Christopher Anzalone writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood & the Demonstrations: Fact vs. Fiction
Since the start of mass popular protests by Egyptians against their country’s autocratic government, headed by the aging president Hosni Mubarak and his new vice president, Omar Suleiman, a great deal of attention has been paid to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun). Attention on the opposition movement has been particularly heavy and skewed in the United States where pundits from both the left and the right breathlessly claim that the Brotherhood is poised to take over Egypt in a repeat of what happened in 1979-1980 in Iran and erroneously tie the Egyptian movement to Usama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda Central. Much of this analysis is based on fallacies and conjecture rather than fact.
The claim that al-Qaeda emerged seamlessly from the Brotherhood is the most egregious claim that has been made. Pundits who make this claim point to former members of the movement such as al-Qaeda’s deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Salam Faraj who founded militant jihadi-takfiri groups that declared Muslims with whom they disagreed to be apostates. A fact that it usually left out is that these individuals left the Brotherhood after it swore off the use of violence to achieve its ends. Al-Zawahiri, who had been an Brotherhood activist at age 14, was particularly bitter about the movement’s “betrayal” of “Islamic principles” and in the 1990s he wrote a lengthy monograph harshly criticizing it entitled The Bitter Harvest: The Muslim Brotherhood in 60 Years. For its part, the Brotherhood frequently condemns al-Qaeda in its public statements and positions.
The ghost of Sayyid Qutb, perhaps the Brotherhood’s most well-known member, is another recurring connection used to paint the movement as inherently militant and radical. The Egyptian litterateur-turned-Islamist revolutionary ideologue was imprisoned for a decade by Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir’s government and eventually executed by it in 1966. Journalists and pundits looking for an easy answer to the “root causes” of jihadi-takfiri groups such as al-Qaeda frequently point to Qutb and the medieval Hanbali Sunni jurist Ibn Taymiyya. Although Qutb was clearly a revolutionary and radical thinker and the Brotherhood’s position toward him has been ambiguous in many ways, past analysis of Qutb and his thought have been based on, at best, a shallow reading of a fraction of his many writings.
John Calvert, a professor of Middle East history, has written what will become the standard scholarly study of Qutb, Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism. Rather than study only one segment of Qutb’s life and thought, Calvert examines his entire life and tracks the evolution of his thought. Calvert points to the ambiguity of much of Qutb’s writings as one of the causes for their use by extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and Egypt’s al-Gama‘a al-Islamiyya (Islamic Group), the latter of which has since renounced violence. Far from being an apologia for Qutb, Calvert’s book takes a holistic approach to examining Qutb’s life and thought. He and other scholars also point out that Hasan al-Hudaybi, the “general guide” of the Brotherhood during Qutb’s lifetime, wrote an influential book entitled Preachers, Not Judges in which he was critical of many of Qutb’s ideas. Ultimately, though Qutb was certainly a radical, revolutionary Islamist thinker his ideas alone did not create al-Qaeda and like-minded groups. As Calvert shows, many of these groups actually take positions that are contradictory to what Qutb was arguing. Al-Qaeda is instead best seen as a group that has taken selectively from a myriad of different sources, including Qutb and Ibn Taymiyya, and combined them with positions espoused by ideologues such as al-Zawahiri to create a new, hybrid ideology.
Longtime scholars of the Brotherhood have cast doubts on exaggerated claims that the movement will be swept into power in a post-Mubarak/post-authoritarian Egypt. In fact, many doubt that the movement has the power to take over the entire country even if it wanted to. The Brotherhood, though the oldest and arguably best organized opposition group in the country, currently suffers from a number of ills. First, it is beset with a generation gap between the older generation of leaders, such as the current general guide Muhammad Badi‘a, and a younger generation that has sought to change the movement’s policies on a host of issues including the role of women in leadership positions and Coptic Christians. The Brotherhood is in fact no longer the dominant force that it was in the past. As a movement it has lost a lot of credibility in recent years after allowing itself to be co-opted by the Mubarak government says Khalid Medani, a professor of political science and Islamic studies at McGill University who has conducted extensive field work in Egypt including interviews with the movement’s members representing various veins of thought within it. Despite remaining the country’s largest formally organized opposition group the Brotherhood is failing to attract many new members, he says.
Although it eventually decided to participate in the January 25 demonstrations in Egypt the Brotherhood only announced its decision two days before. Its endorsement was also far from enthusiastic. Following the unprecedented size and staying power of the mass popular demonstrations against the Mubarak’s authoritarian government, the Brotherhood took a much more proactive approach in supporting the demonstrators. To date it has released eight official statements, including three signed by Badi‘a. In them the movement has been careful to not claim leadership of the demonstrations and instead says that it is simply one party among many that make up the opposition. Observers on the ground have noted that the Brotherhood is not the most visible or powerful voice represented among the hundreds of thousands to millions of demonstrators who have defied government curfews and violence to continue calling for their civil and human rights.
The Brotherhood has joined other opposition groups and demonstrators in calling for the resignation of Mubarak, the abolition of the “emergency law” that has been in place since 1981 when Mubarak came to power, the holding of new elections that are actually free and fair, the release of all political prisoners, substantial amendment of the constitution, and the prosecution of government officials who have ordered the use of violence against the demonstrators. The movement has also been careful to explain its decision to enter into cautious talks with the government, which is increasingly under the public direction of Vice President Suleiman. Thus far, the Brotherhood remains unconvinced by the government’s claims that it is trying to address the popular will of the Egyptian people.
Although it is far from being a force for social or political liberalism, certainly of the kind that is desired by progressives in the U.S. and Europe, the Brotherhood is also not the all-powerful Islamist bogeyman and twin sister of al-Qaeda that it is often portrayed as. Facing its own internal divisions and problems of legitimacy among the Egyptian public, the Brotherhood is unlikely to be able to “seize control” of the country even if it wanted to. Its internal problems are recognized by no one more clearly than by the Brotherhood itself, which has been careful not to further alienate the Egyptian people who have collectively led the popular uprising against authoritarianism that continues to defy an aging autocrat’s decrees even in the face of extreme state violence.
Christopher Anzalone is a doctoral student in the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University.