A Primer on the Muslim Brotherhood

There have been a lot of primers on the Muslim Brotherhood recently, owing to the protests in Egypt and the fact that Americans know very little about the internal politics of Arab countries. The increased interest in the Brotherhood also dovetails with long-standing conservative conspiracy theories about the group's beliefs, capabilities, and behavior that largely replicate red-baiting paranoia during the Cold War. In the interest of responding to those issues without sugarcoating the Muslim Brotherhood's very real flaws, I've tried to answer some questions and correct some misconceptions.

History. The Society of Muslim Brothers, known colloquially as the Muslim Brotherhood, was founded in 1928 in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna. It was targeted during the crackdown against Islamist groups following the attempted assassination of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954. A number of its members were radicalized during that time, and some of them justified the use of violence as a political tool. After years of repression, the group renounced violence as part of a truce with Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, and rode an intense wave of religious revival that swept the Arab world in the 1970s and 1980s. While technically banned from participating in elections, its ability to deliver social services and "articulate a narrative of defiance" against the regime of Hosni Mubarak and the West has helped the Brotherhood become the most prominent opposition group in Egypt.

"They are very good at providing social and educational services. They are sort of a state within a state. They have a whole set of parallel institutions, mosques, banks, businesses. ... You name it, the Brotherhood does it," explains Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. "So in that sense, even if [Egyptians] don't agree with their ideology, they might support the Brotherhood because they feel the Brotherhood is good at helping everyday Egyptians, and the Brotherhood tends to be efficient and less corrupt than the government."

They're not that popular. Contrary to the fears of some conservatives, the protests are not being motivated by Islamists. "It's not the Muslim Brotherhood alone," says Tamim Al-Barghouti, a professor at Georgetown's Center for Comparative Arab Studies. "It's them and everyone else." A recent poll of Egyptians commissioned by the Washington Institute on Near East Policy found the Muslim Brotherhood at only 15 percent approval.

Compatibility with democracy. Much of the concern about the Muslim Brotherhood is over whether the group is "compatible" with democracy. The Brotherhood has stated outright that it is committed to civil democracy, but it's impossible to know how its members would behave as democratic actors, because they haven't yet had the chance to prove themselves one way or the other. Nevertheless, as political scientist Carrie Rosefsky Wickham notes, the Muslim Brotherhood has shown the ability to work in coalition with other political groups. The group has, Wickham writes, "worked with secular democracy activists on such projects as creating a civic charter and a constitution, preparing for the time when a new democratic government came to power."

Potentially more predictive, Hamid says, is the way the Brotherhood has acted in unions and professional associations, "smaller democratic laboratories" where it has shown a willingness to adhere to democratic norms. "It seems the Brotherhood understands the basic premise of democracy that people vote you in; they sometimes vote you out," Hamid says. "There's no way to prove without a doubt the Brotherhood's commitment to anything without giving them a role in government."

Violence. The Muslim Brotherhood renounced terrorism and violence in the 1970s, at least partially because of brutal repression from the Egyptian government. "They've since become a much more benign organization despite their history," says Malcolm Nance, a former Navy intelligence officer and author of An End to Al Qaeda. A breakaway group for those still committed to violence, Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, formed in response and has been responsible for many acts of terrorism in Egypt since, as well as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

But while the Muslim Brotherhood has condemned the September 11 attacks, it continues to justify violence against Israel and against American troops in Iraq. The problem is, as Marc Lynch noted in a report for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, that those views are squarely within the Arab mainstream:

For instance, an opinion survey from spring 2009 found that 83 percent of Egyptians approved of attacks on American troops in Iraq (as did the MB), but only 8 percent approved of attacks on American civilians in the United States (as did al-Qa'ida).

Isolating the Muslim Brotherhood as "extreme" for these views obscures a much more disturbing issue -- that those views aren't all that "extreme" in their own context. The Pew Global Attitudes Project found in a 2010 survey that 52 percent of Egyptians have a positive view of Hamas. Any diplomatically elected government of Egypt is likely to be more hostile to Israel and the U.S. for this reason, whether or not the Brotherhood is in charge. While it may seem strange in the American political context, many Egyptians make a serious moral distinction between Hamas and al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda. The Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda hate each other. The former view the latter as terrorists, and the latter view the former as traitors to the cause. Critics of the Muslim Brotherhood often cite a common ideological ancestor of both the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda, Sayyid Qutb, to draw connections between them. But this obscures the depth of the ideological and religious gulf between the two. The willingness of the Brotherhood to pursue its goals through legitimate democratic means, without violence, is precisely the point -- and precisely why the Egyptian uprising threatens more extreme groups even if it empowers the Muslim Brotherhood.

"The entire bin Laden jihad is about the triumph of Islam over democracy, that only Islam can bring about what we're seeing in Egypt," Nance says. By acknowledging the legitimacy of civil society, the Brotherhood is committing a kind of heresy that for its extremist rivals is unforgivable. That's the reason the two groups hate one another.

"The radicals, including al-Qaeda, consider them to be unbelievers, because they have accepted the legitimacy of democratic elections, and when you do that, it means that you're abrogating the sovereignty of god for the sovereignty of people," Hamid explains. "That's one of the red lines for radical Islamist groups." That line hasn't been erased even where self-identified branches of the Brotherhood like Hamas have engaged in terrorism -- Hamas has crushed attempts by al-Qaeda-affiliated groups to gain a foothold in Gaza.

Conservatives point out that some former Brotherhood members have become terrorists, most notoriously al-Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, who has since written screeds denouncing the Muslim Brotherhood -- but the need to form extremist splinter groups also highlights the lines the Brotherhood has refused to cross. As Lynch notes, "Its hostility to al-Qa'ida is not based on a desire to please the United States -- which makes it more, rather than less, valuable."

Organization. The Muslim Brotherhood is often portrayed by conservatives as a massive conspiracy with unlimited reach and unlimited resources, quietly perpetrating a massive Islamist revolution around the globe. The reality, Lynch writes, is that "the 'global' organization is more a theoretical construct than reality, with Cairo exercising little operational control over its like-minded member organizations."

What that means is in practice, the Muslim Brotherhood's branches in different countries have behaved differently. The Iraq branch, the Islamic Iraq Party, participated in elections. While Hamas has deployed violence against Israel, there is a branch of the Brotherhood that holds seats in the Israeli Knesset. Suffice it to say that there's no one person pulling the strings, that the notion of a global conspiracy is far-fetched and possibly not even relevant to the question of the Brotherhood's future in a potentially democratic Egypt.

No, they're not liberals. The point of this piece isn't to give the impression that the Muslim Brotherhood should give everyone the warm fuzzies. Members of the group's leadership hold some truly awful beliefs about Jews and Israel, and as Lynch notes, both the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda "want to Islamicize the public domain and create Islamic states ruled by sharia." But the Brotherhood's willingness to play by the rules of a democratic society is more than a disagreement over "tactics"; it is the difference between legitimacy and illegitimacy. Even if the U.S. could dictate the outcome in Egypt, a democracy in which the Brotherhood were not allowed to participate would probably do more to marginalize pragmatists and empower the group's extremist rivals than it would to make the Muslim Brotherhood more moderate.

"They aren't even talking Islamic state anymore," Hamid says. "Their priority right now is having freedom to operate, freedom of movement, and if a secular government provides that, then that's precisely what the Brotherhood wants at this juncture." Their alliance with Mohammed ElBaradei seems to support this point.

"There's a broad realization [in the Brotherhood] that they're going to have to compromise on Israel when push comes to shove," Hamid says of speculation regarding a role the group might play in a future Egyptian government. "Democracy is messy. You're not going to have a democracy, a pro-American government, a pro-Israel government, liberals all at the same time. That's not how it works."

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