History of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt

History of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt

In 1928, six Egyptian workers employed by British military camps in Isma’iliyya, in the Suez Canal Zone in Egypt, visited Hassan al-Banna, a young schoolteacher who they had heard preach in mosques and coffee-houses on the need for an Islamic rewnewal. “Arabs and Muslims have no status and no dignity,” they said. “They are no more than mere hirelings belonging to the foreigners…. We are unable to perceive the road to action as you perceive it….” They therefore asked him to become their leader; he accepted, founding the Society of the Muslim Brothers. (Mitchell 1969, 8; Lia 1998, 36; Carré 1983, 11)History of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (1928-1938)

Early Development

In 1928, six Egyptian workers employed by British military camps in Isma’iliyya, in the Suez Canal Zone in Egypt, visited Hassan al-Banna, a young schoolteacher who they had heard preach in mosques and coffee-houses on the need for an Islamic rewnewal. “Arabs and Muslims have no status and no dignity,” they said. “They are no more than mere hirelings belonging to the foreigners…. We are unable to perceive the road to action as you perceive it….” They therefore asked him to become their leader; he accepted, founding the Society of the Muslim Brothers. (Mitchell 1969, 8; Lia 1998, 36; Carré 1983, 11)

Banna and his followers began by starting an evening school. In its first few years, the Society was focused on Islamic education, with an emphasis on teaching students how to implement an ethos of solidarity and altruism in their daily lives, rather than on theoretical issues. The General Inspector of Education was greatly impressed, particularly by the eloquent speeches of the working-class members of the Brotherhood. Banna’s deputy was a carpenter, and the appointment of people from the lower classes to leading positions became a hallmark of the Brotherhood. (Lia 1998, 39)

The Society’s first major project was the construction of a mosque, completed in 1931, for which it managed to raise a large amount of money while carefully maintaining its independence from potentially self-interested donors. In the same year, the Society began to receive favourable attention in the press, and a Cairo branch was founded. (Lia 1998, 40-42)

In 1932, Banna was transferred to Cairo at his request, and the organisation’s headquarters were moved there. In addition to handling the administration of the Society, Banna gave evening lectures on the Qur’an for “the poor of the district around the headquarters who were ’without learning and without the will for it’”. (Mitchell 1969, 10-12)

Over the next decade, the Society grew very rapidly. From three branches in 1931, it grew to have 300 across Egypt in 1938; thanks to an unorthodox ideology with mass appeal, and to effective strategies for attracting new members, it had become a major political opposition group with a highly diverse membership. (Lia 1998, 53, 152, 154; Mitchell 12-13; Carré 1983, 21)

Ideological Innovations

The Brotherhood initially resembled an ordinary Islamic welfare society. In the early 1930s, its welfare activities included small-scale social work among the poor, building and repairing mosques and establishing a number of Qur’an schools (whose role in teaching children to read and write was important in country where 80% of the population was illiterate), setting up small workshops and factories, and organising the collection and distribution of zakat (the Islamic alms tax). As the Society grew, it increasingly founded benevolent institutions such as pharmacies, hospitals and clinics for the general public, and launched a program to teach adults to read and write by offering courses in coffee-shops and clubs. (Lia 1998, 109-111)

However, Banna’s vision of a new sort of organisation, capable of renewing broken links between tradition and modernity, enabled the Brotherhood to gain a degree of popularity and influence that no welfare society enjoyed. He observed that, in the midst of a flourishing Egyptian civil society and a cultural environment marked by innovations in literature, science and education, religious education had been left behind: the ideas of Islamic religious reformers were not made accessible to the general public, and there was no serious effort to make the history and teachings of Islam comprehensible to the young. He was determined to fill this gap by training a cadre of young, highly motivated preachers equipped with modern teaching methods, independent from the government and the religious establishment, and supported by an effective use of the new mass media. (Lia 53-57)

The Brotherhood’s second General Conference, in 1933, authorised the creation of a publishing company and the purchase of a printing press, which was used to print several newspapers during the next decade. Funds were raised by creating a joint stock company in which only members were allowed to buy shares. This approach, which protected the Society’s independence from government and from the wealthy by ensuring that its institutions were owned by its members, became its standard means of financing new projects. (Lia 1998, 97-98)

During the 1930s, Banna formulated, and the Society began to put into practice, an Islamic ideology that was unusual in several respects. It was, first of all, an ideology of disenfranchised classes. In a country where most political movements, including liberal and modernist ones, were products of the landed aristocracy and the urban elite, the Brotherhood became the voice of the educated middle and lower middle classes (and to a lesser extent of workers and peasants) and the means by which they demanded political participation. Throughout the decade, the Society placed increasing emphasis on social justice; closing the gap between the classes (and thus restoring the egalitarianism of the early Muslims) became one of its main objectives, and Banna voiced ever stronger criticisms of the upper class and the class system as a whole:

Islam is equal for all people and prefers nobody to others on the grounds of differences in blood or race, forefathers or descent, poverty or wealth. According to Islam everyone is equal… However, in deeds and natural gifts, then the answer is yes. The learned is above the ignorant… Thus, we see that Islam does not approve of the class system.

As this ideology took shape over the next two decades, in the absence of a strong socialist party, the Brotherhood called for nationalisation of industries, substantial state intervention in the economy, a greatly reduced maximum wage for senior civil servants, laws to protect workers against exploitation, an Islamic banking system to provide interest-free loans, and generous social welfare programmes, including unemployment benefits, public housing and ambitious health and literacy programmes, funded by higher taxes on the wealthy. By 1948 the Brotherhood was advocating land reform to enable small farmers to own land. (Lia 1998, 73-74, 81-82, 206-211; Carré 1983, 45-47)

Secondly, Banna’s ideology was an attempt to bringing about social renewal through a modern interpration of Islam. In his view, Egypt was torn between two failed value systems: on the one hand, a doctrinaire religious traditionalism (represented by Al-Azhar University), which Banna saw as anachronistic and irrelevant to the urgent problems faced by ordinary people, and on the other hand, an abandonment of all moral values and an economic free-for-all that impoverished the masses and enabled foreign interests to take control of the economy. He argued that Islam should not be confined to the narrow domain of private life, but should rather be applied to the problems of the modern world, and used as the moral foundation of a national renaissance, a thoroughgoing reform of political, economic and social systems. (Lia 1998, 74-77, 224)

The Brotherhood has sometimes been incorrectly described as advocating a blanket rejection of everything Western; in reality, Banna did not hesitate to draw on Western as well as Islamic thought in the pursuit of this modern approach to Islam, using quotations from authors such as René Descartes, Isaac Newton and Herbert Spencer to support his own arguments. He proposed to send Brotherhood journalists to study journalism at the American University in Cairo, and suggested that another group of Brothers attend the School of Social Service, another Western school: “its scientific and practical programme will greatly facilitate the training [of the Brothers] in social welfare works”. He was in favour of the teaching of foreign languages in schools: “We need to drink from the springs of foreign culture to extract what is indispensable for our renaissance.” His formulation of the concept of nationalism, which was fundamental to the Brotherhood’s appeal to young people, combined modern European political concepts with Islamic ones. At the same time, Banna and the Brotherhood decried what they saw as their compatriots’ slavish adoration of everything Western and their loss of respect for their own culture and history. (Lia 1998, 76-79)

Banna’s concept of nationalism was emphatically Islamic, and its long-term goal was to see all humanity united by the Muslim faith. However, the Society had no clear definition of the sort of political system it wished for. The idea of reviving the Islamic caliphate (which had been abolished by Kemal Atatürk in 1924) was sometimes mentioned in the Brotherhood’s publications, but Banna was not in favour of it. Some critics have argued that the Society’s ambitions amounted to a kind of fascism, but Banna explicitly rejected the aggressive militarism that rose to power in Germany and Italy in the 1930s, as well as all secular nationalisms (both Arab and European), and condemned racial differentiations as incompatible with Islam. The chief practical consequence of the Brotherhood’s Islamic nationalism was an energetic campaign against colonialism in Egypt and other Islamic countries; this was one of the main reasons for the Society’s popularity. (Lia 1998, 79-81, 167; Mitchell 1969, 37-42; Carré 1983, 36-43)

The term jihad was a key concept in the Brotherhood’s vocabulary: it referred not only to armed struggle to liberate Muslim lands from colonial occupation, but also to the inner effort that Muslims needed to make in order to free themselves from an ingrained inferiority complex and from fatalism and passivity towards their condition. It encompassed the courage to dissent expressed in the maxim “The greatest jihad is to utter a word of truth in the presence of a tyrannical ruler” (a hadith reported by Abu Sa’id al-Khudri) as well as any productive activity that Muslims undertook, on their own initiative, to improve the well-being of the Islamic community. (Lia 1998, 83-84)

In keeping with his call for unity among Muslims, Banna advocated tolerance and goodwill between different forms of Islam. Although the Brotherhood rejected the corruption of some Sufi orders and their excessive glorification of their leaders, a kind of reformed Sufi practice was an important part of the Society’s structure. The Society thus tried to bridge the gap between the Salafiyya movement and Sufism, and in the 1940s it tried to promote a rapprochement between Sunni Islam and Shi’a Islam. More generally, the Society insisted that its members must not try to impose their vision of Islam on others. Its General Law of 1934 stated that their actions must always reflect “friendliness and gentleness” and that they were to avoid “bluntness, crudeness and abuses in words or hints”. Members who violated these principles (e.g. by pressuring unveiled women to veil themselves) were expelled. (Lia 1998, 82, 85, 114-117)

The Brotherhood’s openness to a diversity of Islamic belief and practice represented part of its appeal to young people. Banna deplored the rigid preoccupation of some Salafiyya societies with minor points of religious doctrine; he felt that Sufism and other traditional practices should be welcomed, and that the Brotherhood should focus on basic social and political issues rather than on theological hair-splitting. (Lia 1998, 59-60)

A Political Organisation

In the early 1930s the Brotherhood started its Rover Scouts programme (jawwala), in which groups of young men were trained in athletics and an ascetic way of life, carried out charitable work, and toured branches of the Brotherhood to strengthen ties between them. The Rover Scouts, whose uniforms, banners and hymns attracted a great deal of attention, became an important means of recruiting new members, and Banna saw them as a way of introducing young men gradually to religion. (Lia 1998, 101-102, 167-70)

In 1931-32, the Brotherhood underwent an internal crisis; several members challenged Banna’s control over the Society’s treasury, his general stubbornness, and his insistence on having someone of low social status, a carpenter, as his deputy. Banna’s candidate for deputy was overwhelmingly supported by a vote in the Society’s General Assembly, and his offer to pay the Society’s considerable outstanding debts further strengthened his position, but the conflict persisted until he threatened to expel his opponents from the Brotherhood, at which point they resigned. While some of their complaints about him were certainly justified, the conflict also reflected a more basic disagreement with his conception of the Brotherhood’s mission. The secessionists felt that the Society should simply be a traditional Islamic welfare society that local notables could support, and should therefore have open accounts and socially respectable leaders. (Lia 1998, 60-67)

In the aftermath of this conflict, Banna sought to clarify the basis of leadership in the Society, asserting that moral qualities and personal sacrifice were more important than titles, social standing and formal qualifications. In drafting the Society’s General Law in 1934, he increased his own authority over the Brotherhood, insisting that authority within the organisation could only be based on complete confidence in the leadership, rejecting calls for increased consultation (shura) and expressing a deep scepticism towards elections, which he felt had shown their failings during the 1931-32 crisis. He also instituted mediation committees to help defuse conflicts as they arose. (Lia 1998, 69-71)

Banna then began to place more emphasis on the Society’s political responsibilities concerning a variety of issues such as prostitution, alcohol, gambling, inadequate religious education in schools, the influence of Christian missionaries and, most importantly, the struggle against imperialism. In response to critics who accused the Brotherhood of being a political group, Banna replied that involvement in politics was part of Islam: “Islam does have a policy embracing the happiness of this world.” While other Islamic organisations remained studiously apolitical during the great upheavals that characterised the 20s and 30s in Egypt, the Brotherhood attracted large numbers of young, educated Egyptians, particularly students, by encouraging and supporting them in campaigning for political causes. (Lia 1998, 57-58, 67-69, 183-184)

The Brotherhood’s first foray into active involvement in politics concerned the conflicts in Palestine between Zionism, Arab nationalism and British rule. Like many other Egyptian associations, the Society raised money to support Palestinian workers on strike during the 1936-39 Palestinian revolt, and organised demonstrations and speeches in their favour. The Society also called for a boycott of Jewish shops in Cairo, on the grounds that Egyptian Jews were financing Zionist groups in Palestine. Articles hostile towards Jews (and not merely towards Zionism) appeared in its newspaper, though other articles upheld the distinction between Jews and Zionists. (Mitchell 1969, 15-16; Lia 1998, 236-244)

In the mid-1930s the Brotherhood developed a formal hierarchical structure, with the General Guide (Banna) at the top, assisted by a General Guidance Bureau and a deputy. Local branches were organised into districts, whose administration had a large measure of autonomy. There were different categories of members, with increasing responsibilities: “assistant”, “associate”, “worker” and “activist”. Membership fees depended on the means of each member, and poor members paid no fees. Promotion through the hierarchy depended on the performance of Islamic duties and on knowledge attained in the Society’s study groups. This merit-based system was a radical departure from the hierarchies based on social standing that characterised Egyptian society at the time. (Lia 1998, 98-104)

In 1938, Banna came to the conlusion that local conservative notables had gained too much influence in the Society, and that there were too many members with “empty titles” who did little practical work. To solve these problems, he introduced substantial organisational changes over the next few years; henceforth the branches’ executive committees were chosen by the General Guidance Bureau rather than elected, and in 1941 the elected General Assembly was replaced by a smaller appointed body called the Consultative Assembly. However, the Society’s structure remained decentralised, so that branches could continue to operate if the police arrested leading members. (Lia 1998, 186-192)

Despite Banna’s scepticism concerning elections, manifested in their diminishing role within the Brotherhood, he argued for a kind of democracy when he set out his view of the principles underlying a political Islam in 1938:

When one considers the principles that guide the constitutional system of government, one finds that such principles aim to preserve in all its forms the freedom of the individual citizen, to make the rulers accountable for their actions to the people and finally, to delimit the prerogatives of every single authoritative body. It will be clear to everyone that such basic principles correspond perfectly to the teaching of Islam concerning the system of government. For this reason, the Muslim Brothers consider that of all the existing systems of government, the constitutional system is the form that best suits Islam and Muslims.

Such a system would involve elections, but not political parties; Banna rejected party politics, pointing out that the Egyptian political parties of the time were closed off to all but the elites and had become instruments of British imperial rule. (Lia 202-204; Mitchell 1969, 246-250)


  • Carré, Olivier and Gérard Michaud. 1983. Les Frères musulmans : Egypte et Syrie (1928-1982). Paris: Gallimard.

  • Lia, Brynjar. 1998. The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement 1928-1942. Reading, UK: Garnet. ISBN 0863722202.

  • Mitchell, Richard P. 1969. The Society of the Muslim Brothers. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195084373.

See also

History of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt




History of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (1939-1954)

The Second World War

In the late 1930s, in keeping with the Muslim Brotherhood’s emphasis on actions rather than words, some members pushed for the organisation to form a military wing to take up armed struggle against British imperial rule, and some were already disobeying the Brotherhood’s leadership and taking part in isolated clashes with the police. The Brotherhood’s General Guide, Hassan al-Banna, felt that the Society was not ready to engage in military campaigns, and that those who wished to do so “might take the wrong course and miss the target”. He advocated a more cautious, longer-term plan of forming groups of particularly dedicated members, called “Battalions”, who would receive rigorous spiritual and physical training; once their numbers were sufficient, Banna felt, the Battalions would be prepared to engage in warfare. This would not involve terrorist or revolutionary action, which Banna rejected completely, but rather (and only as a last resort, if all peaceful strategies failed) openly declared war on imperial occupation. However, the Battalion system failed to develop on the scale Banna hoped for, and pressure from members for armed struggle against the British continued to increase. In 1939, this internal conflict developed into a major crisis, during which some of the most active cadres left the Society to form a rival organisation called Muhammad’s Youth. The following year, as a result of this conflict, the Brotherhood created a military wing called the secret apparatus, which nevertheless remained mostly inactive during the war years. (Lia 1998, 172-181; Carré 1983, 30-31)

The Society’s position was that Egypt should refrain from participating in the Second World War. In 1940, in order to ensure Egypt’s support of the war effort, which initially seemed to be going very badly for the Allies, Britain replaced the Egyptian government with one whose cooperation it could be sure of. Martial law was imposed, and in 1941 some public figures that Britain considered subversive were arrested. Hassan al-Banna was imprisoned twice (only to be released within weeks), the Brotherhood’s journals were suppressed, its meetings were banned and any reference to it in newspapers was forbidden. (Mitchell 1969, 19-23)

The Brotherhood’s leadership was keen to avoid confrontations that could give the government a pretext to suppress the Society altogether. During the war, the Society alternated between avoiding sensitive issues in the interest of self-preservation, and taking risky political positions such as calling for the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company. During the periods when it kept a low profile, it concentrated on maintaining and expanding its membership base and extending its social welfare programmes, which included humanitarian assistance to the victims of Axis bombings of Egyptian cities. In 1943, the Society replaced its Battalion system with a form of internal organisation called “families”, a hierarchy of close-knit groups of five members each; members of a family met regularly, usually in their own homes, and assumed responsibility for one another’s welfare. (Lia 1998, 256-266, 176-177)

Shortages and bombings contributed to political unrest; after a mass demonstration of students in Feburary 1942, the government resigned. British troops then surrounded the king’s palace and forced him to accept a government headed by the Wafd party (thus durably damaging the Wafd’s credibility in the eyes of Egyptians). The Wafd remained entirely loyal to the British throughout the war, as did the Sa’dist government that followed it in February 1945. (Mitchell 1969, 19-23; Lia 1998, 267-268)

The first act of the Wafd government installed by the British in 1942 was to dissolve parliament and call for elections. When Banna declared his candidacy, prime minister Nahhas Pasha pressured him to withdraw it. He agreed, but in return he obtained the prime minister’s promise that the Brotherhood could resume its normal activities, and that the government would take action to curtail prostitution and the sale of alcoholic drinks. Shortly afterward, the government did indeed make prostitution illegal, and restricted the sale of alcohol, particularly on religious holidays. The Brotherhood was allowed to resume some of its work, but for the next several years the government alternated between repression and friendliness towards the organisation. (Mitchell 1969, 26-28; Lia 1998, 268-269)

During the 1940s, the Brotherhood’s membership continued to grow; by 1948, it had two thousand branches, and is thought to have had over a million members. (Carré 1983, 21)

Postwar Nationalism

The candidacies of Banna and several other Brothers were defeated in the rigged 1945 elections, even in their stronghold of Isma’iliyya. The Society’s exclusion from parliamentary politics tended to strengthen the position of those members who advocated a more radical confrontation with the state, and to make them increasingly unwilling to submit to Banna’s insistence on nonviolent action. (Mitchell 1969, 33; Lia 1998, 270-271)

The presence of Allied troops had created many jobs and led to the establishment of trade unions; after the war, the departure of most of those troops left many unemployed. Inflation rose, the gap between rich and poor widened and wages decreased. During the war, propaganda had poured into Egypt from all sides of the conflict: British and American propaganda about democracy and national independence from Nazi and Soviet aggression, German propaganda about Egyptian and Arab liberation from Western imperialism, and Russian propaganda about Soviet economic power and social justice. Britain’s occupation of Egypt and the conflict in Palestine remained unresolved. Frustration with the political and economic order was endemic, communist ideas were widespread, and activist groups in general found it easy to attract new members. (Mitchell 1969, 35-36)

In September 1945 the Society adopted a new constitution which formally recognised the structures put in place during the 1938 reorganisation. It also submitted its records to the ministry of social affairs as required by law, and was classified as a “political, social and religious institution”; this meant that the government assistance given to charities would only be available for some of its activities. The organisation’s social welfare activities were therefore split off into a separate section with its own director and hierarchy, in order to better protect them from political interference. (Mitchell 1969, 36-37)

During the post-war years the Brotherhood grew rapidly. It continued to expand its social welfare activities, setting up hospitals, clinics and pharmacies; schools offering technical and academic courses for boys, girls and adults; and small factories to help remedy post-war unemployment. (Mitchell 1969, 37)

Egypt’s ruling elites were vehemently opposed to communism, and in this, the Brotherhood agreed wholeheartedly with them; the government therefore made attempts to use the Brotherhood as an instrument against its communist opponents. However, conflict between the elites and the Brotherhood was inevitable, because like the communists, the Brothers were activists who appealed to widespread dissatisfaction with the existing social order, and aspired to bring about profound changes to remedy the injustices of Egyptian society. (Mitchell 1969, 37-42)

The Brotherhood’s publications expressed unrelenting hostility towards the government and its policies, and the Brothers were a major force in strikes and nationalist demonstrations. In October 1945, the Society organised a “people’s congress” on national liberation in Cairo and seven other cities. The Brotherhood and the Wafd were now the two main opposition parties; now that the Wafd was no longer in power, it was just as eager to champion the nationalist cause, and was supported on this issue by the communists. The Brothers therefore found themselves in direct competition with the Wafd for leadership of the nationalist movement. Despite their deep mutual distrust, the two groups joined in the same mass demonstrations on occasion. However, the Brotherhood’s refusal to cooperate with communists led to the breakdown of a united front, and to accusations that the Brothers were tools of the government and of the ruling class. The Society strongly rebutted these charges, and indeed organised strikes of its own; this deeply strained its already poor relations with the government, and the Brotherhood became the target of police harassment and arrests. The youth of the two groups repeatedly came to blows in 1946, and Banna was nearly killed by a bomb attack. After these clashes, representatives of the Brotherhood and the Wafd held secret meetings in order to reach an understanding; this considerably reduced the tensions between the two groups. (Mitchell 1969, 42-49)

In the same year, prime minister Sidqi Pasha returned from negotiations in London with a draft treaty that the nationalist groups found absolutely unacceptable. Violent student riots broke out. Members of the Brotherhood’s secret apparatus started to carry out attacks on Britons as well as on Egyptian police stations, and continued to do so over the next few years. The government responded to this escalating violence with harsh repressive measures, including a wave of arrests among the Brothers and other nationalist groups. Rioting continued throughout 1946, and in December the government resigned. (Mitchell 1969, 60, 49-50)

In July 1947, having accompanied the new prime minister, Mahmud Fahmi al-Nuqrashi Pasha, to the United Nations, a representative of the Brothers, Mustafa Mu’min, interrupted the UN Security Council discussions on Egypt to make a speech from the spectator’s gallery, rejecting all negotiations with Britain and calling for a complete and immediate British withdrawal from Egypt. However, the Security Council took no action. (Mitchell 1969, 50-51)

In Egypt and among Arabs and Muslims generally, the cause of Palestine continued to inspire strong sympathies; the 1947 UN resolution on the partition of Palestine gave the issue a greater urgency. The Brotherhood sent volunteers to fight in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. During the war, there were numerous bomb attacks on Jews in Cairo; in the “jeep case” discussed below, it emerged that members of the Society’s secret apparatus had been responsible for at least some of these. (Mitchell 1969, 55-58, 75)

In March 1948, members of the secret apparatus assassinated a judge, Ahman al-Khazindar Bey, who had given a prison sentence to a Muslim Brother for attacking British soldiers. Banna expressed his revulsion at the assassination. (Mitchell 1969, 62)

In December 1948, the Egyptian government released a decree ordering the dissolution of the Society. The police had discovered caches of bombs and other weapons accumulated by the secret apparatus, and though the Brothers insisted that these were for use in the Arab-Israeli war, the government suspected that the Brothers were planning revolution; it was also keen to remove what it saw as one of the main causes of the general political unrest that had become increasingly violent, and increasingly threatening to its authority, since the end of the Second World War. Moreover, because the Brotherhood had its own hospitals, factories and schools, as well as an army in the form of the secret apparatus, the government saw it as a potential parallel state, which Egyptians might come to see as more legitimate than the official one. (Mitchell 1969, 58-59, 61, 64, 66)

Aside from charges of involvement in violent attacks against police and foreigners, the government accused the Society of encouraging workers and farmers to go on strike to demand higher wages and ownership of farmland. Many members of the Brotherhood were arrested, and Banna was kept under close police surveillance. Weeks later, with the organisation’s hierarchy and communications thoroughly disrupted, a Muslim brother assassinated prime minister Nuqrashi. (Mitchell 1969, 67)

Banna condemned this assassination, and tried without success to negotiate with the new government. In January 1949 the police foiled an attempt by a member of the secret apparatus to bomb a courthouse. Banna wrote an open letter repudiating this act, stating that the perpetrators were “neither Brothers nor Muslims”, and called on members of the Brotherhood to refrain from violence and intimidation. The new prime minister, ’Abd al-Hadi, attempted to suppress all dissent by terrorising the population with brutal repressive measures, including the systematic use of torture in the prisons. (Mitchell 1969, 68-69)

Banna wrote a pamphlet in which he rejected all the charges against the Brotherhood and condemned once again the acts of violence committed by its members, including the attacks on Jews; he said the Society’s leaders would never have condoned this violence, and had been unable to prevent it because arrests and surveillance had made it impossible for them to exercise their authority. Nevertheless, he argued that these events were, in part, a result of the government’s behaviour and the war in Palestine. He denied that the Society had been planning revolution, insisting that its arms had been intended for use only in Palestine in its legitimate partnership with the Arab League. In February 1949, Banna was assassinated by the political police, probably on the orders of the prime minister and the palace. (Mitchell 1969, 70-71; Carré 1983, 33)

In May 1949, after a wave of arrests, a group of Brothers made an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate prime minister ’Abd al-Hadi, leading to still more arrests. By July, some 4,000 Brothers were in prison, where they continued to maintain their organisation (Mitchell 1969, 80). Several trials followed; in one of these, Nuqrashi’s assassin was condemned and put to death. The prosecution attempted to show that Banna had been responsible for the assassination, while the defence argued that he had been unable to maintain control over “extremists” in the secret apparatus; the court seems to have considered the latter view to be more plausible. (Mitchell 1969, 72-74)

In the only other trial to reach a conclusion (the “jeep case”), thirty-two Brothers were accused of conspiring to overthrow the government by means of terrorism, using illegal stockpiles of weapons, and of organising the murders of judge Khazindar and prime minister Nuqrashi. The prosecution attempted to show that revolution was the Society’s real objective, concealed by the façade of its other activities. (Mitchell 1969, 74-76)

The defence acknowledged that members of the secret apparatus had formed a terrorist organisation, but maintained that in doing so, they had disobeyed the Brotherhood’s leaders and violated its principles. It argued that the Society’s activities and objectives were mainly peaceful, and that its weapons and military training were intended only for the legitimate defence of Arabs and Muslims against the British occupation of Egypt and against Zionism in Palestine. The court ruled in favour of the defence. Most of the defendants were acquitted, and the others were given lenient sentences. (Mitchell 1969, 76-78)

After the Wafd returned to power in 1950, the Brothers attempted to negotiate with the new government to have the Society legalised again, but could not reach an agreement. Martial law was ended, and all its provisions were abrogated except those that applied to the Brothers. Parliament passed a “Societies Law” that specifically targeted the Brotherhood without mentioning it by name, requiring a description and photograph of every member to be given to the authorities. The ministry of the interior announced that it intended to buy the Society’s headquarters and use the building as a police station. The Brotherhood resolved all these issues by means of a successful court case, gaining the right to operate legally and the return of its confiscated property. (Mitchell 1969, 82-84)

Revolution and its Aftermath

While the Brotherhood was outlawed, competition to replace Hassan al-Banna became intense. Finally, in 1951, in a move that contravened the Society’s constitution, an outsider was chosen as Banna’s successor: Hassan Isma’il al-Hudaybi, an experienced judge known for his strong aversion to violence, who, it was felt, would give the Society greater respectability. Though not a member, Hudaybi had long been an admirer of Banna. He resigned from the bench in order to become the Society’s General Guide, but soon realised that he was meant to be a mere figurehead, and that longstanding members resented his attempts to exercise authority. He spoke out against the secret apparatus and attempted to dissolve it, but only succeeded in alienating its members, who considered themselves fighters in a noble cause. (Mitchell 1969, 82-88)

On 8 October 1951, the Egyptian prime minister, Nahhas Pasha, unilaterally abrogated the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. This triggered mass demonstrations in support of Egyptian independence; with the help of the army, large numbers of nationalist activists, including many members of the Brotherhood, began preparing for armed conflict with the British in the Canal Zone. Hudaybi, maintaining his opposition to violent action, publicly repudiated these preparations, and appeared to support the palace’s intentions to stifle the nationalist movement. This deepened the conflict between Hudaybi and his opponents in the organisation, especially those within the secret apparatus. (Mitchell 1969, 88-91)

Over the next few months, anti-government riots broke out, expressing the nationalist movement’s frustration with the government’s failure to follow up the abrogation of the treaty with decisive action. On 25 January 1952, British forces attacked an Egyptian police station in the Canal Zone and a pitched battle ensued. The next day, in Cairo, students, police and officers marched together to the parliament to demand a declaration of war against Britain; meanwhile thousands of rioters set fire to the city, leaving much of central Cairo in ruins. The Brotherhood did not participate as an organisation, and Hudaybi issued a statement repudiating the riots, but individual members were involved. Several new governments followed in rapid succession. On 23 July the Free Officers, led by Muhammad Naguib, took power, overthrowing the monarchy; the coup was greeted with enthusiasm throughout Egypt. (Mitchell 1969, 91-96)

The Brotherhood played a supporting but not crucial role in the revolution. Members of the Free Officers, including Gamal ’Abd al-Nasser (who was to become the leader of the new regime) and Anwar al-Sadat, had had close contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1940s, and some were members of the Society (Nasser himself may have been one of these). Members of the Brotherhood had fought alongside the officers in Palestine, and had been armed and trained by them for deployment in the Canal Zone in the year preceding the revolution. Despite Hudaybi’s ambivalence, the Brotherhood had agreed to assist the revolution, mostly by maintaining order, protecting foreigners and minorities and encouraging popular support for the army coup. (Mitchell 1969, 96-104; Carré 1983, 29)

After the revolution, relations between the Brotherhood and the junta were initially cordial but quickly soured. Among the reasons for this were the army’s unwillingness to share political power, the Brotherhood’s insistence on the promulgation of an Islamic constitution, and Hudaybi’s deep distrust of Nasser. In 1953, the government abolished all political parties and organisations except the Muslim Brotherhood. It then created a new party, the Liberation Rally, intended to win over those Egyptians who remained sceptical about the revolution, and suggested that the Brotherhood should merge with the Liberation Rally. Having alienated all other political groups, the regime could not yet afford to dispense with the Brotherhood’s support, but was unwilling to give it a greater role in government. (Mitchell 1969, 105-111; Carré 1983, 69)

Hudaybi was then subjected to fierce criticism from within the organisation, partly because of the government’s efforts to discredit him; his critics felt he had transformed the Society into “a party of aristocrats” and “a movement of words, not action”. This led to a debate about the authoritarian character of the Society’s institutions. Some felt that a system based on obedience and loyalty to the leader had been acceptable under Banna because he had won the members’ trust; since Hudaybi had been unable to do so, they began to press for more democratic structures. Despite these criticisms, Hudaybi mustered strong support from the Brotherhood’s leaders as well as from the rank and file. The secret apparatus was formally dissolved and its leaders expelled. (Mitchell 1969, 116-125)

In January 1954, the regime sent members of the Liberation Rally to disrupt a Muslim Brothers student gathering using loudspeakers; the confrontation turned into a battle. The government then decreed that the Muslim Brotherhood was to be dissolved, on the grounds that Hudaybi and his supporters had been planning to overthrow the government; he was arrested along with hundreds of others. The junta’s use of repressive measures to safeguard its power, which was seen as Nasser’s policy in particular, caused its popularity to plummet; this led to anti-Nasser demonstrations and a power struggle between him and General Naguib, and appeared to threaten to end the revolution and restore the old political order. Hudaybi sided with Nasser and with the revolution, earning the release of most of the imprisoned Brothers and the restoration of the Society’s authorisation to operate legally. However, the events of January had rankled many members, who now felt that the secret apparatus should not have been abolished after all; it was therefore rebuilt under a new leadership without Hudaybi’s knowledge. (Mitchell 1969, 126-134)

The regime’s failure to keep some of the promises it had made to the Society (e.g. concerning the release of prisoners) soon caused their relations to deteriorate again. In a leaked letter to the government, Hudaybi called for the lifting of martial law, a return to parliamentary democracy and an end to press censorship. Meanwhile, Britain and Egypt had resumed negotiations regarding the Suez Canal. An agreement on the terms of a new treaty was announced; Hudaybi immediately criticised it as too generous towards the British and a threat to Egyptian sovereignty. The government then began using police to provoke violent confrontations with the Brotherhood at peaceful gatherings in mosques and other places; a Brotherhood clinic was raided and destroyed. In each case the government blamed the Brothers for instigating the clashes. Hudaybi went into hiding, and the official press launched a vitriolic campaign to discredit him. The government declared that several Brothers who were travelling abroad were guilty of treason, and stripped them of their Egyptian citizenship. (Mitchell 1969, 134-144)

Disagreements within the Society over Hudaybi’s criticisms of the government then came to the fore, and Nasser personally made strenuous efforts to persuade the Brotherhood’s leaders to have Hudaybi removed from his position. This conflict had the effect of discrediting not only Hudaybi but the rest of the leadership as well. The treaty with Britain was signed on 19 October 1954. Hudaybi and other Brotherhood leaders felt it was much better than the previously announced terms, but according to one version of events, the secret apparatus, now invisible and unaccountable to those not involved in it, saw the treaty it as a betrayal of Egypt and decided to act on its own. On 26 October, a member of the secret apparatus fired shots at Nasser while the latter was making a speech; unharmed, Nasser stood firm and finished his speech, declaring that he was ready to die for his country. There are, however, some indications that Nasser and his close associates may have staged the assassination attempt; what is certain is that they had been considering doing so. (Mitchell 1969, 144-151; Carré 1983, 59-63)

The attempt on Nasser’s life gave his popularity a much-needed boost, enabled him to prevail in his power struggle with Naguib, and provided him with the perfect opportunity to eliminate the Brotherhood. The organisation was officially dissolved, its headquarters burned, and thousands of its members arrested. The government organised spectacular trials with little regard for due process of law, while the official press accused Hudaybi and his organisation of every conceivable sort of conspiracy. Six Brothers were hanged, and seven, including Hudaybi, were sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour. (Mitchell 1969, 151-160)


  • Carré, Olivier and Gérard Michaud. 1983. Les Frères musulmans : Egypte et Syrie (1928-1982). Paris: Gallimard.

  • Lia, Brynjar. 1998. The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement 1928-1942. Reading, UK: Garnet. ISBN 0863722202.

  • Mitchell, Richard P. 1969. The Society of the Muslim Brothers. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195084373.

The Brotherhood under Nasser, 1954-1970

Throughout the rule of Gamal ’Abd al-Nasser in Egypt, many members of the Muslim Brotherhood were held in concentration camps, where they were tortured. Some died in custody, including 21 Brothers killed in their cells in June 1957. Those who escaped arrest went into hiding, both in Egypt and in other countries. One of those tortured was Sayyid Qutb, former editor of the Society’s newspaper, a prolific writer of fiction, literary criticism and articles on political and social issues, and author of the bestseller Social Justice in Islam, which set out the principles of an Islamic socialism. He became the Brotherhood’s most influential thinker for a time, and in 1959 the organisation’s General Guide, Hassan Isam’il al-Hudaybi, gave him responsibility for the Brothers detained in prisons and concentration camps. Qutb attempted to interpret the situation in the camps in Islamic terms; these reflections, which he circulated as commentaries on passages from the Qur’an, came to encompass an analysis of the regime that meted out such barbarous treatment to its prisoners. (Carré 1983, 65-76, 83-86; Mitchell 1969, 141; Kepel 1984, 30-32, 40-44)

Outside the prisons, those Brothers who had gone underground began to reorganise. In 1956, those who had been imprisoned but not judged were released. Zaynab al-Ghazali, head of the Association of Muslim Women, organised charitable work to meet the basic needs of these now-impoverished Brothers. Along with Brotherhood leader ’Abd al Fattah Isma’il, she went on to play a key role in rebuilding the organisation. While Al-Ghazali’s focus was on Islamic education, other autonomous groups of Brothers also appeared, who were impatient to avenge the suppression of the Brotherhood in 1954. They found the analytical framework and political programme they were looking for in Qutb’s writings, which were circulated by Al-Ghazali and in which his assessment of the Nasser regime, and of the way in which it could be overcome, was gradually taking shape. (Kepel 1984, 33-34)

In 1964, Qutb was released for several months, and his book Milestones was published; it was reprinted five times in six months. In it, Qutb argued that humanity was in the midst of a profound crisis caused by the failure to adopt a value system that could allow human beings to live in harmony; the threat of nuclear war was a symptom of this ailment. The value systems that dominated the world had failed to live up to their promises. The Western world’s concept of democracy, based on an individualistic ideology, had led to vast social injustice, colonialism and the domination of human beings by capital. In the Eastern bloc, collectivist ideology had failed as well: Marxism had lost touch with its original principles, and had become the ideology of oppressive states. Qutb saw Islam as the solution to humanity’s predicament: the entire world (including Egypt) was living in a state of jahiliyya, which can be roughly translated as a way of life characterised by ignorant hostility towards God’s will. In particular, human beings erred in allowing themselves to establish their own value systems, instead of accepting God’s sovereignty. (Kepel 1984, 44-47; Carré 1983, 94-95)

Although the theme of the failure of both capitalism and socialism was not new in the Brotherhood’s discourse, the application of the concept of jahiliyya to Egyptian society represented an innovation, motivated in part by Qutb’s personal experience of the brutality of what had become a totalitarian state. (Kepel 1984, 47-48)

In order to play its proper role, Islam needed to find tangible expression in an Ummah, a society of people whose lives were fully in accord with Islamic ethics. A vanguard of believers was needed to begin creating the Ummah, which would then grow until it encompassed the entire world. Qutb meant for his book to provide “milestones” tracing the path that this vanguard should follow. Faced with a totalitarian state, he advised them to prepare a jihad whose military aspect went beyond self-defence, and aimed to overthrow those who had usurped the sovereignty that should be God’s alone. Qutb’s view was that this preparation would take up to fifteen years. (Kepel 1984, 46-56; Carré 1983, 76)

Milestones gave rise to debates within the Brotherhood between young activists who favoured an immediate coup, and more experienced members such as Zaynab al-Ghazali, who took the view that the organisation should limit itself, for decades if need be, to educational work until it had 75% of the population on its side. In August 1965, the government claimed to have discovered that the Brotherhood was organising a huge revolutionary plot. About 18,000 people were arrested, 100-200 were imprisoned, and 38 of these were killed in custody during the investigation. The police made systematic use of torture during interrogations; many, including Sayyid Qutb and Zaynab al-Ghazali, were tortured for months. The police destroyed the village of Kardasa, where the police believed a suspect was hiding, and arrested and tortured its entire population. Raids throughout Egypt were accompanied by an intense media campaign against the Brotherhood. On the basis of confessions obtained under torture, Qutb and two other Brothers were hung in August 1966. In the 1970s, it emerged that the plot had probably been fabricated by the security services as part of a conflict between different factions within the regime. (Kepel 1984, 34-37; Carré 1983, 76-82, 96-97)

After Qutb’s death, his ideas remained influential but controversial within the Brotherhood. Some of the younger Brothers interpreted Qutb’s analysis to mean that anyone who failed to revolt against a tyrannical regime, or whose government was not based on Islamic law, should be regarded as excommunicated; they saw this as a justification of a revolutionary strategy. The Brotherhood’s leadership, which favoured a reformist approach, disagreed, pointing out that it is sufficient to utter a profession of faith twice in order to become a Muslim, and that though there are Muslims who sin, this is not considered grounds for excommunication. In contrast to those young Brothers who advocated revolution, the leadership maintained the view that the organisation should rely on educational work in order to reform Egyptian society. This policy, which has characterised the Brotherhood ever since, earned it the scorn of revolutionary Islamic militant groups. (Kepel 1984, 62-65, 90-91).

The Brotherhood Under Sadat, 1970-1981

Nasser’s successor, Anwar al-Sadat, introduced a policy of economic liberalisation and, to a much lesser extent, political liberalisation. In 1971 the concentration camps were closed, and the regime began to gradually release the imprisoned Brothers, though the organisation itself remained illegal; the last of those still behind bars regained their freedom in the general amnesty of 1975. The Brotherhood did not officially designate a new General Guide after Hudaybi’s death in 1973; Umar Talmasani became its most prominent spokesperson. Although the organisation refused to give its allegiance to Sadat, its critics on the Egyptian left chastised it for not taking a clear stand against the regime and against economic inequality. Its members came to include many successful businessmen who had profited from Sadat’s free-market economic policies (infitah). (Kepel 1984, 72, 93, 101-107; Wickham 2002, 96-97)

The Brotherhood’s main political demand during this period was the application of shari’a law; the government responded by initiating a lengthy review of all Egyptian law to determine how best to harmonise it with shari’a. In 1980, the constitution was amended to state that shari’a “is the main source of all legislation”. (Carré 1983, 107-112; Kepel 1984, 124-125)

Another important objective for the Brotherhood was to persuade the government to allow it to operate legally and to act as a political party, whose representatives would stand for office in Parliament. This request was not granted, and the Political Parties Law of 1977 specifically prohibited parties based on religious affiliation. However, the Brotherhood was tolerated to an extent, and in 1976 it was allowed to publish its monthly newspaper, Al-Da’wa (“The Invitation to Islam”), whose circulation is estimated to have reached 100,000 before it was shut down in 1981. (Kepel 1984, 101, 122-125; Wickham 2002, 65, 96)

Al-Da’wa often focused on the problem of Palestine; its editors disapproved of the Camp David accords of 1978 and the peace treaty signed by Egypt and Israel in 1979, arguing that Israel would never accept a peaceful and just solution to the conflict. Articles in Al-Da’wa tended to portray all Jews, whether Israeli or not, as inherently untrustworthy and guilty of the injustice endured by the Palestinians, and repeated myths typical of anti-Semitic texts. At the same time, and often in the same articles, the paper continued to reject Arab nationalism. The editors also condemned Christian evangelism, communism and secularism. (Kepel 1984, 108-124; Carré 1983, 119-120)

Scholars differ on the Brotherhood’s influence on Egyptian politics in the 1970s, but it seems clear that other Islamic political movements came to play a more important role. After Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, students and workers had protested against the regime’s failure to take responsibility for the defeat, and began to call for a more democratic political system. The broad student movement which took shape was at first mainly secular in nature, but student Islamic groups gradually came to the fore, thanks to their ability to implement practical solutions to problems faced by students in their daily life (such as severe overcrowding), by means of the national student union in which they were increasingly elected to positions of responsibility. When Sadat’s economic policies caused severe price increases for basic necessities and appalling degradations in public services (leading to huge riots in January 1977), these groups gained influence outside universities as well. Al-Da’wa supported the student Islamic movement, and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood were invited to speak at large, festive gatherings organised by student groups on Islamic holidays. When the government began to obstruct the student movement, and then to attack it using riot police, the Brotherhood’s relations with the government soured as well. (Kepel 1984, 126-146; Carré 1983, 107, 115; Wickham 2002, 32-34, 115-117)

The Brotherhood’s spokespeople consistently rejected the revolutionary and terrorist violence of the militant Islamic groups that appeared in Egypt during the 1970s (such as Al-Jihad, which assassinated Sadat in October 1981). At the same time, they argued that increasingly brutal police persecution was largely to blame for this radicalisation, and that if the Brotherhood were legalised, it would be able to help prevent extremism by providing Islamic education to young people. These arguments fell on deaf ears; in the months before his assassination, while his popularity was plummeting, Sadat ordered massive arrests among all opposition forces, including the Brotherhood. The arrested Brothers were released in January 1982, having been cleared of any wrongdoing. (Kepel 1984, 159-160, 183-206; Carré 1983, 113-122; Wickham 2002, 65-66, 114)

The Brotherhood Under Mubarak, 1981-present

During the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, who succeeded Sadat in 1981 and has remained in power ever since, the Brotherhood’s relations with the government are still essentially what they were under Sadat: the Brotherhood is tolerated to a degree, but is officially illegal, is not allowed to distribute literature or assemble in public, and is subject to periodic arrests. It has nevertheless published two newspapers (Liwa’ al-islam, “The Banner of Islam”, and al-I’tisam, “Adherence”), maintained regional and national offices and made public statements, and books by prominent Brothers are sold in bookshops. The Brotherhood has held to its reformist outlook, pursuing a long-term, gradualist approch to the establishment of an Islamic state with popular consent, by reforming society from the bottom up, using persuasion and other nonviolent means. (Wickham 2002, 66, 101, 113-114, 128-130, 135, 138, 150)

Despite being outlawed, the Brotherhood has been able to take advantage of political and social developments in Egypt to increase its membership and influence. Egypt’s emergency law imposes drastic limits on legal political opposition, and it is widely believed that elections are routinely rigged in favour of the government. However, Islamic charitable organisations and private mosques have flourished; though many of these organisations are apolitical, it is largely within this decentralised network of associations, which pursue different agendas and enjoy different degrees of autonomy from the state, that dissent has found expression. There is also anecdotal evidence that Islamic activists have gained some influence within the state bureaucracy, and that their supporters include many doctors, teachers and administrators. The Muslim Brotherhood has benefited from these developments more than any other Islamic political group, thanks in part to the energetic efforts of a cadre of experienced activists in their thirties and forties, who had honed their skills in the student movement under Sadat and joined the Brotherhood after graduation. (Wickham 2002, 71-75, 88-89, 93-118, 202)

The Brotherhood has been particularly successful at recruiting young people, including university students and recent graduates. Jobs, material goods, and the money needed for a conventional wedding have been increasingly out of reach for young Egyptians, and rampant corruption and a closed, authoritarian political system have bred alienation (ightirab) and despair. The Islamic revival offers a way of life in which young people can be respected for their piety and Islamic learning rather than for their titles or wealth, and in which it is considered admirable to live simply. The view that it is the duty of every Muslim to be involved in political and social reform (which the Brotherhood particularly emphasises) acts as an antidote to political alienation and defeatism, enabling young people to feel more optimistic about the future. Women from lower-middle-class backgrounds have found that stricter religious observance gives them increased respectability, enabling them to disregard other social codes that would otherwise limit their options in areas such as education, career and marriage. Young people’s work in the Brotherhood includes organising Islamic seminars and plays, supporting Brotherhood candidates in elections in student unions, professional associations and parliament, and participating in demonstrations. (Wickham 2002, 36-62, 75-87 ,164-171)

In the 1980s and early 1990s, more and more of the members of Egypt’s leading professional associations were economically disadvantaged university graduates; their votes helped Brotherhood candidates gain large majorities on the executive boards of several of these associations, such as those representing lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, scientists and engineers, defeating government, secular, and militant Islamic candidates in open, competitive elections. Under Brotherhood leadership, several professional associations set up programmes to help remedy practical difficulties faced by young graduates, offering health insurance, low-interest loans and training to fill in the gaps left by inadequate university courses. However, the limited resources available to professional associations did not enable these programmes to have a significant effect, and the Brotherhood’s success in this arena was due more to voters’ perception of its candidates as honest and motivated by a sense of civic duty, in contrast to the corruption that has often characterised professional associations. These associations gave the Brotherhood a platform from which to criticise Egypt’s lack of free parliamentary and presidential elections and the use of torture in prisons, and to call for the repeal of the emergency law. (Wickham 2002, 178-199; ICG 20 April 2004, 13)

Parliamentary elections, though largely closed to opposition, give some indication of the Brotherhood’s popularity under Mubarak. In the 1984 elections, the Brotherhood was allowed to run candidates for the Wafd party. In 1987 it was permitted to repeat the experiment, this time switching to the Labour Party. In both cases, the party aligned with the Brotherhood received more votes than all the other opposition parties combined. (Wickham 2002, 90)

Starting in about 1992, the government again resorted to repressive measures to stem the Brotherhood’s increasing influence. In 1993, professional associations were placed under direct state control. In 1995 and 1996, over a thousand Brothers were arrested. Several were convicted by military tribunals to several years of hard labour; the main charge was that the accused were members of an illegal organisation that planned to overthrow the government. At the same time, the government directed a huge media campaign against the Brotherhood, accusing it of being a terrorist group. This reaction can best be explained as an effort to stave off a nonviolent, popular challenge to the regime’s power, by preventing the Brotherhood from participating in elections. Similarly, in 1998, hundreds of student Islamic activists were arrested just before student union elections. The Brotherhood was particularly vulnerable to this crackdown because of its lack of support among the upper middle classes, industrial workers, and the poorest and least educated segments of Egyptian society. (Wickham 2002, 18, 200-202, 208-210, 214-216, 226; ICG 20 April 2004, 13)

Increased government repression led to a conflict between the Brotherhood’s “old guard”, which dominated its Guidance Bureau, and its middle generation of leaders, who favoured cooperation with other political trends, a more open internal debate on political issues, a more concerted effort to gain legality for the organisation and a more liberal interpretation of Islam. In 1996, to the dismay of the Brotherhood’s senior leadership, a group of prominent middle-generation leaders left the Brotherhood and joined with several Copts to form a new political party, called Wasat (“Centre”), intended to represent “a civic platform based on the Islamic faith, which believes in pluralism and the alternation of power”. The Wasat Party has won the support of some well-known secular intellectuals, but its repeated requests to become a legal political party have been denied. (Wickham 2002, 217-220)

After a period of soul-searching and retrenchment, the Brotherhood has made a comeback in recent years, as its middle-generation leaders have become more influential within the organisation. In 2000, the Brotherhood ran 76 parliamentary candidates as independents (including one woman, Gihan al-Halafawi, whose victory in her district was disqualified when the government cancelled the election there), and won 17 seats (as many as all the other opposition parties combined), despite the government’s strenuous media campaign against it and the arrest of several of its candidates shortly before the vote. In 2001, the Lawyers’ Association held open elections for its executive board for the first time in five years; in order to avoid embarrassing the regime, the Brotherhood chose to contest only a third of the seats, and won all of those. (Wickham 2002, 3, 221-226; ICG 20 April 2004, 14)

In its public statements, the Brotherhood has shed the religious intolerance and anti-Semitism expressed in its newspaper in the 1970s. In recent years its spokespeople have said that Copts are welcome to join the organisation (noting that Hassan al-Banna had two Copts as his assistants, and was known for his lack of prejudice towards Copts); Mohammad Mahdi Akef, who became the Brotherhood’s General Guide in 2004 at the age of 75 (ICG 20 April 2004, 14) told Al-Jazeera in 2005:

Islam dignifies Christians and Jews and we hope they treat us the same way. The ignorance of people is what is causing a grudge among them and not their religion.

In recent years, the Brotherhood has frequently called for greater democracy in the Middle East. ’Abd al-Mun’im Abu-l-Futuh, one of the middle-generation leaders who is respected both in the Brotherhood and in the Wasat party, told the International Crisis Group in 2004: (Wickham 2002, 222)

The absence of democracy is one of the main reasons for the crisis here, in Egypt and the Middle East. The Muslim Brothers believe that the Western governments are one of the main reasons for the lack of democracy in the region because they are supporting dictatorships in the Arab and Islamic region in general, despite the fact that it has been proved that the absence of democracy and freedom is the reason for terrorism and violence. (ICG 20 April 2004, 11)

In 2005, the Brotherhood began participating in pro-democracy demonstrations with the Egyptian Movement for Change (also known as Kifaya, “enough”), and many of the Brotherhood’s members have been arrested, over 700 in May 2005 alone.


  • Carré, Olivier and Gérard Michaud. 1983. Les Frères musulmans : Egypte et Syrie (1928-1982). Paris: Gallimard.

  • International Crisis Group (ICG). 20 April 2004. “Islamism in North Africa II: Egypt’s Opportunity”. Cairo/Brussels: International Crisis Group.

  • Kepel, Gilles. 1984. Le Prophète et Pharaon : Les mouvements islamistes dans l’Egypte contemporaine. Paris: La Découverte. ISBN 2020194295.

  • Mitchell, Richard P. 1969. The Society of the Muslim Brothers. London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195084373.

  • Wickham, Carrie Rosefsky. 2002. Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism and Political Change in Egypt. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231125739.

See also