The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna, a schoolteacher and Islamist intellectual who believed that Islam could, and should, adapt to modern contexts. The Brotherhood has been the most important and strongest political opposition force in Egypt, and the largest Islamic organization in the world. The Egyptian government has maintained restrictions on the Muslim Brotherhood since the mid-century, and, despite a brief period following the 2011 Arab Spring, these restrictions have tightened. In December 2013, the military transitional government led by Gen. ‘Abdel Fattah al-Sisi declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
The Muslim Brotherhood began as a community organization providing social services, including educational, health, and professional services directed to poor and middle class Egyptians. As more middle class professionals joined, the Brotherhood expanded its institutional capacity as a civil society alternative to government institutions. Inspired by the conflict in Palestine, the Brotherhood developed a paramilitary unit, the Nizam al-Khass (Special Unit), which trained fighters physically and ideologically to participate in the Palestinian conflict, and which maintained utmost secrecy, even among Brotherhood members. In the late 1940s, the Nizam engaged in terrorist activities in Egypt. Hassan al-Banna was assassinated in 1949, likely by the Egyptian government as retaliation against the Brotherhood’s increasingly militant activities.
The Muslim Brotherhood supported the Free Officer’s Revolution in 1952, but was swiftly marginalized by Gamal ‘Abdel Nasser following an assassination attempt that led to accusations against the Nizam. Nasser used the opportunity to disempower his potential rivals to power, leading to the arrest, torture, and exile of thousands of Brotherhood members.
The most prominent ideologue of the Brotherhood during this period was Sayyid Qutb, who joined the Brotherhood in 1953 following two years studying in the United States. He was arrested in 1954 on accusations of playing a role in the attempt on Nasser’s life, and sentenced to fifteen years of prison. A significant shift in Qutb’s thought occurred while in prison, during which he was subject to torture. He argued that targets of violence could legitimately be expanded to include representatives of the state, whose leaders he regarded as immoral apostates. Qutb’s radicalization shifted the aims and tactics of the Brotherhood, and inspired countless other Islamists inclined towards militancy. He was executed in 1966.
However, the Brotherhood renounced violence in 1970 under Sadat, instead embracing a social services and education agenda. Some of its members (particularly those who had been tortured under Nasser and later Sadat) rejected these reforms and formed militant Islamist offshoots that have embraced violence. Though it remained illegal, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood itself became more involved in politics and expanded its civil society initiatives.
Like Sadat, Mubarak tolerated the moderate Brotherhood, but pursued and punished other Islamists, leaving space for the Brotherhood to engage politically. The Brotherhood performed remarkably well in parliamentary elections in 2005, during which candidates (running as independents) won 20% of the seats. Mubarak used their success as evidence that Islamists posed a threat to the state, thus justifying continued repression of political opponents, particularly to the United States, whose leaders promoted a narrative of political reform.
The Brotherhood became legal in 2011 following the Arab Spring and formed an official political party, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). Its candidate, Muhammad Morsi, won the presidential election by a narrow margin, running against a former prime minister under Mubarak. Of those who voted for Morsi, some were genuine supporters of the Brotherhood, others were curious as to what a Brotherhood alternative could mean for Egypt, and yet others used it as a protest vote against Ahmed Shafiq, suggesting a wide range of interests, not all of which had to do with religious belief. The United States, too, cautiously backed the Brotherhood.
Within months, a political opposition movement formed that was deeply critical of Muhammad Morsi and Brotherhood politics. The faltering Egyptian economy had a direct impact on daily life, and Morsi was accused of instituting failed economic policy. Human rights activists, Copts, and many women were concerned with the Brotherhood’s marginalization of minority issues. Many Egyptians noted the consolidation of Islamist power in government, and in particular within the body charged with drafting a new constitution. These and other issues led to growing alarm, discontent, and hostility towards Morsi specifically and the Brotherhood more generally.
This came to a head in the summer of 2013, during which mass anti-government protests spearheaded by a youth activist group called Tamarod (Rebel) prompted a popular military coup led by Gen. ‘Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Morsi was arrested along with scores of other Brotherhood politicians and members. Morsi’s supporters demonstrated in the streets, leading to clashes with state security forces, hundreds of protestor deaths, and several deaths among the police. The coup and its aftermath, which included re-banning the Brotherhood, banning political parties based in religion, and designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, have deeply polarized Egyptian society.
BBC, “Profile: Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood,” BBC News, December 25, 2013, accessed January 14, 2014.
Samer Shehata and Joshua Stacher, “The Brotherhood Goes to Parliament,” Middle East Research and Information Project, Vol. 36 (2006), accessed January 14, 2014.
James Toth, Sayyid Qutb: The Life and Legacy of a Radical Islamic Intellectual (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).
Barbara H.E. Zollner, The Muslim Brotherhood: Hasan al-Hudaybi and Ideology (New York: Routledge, 2009).