Hassan Al-Banna, founding father of Egypt’s Muslim brotherhood
Saturday, October 14,2006 00:00

Hassan Al-Banna, who founded Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, has left a lasting ideological legacy, but the movement today bears many differences to the one founded in 1928.

On Saturday, members of what is the largest opposition movement in Egypt mark the centenary of Banna’s birth in the Nile Delta village of Mahmudiya.

“Hassan al-Banna is the father of an authentic Islamic philosophy ... He knew how to reflect the deep love of Islam among Egyptians,” the movement’s supreme guide, 78-year-old Mohammed Mehdi Akef, told AFP in an interview.

Banna’s ideology continues to shape political Islam, but the movement headed by Akef has taken a different shape, with a more aggressive push to join the mainstream political arena.

The Muslim Brotherhood started off as a welfare group practising an Islamic ideology that catered to the middle and lower classes in an Egypt ruled by the aristocracy and under British influence.

Banna sought to depart from traditionalist interpretations of Islam, which he argued left Muslim countries unable to deliver prosperity to the masses and unprepared to resist foreign imperialism.

His long-term goal was the restoration of the caliphate but he was not a pure ideologue. He left very few writings behind, instead gearing most of his 42 years of life towards action.

“He was a wonderful organiser and an exceptional human being,”  his brother, Gamal, told AFP in a recent interview, though he had harsher words for the current leadership, describing them as ”pretentious”.

In the 1930s, the brotherhood started considering military means to pursue its anti-colonialist agenda, leading to the first clashes with police and a fierce internal debate over the use of violence.

During World War II, it worked to extend its welfare program and it is believed that by the end of the 1940s, the group’s membership reached one million.

In December 1948, a Muslim Brother assassinated prime minister Mahmud Fahmi al-Nuqrashi. Two months later, Banna was murdered by the secret police.

The brotherhood supported Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolution in 1952, but differences and distrust quickly led to a split that heralded fierce crackdowns against the movement.

The organisation went underground. Despite being outlawed, it continued to extend its support base through welfare work and managed to spread its influence within the state’s institutions.

The breakthrough came in 2005, when it led an aggressive electoral campaign against the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, under its slogan “Islam is the solution” with the aim of influencing legislation, rather than having a symbolic presence.

The group clinched a record 88 seats in parliament through affiliated, but technically independent, candidates.

The brotherhood has never looked close to legally taking power in Egypt, but its will to do so has never been in doubt.

“When the conditions are ripe, if the people are convinced, then power will be ours,” Akek told AFP.

Amid the failure of secular political parties to shine in the public eye, the brotherhood has become the largest and only real opposition to Mubarak, himself 78, who was re-elected last year for another six-year term.

Mubarak is widely thought to be preparing his son, Gamal, to take the reins, something both men deny. Akef swears that the brotherhood will fight against such a dynastic succession.

Amr Shubaki, one of the foremost Egyptian observers of the brotherhood, said “they will mobilise to oppose it, but not without paying a very high price,” adding that they “do not have a plan to take power.”

There are at least two obstacles to the group doing so. One is the imponderable of what the army might do. The other is the very real fact that, as a banned movement, the brotherhood cannot run a candidate for the presidency.

In the meantime, the group has faced continuous repression, managing to win its strong parliamentary showing despite arrests and intimidation. More than 100 of its leaders are in prison, including politburo chief Essam al-Eryan, 52, a standard-bearer of its ”modern” generation.

But the group benefits from an unusual trump card.

“The authorities don’t want to break them up,” Shubaki says. ”They have a strategic interest of keeping a structured organisation in play. It would be worse for stability to have it burst into uncontrollable Islamist cells.”

For Hala Mustafa, editor-in-chief of the Dimuqratia review, the brotherhood’s presence enables Mubarak to be “seen in the eyes of the West as a rampart against an Islamic alternative”.

Meanwhile, the brotherhood continues to preach to the Egyptian people.

It is preparing for next month’s trade union elections, already having control of the doctors, engineers and lawyers’ syndicates.