Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Brothers unbanned

Mansoor Mirza on the Muslim Brotherhood

April 11, 2011
7 min read

Western governments, including the US, Britain and the EU, responded to the protests in Egypt with predictable nervousness, despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s low-key participation in the uprising. For decades, Mubarak had been a staunch western ally and underpinned US strategy in the Middle East. Because of his willingness to maintain the siege of Gaza, to support the longer-term US policy of keeping peace with Israel and to lead the way in isolating Iran, the dictatorial nature of his regime was quietly ignored.

US vice president Joe Biden called him ‘an important regional ally’, while Tony Blair, now Middle East envoy, described him as a ‘force for good’ – a phrase even he must recall with embarrassment today. Mubarak was also useful to the west in suppressing domestic opposition groups such as the Brotherhood that might have taken a more critical view of Egypt’s regional role and upset the finely balanced status quo.

Origins of the Muslim Brotherhood

Established in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, a schoolteacher from the town of Ismailia, north of the Suez canal, the movement’s early purpose was twofold – to revive Islam and make it compatible with the modern world, and to encourage Muslims to oppose European imperialism.

Profoundly influenced by the 19th- and early 20th-century decline of Islam and the extension of European power in Muslim lands, the Brotherhood’s early leadership and ideologues sought liberation and independence from colonial powers and at the same time warned against the expansionism of Italian fascism in Libya and the anti-semitism of German Nazism.

The movement’s early popularity – it was thought to have had as many as 500,000 members by the end of the 1940s – was based on a range of local and regional issues. Political opposition in the aftermath of Egypt’s successful 1919 revolution (where independence from Britain was secured) remained weak, with the dominant Wafd Party severely restricting its scope and potential.

In addition, inequality and corruption were rife and the economy lacked the capacity to employ a growing secular urban middle class, a situation not too dissimilar from Egypt today. Coupled with this were the pressures of regional insecurity, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of a new Jewish state.

With growing tensions and the narrowing of political space, members of the movement frequently called for violent confrontation with the state. Mostly these were resisted, but there were notable exceptions.

For instance, the Brotherhood’s early leadership ruled that armed struggle was justified in Palestine to halt Zionist expansionism. The movement’s paramilitary wing, established in the 1930s, was responsible for numerous attacks in this period, including the assassination in 1948 of the Egyptian prime minister Mahmoud Nokrashy.

But from the early 1970s the Brotherhood has consistently rejected the use of violence and strengthened its social and charitable activities throughout Egypt.

Charitable activities and sharia

Although the Brotherhood has existed for more than 80 years, it is difficult to pin down what the movement will represent in the post-Mubarak era. For much of its existence, it has provided essential social services such as basic healthcare and education to the poor across the country, something that successive Egyptian governments have failed to do adequately.

Many consider this aspect of the movement’s charitable work, which has led to long-lasting and strong grass-roots attachments, to be the foundation of its political strength. Despite being banned, the Brotherhood’s success in the 2005 parliamentary elections, where its members were forced to campaign as independent candidates but nevertheless won 88 seats, is a clear indication of its electoral strength and popular mass appeal.

But on key policy issues such as the imposition of sharia law, there is no clear direction. Some of the movement’s leadership insist on its reintroduction in Egypt. But these calls are being forcefully drowned out by younger, more reformist elements who are growing increasingly influential and dominant.

Ordinary Egyptians, too, show very little enthusiasm for sharia law, with no noticeable demand for the revival of Egypt’s sharia courts, which were closed down in the 1950s. In a more democratic Egypt with genuine political pluralism, imposing such an unpopular measure would surely have devastating electoral consequences.

Conservatives versus reformists

The deep internal divisions within the Brotherhood also make it difficult to predict the movement’s future direction. When the current leader, Muhammad Badi, was elected in 2008, the growing reformist wing within the organisation was deeply disappointed.

Badi and the Brotherhood’s conservative faction are seen as outdated and increasingly out of touch with ordinary Egyptians and the new political realities. On Badi’s election, the movement’s deputy leader and one of the Brotherhood’s leading reformists, Muhammad Habib, resigned in protest, accusing the old guard of manipulating the process and putting the ‘future of the movement at stake’.

Reformists such as Habib criticise the old guard for paying too much attention to maintaining internal cohesion at the expense of greater transparency, and not pressing hard enough for political change. Indeed, the initial reaction of the movement to the demonstrations in Egypt when they began in late January was to distance itself from the protests and to opt for a typically non-confrontational approach to the regime. In what was a major victory for the reformists, who advocate greater cooperation with Egypt’s fragile secular opposition, the Brotherhood quickly changed its position and backed the uprising, calling it a ‘people’s revolution’ and supporting its secular foundations.

Senior figures within the Brotherhood have recently announced that they are working on a ‘party platform’, a document setting out the movement’s political position and aims.

When the Brotherhood released its last party platform in 2007 the exercise was a disaster. It misjudged the public mood and alienated senior figures within the Brotherhood and many outside the movement. After the document was widely criticised, it was shelved and has not seen the light of day since. The episode suggests that, while conservatives still exist within the Brotherhood, its younger reformist element is increasingly significant, with the organisation more aware of public opinion.

Immediate challenges ahead

Whether or not the Brotherhood comes to dominate the new Egypt remains to be seen and will depend on a number of complex factors. As ever, the army will play a decisive role and may not be willing to relinquish power just yet. Mubarak may have gone, but right now the army remains firmly in control.

The internal divisions within the Brotherhood, and how these get resolved, will be key – and will determine whether the movement can appeal to a wider audience outside of its traditional support base of practising lower-middle class Muslims.

The west will have a role to play. After supporting a brutal, dictatorial regime that denied its people basic human rights, freedom and dignity for three decades, it – and particularly the US and Britain – has a profound responsibility to the Egyptian people and a significant moral debt to pay.

The US could exert significant influence on the Egyptian military. Using its US$1.3 billion annual military aid package to Egypt, the US must insist on the army’s withdrawal from Egypt’s political arena and the implementation of genuine civilian rule.

Stopping the billions of dollars of military aid to Egypt and transferring this immediately into genuine development aid would be an important first step in supporting Egypt through what is likely to be a difficult and uncertain transition.

But aid packages from the US and other western governments notoriously come with conditions that ultimately seek to protect their own vast economic interests. So while important for the development of civil society in Egypt, western aid will likely come with demands that Egypt remains on its existing neoliberal economic path, exacerbating economic inequality throughout the country and failing to meet the aspirations of the protesters.

Much will rest on whether the millions of protesters and their leaders who courageously forced Mubarak from power are able to unite and build a strong secular opposition, able to compete for power and offer Egyptians genuine political choice.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power


4