Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Understanding Centrist Islam

The West’s traditional suspicion of anything that could be called an Islamist movement has increased in light of recent events. In the rush to distinguish friend from foe in the Islamic world, US favor has gravitated toward the stable, secular, and overtly “friendly” regimes of the region, of which Hosni Mubarak’s Egyptian government is probably the best example. There has always been a tendency to group the moderate and radical branches of Islamist movements together, but recent developments have made it especially important to realize how much they differ.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood provides an example of the goals and methods of centrist Islamism. This group and Egypt’s radicals share the long-term goal of implementing shari’a (Qu’ranic law) as the basis of national law. The Brotherhood, however, has committed itself to working within the current Egyptian system to achieve this objective and renounces—at least in its official statements—the violent tactics of militant splinter groups such as al-Gama’at al-Islamiyyah and al-Jihad. Since Mubarak’s 1981 ascent to power, the Brotherhood has used a three-fold strategy to gain influence in the existing political framework. First, it sought to gain properly elected representation in the Egyptian parliament, largely through coalitions with other small opposition parties. Second, it has taken control of professional and student associations (the most prominent private organizations in the country), again through proper electoral process. Finally, it has established a network of social services in neighborhoods and villages. These initiatives fill gaps in government services, creating an enormous degree of popular support for the Brotherhood without directly challenging the government. In return, Mubarak has declared that he would work together with nonviolent Islamists, although not with the radicals. Though this policy has proven successful, Mubarak has never followed it scrupulously, and most Islamist successes within the Egyptian system have met with some measure of repression from the regime. The Brotherhood’s experiences in the past 20 years have suggested that it may be more capable of providing social services to the Egyptian population, more reliable in keeping the promises it has made, and even more democratic than the secular regime that has enjoyed consistent US support.

Ascendancy Under Mubarak

As in many other areas of his rule, when handling Islamic groups Mubarak has steered a middle course between the policies of his predecessors Gamel Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. From the beginning, Mubarak balanced accommodationist and repressive strategies, mixing the expected sweep of arrests in retaliation for Sadat’s 1981 assassination with surprising gestures of conciliation. On one hand, members of the radical factions blamed for the assassination were arrested by the thousands. On the other hand, Mubarak attempted to reduce the Islamic movement’s ill feeling toward the regime; like Sadat a decade earlier, he aimed to distance himself from his predecessor. This effort began with the release of Supreme Guide Omar Tilimsani and other Brotherhood members imprisoned during the crackdown of Sadat’s final years. The shuffle of Islamist prisoners between these two initiatives illustrates Mubarak’s early differentiation between radical and moderate groups.

Despite retaliating for the assassination of Sadat, Mubarak offered an olive branch to centrist Islamists. Both sides had much to gain from this arrangement. By legitimizing the Brotherhood as the primary representatives of centrist Islamism, Mubarak could place militants outside the mainstream. Once they were isolated, he could take forceful measures against them with little protest from Egyptians sympathetic to centrist Islamists. In return for his leniency, Mubarak expected the Brotherhood to restrain itself from attempting to co-opt the political system and even to deliver a measure of support for his initiatives. Brotherhood parliamentarians provided this support by voting with Mubarak’s National Democratic Party on important matters and went so far as to endorse Mubarak’s candidacy for president in 1988.

Unofficial cooperation between the president and the opposition was similarly advantageous for the Brotherhood during the following five years. Mubarak’s benevolence provided an early opportunity for the Brotherhood to win the president to its side, or at least to establish a substantial foothold after the years of Sadat’s hard-line approach. The newly released supreme guide and his successor, Hammed al-Nasr, maintained friendly relations with the president, with the latter even assuring Mubarak that the Brotherhood demanded no rapid time frame for the implementation of shari’a as long as Mubarak remained dedicated to it in principle. This period of goodwill opened the door for the Muslim Brotherhood’s entry into parliamentary politics. Alliances with the New Wafd, Liberal, and Socialist Labor Parties during the 1980s amplified the Brotherhood’s influence and brought about varying degrees of Islamization in alliance partners.

Civil Successes

The second major advance for the Brotherhood was its penetration of professional and student associations, which Mubarak opened to participatory elections in 1984. In 1987, the Brotherhood won control of the Engineers’ Syndicate, an enormous body with 200,000 members and US$5 million in assets, and by the early 1990s it had taken over nearly all of the prominent associations, many of which had previously been viewed as strongholds of liberal-secular nationalism. Throughout these campaigns, the Brotherhood exploited the longstanding alienation of young, educated Egyptian professionals who had been guaranteed government jobs upon graduation since the days of Nasser but had become a heavy burden on the state. The social support network that the Brotherhood had cultivated as the third wing of their campaign during this period was an enormous draw for these professionals; the Brotherhood offered full health insurance and other considerable welfare benefits that no other organization could provide.

The same phenomenon took place in the student associations, over which the Brothers won virtual hegemony. University dormitories and lecture halls were, and still are, horribly overcrowded, and the exorbitant costs of textbooks, lecture notes, food, and transportation constituted a serious economic hardship for students. Again, these are the circumstances in which the Brotherhood traditionally has been most successful. As with the professionals, the Brotherhood used its extensive social resources to support an alienated population that few other organizations could or would help.

The Brotherhood’s evolving social network is probably more responsible than anything else for the enormous power the organization could now wield in an open election. These services are compatible with the organization’s Islamic message and thus serve as an important counterbalance to the supposedly divinely-sanctioned violence of al-Gama’at and al-Jihad. Not only is this an important face to present to the outside world, but in the domestic environment it offers the important message that Egyptians can return to “true” Islam and still be materially comfortable. Following dramatic growth in the 1980s, the Brotherhood’s web of private humanitarian services has become one of the most formidable grassroots organizations in the Islamic world. These individual organizations give a sense of community to neighborhoods across the country by helping citizens obtain food, jobs, and healthcare. The groups have not tried to gain any formal power in the neighborhoods, but merely to step in where the state has failed and to effect a degree of Islamization in the process. Not all of these private societies have direct links to the Muslim Brotherhood, though most share the same moderate Islamist ideology and tend to support Islamic candidates and reforms
Perhaps the best illustration of the Brotherhood’s capability was its remarkably efficient and politically opportune response to the 1992 Cairo earthquake. The Brotherhood’s engineering and medical branches built shelters and medical tents that served thousands of victims. The group’s growing financial resources provided for an influx of food, clothing, and blankets, and the Brotherhood even donated US$1,000 to every newly homeless family in the city. The municipal government’s response had been slow, giving the Brotherhood an opportunity to promote its own cause. Journalist Robert Kaplan summarizes the widespread attitude such measures have brought about in the country: “When the Muslim Brothers are asked, they open the drawer and they give you something. When you ask government officials, they open the drawer and they ask you to give something.”

Opinions such as these demonstrate the enormous power base the Brotherhood has achieved among the lower and working classes. One further program that deserves mention is the establishment of Islamic banks and financial institutions, which offer depositors a return nearly double the 13 percent interest of the commercial banks by operating under profit-sharing arrangements instead of simply issuing certificates of deposit. The great advantage of the Islamic banks is their predominance in the informal sector of the economy (mostly unofficially remitted wages from the Gulf), which accounts for about 35 percent of the official Egyptian GDP. The banks admittedly have suffered in the past from clear instances of fraud and mismanagement, but their general success has broadened the Brotherhood’s constituency to include parts of the business sector and has solidified its support among workers’ families who depend on remitted wages.

Dismissing Distinctions

The success of the Brotherhood’s activities in general elections, professional associations, and social support institutions ultimately led to a harsh response from the Egyptian government, causing a souring of relations between the state and the centrist Islamist opposition from the mid-1980s onward. The state has raised quotas for entry into parliament, sternly challenged the legitimacy of elections in the associations, outlawed many social services unless handled through the Ministry of Social Affairs, and dramatically increased minimum required capital holdings for the Islamic banks. Such actions show a lack of rigid discrimination between radicals and moderates, and very possibly Mubarak’s recognition of the moderates as the greater political threat. Amr Moussa, Egypt’s interior minister, said in The Economist, “The Brotherhood is a greater threat to the safety of the state than the terrorists and the militant groups. We are determined not to go Algeria’s way.” Mubarak has also repeatedly made statements like the one he made in The New Yorker in 1994: “The problem of Middle Eastern terrorism is a by-product of our own illegal Muslim Brotherhood.”

The remainder of the 1990s saw violent outbreaks that erased the distinction between radical and moderate Islamic groups in Egyptian government policy. A wave of terrorist attacks after the Gulf War led to outright warfare between security forces and radical factions; by 1995, the regime had successfully isolated the violence to Middle and Upper Egypt, away from major population and tourist centers. The 1997 Luxor Massacre of 70 tourists precipitated a series of arrests that left al-Gama’at al-Islamiyyah and al-Jihad shadows of their former selves. In fact, the former has now dramatically changed its orientation and made startling pro-Mubarak and even pro-United States statements. Both campaigns struck the Muslim Brotherhood as well, as the regime arrested numerous civic officials, academics, former parliamentarians, and members of professional syndicates. While there are still 17 Brotherhood-affiliated members of Parliament, many of whom were forced to run as “independents,” the last year has brought more restrictions on recruiting and activism. In late July 2002, 16 Muslim Brothers were sentenced to three- and five-year jail terms for planning a protest outside a mosque, and scores more were arrested. The United States has long condoned the anti-terror campaigns; an unfortunate consequence is that though the threat to the regime from the radicals has been successfully contained, the Mubarak government continues to receive an international mandate for repression of all dissident Islamic groups, not only the violent ones.

Lessons for the West

Western observers are most concerned that Islamist regimes in power would be undemocratic and violent, particularly toward the West. While it is impossible to say with absolute certainty that these notions are false, it is certain that the strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood has allayed these fears during Mubarak’s tenure. The evidence does not support the suggestion that the Brotherhood’s democratic and nonviolent tendencies are a façade.

If the Brotherhood is committed to working within the system, then greater democracy within the country is certainly to its advantage. In a completely free election, the Brotherhood would carry the country in a landslide. The question becomes whether the Brotherhood would uphold democracy in Egypt after its hypothetical rise to power. While concrete statements on any policy in a future Islamic state are somewhat hard to come by, it is worth noting that the Brotherhood has frequently dismissed the notion of an incompatibility between Islam and democracy. Isam al-Aryan, a leader of the centrist Islamist Wasat party, has stated that “the Brothers consider constitutional rule to be closest to Islamic rule. … We are the first to call for and apply democracy. We are devoted to it.” Journalist Fahmi Huwaydi even notes that Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna himself never explicitly rejected some form of democracy. It would be foolish to count on a pluralist, liberal state to emerge the minute a moderate Islamic party came to power in Egypt, but these are encouraging statements that, if nothing else, compare favorably to the lack of democracy in the country today. What is perhaps more significant, however, is that the Brotherhood’s goal is the rule of shari’a, not the seizure of power. Few members display an overabundance of personal ambition, and the Brotherhood has always stated that it does not matter who implements shari’a and the Islamic state in Egypt.

The second fear is that the current non-violent face of the Brotherhood will last only as long as it is politically expedient. The revolutionary extremism in Khomeini’s Iran, Qaddafi’s Libya, and the Taliban’s Afghanistan has left the West with a bleak view of what happens when Islamic fervor is allowed to take control of a country. Brotherhood leader Ahmed Hasanein insists that the Brotherhood has never ordered an act of terrorism, even during the organization’s truly underground days in the peak of the Nasser revolution.

Even today, there have been no concrete links made between acts of terrorism and anyone who might be construed as an official of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood does not deny, however, that members of the organization have committed radical acts. Just because the Brotherhood shares the same long-term goal as radical groups does not necessarily mean there is any overlap in their short-term methods, and at this point there is no evidence to undermine the Brotherhood’s peaceful rhetoric.

The most important message for policymakers is that the centrist Islamist movement in Egypt has shown no sign of abandoning the philosophy it has followed for 20 years and that the distinction between “Islamist” and “radical Islamist” is as significant as the distinction between “reformer” and “revolutionary” in the contemporary United States. Few of the vices the Western world seeks to combat in the Middle East apply to the Brotherhood, but many of them do apply to the Egyptian regime, which has unquestionably failed to deliver meaningful economic relief to an extremely poor population, remains undemocratic, and uses violence in an arbitrary fashion. In this light, the gap between Western and centrist Islamist interests seems significantly less difficult to close.

JOHN WALSH is a Senior Editor at the Harvard International Review.