Though al-Shater denies exerting influence over al-Mursi, Egypt’s new president has so far made some questionable decisions in forming his new government and has generally been unable to attract Egypt’s most talented and experienced leaders to the new regime. Further decisions of this type risk alienating large numbers of Egyptians, which could make a repeat of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary victory earlier this year difficult when Egyptians return to the polls, possibly in December.


1. See, for example:

Andrew McGregor is the Managing Editor of the Jamestown Foundation’s Global Terrorism Analysis publications and the Director of Toronto-based Aberfoyle International Security.