Emad Shahin Examines Brotherhood Ideology and Practices
Q&A exploring Brotherhood roots, ideas and rise to power in Egypt
When and why was the Muslim Brotherhood founded?
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928; it is one of the oldest social and political movements in the region. The historical context in which it was established was characterized by three main issues: 1) collapse of the caliphate in 1924, which was a shock for many Muslims because it was perceived as a destruction of an entity that presented the symbolic unity of Muslims; 2) British occupation of Egypt and the need for an organized body to get rid of it; and 3) the rise of secular, nationalist movements in Egypt, such as Al Wafd Party. The Muslim Brotherhood also emerged as an extension of a reform movement that goes back to the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida were key figures in the development of the Islamic modernist movement, which attempted to revive and purify Islam, and to restructure the social, economic and cultural environment according to Islamic values. However, the Muslim Brotherhood managed to draw for itself a distinctive route compared to that of its predecessors, who were elitist to a great extent. The Muslim Brotherhood focused on bottom-up change, using faith as a vehicle for social transformation on the grassroots level.
What is the intellectual framework of the group as explained by its founder Hassan Al-Banna?
Hassan Al-Banna managed to promote a number of values and ideas among his followers. One those ideas is that Islam is a comprehensive way of life, which was a new idea at that time. That was a response to the rise of secularism. For him, Islam was a religion and a state (deen wa dawla), a Quran and sword. To be a true believer, you have to be concerned about what is happening around you. Islam should be practiced in a way that reflects on all aspects of life. In that sense, he drew a distinctive character for Islamists. Adopting this idea of merging religion and state, Al-Banna also had a plan of action, which was divided into three phases: education, preparation and implementation. The group engaged in politics to secure some gains for the movement and to promote its activities, first producing a Muslim individual, then Muslim family, growing into a Muslim society and ultimately the caliphate.
The death of Al Banna was followed by a series of assassinations for which the movement was blamed. Do you think that violence is part of the Brotherhood’s ideology?
Violence is not acceptable as a political tool from any side, and I believe that the Brotherhood abandoned violence decades ago. The violence in the group’s history was mainly connected to Al Tanzeem Al Khas (Special Organization), a branch of the group that was established to fight the British occupation in Egypt and participate in the Palestine war. It was a secret arm of the group that had a clandestine nature, but at one point, that arm started acting on its own, which introduced a destructive element in politics and brought the group down. The Muslim Brotherhood went through different phases, and I can say that the group has abandoned violence since the 1960s. It has not been involved in any acts of violence since then nor has violence been an integral part of its ideological orientation. What we see now is not organized violence.
How has the political repression that the Muslim Brotherhood went through under Nasser and Mubarak influenced its ideology and practices?
The Muslim Brotherhood went through different stages after the death of its founder, Hassan Al- Banna, in 1949. The group went into a cycle of suppression and toleration by the successive regimes. Pivotal ideological figures, such as Sayyid Qutb adopted a more extremist and radical approach toward society, and this created divisions and tensions within the group itself.
How do you explain the separation of a number of members, from Abu Ela Mady and Essam Sultan 17 years ago to Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, Mohamed Habib and the youth of Al Tayyar Al Masry (Egyptian Current) recently? Do you think that there is a generation gap inside the group?
The Muslim Brotherhood went through transformative phases, especially after the old generation came out of jail. Many of the names mentioned joined the group in the mid 1970s; new blood was introduced to the group. So, you had fresh blood working within an old structure, which created tension along intellectual, ideological, generational and organizational lines. Those who joined the group in the 1970s came from an open environment. They all were university leaders who were able to open channels of communication with other groups in society. Working in a tight organization creates friction; there must be a clash between the open and clandestine mentalities because they have different approaches.
According to some views, the current leadership has deviated from the original ideas of Hassan Al-Banna. Do you think that this is true?
The group is currently controlled by the old guard, who belong to the older generations. In the current crisis, for instance, it is easy to notice how they react to external pressure by attempting to preserve the existing structure. They have fear and apprehension toward those who come from outside the group, mainly because of the suppression they faced. As a result, decision making happens among closed circles of the group.
After the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as a dominant political force, beating other political parties in terms of organization and outreach to the masses. Is that what helped them come to power in Egypt?
They are a highly disciplined and organized group, but it is impossible for them to continue to have the dual nature of da’wa (religious preaching) and politics at the same time. The dilemma facing the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic movements is how to operate both as a group that has a religious message, as well as an active political party that competes for power and has specific goals. For the Muslim Brotherhood, a decision has to be made, and it should be to separate the two. There is a lot of resistance to making such a decision, particularly with the overlap of leadership within the group, but eventually it is better for the movement to take this step. If the Muslim Brotherhood wants to maintain its larger objective as a reformist group, the separation has to take place.
To what extent will the group’s underground work for many years affect its performance now as a ruling force?
Open groups are used to interaction with other social and political forces, and are more capable of negotiating and reaching compromises. Closed, underground organizations are mostly focused on survival. When groups become open after a period of suppression and are faced with external pressure, they go back to what they do best and to what they find familiar. This explains why President Mohamed Morsi passed decisions on major issues in an inefficient and inadequate way, based on the advice of a small circle of trusted advisers. Everyone wanted to oust the Egyptian attorney general, for instance, but the way President Morsi approached it did not gain the support of many people.
How does democracy factor into the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology and their central belief of adhering to the tenets of Islamic sharia law?
Democracy consists of two major parts: the philosophical underpinnings (democratic values) and the instruments of democracy. I claim that both Islamists and so-called liberals don’t have the philosophical underpinnings of democracy, which is attributable to the political environment before the revolution. If you scratch an Egyptian liberal, you will find a fascist underneath, which is quite clear in the way they conduct their meetings and activities. This is due to the fact that culture and education have been very authoritarian. We are dealing with the products of the Mubarak era, both on the government and opposition sides. All the political forces are exclusivist and arrogant. One side claims to possess the religious, absolute truth, while the other claims to have the secular, absolute truth. Each side denies the other the right to have its own frame of reference. I believe that mistakes are mutual.
What implications does the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power carry for Egypt on both the short and long term?
President Morsi had the potential to mobilize widespread support beyond the confines of his group, and many Egyptians could have easily identified with him. The problem, however, is that he is using his group to rule without opening up to the people and without protecting himself and his legitimacy through the support and power of the people. The presidential office is controlled by a very small circle of advisers, and I am not talking about the official ones here. The president’s core advisers belong to the Muslim Brotherhood, and they are inexperienced in politics. While Islamists are showing inexperience, liberals are also elitist. However, there is always room for retreat and compromises, and this is what President Morsi is doing now. The country’s leadership has learned an important lesson: They can’t ignore people and other political forces in the decision-making process.
Will Egypt be a second Iran?
Absolutely not. That is the beauty of democracy. After four years, we will have the chance to choose another president. That is what we should focus on and make people aware of.
What would U.S. policy toward a Brotherhood-led government in Egypt be like? Will Egypt continue to be a central ally in the region?
I find the relationship of the United States with the Muslim Brotherhood frustrating. Two of the main demands of the revolution were freedom and dignity, which translate into independence, sovereignty and complete control over our decisions as a country. The Muslim Brotherhood went out of its way to prove to the West that it can be a cooperative player. Many of the Brotherhood’s decisions, including the International Monetary Fund loan, should not have been made. They wanted to send a positive message to the West that they are willing to integrate into the world market and cooperate with the international financial institutions. There are many political visits to the United States to assure Washington that they are in control of the situation and to persuade the American leadership to give the Brotherhood a chance and explain the current situation from their viewpoint. But the American government usually listens to different sides and is primarily concerned with stability and predictability. As long as the Muslim Brotherhood can offer them both, they will cooperate with them. If they fail to secure the two issues, the American government will be happy to see them gone.
President Morsi emerged as a regional mediator in the Gaza crisis. What is your take on that?
The success of President Morsi’s mediation efforts was a win for both him and the West. It boosted his image domestically and internationally. This achievement on the foreign policy front emboldened Morsi’s administration to issue the controversial constitutional declaration. I don’t think that he expected the kind of opposition he faced.
The Brotherhood’s wins since the toppling of Mubarak, from parliament to the presidency, have been characterized by power struggles with the judiciary and the military. What do you think of that?
The problem lies in the process rather than the content of the constitution. There is very little discussion about the content of the constitution itself. Most of the discussions are about the makeup of the constituent assembly, the criteria for choosing its members, the voting process and the referendum’s timing. Clearly, there is something wrong with the policymaking process because of inherent bias of the country’s leadership. We would have been in a much better situation if the constituent assembly reflected the makeup of Egyptian society. Islamists should have taken that into consideration since they have the ability to mobilize a large number of people. They should have allowed the establishment of a more representative assembly. However, both the Islamist and liberal sides acted irresponsibly, turning a founding moment into what seems like a family feud. In addition, the liberal side was wrong when it withdrew and abstained from participating in negotiations. Instead of just objecting and denying cooperation, the liberal forces should have participated in negotiations and focused on convincing people with their viewpoint.
Amidst the turbulent situation in the country, how do you see the future of Egypt?
Egypt’s future is bright, and I don’t believe we will evolve into a theocratic country. We just need to turn our attention away from specific people and identity issues to the real demands of the public. The January 2011 revolution has unleashed the great potential of the Egyptian people, particularly youth. The future is in their hands.
Emad Shahin, AUC alumnus who taught at AUC from 1998 to 2007, has recently returned to his alma mater as professor of public policy and administration. Recipient of AUC’s 2001 - 2002 Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award. Shahin spent almost four years at Harvard’s Department of Government, where he also served as faculty associate at the Kennedy School of Government. In addition, he taught for three years at the University of Notre Dame as the Henry R. Luce Associate Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding. A prolific author, Shahin is the coeditor of Democratization in the Middle East and North Africa, and author of Muhammad Rashid Rida and the West; Political Ascent: Contemporary Islamic Movements in North Africa. He also published a chapter on “Toleration in Modern Islamic Polity: Contemporary Islamic Views” in Toleration on Trial. He is currently editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Politics.