Special Commentary: The Muslim Brotherhood and Transition in Egypt

Muslim Brotherhood seniors Essam el-Erian, center right, and Saad el-Katatni, center left, take part in a protest in Cairo, Egypt.

On January 25, 2011, the Egyptian people took to the streets in sustained protest against the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak.  One week later, President Obama declared that the orderly transition to real democracy including free and fair elections “must begin now.”  Any such transition must include Mubarak’s long-time Islamist nemesis, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB).  By definition, free and fair elections will result in a significant role in government for the MB if the organization decides to participate, which is highly likely.  Should the United States be concerned about what kind of role the MB would play?


Founded in 1928 in Egypt as a Muslim revivalist organization devoted to education and charitable works, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is the oldest and most successful Islamist organization in the world.  It was never simply a group for preaching Islam, however. Early in its history, it developed a secret apparatus as a military wing, which engaged in acts of terrorism against the colonial government of the time.  The colonial government arranged for the Brotherhood’s founder to be murdered in 1949 apparently in retaliation for the violence of the secret apparatus, including the murder of Egypt’s prime minister in December 1948.  In 1954, the Egyptian government banned the Brotherhood for attempting to assassinate the Republic’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, once the Brotherhood recognized that the president had no intention of establishing a Muslim state according to MB principles.  The MB was not responsible for the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981.  Military officers who carried out the attack were members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ).  The EIJ, whose members included Ayman al-Zawahiri, considered the MB compromised. At that point, Hosni Mubarak, who just barely avoided being killed with Sadat, became the President of Egypt.  He took office with the clear concept that Islamist groups of all stripes posed existential threats to his government.  Even though by then the MB had adopted a non-violent, gradualist approach to achieving its goals, Mubarak regularly imprisoned members along with other ultra-violent jihadist groups.  His policy was a kind of zero tolerance policy towards Islamist groups, although the banned MB was still allowed to operate in one of those paradoxical political arrangements Egyptians manage to negotiate.

The Brotherhood and al-Qaeda are political enemies. Al-Qaeda has not been a factor in any of the MB’s actions during the recent days of anger across the Egyptian landscape.  Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote a bitter book covering 60 years of history of the MB, entitled The Bitter Harvest, containing over 200 pages of vitriolic attack on the Brotherhood.  The Brotherhood regularly publishes anti-al-Qaeda articles on its official website.  The MB General Guide signed a statement after 9/11 that condemned “in the strongest terms and sorrow, these events, which are against all human and Islamic values” (Quds al-Arabi, London, September 14, 2001, in Arabic). The Arabic word translated as “events” in the statement is very weak and the MB placed its signature among many.  Nevertheless, the organization went on the record against attacks on innocents.  One of the characteristics of the Brotherhood in Egypt that most infuriates al-Qaeda is its willingness to participate in the democratic process.  In a slight nod toward political reform by President Mubarak, 2005 marked the first time Egyptians could vote for more than one candidate.  In the election for parliament, MB members running as independents captured approximately one-fifth of the seats (88 out of 444).  Banned as a political party, the Brotherhood was the only opposition party to be organized in every region of Egypt.

The Bad

Although the MB has adopted a non-violent policy in Egypt, its strict Islamist goals resemble al-Qaeda’s goals.  They have never abandoned their original jihadist slogan: “Allah is our objective, the Quran is our constitution, the Prophet is our leader, struggle is our way and death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations.”  It is slogans like this and other inflammatory goals that have allowed the Mubarak government to consistently argue that fully free elections in Egypt could mean one vote for one man, one time.  In addition, the MB has supported (at least in rhetoric) violence against American troops in Iraq and opposes American foreign policy in the Middle East.  The MB has never accepted the peace treaty with Israel or accepted Israel’s right to exist.  Hamas is an offspring of the Brotherhood and the MB has always given Hamas support, at least morally.  Finally, most Americans would find the MB’s stance on the role of women in society and societal freedoms in general to be unacceptable if they were implemented in their most extreme form.

The Good

There is no doubt that the MB in Egypt is patriotic and supports the aspirations of a large number of Egyptians.  It is not corrupt and has provided charitable works including education and medical services to the poorest in Egypt.  It is pragmatic and modern in its approach to problems.  Muhammad Badie, the current General Guide of the MB in Egypt, is a modern man who has played a pragmatic role since his election in 2009.  For example, after his election he stated: “We believe in gradual reform, which can only be achieved through a peaceful and constitutional struggle based on persuasion and dialogue…hence we reject violence in all its forms by either governments or individuals” (Al-Shorfa.com, 1/18/2010).  He has also consistently recognized the role and rights of Christians in Egypt. The Brotherhood’s official website, at least the English version, on February 1 declared that the MB recognized all treaties signed by the Egyptian government, signaling that it does not advocate abrogating the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The MB has also made statements in the past to the effect that it opposes Israel but does not want to go to war.  

The Uncertain

If the MB were to join a democratically elected government, which Brotherhood would appear: the moderate organization of recent times or the extremist movement of the past?  For sure, the MB has kept a relatively low profile during the demonstrations and has tried to play a positive, disciplined role.  It is certainly aware that to push too hard would harm its long-term interests in Egypt because it does not represent the majority of the people and the popular revolution is not likely to support MB rule.  It is, therefore, not difficult to envision the MB agreeing to support a religiously conservative candidate that would be acceptable to the respected Egyptian military.  It is easy to see the Brothers participating honestly according to the rules laid out for a democratic parliamentary election because of their likely success.  Even in a minority role, however, we should expect difficult (but perhaps not disastrous) relations with Israel, especially where policy concerning Gaza is concerned.  The MB has waited for this opportunity in Egypt and it is highly unlikely to do anything that would harm its future prospects.  It is the long run that holds the most uncertainty about the Brotherhood’s role in Egyptian political affairs.  It is much more likely to take Turkey as a role model than Iran.  At the same time, no one can predict with certainty, not even the members of the Brotherhood itself, as they argue internally about their future policies.  One thing is for sure, however; engaging the MB in dialogue now is not really a choice, it is a necessity if there is to be any hope of a peaceful transition in Egypt.