The Arab Spring gave the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates the chance to play vital roles in the Egyptian, Tunisian and Libyan revolutions. But now the organisation has itself become the target of violent protests. So, who are these men and how did they get where they are?
The 25 Muslim Brothers had been locked inside the mosque for five hours, but the protesters couldn’t agree about what to do with them. Some simply wanted to swap them for demonstrators captured and beaten by the Muslim Brotherhood itself. “Our religion is about forgiveness,” said one protester, speaking through a window to the Brothers inside. “We won’t hurt you.”
But other protesters disagreed. “They are infidels,” screamed a man repeatedly. “Let them die inside.”
The date was Friday 22 March, and the rest of Cairo was dulled by a pale fog of dust. It was the first of the khamseen, a dust-filled wind that sweeps in from the Sahara each spring, blurring the streets and skies into a single ochre smudge. But high up in Moqattam – a vast hump of rock that rises from the slums in the east of the city, and houses the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood – the air was clogged with something more menacing.
In the streets near the Brotherhood’s compound, there were molotovs and rocks, birdshot and teargas. Elsewhere, black smoke billowed skywards as protesters burned posters of Mohamed Morsi – onetime Brotherhood stalwart and president of Egypt. What had begun as a protest against Morsi and his alleged deference to Brotherhood interests was now a full-scale street battle between Brotherhood loyalists and opposition demonstrators.
Where the fighting happened on Friday was as significant as how it did. Since the 2011 uprising that ousted former dictator Hosni Mubarak, protesters have usually focused their attention on institutions of the state, with Brotherhood offices generally attacked as part of wider violence. But last month, protests exclusively targeted the headquarters of the Brotherhood. The implication was clear. For its opponents, the Muslim Brotherhood is now as much an enemy of the revolution’s goals as the police, the army – even Mubarak. “Hosni is Morsi,” summarised Maha Hatab, who had travelled to the protest from a town 10 miles west of Cairo. “It’s the same revolution.”
The charge sheet against the Ikhwan – as the organisation is known in Arabic – is long. But if it was melted down to a single criticism, it might be this: democracy does not end at the ballot box – and yet the Brotherhood and its affiliates behave as if it does.
In particular, the opposition is furious at how – in an act seen as that of a dictator – Morsi awarded himself sweeping powers in November to ram through a deeply controversial new constitution. The document had been drawn up by a committee dominated by allies of the Brotherhood. It is felt to be ambiguous about free speech, women’s rights, and minorities, while paving the way for an Islamic state.
At a time when a polarised Egypt urgently needs to build political consensus, Morsi has also been criticised for appointing allies to key positions within the Egyptian administrative hierarchy. “The general concern,” explains Khaled Fahmy, head of history at the American University in Cairo, “is about the Ikhwanisation of the state.”
A protester cheers in front of items ransacked from an office of the Freedom and Justice Party in Alexandria. Photograph: STRINGER/EGYPT/REUTERS
More specific concerns include the police – whose brutality Morsi is felt to have made little attempt to reform – as well as outbursts of extraordinary misogyny. Last month, a Brotherhood statement claimed that if women were allowed to work without their husband’s permission, it would lead to the “complete disintegration of society”. The Brotherhood’s supporters hope it will usher in a moderate Islamist state in the mould of Turkey. But statements such as this add grist to the view that – though no worse on gender equality than the Mubarak regime – it is in fact the harbinger of a second Iran.
For its part, the Brotherhood can barely see itself in these accusations. In its eyes, its is a long-suffering movement with a strong support-base and a rich history of grassroots social work that is doing its best in trying economic circumstances to hold the country together. Anger at the government and at the Brotherhood may be rising across all echelons of Egyptian society, as unemployment rises along with the cost of living. But the Brotherhood feel it still has a mandate to govern, especially as the Freedom and Justice party (FJP), its political wing, has won every election since 2011. And it considers critics members of a metropolitan elite out of touch with the feelings of ordinary Egyptians.
“It’s scary for them to believe that that amount of people believe the same things and support the same guy,” Gehad al-Haddad, a Brotherhood spokesman, told the Guardian earlier this year. “In reality,” he added, “the Muslim Brotherhood is probably the most mature, non-violent political [movement] in the Middle East.”
Back in early 2011, some would have been surprised by the Brotherhood’s current prominence. As one dictator after another was toppled in the Middle East, it seemed – from a distance – that they would be replaced by a generation of young westernised tweeters, well versed in liberalism and iPhones. Brotherhood members played a sizeable role in Tahrir – but at the time, even Morsi claimed the group had little interest in power. “We don’t wish to lead [the revolution],” he said, “but we want to be part of it.” The Brotherhood even sacked a leading member for announcing plans to run for president. Instead, liberal leaders such as Mohamed ElBaradei, a former UN diplomat, were touted by some as Egypt’s likely new head of state.
But ElBaradei never even ran for office. Two years on, the power vacuum left in two of the countries most associated with the Arab Spring – Tunisia and Egypt – has instead been filled by incarnations of the Muslim Brotherhood. In Tunisia, the wellspring of the 2011 uprisings, the ruling party is Ennahda – a movement regarded as the Tunisian manifestation of the Brotherhood that, before the revolution, was practically in exile. In Egypt, the Brotherhood’s political wing controlled 2012’s short-lived parliament, while Morsi, once one of its senior officials, became Egypt’s first elected president last June (before resigning from the movement in a gesture of independence). In Libya, the Brotherhood’s political offshoot did not do as well as expected in last year’s elections – but still came second. Meanwhile, its Syrian branch plays a significant (and, some argue, obstreperous) role in the country’s ongoing civil war. “The Brotherhood,” concludes Alison Pargeter in the new edition of her eponymous biography of the movement, “has shifted from semi-clandestine opponent to legitimate political power almost overnight.”
It is quite some change. For much of its history, the Brotherhood’s main managerial experience lay in its grassroots social work: clinics, classes and food-handouts in some of Egypt’s poorest areas. And yet it is this work that explains both its continued popularity among many Egyptians – as well as its ability to mobilise so quickly after the fall of Mubarak. “They were very organised,” says John McHugo, author of The Concise History of the Arabs. “They basically had an electoral organisation throughout Egypt at a time when very few other people did.”
The organisation extends beyond Egypt, too – with branches in Syria, Jordan, Kuwait and Libya. Brotherhood members founded Hamas in Gaza, while Tunisia’s ruling party, Ennahda, was set up by admirers of the movement. “There’s always been a sense that Ennahda was from the same school of thought as the Brotherhood. All of them were. All of them were effectively descendants or affiliates of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood,” explains Shadi Hamid, an expert on political Islam, and director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “The Egyptian Brotherhood was the mother of all Islamist movements.”
And it has been a long time coming. Eighty-five years last Saturday, in fact: the Brotherhood was born in Egypt in March 1928 – founded by a teacher called Hassan al-Banna. Fed up with colonialism, and the westernisation of Egyptian life, al-Banna saw a need for a group that would promote traditional Islamic values. Twenty years later, the Brotherhood had an estimated 500,000 members; today, it claims to number over a million – whose rank-and-file are said to be lower-middle-class, but whose leaders are often doctors and businessmen. Each pays a portion of their income to help fund the movement.
Key player in the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat el-Shater. Photograph: Nasser Nuri / Reuters/REUTERS
Members take orders from a Guidance Office of around 20 elders – nominally headed by the supreme guide, Murshid Mohamed Badie, but dominated by one of his deputies, businessman Khairat el-Shater. “The Murshid is not in charge,” says one middle-ranking Brother. “If we want to arrange a demonstration, Khairat el-Shater does it … He has a really strong personality. He knows how to make people follow him.”
Al-Banna had a reputation for being all things to all men. Contemporaries report that he would happily change from a suit to a traditional jalabiya and back again to appeal to his different audiences. He was pragmatic and versatile almost to the point of paradox – characteristics that could also collectively describe his successors, who include thinkers as diverse as the gradualist Hassan al-Hodeibi and the fundamentalist Sayyid Qutb.
Yet the Brotherhood is not so versatile as to be a cohesive international force. Despite attempts in the 80s to bring its various wings closer together, the Brotherhood’s international committee “doesn’t really have binding control over the constituent branches,” says Hamid. “Yes, there is consultation and some degree of coordination but it’s not as if there’s some Brotherhood international that is overseeing some mass regional conspiracy. There’s really nothing of the sort.”
Following disagreements within the movement, the Brotherhood’s one-time branches in Iraq and Algeria are no longer part of the parent organisation – though ties between most other affiliates remain cordial.
“They have warm, friendly relationships and many of them lived together in exile – in London for example,” says Hamid. “So when you see them at conferences they hug and they’re happy to see each other because they do recognise that they’re all sharing in a similar project … even though some of them might have gone in slightly different directions over the last few decades.”
Tunisia’s Ennahda is a case in point. Its founder, Rachid Ghannouchi, studied in Cairo – where he was heavily inspired by the Egyptian Brotherhood – before founding Ennahda in the 1970s. But, says Ghannouchi’s daughter Yusra, a spokesperson for Ennahda: “The two movements are not identical. They share a lot in common, but they do have differences.”
For instance: either through belief or pragmatism, Rachid Ghannouchi and parts of Ennahda seem more disposed to a pluralist society than their counterparts in Egypt. In March last year, Ghannouchi gave a lecture in which he appeared to suggest that secularism does not conflict with the principles of Islam. “The primary orbit for religion is not the state’s apparatuses,” he said, “but rather personal, individual convictions.”
So while Ennahda and the Egyptian Brotherhood may have the same broad aims, they operate within different political environments, and behave accordingly. From the early 90s, Ennahda was brutally repressed by the former Tunisian dictatorship, which meant that by the time of the revolution, the group had a very weak organisational structure. Many of its most senior figures had been in exile for many years, and “were essentially being introduced to a society they don’t really know any more,” says Hamid.
Since 2011 Ennahda has therefore had to rebuild itself virtually from scratch. Significantly, it has also had to do so within a political environment that is more secular in outlook than its equivalent in Egypt. “In Tunisia, there have always been indigenous Islamist and secular parties,” says Yusra Ghannouchi, “and I think that diversity will always be there.”
By contrast, Egypt’s Brotherhood has had 40 years to set down organisational roots, and the 2011 uprising occurred within a society that was already more influenced by grassroots Islamic trends. The Brotherhood may have remained an illegal organisation under Mubarak, but from the 70s onwards, the Egyptian authorities tacitly allowed it to develop its community programmes. By 2005, its members also formed the largest opposition grouping in parliament. Hopeless as its current actions may sometimes seem, the Brotherhood’s years in opposition have left it with considerably more organisational know-how than most of its new secular rivals.
To the Brotherhood, last November’s decision to fast-track the new constitution would be an example of this maturity. In its rhetoric, a new constitution was urgently needed to ensure the maintenance of Egypt’s democratic transition. Had Morsi not used his powers to push it through, goes its argument, the constitution risked being derailed by judges loyal to the old regime – prolonging Egypt’s post-2011 limbo. Even if the move seemed dictatorial in the short term, it served to enshrine a constitution that in the long-term actually curtails Morsi’s power – which to the Brotherhood makes his actions well-intentioned, if clumsy.
Egyptian riot police stand guard as protesters chant anti-Muslim Brotherhood songs in front of the presidential palace in Cairo. Photograph: Nariman El-Mofty/AP
But were they? For those filling the streets of Moqattam, or the hundredsrecreating the Harlem Shake in the same place last month, or the thousands who embarked on a campaign of civil disobedience in Port Said, the idea is laughable. To its critics, the Brotherhood’s years in opposition have arguably left its members defensive and paranoid, and therefore culturally incapable of running a democracy worthy of the name. Since its founding, many of its leaders – including Morsi – have been locked up, and some executed. For several decades, it was also a banned group. In order to survive, the movement became reliant on secrecy and a strict hierarchy. “The Brotherhood historically is not an organisation known for transparency or democracy,” says McHugo. “If you are loyal and you follow all your instructions,” adds one Cairo-based Brother, “then you can get a higher rank.” Morsi is a prime example.
Morsi may have been elected by a clear majority, his critics admit. But they feel that support was grudgingly given. Last June, many did not vote for Morsi because they strongly believed in political Islam, but because Morsi was marginally preferable to Ahmed Shafik – his opponent in the election run-off, and a holdover from the Mubarak era. In fact, in the first round of last year’s presidential elections, most voters (55.7%) actually opted for non-Islamist candidates.
When Morsi first came to power, he appeared to accept this, promising to govern in the name “of all Egyptians”. But critics say he and his colleagues have since only had the Brotherhood’s interests at heart. They cite the constitution debacle, the so-called Ikhwanisation, and claim that draft electoral legislation drawn up by FJP politicians will allow the FJP to gerrymander upcoming parliamentary elections.
The Brotherhood denies the claim. “We won the elections at the last parliament [but] the prime minister is not from our party,” says Walid al-Haddad, a spokesman for the FJP. “We have a maximum of six-to-eight ministers in cabinet.”
Still, the perception remains that many ministers – prime minister Hisham Qandil included – are at the very least Brotherhood-sympathisers. Former Brotherhood members also allege that the FJP – which is nominally independent of the movement – in fact still takes its orders from the Ikhwan. Morsi’s opponents also claim that the president, who resigned from the Brotherhood to highlight his autonomy, remains a front for El-Shater and the Brotherhood’s Guidance Council.
Naturally, the FJP denies this too. “It’s a big lie,” says a former member of the party’s election team. “He listens to them. Every day he listens to them. Every hour even. But he doesn’t follow their advice. He doesn’t follow everything … It’s really normal. It’s sharing ideas. It doesn’t mean he has to do everything they suggest.”
“We are a civil party built on an Islamic background,” Al-Haddad. “We are not for the Muslim Brotherhood only.” But even if it was, he adds, it would be legitimate for them to use their power to appoint allies to key positions: “In England, the ruling party implements their programme.”
Besides, the Brotherhood argues it is nearly impossible to implement any such programme, let alone an Ikhwanised one, within such a sclerotic state apparatus as Egypt’s. The police force is a case in point, it argues. Many Egyptians would like to see a reformation of the security sector, whose brutality was a major cause of the 2011 uprising, and whose malpractice remains unchecked by Morsi. But his allies say his best intentions are thwarted by a police hierarchy controlled by Mubarak-era holdovers. Still, respond rights campaigners, reform is not even a priority for a Muslim Brother schooled in authoritarianism.
“It’s not just that he hasn’t delivered on any changes,” says Heba Morayef, the head of Human Rights Watch in Egypt, “it’s that he hasn’t publicly acknowledged that there is a serious problem of police abuse.”
Rumours also abound of Brotherhood militias, set up to bypass the police. The Brotherhood strongly rejects this: “there are no Muslim Brotherhood militias,” says Al-Haddad. It can also point to equivalent behaviour from its opponents, who beat and dragged lone Brothers down the sandy slopes of Moqattam on Friday, and set on fire at least one Brotherhood member. But the opposition would argue that what happened last week is just a belated retaliation for what happened outside the presidential palace last December, when Ikhwan membersallegedly led a torture campaign against demonstrators.
Others can’t stand the Ikhwan’s religious posturing. Religiosity is high among Egyptians of all political stripes – but many of the most devout wish the Brotherhood (as well as the ultra-orthodox Salafist groups to their right) would leave people to interpret religion in their own way. “It is only a misinterpretation of Islam that creates these kinds of statements,” argues Soad Shalaby, a spokeswoman for Egypt’s National Council of Women, of last month’s outburst against women, which the Brotherhood made in the name of Islam. “Islam is not the Muslim Brotherhood,” agreed Maha Hatab, wearing a headscarf at Moqattam. “Before 2011, we thought that the Brotherhood were real Muslims. Now we know that they are not.”
It’s commentssuch as Hatab’s that skewer the greatest longterm challenge facing the Brotherhood. Analysts argue that, before 2011, the Brotherhood’s appeal lay in its ability to transcend the dirty game of secular politics – both through its connection to ordinary Egyptians, and through its offer of a redeeming and untried alternative: Islamism. But as Hatab shows, Islamism has lost some of this innocence since coming to power – dislocated from its social work, and tarnished by the failures of government. “There was a time when you could have been part of the Muslim Brotherhood but you didn’t really care about politics,” says Hamid. “It was about teaching, it was about education, it was about social services. But now the Brotherhood is so much about politics that it has consumed the organisation.”
So could power be the Brotherhood’s undoing? For Pargeter the answer is no – or at least, not yet: “The movement can still rely upon a core base who will vote for them because of what they stand for as much as for what they do or achieve politically.” It is, she says, “likely to still be able to connect with people in a way that [its] non-Islamist political rivals cannot.”
But according to Hamid, it is not necessarily the non-Islamists who pose the biggest electoral threat – but other Islamist groups such as the centrist Strong Egypt party, or one of the Salafi groups. “If you’re a young religious Egyptian and you want to be part of a movement, you may have wanted to join the Brotherhood 10 years ago,” says Hamid. “But now the Brotherhood is so controversial in government, you may feel: well, they’re too political, maybe I should consider a Salafi group that is less directly involved in politics.”
It is this kind of conundrum, Hamid argues, that foregrounds the biggest challenge facing the Brotherhood: “How do you balance the demands of a religious movement with specific political objectives?” For the 25 Brothers trapped inside a mosque high above Cairo last month, the answer must have seemed painfully clear. With difficulty.
Inside the Muslim Brotherhood
Morsi supporters at an election campaign rally in 2012. Photograph: OSNOWYCZ AUDE/SIPA / Rex Feature
• The Brotherhood is a strictly hierarchical organisation that rewards obedience. “If you are loyal and you follow all your instructions,” says one of the Brotherhood’s 1 million estimated members, “then you can get a higher rank.”
• Nominally, the movement is led by the Murshid or supreme guide, Mohamed Badie. But according to insiders, the real power is held by one of his deputies, Khairat el-Shater. A supermarket mogul with a big beard, el‑Shater has allegedly pulled the strings since the start of the millennium – even when he was in prison.
“The Murshid is just a guy,” explains a middle-ranking Brother who says Badie’s responsibilities are religious rather than political. “Khairat el-Shater has been in charge for 12 years.” Part of el‑Shater’s influence comes from his wealth, which helps to bankroll the party – giving rise to his nickname inside the movement: minister for finance.
El-Shater is one of 20 deputies drawn from a larger, 180-strong Consultative Council – whose members set the Brotherhood’s agenda. Academic pedigree is regarded as a plus for those seeking Council membership. Those with degrees and foreign languages are looked on more favourably.
• Beneath the council, there are several rungs – ranging from regional chiefs to those in charge of urban districts, or even small neighbourhoods. Each local division meets once a week, with regional discussions occurring every three months, and a national conference every six – “depending on Khairat el Shater’s time”.
• Rising stars are encouraged to expand their reading. “Every week they give me a book,” says one, currently making his way through an analysis of the Koran. “And then they discuss this book with me.”
• The Brotherhood is represented in elections by its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which is nominally independent. But even members say that the FJP and its former leader still relies heavily on their Brotherhood allies. “Khairat el-Shater has a vision,” argues a member. “Morsi doesn’t have a vision.”