Al-Qaeda & the Muslim Brotherhood: United by Strategy, Divided by Tactics

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 6

For many years, Ayman al-Zawahiri has denounced Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood for what he claims is the misguided direction they have taken political Islam. In a recent statement, al-Zawahiri renewed his criticism of the Ikhwan al-Muslimun (“Muslim Brotherhood”) for their participation in Egypt’s parliamentary elections. The Muslim Brotherhood responded to al-Zawahiri’s attack and continues to defend its participation in elections. This recent public spat between the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda is emblematic of a growing rift between the Ikhwan and militant salafists over the most effective means to promote Islamic governance and combat Western hegemony.

On January 6, al-Zawahiri, former leader of Egypt’s Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda’s leading strategist, recorded a videotape released on al-Jazeera television. Referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, although not specifying the organization by name, and sarcastically alluding to the position of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak regime, al-Zawahiri states, “Today you are winning 80 seats and after five years you will win 100 seats. Hence, at whatever time your behavior improves, we will offer you more. Once you become secular and falsely affiliated with Islam…we will let you assume power provided that you forget about the rule of Sharia, welcome the Crusaders’ bases in your countries, and acknowledge the existence of the Jews who are fully armed with nuclear weapons, which you are banned to possess.”

Despite what al-Zawahiri claims, the Muslim Brotherhood has not relinquished the goal of Islamic governance, although their methods to achieve it may have changed. Nor have the Ikhwan embraced the United States. For the Muslim Brotherhood, Islam cannot be separated from governance or political life. According to their slogan, “Allah is our goal; the Messenger is our model; the Quran is our constitution; jihad is our means; and martyrdom in the way of Allah is our aspiration.” Although the Muslim Brotherhood has moderated its rhetoric, tactics and approach over the years, its overarching goal of Islamic governance has not wavered despite its efforts to publicly de-emphasize this fact.

Al-Qaeda also promotes religious governance in the Muslim world but, as al-Zawahiri’s statement indicates, remains critical of the Muslim Brotherhood’s approach to elections. There is a distinct divergence in perception regarding the significance of the Muslim Brotherhood’s increased representation in the Egyptian parliament. Clearly, al-Zawahiri perceives the Muslim Brotherhood’s election victory not as a positive step for the Islamist cause, but as a win for the apostate Egyptian government. He believes that the Muslim Brotherhood only achieved greater representation in governance because they moderated in a manner that suited the Egyptian regime and sold out the salafist vision in order to gain a piece of political power.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s strong showing in the recent elections has made the Ikhwan’s participation in government more visible, but elements of the Muslim Brotherhood have been entrenched in the Egyptian government for decades. For instance, their influence within the Egyptian Education Ministry has been ongoing since the 1970s. Al-Zawahiri sees the Ikhwan’s election victory as part of a long trend of Islamic dilution and acquiescence to the apostate Egyptian regime. In reality, however, the insidious penetration of the Egyptian government by the Muslim Brotherhood has enabled the latter to steadily and covertly Islamize Egyptian society at all levels.

In a recent opinion piece, Issam al-Aryan provides insight into this sophisticated strategy: “Implementation on the ground [of democratic development] portends a great victory for the peaceful democratic Islamic trend, which is represented by the school of the Muslim Brotherhood. This victory was achieved in all the elections that were held in the region, in a process of peaceful change in the center of events and the location of the historical struggle over the future of the region” (al-Hayat, February 24).

Although they share the same end goal, the Ikhwan’s divergent strategy is problematic for al-Qaeda. For salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood is a cornerstone organization. They articulated the original philosophy on which all subsequent Salafi-Jihadist activism is based. The writings of Sayyid Qutb are the intellectual and theological underpinnings behind organizations like Egypt’s Islamic Jihad, a group headed by al-Zawahiri that ultimately merged with al-Qaeda. If the Muslim Brotherhood is working through elections, it disrupts al-Qaeda’s agenda for the Middle East.

For al-Qaeda, Egypt features prominently in the vision for an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East and beyond. This is evident in previous statements made by al-Zawahiri. In his July 9, 2005 letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Zawahiri outlines a broad strategy for al-Qaeda in the Middle East. According to al-Zawahiri’s plans, Iraq is only a foothold for establishing a greater Islamic caliphate to include Syria and Egypt (, October 11, 2005).

The Muslim Brotherhood’s participation in elections that were state-sponsored and encouraged by the United States seriously disrupts those plans for a number of reasons. First and foremost, there is the potential for democracy’s moderating influence on the Muslim Brotherhood. By working with other parties and interests, the Muslim Brotherhood may have to accommodate other visions and policies in the give and take of parliamentary politics. According to al-Zawahiri, even if all of the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidates win, they will still be a minority in parliament, never fully controlling politics or the government. Elections have only allowed Egypt’s governing National Democratic Party to continue its monopoly on power, stifled the Muslim Brotherhood by token representation in governance and “produced a parliament that is incapable of making any real change” (al-Jazeera, January 6).

Second, the elections were encouraged by the United States and any policy promoted by the U.S. in the region, short of complete withdrawal, is condemned by al-Qaeda. Al-Zawahiri criticizes the U.S. for promoting “rigged” elections and manipulating the Muslim Brotherhood: “The elections were rigged in Egypt while America, the West, and the United Nations blessed the elections or remained silent…America organized the game of elections and allowed some currents that belong to Islam to participate in them with a limited number of candidates…The Muslim people will be later told, this is the parliament that represents you…This is the truth of the game run by America in Egypt in the presidential and parliamentary elections with the aim of deceiving the Muslim masses, who they instigated and exploited their love of Islam” (al-Jazeera, January 6).

Third, al-Qaeda views the promotion of democracy and elections in Egypt (no matter how limited or controlled) as a success for the apostate West and not as a positive development for Muslim society. The success of U.S. policy of political change through democracy in the region is at the expense of al-Qaeda’s vision of change through militant jihadist struggle. According to al-Zawahiri: “It is a game of cheating the Muslim peoples to make them forget their basic rights; that is, the rule of Sharia, liberation from the occupiers, protection of their sanctities, and bringing their rulers to account” (al-Jazeera, January 6).

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has not remained quiet in the face of such criticism. Issam al-Aryan, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spokesman, responded to al-Zawahiri’s comments by putting him in the same camp as secularists and supporters and apologists of the Egyptian regime who oppose the Brotherhood’s participation in elections (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 7). Other senior members of the Brotherhood, such as Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, have used al-Zawahiri’s criticism to further distance themselves from the taint of al-Qaeda’s violent tactics and to prove their credentials as serious politicians who are capable of moderation and compromise. Referring to al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda, Fotouh states, “Those people aren’t politicians. They believe in change through violence. That’s not what we’re about…If there is anything to be realized from these elections, it is that people will choose a moderate Islam” (, March 10).

Al-Zawahiri’s criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood’s election strategy has not compelled the Ikhwan to change tactics, but neither has it caused them to forgo sympathizing with the militant jihadist struggle coordinated by al-Qaeda. Moreover, while al-Zawahiri has criticized the Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy, the Brotherhood has not reciprocated. Egyptian MP and Muslim Brotherhood member Ragib Hilal Hamida has been on the record stating that he supports al-Qaeda and that the Quran condones terrorism. He clarifies his position by claiming that terrorism is not a criminal act, but rather a resistance to occupation and the influence of non-Islamic powers, which is legitimate in the eyes of the Quran.

In an interview with Roz al-Yousef, an Egyptian weekly, Hamida states: “Terrorism is not a curse when given its true meaning. [When interpreted accurately] it means opposing occupation as it exists in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq…From my point of view, bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and al-Zarqawi are not terrorists in the sense accepted by some. I support all their activities since they are a thorn in the side of the Americans and the Zionists” (Roz al-Yousef, January 28-February 3).

Like any political organization, the Muslim Brotherhood has its hardliners, reformers and centrists, and Hamida’s views are not universally held by the Muslim Brotherhood. They are, however, representative of the Brotherhood’s broader thinking. The disagreement with al-Qaeda is over tactics, not ideology, even though this particular MP supports al-Qaeda’s tactics as well.

Hamida’s comments are a boon for the Egyptian regime, which was badly shaken by the Brotherhood’s election victory. The closer the association between al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood, the better it is for Mubarak and his supporters. As long as they can make the argument that the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda are two sides of the same coin, they can continue arresting Brotherhood members and postponing municipal elections where the Ikhwan are likely to make a strong showing.

The crux of the debate between al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood is not over the ends, but rather the means by which to realize the greater goal of Islamic governance throughout the Muslim world. Al-Zawahiri’s criticism of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is evocative of a larger, ongoing debate in salafist circles over which strategy—militancy or elections—will achieve the larger goal of Islamic governance and independence from Western influence. The debate is not resolved, but the Ikhwan are aware and careful not to make their election strategy a cause of schism among salafist activists, despite occasional public disagreements.