• Reports
  • February 28, 2005
  • 85 minutes read


[by] Mona El-Ghobashy
Mona El-Ghobashy is an Instructor in the Political Science
Department, Columbia University, New York, N.Y. 10027, USA
[From: International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 37, No. 03
July 2005]

Jihane al-Halafawi’s small apartment above a barbershop in Alexandria
is exceedingly orderly, a cool oasis on a sweltering summer afternoon.
Plant leaves brush up against curtains undulating with the breeze from
the nearby Mediterranean. As she walks into the living room with a
tray full of cakes and tea, al-Halafawi is the picture of a kindly
Egyptian mother, a genuine smile gracing her youthful face. But when
this fifty-year-old mother of six and grandmother announced her
candidacy for Egypt’s parliamentary elections in fall 2000, the state
geared up a massive security force outside polling stations; leftists
shrugged her off as a “front” for her husband; and state feminists
dedicated to the electoral empowerment of women were silent. When
Halafawi outperformed her ruling-party rival in the first round,
despite rigging, the Interior Ministry promptly stepped in and
canceled the results on the pretext of respecting an earlier court
ruling postponing the elections.

Alexandria’s al-Raml district went without parliamentary
representation for two years as al-Halafawi and her legal team battled
the state in the courts. Finally, in June 2002, a Supreme
Administrative Court ruling compelled the Interior Ministry to hold
the by-elections. On election day, security forces blockaded roads
leading to polling stations, arrested al-Halafawi’s legal team and 101
of her supporters, roughed up journalists, and stepped aside as
public-sector workers bused in from outside the district voted for her
rival. Unusually, the six o’clock news was interrupted that evening to
announce the sweeping victory of the two ruling National Democratic
Party (NDP) candidates in the Raml by-elections. 1

Al-Halafawi’s experience is one dramatic piece of a larger story, the
story of the group of which she is a part: the Society of Muslim
Brothers (Jama at al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun). 2 Over the past
quarter-century, the Society of Muslim Brothers (Ikhwan) has morphed
from a highly secretive, hierarchical, antidemocratic organization led
by anointed elders into a modern, multivocal political association
steered by educated, savvy professionals not unlike activists of the
same age in rival Egyptian political parties. Seventy-seven years ago,
the Muslim Brothers were founded in the provincial city of Ismailiyya
by the charismatic disciplinarian and shrewd organizer Hasan al-Banna
(1906-49). With a vision of an Islamic renaissance and a chalkboard
under his arm, al-Banna recruited members door-to-door and built a
welfare society-cum-athletic league-cum-anticolonial movement held
together by meticulous organization and strict master-disciple
relations. Today, the social-welfare activities of the Ikhwan are as
strong as ever, but the enforced top-down unanimity of the group is a
thing of the past.

The Ikhwan have come to experience organizational and ideological
transformations endemic to any party or social movement: splits along
generational lines, intense internal debates about strategy, and a
shift in their ideological plank from politics as a sacred mission to
politics as the public contest between rival interests. I argue that
the Ikhwan’s energetic capitalization on Egypt’s sliver of electoral
competition for seats in Parliament, the professional unions, and
municipal councils has had an especially profound effect on their
political thought and organization. The institutional rules of
authoritarian electoral politics have led to both organizational and
ideological change within the group.

Organizational change is most conspicuous in the rise of middle-aged
Ikhwan professionals who came of political age on college campuses in
the 1960s and 1970s, fundamentally different creatures from the Ikhwan
elders who cut their political teeth in the tumultuous, ideologically
polarized Egypt of the 1940s. While the group’s highest executive post
is still the turf of the older “prison generation,” middle-aged
members formulate policy, act as spokesmen, and represent the group in
Parliament and professional unions. Indeed, generational dynamics are
behind organizational rumblings in all Egyptian political
institutions, including the NDP, as disenchanted younger activists
turn their backs on ossified “historical leaders” and craft new
political projects based on their independent assessment of existing
institutional constraints.

Ideologically, one of the most visible byproducts of the Ikhwan’s
political engagement has been a decisive move away from the
uncompromising notions of Sayyid Qutb (1906-66) as outlined in his
tract Ma alim fi al-tariq (Signposts) and toward a cautious
reinterpretation of the ideas of founder al-Banna. A related
innovation is the Ikhwan’s appropriation of moderate Islamist
thinkers’ works authenticating democracy with Islamic concepts.
Democracy here is defined as (1) broad, equal citizenship with (2)
binding consultation of citizens with respect to governmental
personnel and policies, and (3) protection of citizens from arbitrary
state action. 3 Several position papers issued by the Muslim Brothers
in the 1990s document the group’s prodemocratic turn and its revamped
views on women’s rights, parties and political pluralism, the role of
Egyptian Copts, and the morality and utility of political violence.

The transformation of the Muslim Brothers from a religious mass
movement to what looks very much like a modern political party has its
roots in electoral politicking that began in the 1980s. Yet this
change has been eclipsed by both Ikhwan critics and boosters, the
former denying any change or belittling it as mere posturing by the
Muslim Brothers to gain power, the latter folding any innovation into
the prearranged plan of the all-wise founder al-Banna. Both are
inaccurate. The Ikhwan are in no way invulnerable to the political
changes that have engulfed Egyptian society over the past twenty-five
years, both good and ill. The Muslim Brothers are consummate political
actors, neither extraordinarily gifted at mobilization nor
historically adept at deception. The fevered attention accorded
Islamist groups by Western policymakers, Arab state elites, and some
academics exaggerates their perceived threat (to democracy, Western
interests, stability, or “national unity”) and organizational
capabilities and occludes clear thinking on how they are shaped by
their institutional political environment.

My argument implies the following. First, different questions need to
be asked about Islamists’ participation in politics. Conjectural,
aimless “are they or aren’t they?” debates about Islamists’ commitment
to democracy should take an analytical back seat to how Islamists
actually behave in semidemocratic political theaters. Second, if
Islamists are treated as political actors jockeying for advantage,
relevance, and support, their ideological pronouncements can be
analyzed as effects and not predictors of their political experience.
This is not a call for a purely instrumentalist understanding of
ideology nor an intervention into the perennial debate on which has
causal primacy, ideology or action. It is to argue for a critical
rethinking of the assumption of exceptionalism with which Islamist
movements are approached. Finally, since Islamist parties are subject
to the same institutional rules of the political game, then it is
reasonable to assume that they will show some, if not all, of the
stresses experienced by their non-Islamist competitors. The influence
of common institutional variables on the organization and ideology of
both secular and religious political parties merits further study.


In 1914, the radical German Social Democratic Party (SPD), a major
antiwar platform, rushed to support the world war as soon as it was
declared. As Seymour Martin Lipset reports, Lenin “was convinced that
the issue of the party newspaper Vorwarts calling for support of the
war effort was a forgery.” 4 Neither a cynical bid to curry favor with
the authorities nor a clumsy grab at popularity, the SPD’s decision
was beholden to a deeper force: the “instinct for self-preservation,”
as Roberto Michels famously argued. In his classic 1911 study of the
SPD, much of which presaged the party’s prowar stance, Michels
postulated an “iron law of oligarchy” where the imperative of
organization necessitates rule of a minority over a hapless majority
even in the most avowedly democratic organizations. The one party one
would expect to resist fads and stay true to its principles was
compelled to follow a more bewitching siren.

Michel’s heirs shifted their focus from the logic of organization to
the exigencies of electoral participation. Otto Kirchheimer argued
that following World War II, traditional class mass and denominational
parties were giving way to streamlined “catch-all” parties that are
“non-utopian, non-oppressive, and ever so flexible.” The imperative of
vote-maximization led parties to shed ideological baggage, move to the
center, and woo the elusive “median voter.” 5

Party analysts revisited the case of European socialists in the 19th
century, tracing how socialist parties that set out to bring about a
socialist revolution through the ballot box were instead irrevocably
transformed themselves. 6 Since then, socialist parties’ goals were
endlessly modified and entire planks abandoned to signal credibility
and ensure inclusion in the democratic game. After World War II,
spurred by a new generation of socialists, the German SPD publicly
disavowed its central ideological tenets and purged radicals from its
ranks at the Extraordinary Congress at Bad Godesberg in 1959. 7 The
Ikhwan’s public repudiation of Sayyid Qutb in 1969 and adoption of
democracy in 1995 are but echoes of the “Godesberg effect.”

What about parties in authoritarian-democratic hybrids where the
contest for votes is stunted by state repression? The growing
literature on electoral authoritarian regimes suggests that an
electoral logic is also palpable in such environments, but scholars
have had to modify the standard typology of parties as vote-seeking,
office-seeking, or policy-seeking organizations. As Scott Mainwaring
sensibly states, “Rational party leaders will not make vote maximizing
their first priority if votes are not the primary currency of
politics.” 8 Mainwaring argues that parties in authoritarian regimes
play “dual games”: an electoral game with the objective of winning
votes and seats, and a regime game. The regime game can either be
steady participation with the hope of effecting a transition to
democracy or a delegitimation game where parties work to undermine the
legitimacy of the authoritarian regime. Parties in authoritarian
regimes play electoral and regime games simultaneously, with emphasis
on the regime game. 9

Many of the internal factional struggles in parties operating in
authoritarian contexts revolve around which games to prioritize and
how to balance the regime and electoral games. Seen in this light,
parties are by definition dynamic organizations in perpetual
transformation, and religious parties are no exception. The
trajectories of Christian Democratic parties in Europe and Latin
America show that they are as much products of political
entrepreneurship as “ordinary” parties and are just as malleable,
neither uniquely refractory nor beholden to nonnegotiable ideological


At its founding in 1928, the Society of Muslim Brothers was one
prominent part of a handful of ideological mass-based parties led by
political mavericks seeking to challenge the dominant style of
politics of notables. A decade into its existence, the society had
built its identity as an internally disciplined, financially
resourceful, pro-Palestine anticolonial movement appealing to educated
lower-middle- and middle-class effendis who were alienated by the
exclusionary political and economic system of interwar Egypt. 10 Hasan
al-Banna’s vision of moral uplift based on faith-based action and
self-improvement was also an explicit response to influential,
state-sponsored secular projects, exemplified by Taha Husein’s
Europhile tract Mustaqbal al-thaqafa fi misr (The Future of Culture in

Instead of slavishly aping Western ideas, al-Banna argued, a return to
the precocious wisdom of Islam was the solution:

The Muslim Brothers believe that when Allah most High revealed the
Qur an and ordered this worshippers to follow Muhammad, He placed in
this true religion all the necessary foundations for the renaissance
and happiness of nations.globalism, nationalism, socialism,
capitalism, Bolshevism, war, the distribution of wealth, the
relationship between producer and consumer and everything near and far
to these concerns that preoccupy the politicians of nations and
philosophers of society. We believe Islam has gone to the heart of all
these issues. 11

Working for a Muslim state was not a priority; calling for Islamizing
society and applying shari a were. 12

The details of its founding and early history reveal that the Society
was poised to be a highly adaptive political creature, weathering the
permutations of ordinary parties and experiencing their usual crises.
Internal schisms and challenges to al-Banna’s leadership surfaced in
1932 and 1939, the latter when a splinter group calling itself
Muhammad’s Youth seceded or was expelled for protesting al-Banna’s
political pragmatism. 13 Al-Banna enthusiastically embraced elections
and ran and lost in parliamentary contests in 1942 and 1945. 14 The
Muslim Brothers promulgated their political and economic platform in
1952 when relations with the new military regime were still warm, but
the experiment was soon aborted. 15 The subsequent dissolution of the
Society in 1954 and years-long imprisonment of its leaders and
followers by the Nasser regime promised to completely extinguish its
presence in political life. It was only after its cadres emerged from
prison during Sadat’s de-Nasserization that the society began to
engineer its reentry into an altered Egyptian political landscape. The
Ikhwan’s activism since the 1970s is thus the first sustained
engagement with state institutions and competing political groups that
can be analyzed to gauge their political transformation.

First, a look at the structure of the Society of Muslim Brothers.
There are three pillars of the group’s organization. The 100-member
Shura Council (Majlis al-Shura), is the group’s legislative body,
responsible for issuing binding resolutions and reviewing the annual
report and budget. The Shura Council convenes periodically every six
months; members serve four-year terms and must be at least thirty
years old. The council elects the thirteen-member Guidance Bureau
(Maktab al-Irshad), the Brothers’ politburo where all policy decisions
passed by the Shura Council are executed. Members of the Bureau serve
renewable four-year terms and must also be at least thirty years of
age. The highest executive office is that of the General Guide
(al-murshid al- amm), who is the chief executive officer and official
spokesman of the group. The General Guide must be at least forty and
is elected by an absolute majority of the Shura Council from
candidates nominated by the Guidance Bureau. 16

This organizational structure remained essentially intact until 1992,
when a provision was added for the reelection of the general guide and
terms of office were set at five years, although no term limits were
specified. 17 Yet because of the Society’s illegal status and
attendant security clampdowns, it has been difficult to convene the
required institutions in accordance with the bylaws. In 1977, the
second General Guide, Hasan al-Hudaiby, died, and Umar al-Tilmissany
was selected as his successor. Umar al-Tilmissany reports in his
reflections that, since the group could not activate regular internal
election procedures, his selection as the third general guide was
based on his status as the seniormost member of the Guidance Bureau. 18

The selection procedures of the subsequent general guides Muhammad
Hamed Abu al-Nasr (1986-96), Mustafa Mashour (1996-2002), and Ma mun
al-Hudaybi (2002-2004), son of the second general guide, were
secretive affairs that followed no clear logic of seniority or
election. Instead they were shaped by the force of circumstance and
internal maneuvering for power. A significant change followed the
death of al-Hudaybi at age eighty-three in January 2004 with the
announcement that the next guide would be selected by a majority vote
of the Guidance Bureau. The reasons for this change are explored later.


The thaw in state-Ikhwan relations begun under Sadat continued under
the regime of Husni Mubarak, but there was no question of legalizing
the Muslim Brothers, only de facto toleration. Not content to assert
their presence merely through their newsletter al-Da wa (The Call) or
financing social welfare activities, the Ikhwan began to develop the
sedulous electioneering strategy that would become a centerpiece of
their self-preservation. Al-Tilmissany, the society’s third general
guide, recalled the decision to contest the 1984 elections:

When we were released from the 1981 detention, we were in a state
of near-recession. We set to looking for a lawful means to carry out
our activities without troubling security or challenging the laws.
Allah saw fit to find us a lawful way in the views of officials. The
parliamentary session had just ended and thinking began on the new
parliamentary elections. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, had the
Ikhwan let it slip from their hands they would surely have counted
among the ranks of the neglectful. 19

Not one to pass up a political opportunity, al-Tilmissany negotiated
an alliance with the Wafd, one he insisted on calling a “cooperation”
and not a tactical or strategic move. Perhaps to authenticate the
partnership, he explained that in the 1930s he had been an old Wafdist
“with all my being” while a devoted member of the Ikhwan at the same
time. 20 In February 1984, at the home of the Wafd’s chairman, Fu ad
Siraj al-Din, a bargain was struck. The eminently reasonable logic was
that the Wafd provided a legal channel while the Ikhwan offered a
popular base, both seeking to reclaim their place on the national
stage after long years of state-enforced absence.

There was an even more compelling institutional cause of the
Wafd-Ikhwan alliance, however. The controversial Electoral Law
114/1983 passed by the outgoing Parliament was a consummate instance
of electoral engineering. The government acceded to the opposition’s
demands for a more equitable proportional representation system in
contrast to the plurality systems of the past, but with a twist. For
the first time in Egyptian electoral history, party lists under a
proportional representation system replaced single-member
constituencies, which ruled out anyone running as an independent. The
law specifically prohibited candidates of different parties from
running on the same lists, in effect deterring parties from pooling
their efforts. 21 An added novelty was that the electoral law then set
a relatively high threshold of 8 percent of the national vote for a
party to qualify for parliamentary representation. Votes to opposition
parties that fell short of 8 percent were automatically transferred to
the NDP. The restrictions of Parties Law 40/1977 and Election Law
114-throttling party formation, eliminating independents, and setting
new barriers to parliamentary access-impelled the Wafd and Ikhwan to
collude or perish.

The law had its intended effect: only the Wafd-Ikhwan alliance
overcame the threshold, securing 15.1 percent of the national vote,
while the Labor party got 7.7 percent. Out of 448 seats, the Wafd
slate gained fifty-eight, eight of which went to Ikhwan candidates and
an additional two to independent Islamists. The NDP garnered 389
seats, or 87.3 percent. Postelection evidence suggests that the Ikhwan
paid particular attention to their oversight role: while they
constituted only 1.8 percent of parliamentary membership, they were
responsible for 18.5 percent of interpellations delivered during the
three-year parliamentary term from 1984 to 1987. 22

The Wafd-Ikhwan cooperation inside Parliament nearly evaporated after
the elections due to the restrictive nature of parliamentary rules,
which are explicitly designed to thwart collaboration between
opposition parties. 23 The 1984 elections, however, established the
Ikhwan as a leading political contestant, striking electoral alliances
in both Parliament and the professional unions and joining the
opposition in extraparliamentary coalitions for reform. The Ikhwan
were poised for the next round of electoral sparring with the
government. In 1986, when the president dissolved Parliament in
expectation of a ruling of unconstitutionality by the Supreme
Constitutional Court (SCC) of Law 114/1983 for discriminating against
independents, the government quickly passed Electoral Law 188/1986.
The new law maintained the 8 percent threshold and the party-list
system but canceled the automatic transferring of all votes below 8
percent to the majority party and reserved forty-eight of Parliament’s
448 seats for candidates running as independents.

The opposition immediately began to devise ways to overcome the
hurdles of Electoral Law 188. Ibrahim Shukri, chairman of the Labor
Party, approached the Ikhwan’s new general guide, Muhammad Hamed Abu
al-Nasr, and proposed an alliance. A deal was struck, and the
minuscule al-Ahrar party also signed on, having failed to get more
than .7 percent of the national vote in 1984. It was agreed that the
slate would be apportioned with 40 percent for the Ikhwan, 40 percent
for Labor, and 20 percent for Ahrar. The motives of the Labor Party
were clear: stung by its 1984 failure to meet the required threshold,
it sought to guarantee its chances in 1987 by courting a movement with
a tangible street presence and electoral track record.

As for the Ikhwan, their 1984 alliance with the Wafd had shown them
the limits of augmenting their participation from the perch of an
established and ideologically coherent party such as the Wafd. By
1987, the Ikhwan had clearly outgrown their junior-partner status in
the Wafd alliance and wagered on the weaker and more ideologically
flexible Labor Party as a base of operations for the next stage of
their development.

What was soon billed as the “Islamist alliance” (al-ta[hdotu ]aluf
al-islami) was the biggest news of the 1987 elections, paving the way
for the progressive Islamization of the Labor Party and its
mouthpiece, al-Sha b. Both as a response to critics of the Muslim
Brothers’ indeterminate election slogan “Islam Is the Solution”
(al-islam huwa al-[hdotu ]all) and the exigencies of vote seeking, the
Muslim Brothers-dominated alliance distributed a booklet detailing its
seven-point electoral program. The booklet stated that Copts are full
citizens and that applying and codifying (ta[tdotu ]biq wa-taqnin)
shari a is a long-range process not confined to Islamizing penal
provisions but extending to the entire legal infrastructure. It called
for closing down government liquor manufactories and the banning of
nightclubs and casinos, as well as comprehensive government regulation
and strategic planning of the economy. 24 Unsurprisingly, the
anti-systemic Jama at al-Islamiyya’s statement against the elections
echoed the protestations of radical socialists in the 19th century. It
lamented the naivete of the Ikhwan for participating in a farce and
accused it of burnishing the image of the regime and, tellingly,
“helping to build the institutions of the secular regime.” 25

In what would become a familiar election ritual, hundreds of Muslim
Brothers sup- porters and poll watchers were arrested and detained a
few days before the elections. On election day on 6 April, observers
reported a far less free atmosphere than the 1984 poll, with rampant
government meddling, ballot stuffing on behalf of the NDP, and
outright turning away of voters for opposition candidates. The
government’s legal engineering before the elections, coupled with
physical interference during and after the vote and questionable
allotment of losing party votes, conspired to give the NDP a
parliamentary majority of just under 80 percent. The alliance garnered
17 percent of the national vote, which translated into fifty-six
seats. Thirty-six went to Muslim Brothers. The Wafd secured
thirty-five seats. Immediately after the elections, prominent
old-guard Muslim Brothers members and future General Guide Mustafa
Mashour articulated the emerging electoral creed of the Ikhwan:

We must benefit from the experience of elections for our future,
for elections are an art with its own rules, expertise, and
requirements, and we must push those who have given up on reforming
this nation, push them to get rid of their pessimism and register to
vote as soon as possible. 26

The Ikhwan’s relatively large presence in the 1987 Parliament as
leaders of the opposition for the first time in Egyptian history
raised the specter of divisive identity politics, especially regarding
the application of shari a. 27 But gloom-and-doom forecasts did not
pan out. The Ikhwan deputies’ behavior under the rotunda veered
between dramatic performances in plenary sessions, in intricate
coordination with Parliamentary Speaker Rif at al-Mahgoub, and routine
committee work away from the limelight. Parliamentary leaders from the
NDP and Ikhwan MPs incessantly negotiated and renegotiated their terms
of interaction, alternately escalating and containing criticisms in
response to each other’s cues and events transpiring outside
Parliament. 28 Counterintuitively, shari a was not the pivotal issue
for Ikhwan deputies. One study shows that their priorities were
political freedom and state repression; cultural and educational
issues, including shari a; and economic concerns. 29 Applying the
shari a took a back seat to heated sparring with pugnacious Interior
Minister Zaki Badr over torture in prisons and police stations,
security forces’ storming of mosques, and police violation of Ikhwan
MPs constitutional immunity, including an unprovoked assault on Ikhwan
MP Essam al-Eryan by a policeman.

An astute election observer argued that the Ikhwan’s success in the
1987 elections was attributable to a conspicuous cooperation between
old and young Muslim Brothers. 30 Almost all of the young MPs had
distinguished themselves in a previous electoral arena during the
1980s: the influential professional unions, historically powerful
interest groups that organized middle- and lower-middle-class public
opinion. The Muslim Brothers’ visibility in the unions began in the
1984 elections to the board of the medical association and grew
incrementally thereafter through shrewd alliance building and horse
trading with major political groups. Significantly, the Ikhwan never
fielded candidates for the chairmanship of the unions, part of a tacit
understanding between the government and all opposition groups that
the post be reserved for a ruling-party member to facilitate
bargaining with authorities. 31 In the 1990s, the slates of Islamist
candidates and their allies swept elections in all the major
professional unions. 32

Much has been written on the Muslim Brothers’ “takeover” and
“back-door infiltration” of the syndicates. 33 Yet informed scholarly
accounts tell a different story. Amani Qandil, Egypt’s leading
sociologist of professional associations, observes that the Muslim
Brothers’ successful performance in the associations is due to their
superior organizational and get-out-the-vote skills and transparent
management of the syndicates’ finances. Not infiltration but tireless,
open campaigning in free and fair elections and the provision of a
generous network of post-election services is responsible for the
Muslim Brothers’ success. 34

The new generation of Muslim Brothers activists who transformed the
professional unions are a major causal force behind the society’s
adaptation into a flexible political party, particularly its
ideological amendments. While still in their thirties, they were among
the masterminds of the Muslim Brothers’ parliamentary alliance with
the Wafd in 1984 and the Labor Party in 1987. Muhammad Abd al-Quddus,
currently a member of the press syndicate board and a leading Muslim
Brothers figure, participated in the 1984 meeting that produced the
Wafd-Ikhwan alliance. Abd al-Moneim Abu al-Futuh, now a member of the
Society’s Guidance Bureau, was a member of the meeting that clinched
the Muslim Brothers-Labor alliance in 1987. The physician Essam
al-Eryan and the lawyer Mokhtar Nouh were two of the most active
Ikhwan MPs in the 1987 Parliament. Abu al-Ela Madi was a driving force
in the politics of the engineering syndicate in the early 1990s before
his defection from the Ikhwan in 1996.


Just as there is a widespread yet unfounded assertion that the Muslim
Brothers “took over” professional associations, there are equally
ubiquitous allegations that they are driven by immutable sacred texts
that make them untrustworthy political contestants, 35 “sham
democrats,” 36 and avid theocrats intent on overturning the secular
state. 37 None of these claims is corroborated by any credible
evidence. When it comes to democracy, as Najib Ghadbian quips, “so far
Islamists have been subjected to higher moral standards than the other
players in the arena, as if they were the only authoritarians among an
assembly of tried and true democrats.” 38

Commitment to democracy is a serious issue but cannot be gauged by
hurling groundless accusations. This section probes in more detail the
ideological changes wrought from the Muslim Brothers’ electoral
participation as a more substantive indicator of their commitment to
democracy. It also traces how that participation raised the
government’s hackles and subjected the Muslim Brothers to a series of
grave although not crippling crises. Ideological revisions and
organizational turmoil were the fruit of the Ikhwan’s electoral

By 1990, the Ikhwan were exceptionally attuned to the rules of the
authoritarian political game. Along with the Wafd, they led a boycott
of the 1990 elections after Law 188/1986 was declared unconstitutional
and the 1987 Parliament was dissolved. From the perspective of the
dual games employed by opposition parties, the boycott was the
parties’ prioritization of the delegitimation game to protest the
government’s in- cessant electoral engineering even as this strategy
robbed them of a much-prized forum in Parliament. In 1990, the Ikhwan
emphasized coordination with the opposition over their hallowed
electoral creed while continuing their assiduous electioneering for
seats on municipal councils and professional associations’ boards in 1992.

The year 1992 was a turning point in the government’s approach to the
Muslim Brothers, shifting from tenuous toleration to further legal and
then physical repression. That year, Ikhwan candidates swept elections
to the medical and bar associations and outshone the government’s
bumbling and languorous response to the devastating Cairo earthquake
in October. In response to the Muslim Brothers’ efficient pooling of
con- tributions to earthquake victims, the prime minister issued
Military Decree 4/1992, requiring government approval for the
collection of donations.

In February 1993, the government railroaded through Parliament during
a midnight session Law 100/1993. Government spokesmen in Parliament
defended the law as an effort to combat the “dictatorship of the
minority,” a clear reference to the Ikhwan’s effective electioneering.
The Orwellian-titled “Law for the Guarantees of Democracy in
Professional Associations” required a 50 percent quorum for union
elections, constituting the most visible interference in internal
union affairs since Sadat issued a decree law in 1981 dissolving the
bar association’s board for its opposition to the Camp David Accords.
Professional unions immediately mobilized against the law, and the
majority of members, regardless of their politics, opposed it on
principle. 39 Mobilization against the law dovetailed with rising
demands for political and constitutional reform.

This was the moment that the new generation of Muslim Brothers came
into their own as skilled organizers and alliance builders with other
middle-aged activists of varying political commitments. A two-day
Conference on Freedoms and Civil Society was held in October 1994 at
the medical association and organized by Muslim Brothers Essam
al-Eryan and Abu al-Ela Madi, bringing together hundreds of prominent
activists and intellectuals, including government figures, to hammer
out a consensus on basic rights. A delegation from the conference that
included the two co-organizers visited the Nobel Laureate Naguib
Mahfouz in the hospital to express high-profile support and
condemnation of his stabbing by militant Islamists. At the same time,
the Ikhwan were issuing communiques condemning every attack by
militant Islamists on government figures and tourists, and even
brokered a cease-fire deal between the radical Islamists and the
government during the United Nations’ Cairo Population Conference. 40

The first glimmers of the Ikhwan’s ideological revisions emerged in
1994 and grew out of the younger generation’s networking and response
to their interlocutors’ demands to clarify their positions on
foundational issues. In March 1994, the Muslim Brothers issued
definitive statements on women’s rights and party pluralism. The
former statement articulated their belief in the rights of women both
as candidates for public office (save for the highest executive office
in the land) and as voters. The position paper followed on the heels
of actual practice. In a little reported incident preceding Jihane
al-Halafawi’s high-profile candidacy in 2000, the female doctor, Wafa
Ramadan, ran for elections to the medical-association board on the
Ikhwan’s slate in 1992. 41

Mindful of their departure from both their founder’s and the old
guard’s conservative views on women, the Ikhwan have devoted much
space in their arguments on women’s citizenship rights to refuting
obstinate views and reinterpreting Qur anic injunctions that specify
men’s tutelage over women, especially Qur an 4:34. Their statement
argues that the verse applies to household relations only and does not
extend to the workplace or public affairs. The Ikhwan’s doctrinal
reinterpretations are laced with the Society’s utilitarian electoral
credo. As a Muslim Brothers apologist argues, “Limiting the Muslim
woman’s right to participate in elections weakens the winning chances
of Islamist candidates.” 42 Contrast this pragmatism to the finality
with which former General Guide Umar al-Tilmissany pronounced his
views on women:

I do not like to talk about women. Modern people may find this
shameful, or cowardly, but I want nothing to do with modern theories
and the equality of men and women. I still believe that a man is a man
and a woman is a woman and that’s why God created her.. A woman who
believes that she is equal to a man is a woman who has lost her
femininity, virtue and dignity. 43

The revamped ideology animated further political action. The Ikhwan’s
position paper on women was invoked by Jihane al-Halafawi as an
impetus for her contestation of the 2000 parliamentary elections.
Seasoned Ikhwan watchers were not surprised by Halafawi’s candidacy,
belonging as she does to the generation of middle-aged activists
changing the face of the organization. Married to one of the Muslim
Brothers’ leading architects of electoral strategy, the Alexandria
physician, Ibrahim al-Za farani, Halafawi reflects the younger
generation’s signature amalgam of flexible ideology and vote seeking.
She took pains to point out the critical role of women voters. In her

The Muslim Brothers’ views about women in public life are clear,
as evidenced by the March 1994 statement. This is what encouraged me
to contest the elections. My decision to run was also to make use of
the opportunity presented by the state’s desire to integrate women
into the political process, and to clarify that Islam does not
compromise women’s rights.. There was tremendous support for me within
the group. Women are very active in the [Muslim Brothers], though
perhaps not visible. Remember that women voters are responsible for
the success of the seventeen Ikhwan members of Parliament. 44

The language of the Ikhwan’s statement “Shura and Party Pluralism in
Muslim Society” is a similar synthesis of Islamic values and
contemporary experience. 45 It argues that the Qur an stipulates a
rule of public consultation in governance, sura, “and this means that
the umma is the source of all powers.” The statement bows to the stock
demand for shari a but affirms the need for a written constitution
specifying a “balance of powers”; emphasizes public freedoms for both
Muslims and non-Muslims; and calls for a legislature with oversight
functions and binding decisions. Depending on one’s perspective, the
explicit call for a written constitution is either an evasion or
realization of the Ikhwan’s enduring slogan “The Qur an is our

The statement concludes with a newfangled Qur anic justification of
political parties as a necessary institutionalization of God-given
differences. As Essam al-Eryan later elaborated, “God created humans
with differences, so plurality is the normal state of things. The
problem is how to organize these differences without turning them into
chaos, and that’s why you need several parties.” 46 The endorsement of
multiple political parties is in blatant contradiction to Hasan
al-Banna’s famously hostile attitude toward parties; he derided [hdotu
]izbiyya (partisanship) and viewed parties as nothing more than vanity
projects of warring politicians that diverted the country’s energies
from resisting the British. 47 To explain the discrepancy, the Ikhwan
historicize al-Banna’s aversion to parties. In a much quoted
rationalization, the prominent scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a member of
the Ikhwan in the 1950s and a longtime sympathizer based in Qatar who
was offered but declined the Ikhwan’s highest post of general guide in
2002 after Mashour’s passing, writes:

I am aware that the martyred Imam Hasan al-Banna deplored partisan
life and the establishment of parties in Islam due to what he
witnessed in his time of parties that divided the umma in confronting
the enemy. They were parties that revolved around individuals instead
of clear goals and platforms. It is all right if our interpretation
differs from that of our Imam, may God have compassion on him, for he
did not disallow those who came after him to have their own
interpretations, especially if circumstances change and positions and
ideas evolve. Perhaps if he lived till today he would see what we see.
Fatwas change with changing times, places, and conditions, especially
in ever-changing political affairs. Those who know Hasan al-Banna know
that he was not rigid but developed his ideas and policies according
to the evidence available to him. 48

Ideological amendments continued despite a traumatic series of events
for the Muslim Brothers beginning in 1995, when their heretofore
opaque organizational dynamics were laid open for all to see and the
group ceased to speak with one disciplined voice in public. In
retrospect, it is clear that a confluence of events immediately before
and during 1995 proved decisive and catastrophic for the Ikhwan. In
the early 1990s, American officials made contacts with Ikhwan members,
prompting President Mubarak to comment angrily to the American
journalist Mary Anne Weaver in November 1994:

Your government is in contact with these terrorists from the
Muslim Brotherhood. This has all been done very secretly, without our
knowledge at first. You think you can correct the mistakes that you
made in Iran, where you had no contact with the Ayatollah Khomeini and
his fanatic groups before they seized power. But I can assure you,
these groups will never take over this country. 49

In January 1995, at the very beginning of the parliamentary election
year, eighty-two of the Ikhwan’s leading middle-aged activists
convening the Muslim Brothers’ Shura Council were rounded up and
detained in the first round of a sweeping crackdown unseen since the
1950s. They were charged with plotting to overthrow the regime and
referred to a military tribunal, a forum heretofore reserved for
Islamist radicals.

On 26 June, a failed assassination attempt on Mubarak in Addis Ababa,
Ethiopia, further inflamed the already tense relations between the
Ikhwan and the regime and pushed the regime to dispense with any
distinctions between radical Islamists and the Muslim Brothers. Though
the Ikhwan scrambled to condemn the assassination attempt, rumors
swirled that they had known about the plot, and the state’s stance
soon took on the character of a vendetta. On 23 November, a week
before the start of elections, the military tribunal sentenced
fifty-four Muslim Brothers to three to five years in prison, including
many of the Ikhwan’s election whiz kids who had planned to run in the
elections, chiefly Essam al-Eryan, Abd al-Moneim Abu al-Futouh,
Muhammad al-Sayed Habib, Muhammad Khayrat al-Shater, and Ibrahim al-Za
farani. Yet as hundreds of Muslim Brothers poll watchers were
preemptively detained by the Interior Ministry days before elections,
the Ikhwan still did not resort to the delegitimation game. Instead,
they fielded approximately 150 candidates. Following the most violent
vote in Egyptian electoral history, resulting in 61 dead, 1,313
injured, and 2,400 detained, the Muslim Brothers secured only one
parliamentary seat. 50

At the height of the crackdown, the Ikhwan continued to produce
incrementally more detailed statements of their positions. By far the
most significant document was what the Muslim Brothers dubbed the
“Statement on Democracy,” a document whose purpose was to affirm the
society’s commitment to playing the democratic transition game despite
state repression. The paper outlined the Society’s stance on four
pivotal issues: non-Muslims, the relationship between religion and
politics, violence and politics, and human rights. It was the closest
the group had come to a public announcement of its revamped ideology
and as such deserves some attention. 51

On the issue of non-Muslims, the statement asserts:

We the Muslim Brothers always say that we are advocates and not
judges, and thus we do not ever consider compelling anybody to change
his belief, in accordance with God’s words: “No compulsion in
religion.” Our position regarding our Christian brothers in Egypt and
the Arab world is explicit, established and known: they have the same
rights and duties as we do.. Whoever believes or acts otherwise is
forsaken by us. [This and all subsequent extracts from the Ikwan’s
democracy statement can be found in Rowaq Arabi, n. 51.]

As attacks by radical Islamist groups on the life and property of
Coptic Christians mounted in the mid-1990s, the Muslim Brothers were
pushed to enunciate a clear position on the status of Copts in their
ideal Muslim state. Their affirmations of Copts’ equal status ranged
from hagiographic narratives of Hasan al-Banna’s warm relations with
Copts to more substantive ideological constructions such as the one
quoted above. 52 The Ikhwan’s emphasis on Copts’ full citizenship
rights relies heavily on the pan-confessional concept of citizenship
developed by the moderate Islamist thinker and former judge, Tariq
al-Bishri. 53

On religion and politics, the Muslim Brothers’ statement asserts that
there is no ineluctable contradiction between vox populi and vox
dei-that is, popular sovereignty and a shari a-based system. “The
legitimacy of government in a Muslim society should be derived from
the consent and choice of the people.people have the right to invent
different systems, formulas, and techniques that suit their
conditions, which definitely would vary according to time, place, and
living conditions.” They restate the constitutionalist justification
for an organized opposition made in the 1994 pluralism statement and
devote considerable space to refuting the charge that they countenance

On human rights, the statement rather bombastically claims that “Islam
has been and still is the only intellectual and political model that
honors man and humanity, disregarding differences in language, color,
and race.” Perhaps as a nod to criticisms, the statement is also
addressed to Muslim Brothers, calling on each one “to open his mind
and heart to all people; he should not treat anybody haughtily or
insolently,” in effect admitting and vowing to spurn the Muslim
Brothers’ self-image as a political movement a cut above the rest.


The state’s targeting of the group’s middle-aged cadres in 1995 took a
serious toll, and the Society of Muslim Brothers began to show the
organizational stresses familiar to other Egyptian political parties
and from which the group had long considered itself exempt. The period
from 1995 to 2000, when the Muslim Brothers’ best minds were
imprisoned, witnessed the selection of a new, intransigent general
guide; factional disputes and devastating public splits; worrying
ideological reversals rather than renewals; and a seeming end to the
fruitful collaboration between older Muslim Brothers and the younger
generation that had made the society such a resilient and energetic
organization. The first indication of reversals came in August 1995,
when all opposition parties were on the cusp of signing a document of
“national concord” (al-wifaq al-wa[tdotu ]ani) outlining their united
stance on a basic minimum set of democratic rights ahead of the fall
parliamentary elections. The initiative fell apart when Ma mun
al-Hudaybi refused to sign the document and proffered his own
alternative plan filled with clauses on shari a. 54 Left in the hands
of the old guard, the common ideological front with other political
parties painstakingly built by the Muslim Brothers’ younger cadres was
unmistakably eroding.

Much as the Ikhwan claimed that, unlike other Egyptian groups, they
were an organization based on rules and not persons, the selection of
Mustafa Mashour as general guide in 1996 had a profound influence on
the group’s trajectory. The death of ailing fourth General Guide
Muhammad Hamed Abu al-Nasr in 1996 led to a quiet leadership handover
to Mustafa Mashour, the now infamous “cemetery pledge of allegiance”
(bay at al-maqabir) that evaded the Ikhwan’s bylaws. Immediately after
the burial of Abu al-Nasr, a tight-knit circle led by Guidance Bureau
members Ma mun al-Hudaybi and Mashour himself essentially anointed
Mashour to the highest executive post without election or consultation
with Shura Council members, citing as justification the security
clampdown on the last Shura Council meeting in 1995.

Mashour had been a member of the Muslim Brothers’ controversial
paramilitary wing, the Special Apparatus (al-Nizam al-Khas), formed in
1940; its establishment irrevocably altered the organization and bred
a cadre of hard-line militants steeped in the conspiratorial political
mind set of the 1940s. Mashour was imprisoned in 1954 and emerged in
the 1970s as a key decision-maker during the tenures of General Guides
al-Tilmissany and Abu al-Nasr. One Ikhwan analyst claims that these
two guides were deliberately chosen as mild-mannered fronts for the
real power residing in Mashour and a handful of ironfisted former
members of the Special Apparatus. 55

Tangible power dynamics rather than adherence to the group’s bylaws
also governed the role of Mashour’s confidant Ma mun al-Hudaybi. The
latter carved out a high-profile position for himself as “official
spokesman,” though this post is nonexistent in the Ikhwan’s bylaws.
Members rationalize that this was made necessary by General Guide Abu
al-Nasr’s failing health and Mustafa Mashour’s “personal
reasons”-namely, that “he was not very patient,” in the words of
Guidance Bureau member Abd al-Moneim Abu al-Futuh. 56 That might have
been a politic reference to a disastrous interview given by Mashour in
1997 in the midst of local council elections that Muslim Brothers
members were contesting. In a taped interview, Mashour maintained that
in an Islamic state, Coptic citizens should be barred from top posts
in the army to ensure complete loyalty in confronting hostile
Christian states, and a special tax (jizya) would be collected from
them in exchange for protection by the state. 57 The remarks did
nothing to help Muslim Brothers election candidates and cast serious
doubts on the Ikhwan’s ideological revisions. Al-Hudaybi wrote letters
of “clarification,” but attempts at damage control only reinforced
suspicions of a bigoted group masquerading as a tolerant movement. 58

Under Mashour and al-Hudaybi’s tenure, rumblings of organizational
discontent rose to the surface in an unprecedentedly public manner.
The most serious rift to beset the Ikhwan since the 1950s came in 1996
when the engineer Abu al-Ela Madi and several associates petitioned
the government’s Political Parties Committee to form the Center Party
(Hizb al-Wasat). The initiative was initially thought to be a Muslim
Brothers project fronted by its youthful members, but it soon became
all too clear that the Wasat was a group of Muslim Brothers breakaways
who felt muzzled by the Ikhwan’s rigid, top-down structure. As the
voluble Wasat member Essam Sultan asserted, there was pervasive
“organizational unemployment” within the Muslim Brothers, and plenty
of young cadres found themselves with no say in the running of the
organization. 59 Mashour and al-Hudaybi reacted furiously to Madi and
his associates’ project, threatening Muslim Brothers who supported the
Wasat with disciplinary action and dismissal and going so far as to
aid the government’s case against the fledgling group. The government
swiftly referred the Wasat founders to a military tribunal, the first
time in Egyptian history that citizens were tried for petitioning to
form a legal party, and the tribunal sentenced some of the founders to
prison terms. 60 The irony of old-guard members in both the state and
Ikhwan colluding to stifle the Wasat did not go unnoticed.

The Ikhwan-Wasat split received an enormous amount of local and
international press coverage and generated a veritable cottage
industry of Ikhwanology, endless media speculations over the
supposedly cut-throat politics and factionalism of the famously
tight-lipped organization. The row had all the makings of a choice
political scandal: the prominent Anglican scion Rafiq Habib is a
founding member of the Wasat; the dissident Essam Sultan’s wife is Ma
mun al-Hudaybi’s niece; famous figures from across the political
spectrum threw their weight behind the Wasat, from the Doha-based
Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi to the leftist doyen Muhammad Sid
Ahmed. Madi and his associates became darlings of the secular
intelligentsia and used the media to their advantage, accusing their
former leaders of dictatorial management and stale thinking, while
al-Hudaybi and other Ikhwan shrugged off the Wasat as a bunch of
media-hungry self-promoters bent on tarnishing the Muslim Brothers.

Less well noted is that the split coincided with a spate of similar
tribulations in virtually all Egyptian opposition parties, where
paralyzing disputes erupted between hoary party elders and restless
middle-aged activists with a fundamentally different vision of how to
play the electoral and regime games. Young activists had almost
completely abandoned the leftist Tagammu , so the dictatorial mien and
pro-government fawning of its secretary-general (now chairman) Rif at
al-Said came in for open criticism from seasoned party activists of
his own generation. Forty-something Nasserists broke off from their
party to form their own groups-notably, Hamdeen Sabahy’s Karama
(Dignity) movement. And soon, the new Wafd Party chairman, No man Gom
a was expelling and alienating members and MPs for daring to disagree
with him. 61 The Wasat episode heralded the normalization of the
Ikhwan into a typical Egyptian opposition party, experiencing the same
organizational ills other parties had been less adept at concealing.


As parliamentary elections approached in the fall of 2000, the
government struck again with a roundup of twenty would-be candidates
who were then tried and sentenced by a military tribunal in November
2000. Steering a median course between participating and lying low,
the Ikhwan fielded only seventy-five candidates, including Jihane
al-Halafawi. The group secured seventeen seats under the individual
candidacy system, more than all the opposition parties combined.
Several months later, the Muslim Brothers emerged victorious in
another electoral arena. In February 2001, in the first elections at
the bar association since Law 100/1993, a “national slate” put
together by the Ikhwan comprising eight Muslim Brothers, four NDP
members, a Nasserist, a Wafdist, and a Copt won elections to the
board. 62 The parliamentary and bar elections hinted at a revival of
the Ikhwan and its matchless electoral deal-making skills.

The unknown second-tier Muslim Brothers members turned parliamentary
deputies soon made a national name for themselves, adopting the
simultaneously confrontational and low-key style of their predecessors
in the 1987 Parliament. Not surprisingly, culture and identity issues
were among Ikhwan deputies’ main but certainly not sole concerns.
Muslim Brothers parliamentary deputy Gamal Heshmat caused a stir when
he filed a routine parliamentary inquiry regarding what he claimed
were state-funded racy novels. 63 His Muslim Brothers colleagues under
the rotunda decried the frivolity of the Miss Egypt beauty pageant at
a time that Palestinians were being brutalized by Israelis, they said,
and filed inquiries about such matters as the distribution of feminine
sanitary napkins in junior and high schools. Asked to explain the
rationale for the latter move, Muhammad Mursi, the spokesman for the
unofficial Muslim Brothers bloc, first said, “In our culture, these
matters are dealt with between a mother and her daughter in the
privacy of the home.” When asked for further clarification on why the
issue was worthy of being raised in Parliament, Mursi said, “We object
to the use of schools as advertising space for certain brands of
sanitary napkins. They were distributing only the American Always
brand; schools shouldn’t be used to market specific products to
students.” 64 Also similar to the 1987 Parliament, Ikhwan deputies
focused on cases of abuse by security forces and devoted considerable
time to their constituents’ bread-and-butter issues, unemployment
topping the list. 65

Authorities made clear their displeasure with at least one Ikhwan
parliamentarian, engaging in the novel mechanism of electoral
engineering after the 2000 vote to unseat the irksome Gamal Heshmat.
For the first time since 1991, the parliamentary leadership decided to
implement a court report on election irregularities, even though it
had rejected or ignored hundreds of such reports challenging NDP
deputies’ election. Heshmat was stripped of his parliamentary
membership, and in January 2003 the government orchestrated a rerun of
the election in his Damanhour district, installing 500 trucks filled
with riot police to prevent Heshmat’s supporters from voting. The
elections were a replay of the tampered with Alexandria byelections in
June 2002 orchestrating al-Halafawi’s defeat, although this time
Heshmat’s seat went to a Wafd member. 66

A former Nasserist and a physician by training, Heshmat blamed “the
media” for exaggerating his parliamentary activities to bring about a
crisis with the government. After his ouster, he went back to college
to obtain a postgraduate diploma in parliamentary studies and was
subsequently detained for several months and then released in 2004.
Before his detention, Heshmat insisted that he had been ousted from
Parliament because of his active parliamentary oversight activities:

The government couldn’t stand to have a representative who
actually listened to his constituents. When they saw that I as a
Muslim Brothers deputy didn’t speak in an offensive, preachy way but
used modern language, they feared this even more. In the two years I
was an MP, my thoroughly documented parliamentary questions and
requests for clarification led to the dismissal of six officials,
including a deputy minister of education in Beheira Province and a
supervisor of the Mubarak job-training program for college graduates.
This was the reason for my ouster. 67

As the seventeen turned-sixteen deputies were maintaining a visible
Ikhwan presence in Parliament, the cadres interned in 1995 emerged
from prison in 2000 and seamlessly assumed their leadership roles in
the Muslim Brothers organization, patching up the Wasat split and
reestablishing both ceremonial and substantive ties with other
political groups. The annual tradition of the Ikhwan’s Ramadan
if[tdotu ]ar at a five-star hotel was spruced up with noticeable women
and secular guests; in 2001, the American University in Cairo
sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, himself now a prison graduate, was
prominently seated at the head table next to Ma mun al-Hudaybi.
Conspicuously, the Muslim Brothers never missed a chance to cooperate
with state authorities, even as a military tribunal sentenced sixteen
more of their members to prison in July 2002. In the wake of the
American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the Muslim Brothers
coordinated with the government and organized a thousands-strong
antiwar rally, invoking their stock argument of preserving national
unity in the face of foreign occupation. Starting in April 2003,
however, security forces resumed detaining leading Muslim Brothers
figures in various provinces who had been active in managing antiwar
activities. 68

Incremental ideological articulation picked up where it had left off
in 1995. The released Muslim Brothers redoubled their efforts to
standardize and fine-tune the group’s ideological pronouncements,
restating their positions on democracy, women’s rights, and,
especially, Coptic rights, diligently working to erase Mashour’s 1997
comments from national memory. The physicians Essam al-Eryan and Abd
al-Moneim Abu al-Futuh, members of the Shura Council and Guidance
Bureau, respectively, emerged as the most visible spokesmen and
ideologues of the Ikhwan, granting interviews and penning articles in
a variety of non-Ikhwan media. In the pair’s pronouncements, ambiguous
issues became more concrete: the Ikhwan would respect a democratically
elected communist government; democracy is not simply compatible with
shura but “part of a common human heritage”; the Muslim Brothers would
unconditionally accept a Coptic president of Egypt elected in fair
elections; the issue of an Islamic state was already resolved since
“the constitution already says that Egypt is an Islamic state and that
Islamic shari a is the basis of legislation;” the Muslim Brothers
consider the constitution and the ballot box to be the ultimate
judges; women’s “hijab is merely a question of identity and belonging,
just as saris are for Indians”; the Muslim Brothers “engaged in
military activities when the country was under occupation. This is a
historical fact, but there is no room for its repetition in a country
governed by its own citizens, regardless of how divergent they may be
in opinions and attitudes.” 69

The passing of Mashour in 2002 and of al-Hudaybi in 2004, as the last
of the influential old guard, is the most significant opening for the
further transformation of the Society of Muslim Brothers. Indeed, as
the customary speculation raged over who would steer the group,
Guidance Bureau members for the first time announced to the public a
specific procedure for electing the coming general guide, 70 and the
circumstantial position of “official spokesman” carved out by
al-Hudaybi was scrapped. Also, the posts of two deputy General Guides
stipulated by the Ikhwan’s bylaws were filled with “younger”
generation Brothers, geologist Muhammad Habib and computer engineer
Khayrat al-Shater. As soon as he was elected in January 2004, Muhammad
Mahdi Akef reiterated the group’s desire to operate as a legal
political party, and in a dramatic gesture he convened a press
conference on 3 March 2004 to announce the Muslim Brothers’ vision of
a republican, civil government bound by law. Aside from the usual
demand for applying shari a, Akef’s program did not depart in any
meaningful sense from every demand of the Egyptian opposition over the
past thirty years. Immediately, Interior Minister Habib al-Adli stated
that as an illegal organization the Muslim Brothers had no business
floating programs and rebuked the press syndicate for offering Akef a
venue. 71

For the first time, ideas developed by the comparatively young members
of the Muslim Brothers were officially and publicly adopted by their
general guide. Akef’s message was intended for several audiences: the
Egyptian government; opposition parties and independent intellectuals;
and all-important foreign parties demanding Arab reform, principally
the Bush administration and its “Greater Middle East Initiative.” To
American and European policymakers, Akef’s announcement was a riposte
to government claims that Islamists constitute the most potent danger
to the future of the Arab world. It also signaled an end to the
entrenched tradition jealously guarded by Arab governments of claiming
all-knowing tutelage over their citizens and their exclusive
representation abroad. To other Egyptian interlocutors, it was a
message that the Muslim Brothers and they are in one camp, speak the
same constitutionalist language, agree on the foundational issue of
the division and rotation of political powers, and can be counted on
in any future common initiatives.

Above all, Akef’s announcement was self-preservation through
self-clarification, an attempt to heal the rift between old and new
generations and reestablish a coherent, revamped ideological line for
the group’s adherents and potential members. Muslim Brothers leaders’
increasingly transparent and forthcoming imparting of information on
decision-making procedures is directed in the main to potential
members, a reassurance that decisions are made relying not on the
seniority principle or a prison stint but the modern electoral
mechanism of one man, one vote. “Of course, we’re a part of Egyptian
society which is naturally very paternalistic, but the truth is that
the Murshid has only one vote, no more.” 72


Setting out to win Egyptian hearts and minds for an austere Islamic
state and society, Hasan al-Banna’s Society of Muslim Brothers was
instead irrevocably transformed into a flexible political party that
is highly responsive to the unforgiving calculus of electoral
politics. The Muslim Brothers have left no political opportunity
untapped, plunging with gusto into the vote-seeking game, pushing
other political forces and the state to take seriously what began as a
farcical margin of electoral competition in the 1970s. The case of the
Ikhwan confirms that it is the institutional rules of participation
rather than the commandments of ideology that motivate political
parties. Even the most ideologically committed and organizationally
stalwart parties are transformed in the process of interacting with
competitors, citizens, and the state. Ideology and organization bow to
the terms of participation.

The ghost of Roberto Michels looms large over the Ikhwan’s trajectory,
and his moralized critique is echoed by many of their critics: “Party
life involves strange moral and intellectual sacrifices.” 73 Ayman
al-Zawahiri, a leading member of the Egyptian Jihad group, right-hand
man to Osama bin Laden, and fierce critic of the Ikhwan, rues:

The Ikhwan participate in elections in Egypt, Jordan, Sudan,
Kuwait, Algeria, Syria, and other Muslim lands governed by infidel
governments. What is truly regrettable is the Ikhwan’s rallying of
thousands of duped Muslim youth in voter queues before ballot boxes
instead of lining them up to fight in the cause of Allah. They have
substituted Allah’s bidding with the conditions and regimes of the
infidels. 74

Yet as this article has argued, regardless of moral valuations, the
rules of political engagement hold powerful sway over the behavior and
make-up of political actors. There is no clearer evidence of this than
the recent desire of radical Islamist groups in Egypt to morph into
legal political parties partaking of the electoral game, stunted and
distorted as that game is in authoritarian Egypt. 75

Yet it behooves us to note that the Ikhwan are not losing ideological
uniqueness and becoming a “catch-all” party. As their behavior in the
2000 Parliament indicates, they still grant culture and identity
issues pride of place in their platform, with the caveat that as the
culture wars rage on in Egypt, particularly over Americanized
globalization, the Ikhwan’s gripes over the moral turpitude of
Egyptian culture are sounding less and less distinctive. 76 Unlike
other Egyptian organizations-notably, opposition parties and advocacy
nongovernmental organizations-the Ikhwan seem to have successfully
managed and formalized, if not resolved, different currents of opinion
within their group, so that the high-profile expulsions and dissension
from the party leader’s line still routine in other Egyptian parties
are now less visible among the Ikhwan, despite the sensationalism with
which the press continues to speculate over struggles for power within
the group’s ranks.

The Ikhwan’s evolution holds an important lesson for theories of party
transformation developed out of cases in advanced industrialized
democracies. Electoral authoritarian regimes such as Egypt’s show that
party adaptation is still possible and even considerable, but not due
solely to damaging losses at the ballot box. Instead, parties in
electoral authoritarian regimes adapt to fend off state repression and
maintain their organizational existence. It is not Downsian vote
seeking but, rather, Michels’s self-preservation that is the objective
of a party in an authoritarian regime, self-preservation defined
broadly to include jockeying for influence and relevance with the
public and influential international actors. If the Ikhwan have
responded with such flexibility to the threats and opportunities of
their authoritarian environment, one can speculate how much more they
would acclimate themselves to the rigors of free and open electoral
politics undistorted by repression.

The trajectory of the Egyptian Ikhwan urges a return to empirical
studies of Islamist groups and their interaction with their political
contexts, informed by the accumulated knowledge on party behavior in
19th- and 20th-century advanced industrialized democracies. It is by
no means a law that parties adapt or moderate their platforms in
response to electoral participation, and there are well-known cases of
reversals or adoption of more extreme ideological and policy
positions. 77 But it is striking how a majority of party organisms,
regardless of ideology, modulate their organizational and ideological
features to align with changing environmental cues and incentives.
Islamist parties are no exception. 78

Author’s note: I thank Professor Juan Cole and the anonymous IJMES
reviewers for their detailed and very helpful comments.


1) For a description of the byelections, see Abdalla Hasan, “Democracy
Died Today,” Cairo Times, 4- 10 July 2002.

2) I use the terms “Society of Muslim Brothers,” “Muslim Brothers,”
and “Ikhwan” interchangeably in this article. The ubiquitous “Muslim
Brotherhood” is a glaring but persistent mistranslation, reinforcing
mystification of the Ikhwan’s genesis and development. Issues of
translation are more than semantic. The sociologist Bryan Turner
proclaims, “Indeed, the word brotherhood itself indicates the
presence, in Weber’s terms, of closed/communal ties within the
open/associational world of state arrangements”: Bryan Turner, “Islam,
Civil Society, and Citizenship: Reflections on the Sociology of
Citizenship and Islamic Studies,” in Citizenship and the State in the
Middle East: Approaches and Applications, ed. Nils Butenschon
(Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2000), 28-48.
Arabic-speaking scholars are not immune from mistranslation. The
highest post of the Muslim Brothers, the general guide (al-murshid al-
amm), is rendered ominously the “Grand Master” in Larbi Sadiki, The
Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (New
York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 358.

3) This definition is a median between purely procedural and
substantive components of democracy. See Charles Tilly, Stories,
Identities, and Political Change (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield,
2002), 94.

4) Seymour Martin Lipset “Introduction,” in Robert Michels, Political
Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern
Democracy (New York: Free Press, 1962), 19.

5) Otto Kirchheimer, “The Transformation of the Western European Party
Systems,” in Political Parties and Political Development, ed. Joseph
LaPalombara and Myron Weiner (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
Press, 1966), 177-200. Kirchheimer was influenced by Anthony Downs’s
theory of parties as vote-maximizing machines: Anthony Downs, An
Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1957).

6) Adam Przeworski and John Sprague, Paper Stones: A History of
Electoral Socialism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986).

7) Stathis N. Kalyvas, “Commitment Problems in Religious Democracies:
The Case of Religious Parties,” Comparative Politics 32, 4 (2000): 379-98.

8) Scott Mainwaring, “Party Objectives in Authoritarian Regimes with
Elections or Fragile Democracies: A Dual Game,” in Christian Democracy
in Latin America: Electoral Competition and Regime Conflicts, ed.
Scott Mainwaring and Timothy Scully (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford
University Press, 2003), 18.

9) Ibid., 3-29.

10) Brynjar Lia, The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Rise
of an Islamic Mass Movement 1928-1942 (Reading: Ithaca Press, 1998).

11) Majmu at al-rasa il al-Imam al-Shahid Hasan al-Banna (The
Collected Epistles of the Martyred Imam Hasan al-Banna) (Beirut: Dar
al-Hadara al-Islamiyya, 1981), 46-47.

12) Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1993), 236, 245.

13) Lia, Muslim Brothers in Egypt, 249.

14) Mitchell, Muslim Brothers, 307-13.

15) The program is reprinted in Mahmud Abd al-Halim, al-Ikhwan
al-Muslimun: ru ya min al-dakhil (The Muslim Brothers: An Inside View)
(Alexandria: Dar al-Da wa, 1985), 118-25.

16) See the Ikhwan’s bylaws, reprinted in Abdalla al-Nafisi, ed.,
al-Haraka al-islamiyya: ru ya mustaqbaliyya (The Islamist Movement: A
Future-Oriented View) (Cairo: Maktabat Madbuli, 1989), 401-16.

17) Abd al-Moneim Abu al-Futuh, member of the Guidance Bureau,
interview with the author, Cairo, 24 June 2003. Al-Futuh expressed
regret that no term limits were set and indicated that this would be
the first order of business in upcoming amendments to the statute.

18) Umar al-Tilmissany, Dhikrayat la mudhakkirat (Memories Not
Memoirs) (al-Qahira: Dar al-Tiba a wa al-Nashr al-Islamiyya, 1985), 212.

19) Ibid., 197.

20) Ibid., 22.

21) For a fine-grained analysis of the numerous additional
restrictions of the law, including gerrymandering, see Hasanayn Tawfiq
Ibrahim and Hoda Raghib Awad, al-Dawr al-siyasi li-Jama at al-Ikhwan
al-Muslimin fi dhil al-ta addudiyya al-siyasiyya al-muqayyada fi misr
(The Political Role of the Society of Muslim Brothers in the Context
of Restricted Political Pluralism in Egypt) (Cairo: Markaz al-Mahrusa,
1996), 44-60.

22) Ibid., 196.

23) For more detail, see ibid., 191-217.

24) The program is reprinted in Ahmad Abdalla, ed., al-Intikhabat
al-barlamaniyya fi misr: dars intikhabat 1987 (Parliamentary Elections
in Egypt: The Lesson of the 1987 Elections) (Cairo: Markaz al-Buhuth
al-Arabiyya, 1990), 305-17.

25) Al-Jama at al-Islamiyya statement, reprinted in ibid., 318-20.

26) Cited in Tawfiq Yusuf al-Wa i, al-Fikr al-siyasi al-mu asir inda
al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin (The Muslim Brothers’ Contemporary Political
Thought) (Kuwait: Maktabat al-Manar al-Islamiyya, 2001), 165.

27) See Salaheddin Hafez, “Our Constitution. Put to the Test!”
al-Ahram, 6 April 1987, 13.

28) For the minutes of parliamentary plenary sessions featuring the
Ikhwan, see Mohsen Rady, al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun taht qubbat al-barlaman
(The Muslim Brothers under the Parliamentary Rotunda), 2 vols. (Cairo:
Dar al-Tawzi wa al-Nashr al-Islamiyya, 1990). For an analysis of
Ikhwan MPs’ parliamentary conduct, see Ibrahim and Awad, al-Dawr
al-siyasi, 361-406.

29) Ammar Ali Hasan, “Ada al-tahaluf al-islami fi majlis al-sha b
khilal al-fasl al-tashri i al-khamis: dirasa fi al-riqaba
al-barlamaniya” (The Performance of the Islamist Alliance in the Fifth
Legislative Session of Parliament: A Study in Parliamentary
Oversight), in al-Tatawwur al-siyasi fi misr 1982-1992 (Political
Development in Egypt 1982-1992), ed. Muhammad Kharbush (Cairo: Markaz
al-Buhuth wa-l-Dirasat al-Siyasiyya, 1994), 133-60.

30) Bertus Hendriks, “Egypt’s New Political Map,” Middle East Report
(July-August 1987): 23-30.

31) Lawyers and journalists upended that tradition in their
transformative elections of 2001 and 2003, voting in the Nasserist
activists Sameh Ashour as chairman of the bar and Galal Aref as
chairman of the journalists’ union. In a bid at cooptation, both were
appointed to the government’s National Human Rights Council in January

32) For specifics, see Amani Qandil, al-Mujtama al-madani fi misr fi
matla alfiyya jadida (Civil Society in Egypt at the Dawn of a New
Millenium) (Cairo: Markaz al-Dirasat al-Siyasiyya wa-l-Istratijiyya
bi-l-Ahram, 2000), 31.

33) For the “takeover” view, see Turner, “Islam, Civil Society, and
Citizenship,” 47; Sheri Berman, “Islamism, Revolution, and Civil
Society,” Perspectives on Politics 1, 2 (2003): 257-72; Ahmad Husein
Hasan, al-Su ud al-siyasi al-islami dakhil al-niqabat al-mihaniyya
(The Islamist Political Rise in the Professional Associations) (Cairo:
al-Dar al-Thaqafiyya li-l-Nashr, 2000).

34) Amani Qandil, “al-Tayar al-islami dakhil jam at al-masalih fi
misr” (The Islamist Trend in Egyptian Interest Groups), Qadaya
fikriyya (October 1989): 162-68. See also Carrie Rosefsky Wickham,
Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt
(New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), chap. 8.

35) John Waterbury, “Democracy without Democrats? The Potential for
Political Liberalization in the Middle East,” in Democracy without
Democrats? The Renewal of Politics in the Muslim World, ed. Ghassan
Salame (London: I. B. Tauris, 1994), 45.

36) As Fareed Zakaria opines in “How to Save the Arab World,”
Newsweek, 24 December 2001, 24.

37) Hala Mustafa, member of the NDP Policies Secretariat, is a
consistent exponent of this view: see Hala Mustafa, “Building Arab
Democracy,” Washington Post, 18 November 2003.

38) Najib Ghadbian, Democratization and the Islamist Challenge in the
Arab World (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997), 76.

39) For a detailed discussion of the law and its 1995 amendments, see
Abdalla Khalil, Azmat Niqabat al-Muhamin (The Crisis of the Bar
Association) (Cairo: Markaz al-Qahira li-Dirasat Huquq al-Insan,
1999), 108-21.

40) See three such press releases in Muhammad Muru, al-Haraka
al-Islamiyya fi misr min 1928 ila 1993 (The Islamist Movement in Egypt
from 1928 to 1993) (Cairo: al-Dar al-Misriyya li-l-Nashr wa al-Tawzi ,
1994), 199-201. The Ikhwan’s brokerage is reported in Robert Fisk,
“Deal Silences the Cairo Hard Men,” The Independent, 11 September 1994.

41) Ramadan was not successful. Amani Qandil, al-Dawr al-siyasi
li-jama at al-masalih fi misr (The Political Role of Interest Groups
in Egypt) (Cairo: Markaz al-Dirasat al-Siyasiyya wa-l-Istratijiyya
bi-l-Ahram, 1996), 72.

42) Al-Wa i, al-Fikr al-siyasi al-mu asir, 253.

43) Al-Tilmissany, Dhikrayat, 21.

44) Jihane al-Halafawi, interview with the author, Alexandria, 11 June

45) The statement is reproduced in al-Wa i, al-Fikr al-siyasi al-mu
asir, 127-32.

46) Quoted in “The Doctor Is Out,” Cairo Times, 9-22 March 2000,
14-16. The statement on pluralism is reprinted in al-Wa i, al-Fikr
al-siyasi al-mu asir,127-32.

47) Majmu at al-rasa il al-Imam al-Shahid, 326.

48) Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Min fiqh al-dawla fi al-Islam: makanatiha, tabi
atiha, mawifuha min al-dimuqratiyya wa-l-ta addudiyya wa-l-mar awa
ghayr al-muslimin (On the Theory of the State in Islam: Its Role,
Characteristics, Nature and Positions on Democracy, Pluralism, Women,
and Non-Muslims) (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1997), 157.

49) Mary Anne Weaver, A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey through the World
of Militant Islam (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), 165;
emphasis in original. For a recent interview with Mubarak in which he
expressed similar sentiments, see “Democracy: Be Careful What You Wish
For,” Washington Post, 23 March 2003.

50) See the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), Democracy
Jeopardized: Nobody Passed the Elections: The EOHR’s Account of the
1995 Egyptian Parliamentary Elections (Cairo: EOHR, 1996).

51) The complete 1995 statement is reprinted in Rowaq Arabi, January
1997, 139-43.

52) The Islamist writer and Muslim Brothers sympathizer Fahmi Huwaydi
waxes poetic about al-Banna’s close ties to Coptic figures such as MP
Louis Vanos and prominent Coptic scion Makram Ebeid: Fahmi Huwaydi,
al-Islam wa-l-dimuqratiyya (Islam and Democracy) (Cairo: al-Ahram
li-l-Tawzi wa-l-Nashr, 1993), 278-79.

53) See his seminal al-Muslimun wa-l-aqbat fi itar al-jama a
al-wataniyya (Muslims and Copts in the National Community), 2nd ed.
(Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 1988). For analysis of Bishri’s concept of
citizenship, see Leonard Binder, Islamic Liberalism: A Critique of
Development Ideologies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988),

54) Nabil Abd al-Fattah, ed., Taqrir al-hala al-diniyya fi misr (Egypt
State of Religion Report), 5th ed. (Cairo: Markaz al-Dirasat
al-Siyasiyya wa-l-Istratijiyya bi-l-Ahram, 1997), 171.

55) Abdalla al-Nafisi, “al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun fi misr: al-tajriba
wa-l-khata ” (The Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Experience and the
Mistake,” in al-Haraka al-islamiyya: ru ya mustaqbaliyya, 234-39.

56) Abu al-Futuh, interview.

57) The journalist Khaled Dawoud then handed the tape to the
government weekly tabloid Ruz al-Yusuf, a leading anti-Muslim Brothers
mouthpiece, which published the interview as “The Latest Invention of
the Muslim Brothers: Kick Them Out of the Army!” Ruz al-Yusuf, 14
April 1997, 22-23.

58) Ahmad Hamroush, “A General Guide in Need of Guidance!” Ruz
al-Yusuf, 28 April 1997.

59) Sultan interviewed by Mahmoud Sadeq, al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun:
al-azma wa-l-tashattut (The Muslim Brothers: Crisis and Division)
(Cairo: Akhbar al-Yawm, 2002), 181-92.

60) Anthony Shadid, Legacy of the Prophet: Depots, Democrats, and the
New Politics of Islam (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2002), 253-71.
See also Tal at Rumeih, al-Wasat wa-l-Ikhwan (The Wasat and the
Brothers) (Cairo: Markaz Yafa li-l-Dirasat wa-l-Nashr, 1997).

61) Paul Schemm and Simon Apiku, “The Battle of the Generations in
Egypt’s Opposition,” Middle East Times, 23 August 1998. Muhammad
Hamdi, “Egyptian Parties Aflame with Splits,” al-Ahram al-arabi, 20
November 1999. In June 2002, The Tagammu politburo member Abd
al-Ghaffar Shukr wrote a position paper titled, “Toward a Serious and
Sincere Discussion of the Future of Tagammu ,” calling for a thorough
overhaul of the party’s personalized leadership style and collusion
with the government: Abd al-Ghaffar Shukr, interview with the author,
Cairo, 9 July 2003.

62) Voter turnout was 49.7 percent: “Springtime of the Syndicate,”
Cairo Times, 1-14 March 2001.

63) “We’re Innocent, Your Honor,” Cairo Times, 18-24 January 2001.

64) Muhammad Mursi, interview with the author, Cairo, 26 June 2002.

65) For a roundup of Parliament’s first season, including the Muslim
Brothers deputies’ performance, see “Arisen,” Cairo Times, 19-25 July

66) See “Hard Times for Heshmat,” al-Ahram Weekly, 19-25 December
2002; and “Brotherhood Barred at the Poll,” al-Ahram Weekly, 16-22
January 2003.

67) Gamal Heshmat, interview with the author, Cairo, 24 June 2003.

68) “Jilted Brothers,” Cairo Times, 24-30 April 2003.

69) The statements of Eryan and al-Futuh are culled from the following
sources: “Victory in defeat,” Cairo Times, 10-16 February 2000;
interviews with Eryan and al-Futuh in Cairo Times, 9-22 March 2000 and
18- 24 January 2001, respectively; a two-part interview with al-Futuh
in al-Arabi, 28 September 2003 and 5 October 2003; Eryan, “The Reform
That Needs to be Realized,” al-Dimuqratiyya 4, 13 (2004): 111-14;
al-Futuh, “The Islamic Path to Reform,” al-Ahram Weekly, 5-11 February

70) Abdul Raheem Ali, “Secret Vote to Elect Muslim Brotherhood
Leader,” Islam Online, 12 January 2004. Available at:

71) For a lucid analysis, see Amr Elchoubaki, “Brotherly Gesture?”
al-Ahram Weekly, 11-17 March 2004.

72) Abd al-Moneim Abu al-Futuh, interview with the author, Cairo,
January 2004.

73) Michels, Political Parties, 362.

74) Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Hasad al-murr: al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun fi
sittin amman (Bitter Harvest: The Muslim Brothers in Sixty Years)
(n.p.: Dar al-Bayareq, 1999), 25.

75) Diaa Rashwan, “Islamists Crash the Party,” al-Ahram Weekly, 16-22
September 1999.

76) For an outraged critique of the moral depravity of Egyptian
television, see the column by the secular economist Gouda Abd
al-Khaleq in the leftist al-Ahali, 18 November 2003.

77) Pippa Norris and Joni Lovenduski, “Why Parties Fail to Learn:
Electoral Defeat, Selective Perception and British Party Politics,”
Party Politics 10 (2004): 85-104. Katrina Burgess and Steven Levitsky,
“Explaining Populist Party Adaptation in Latin America,” Comparative
Political Studies 36 (2003): 881-911.

78) For a comparison of the effects of electoral participation on the
“political learning” of Islamists in Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt,
Palestine, Qatar, and Turkey, see James Piscatori, Islam, Islamists,
and the Electoral Principle in the Middle East (Leiden: International
Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, 2000).