The Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt

The Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt

Last month President George W Bush told the Arab world to democratise and allow opposition parties to take part in the political process. It was a pointed remark to make in Egypt, where the main opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been banned for 50 years.


This week, the history of the Muslim Brotherhood: where it came from, why it has been banned and just what it stands for today.




Tariq Ramadan

Professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University and grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood


Gilles Kepel

Professor and Chair of Middle East Studies at Institute of Political Science in Paris.


Joshua Stacher

Doctoral Fellow at Syracuse University specialising in authoritarian regimes in the

Middle East.


Matthias Küntzel

German author and a political scientist. He is a research associate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.



Annabelle Quince



Annabelle Quince


Annabelle Quince: Welcome to Rear Vision here on ABC Radio National. I”m Annabelle Quince, and this week a look at the Muslim Brotherhood.

Tony Eastley: The US President, George W. Bush has ended what”s likely to be his last tour to the Middle East, with a blunt speech to Arab leaders, telling them to embrace democracy and stop jailing their political opponents.

George W. Bush: Too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted with one leader in power and the opposition in jail.

Ben Knight: It was a pointed remark to make in Egypt, where the main opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, has been banned and hundreds of its members locked up, or barred from standing in elections.

David Hardaker: The question now in Cairo is this: Is it time to bring in from the cold the region”s largest Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood?

Annabelle Quince: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is the oldest and arguably the most influential Islamic organisation in the world. For over 50 years it has been banned and its members persecuted, and yet its influence and membership continues to grow. Its inspired organisations like Hamas in Palestine, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

If Egypt does move towards democracy, as President Bush suggested last month, the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to become one of the region”s major powerbrokers.

In Rear Vision today we”re taking a look at the Muslim Brotherhood, where it came from, why it”s been banned, and just what it stands for today.

Joshua Stacher is a Doctoral Fellow at Syracuse University. He specialises in the politics of Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. He argues that the Brotherhood began as an anti-colonial movement in the 1920s, but quickly developed into a social movement.

Joshua Stacher: The Muslim Brotherhood is a product of the inter-war period between World War I and World War II. You have the United Kingdom controlling the country economically and securitywise, you have large landed elites as well as the King being the political agents of the British Empire in Egypt. So despite Egypt receiving formal independence in 1922, for all intents and purposes the British controlled everything that was economically important in the country, mainly being the Suez Canal.

The emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which what we”re talking about is a large social movement; it”s founded in 1928 by a schoolteacher, called Hassan al Banna. Hassan al Banna grows up in the rural government in the delta, called Buhayra, which is pretty close to Alexandria. At the age of 22, is living in Suez on the Canal Zone, and watching the British control his country, and watching the sort of colonial agents take out all the wealth of Egypt. Hassan al Banna decides that he”s going to develop a social movement that”s an alternative to the British occupation.

Annabelle Quince: According to Gilles Kepel, Professor and Chair of Middle East Studies at the Institute of Political Science in Paris, al-Banna and the Muslim Brotherhood also wanted to re-establish Islamic values in Egypt.

Gilles Kepel: In the late 1920s the Middle East was experiencing a very peculiar moment, because this was the time when the Ottoman Empire had just disappeared and when Ataturk in Turkey dissolved the Caliphate and the Sultanate in 1924, then the Muslim world was left without any actual political reference, and that allowed for a number of movements, the Muslim Brothers being one of them, but then you also had something called the Caliphate Movement in Muslim India, that tried to fill the vacuum, al-ikhwân al-muslimûn, or the Society of the Muslim Brothers, was founded in 1928 by a schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna. His aim was to bring together Muslim Egyptians, in order not only to gain independence for Egypt from British domination, but he also insisted that the future Egyptian independent Egyptian state should be based on Sharia. That is to say on the implementation of a law of God, that is to say that the source of its legislation should be in the Qur”an in the sacred text of Islam in the Sunna, the traditions of the prophet in the Islamic jurisprudence per se.

Tariq Ramadan: I think that he decided from the beginning, he said, “I”m not going to talk within the mosque; I”m going to talk within the streets, and in front of coffee and restaurants, and just to reach the average ordinary Egyptian Muslim.

Annabelle Quince: Tariq Ramadan, the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, and Professor of Islamic Studies at Oxford University, argues that the two things that made his grandfather unique were the fact that he was not part of the Islamic establishment, and his focus on grassroot issues like education and social welfare.

Tariq Ramadan: So he started from the very beginning something which was a new methodology as the way he was preaching towards the people focusing on essential issues as to what it means to be a Muslim. So this was the very beginning. And he was following in the footsteps of Mohamad Adu. Mohamad Adu had this idea that we need to go towards education and education is the key factor to changing the society and the mentality.

Annabelle Quince: Through the 1930s and “40s, while Britain remained the main political and economic force in Egypt, the Brotherhood grew rapidly. They set up their own hospitals, clinics and pharmacies; and set up schools offering both technical and academic courses for boys and girls. And like many other political parties in Egypt at the time, they also set up their own para-military wing.

Gilles Kepel: Well success was a combination of both Banna”s immense charisma and the organisation that was largely modelled on authoritarian parties of 1920s and 1930s, whether they be Fascists or Communist at the time. It was organised on the systems of cells, which were called families, and then you had regions, and then the general command, different groups that were in charge of propaganda, of education, of benevolent work and charities, and also a military wing, or a special branch which was in charge of organising demonstrations and fighting against other movements on the Egyptian sidewalks if you wish, and something which actually would later on get some autonomy and be incriminated for a number of violent activities in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Joshua Stacher: Many critics of the Muslim Brotherhood are very quick to point out that the Muslim Brotherhood had a paramilitary wing. This is true, they did have a paramilitary wing and they did carry out violent attacks particularly in the “30s and in the “40s. And all that will culminate in the assassination of a sitting Egyptian Prime Minister, Nuqrashi, in 1948 or 1949. Now while this is completely true, the fact of the matter is, almost every single Egyptian political party and political wing within the Egyptian political establishment from the very left to the very right all had paramilitary wings.

Annabelle Quince: By 1948 the Muslim Brotherhood was seen as a threat, by the Egyptian elite. In December, the government ordered the dissolution of the Brotherhood. Many members were arrested an al-Banna was kept under close police surveillance. One brother responded to the crackdown by assassinating the Egyptian Prime Minister, Nuqrashi. Hassan al-Banna condemned the assassination and the use of violence, but two weeks later, al-Banna was also killed.

Gilles Kepel: They did not really shun away from violence. They were not obsessed with violence, but they considered that violence could be used when necessary, and also when violence was used against them, because in 1949 Hassan al-Banna, the Supreme Leader or the Supreme Guide, was assassinated in all probabilities by King Farouk”s Secret Police.

Annabelle Quince: The death of Hassan al-Banna threw the Muslim Brotherhood into disarray.

Gilles Kepel: Well Banna in a way was a personality that was able to encompass almost everything under his wing, from the radical and the violent militants who would be in the secret apparatus, to the other members of the organisation that were in close contact with the palace, and with King Farouk. So he managed to have a rather wide constituency that was conflicting in terms of internecine fights but he was able to encompass the two. After he died, then the whole consensus sort of exploded, and on the one hand the official supreme guide, successor Hassan al-Banna, whose name was Hassan al-Huidaybi, was much weaker and he was really unable to rein in the radicals.

Annabelle Quince: Today we”re looking at the history of the largest opposition group in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood also played a critical role in politics of the region, sending members to fight alongside the Arab armies in the war against the newly-formed State of Israel. Matthias Kuntzel is a political scientist from Hamburg, Germany.

Matthias Kuntzel: and it”s very interesting to see their influence in fighting Israel when Israel was founded. They were of course very much against the petition proposal of the United Nations, of November 1947, they called it a tool of the Jews of the worldwide Jewish conspiracy against them, and they very much mobilised for the war against the very newest State of Israel. And as we know, the Arab armies lost this war, and one of the regards of this loss was that Nasser came to power in Egypt in the year 1952.

Annabelle Quince: The military coup led by Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1952 ended the rule of King Farouk, and diminished British influence in Egypt. Nasser and the Brotherhood had been allies in the years before the coup, united in their opposition to the British and to the creation of the State of Israel. In the years after the coup, this alliance remained intact, but this changed in 1954.

Matthias Kuntzel: Then the development took a turn, because Nasser wanted to go along with the Soviets while the Muslim Brotherhood of course couldn”t stand this kind of connection. So they made an attempt on his life as they tried to kill Nasser, and then Nasser started to really torture and imprison and subjugate the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Joshua Stacher: In 1954 somebody who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood shoots a couple of shots at Nasser in the Manshi Square of Alexandria while he”s giving a speech, and this was one of the great internal coups of Gemal Abdul Nasser. Somebody comes to kind of shoot him at point-blank range, they miss, Nasser comes back unscathed, he delivers his address, he has this sort of aura of having some sort of like shield around him, so like all good dictators, what Nasser was trying to do was eliminate any potential threats on the ground. And of course the Muslim Brotherhood was the largest threat to him potentially. So after the failed assassination attempt in 1954, which we still don”t know if it was sanctioned around leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood or not, I can”t imagine that there”s much evidence to suggest that it was, given the fact of just how organisationally chaotic the Brotherhood was at the time. What we end up seeing is the “54 failed assassination becomes a pretext for the regime to really go after the Muslim Brotherhood. And Nasser launches a campaign that will last for 15, 20 years, where they are trying to exterminate from the face of the face of the earth, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Matthias Kuntzel: There were two consequences of this very important step. One consequence was that many, many members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt emigrated into other Muslim countries in the Arab region, for example, Saudi Arabia, and the other effect was that those members who got imprisoned in Egypt and got tortured, they had a real procedure of radicalization within the prisons. Sayyid Qutb was the most famous and most important prisoner during those years, and he wrote his very radical scripts during those years, and now he saw in every Muslim like Nasser a kind of enemy who has to be killed and he really radicalised the whole concept of Islamism.

Annabelle Quince: Sayyid Qutb is considered the father of radical Islam. He believed that Muslim societies were no longer truly Islamic and that they must be transformed by violent revolution. Another section of the Brotherhood, however, renounced violence in prison and reaffirmed the path of compromise set out by Hassan al-Banna.

Gilles Kepel: Sayyid Qutb built on the Brothers original core ideology but he pushed it much further, whereas Banna himself was more of a man of political compromise, and he was not really interested in seizing power, much more influencing it. So from then on, there was a split in Muslim Brothers” ideology which we still see today. The radical wing spearheaded by Qutb and his successors after he was hanged in 1966, and on the other hand the Brothers remained faithful to Hassan Isma”il al-Hudaybi, the second supreme guide”s way, which was trying to build the organisation to do as much benevolent work and the like, as possible, but they were trying to widen their constituency, but they would not confront the powers that be directly. They would rather consider that elections were the solution.

Annabelle Quince: It wasn”t until Nasser“s death in 1970 and the coming to power of Anwar Sadat that the repression of the Muslim Brotherhood eased.

Gilles Kepel: When Nasser died in 1970, and when his successor, Anwar Sadat came to power, Sadat was threatened by the Left, and so he freed the Brothers from their jails and their concentration camps, allowed those who were in exile to come back and he wanted to some extent, to co-opt the Brothers into the system. He also displayed of his signs of piety, called himself the Believing President, al-Mu”min in Arabic, and particularly on university campuses, they were given a free hand to develop their activities so as to nip the Leftist in the bud, to a large extent. And that allowed them to develop under the shadow of the State until Sadat made peace with Israel and made his famous trip to Jerusalem in November 1977 and that was when they parted company with him, and they started to attack him and ultimately the radical elements in the Brothers, the ones who were outside the Muslim Brotherhood organisation, but they traced back to Qutb”s ideology, ultimately killed him in the military parade in October 1981.

Anwar Sadat: Let there be no more war or bloodshed between Arabs and the Israelis.


Newsreader: Egypt“s President Sadat assassinated. As you heard, one of the architects of the Middle East peace process, Egypt”s President Sadat who was hit in a hail of machinegun bullets, when reviewing a military parade in Cairo earlier today.

Annabelle Quince: The Muslim Brotherhood disbanded its military wing in the 1960s, and since then, no violence has been committed in its name. But suspicion still lingers about their connection with more radical groups, such as the one that assassinated Sadat 25 years ago.

Hosni Mubarak became President after Sadat”s death and has remained in power ever since. The Muslim Brotherhood”s relationship with the Mubarak government is somewhat contradictory. They are tolerated, but officially they are illegal and frequently subject to arrest.

Gilles Kepel: Well nowadays they are the most significant part of the opposition to Mubarak”s regime and they are halfway between co-optation and repression, and to a large extent the political system has already accepted a number of their demands for the re-Islamisation of society, nevertheless, Egypt remains in the hands of the military establishment which has patched an alliance with the entrepreneurial class and the Brothers, because they also nowadays represent some sort of upwardly mobile Egyptian middle class, are perceived as a threat not only on the political but also on the social level. And a number of them were elected to parliament, ironically enough under American pressure on the aftermath of 9/11 but routinely their members are now being rounded up and detained and there is a constant pressure which is exerted on them.

Annabelle Quince: Despite being banned from standing for election, in 2005 a number of Muslim Brothers stood as independent candidates for the Egyptian parliament.

Reporter: Students, doctors lawyers, Islamic groups, you name it, they”re here. Their rallying cry is “Kefaya”, “Enough”. Enough of President Hosni Mubarak and enough of 24 years of a State of Emergency.

Hosni Mubarak has been Egypt“s uncontested President for nearly a quarter of a century and has been a valuable ally for the United States. It donates $2-billion a year to Egypt. In return, the President has been a stable friend in a hostile neighbourhood.

Condoleezza Rice: For sixty years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.

Joshua Stacher: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is the oldest and most influential Islamist organisation in the Arab world. I think Hezbollah, I think Hamas, look at the Muslim Brotherhood as a sort of model of organisation. How do they get their social outreach done? How do they arrange their political wings? How can they come up with these pragmatic policies? And I think that if we look at something like after the Hezbollah-Israeli War in 2006, and this phenomenon that Western commentators and academics like they were showing up in Lebanon and going to the south and watching the Hezbollah do reconstruction, and I”ve heard people give academic lectures where they”re just mystified that like these crazy radical Islamists, like they know how to like develop a society. That”s a function of the Muslim Brotherhood model, but if we also look at like the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, or the JDP in Morocco, these are also groups that are watching the Muslim Brotherhood and organising themselves around them.

I was just sitting at a panel at George Washington University last week where one of the participants was trying to make the argument that in places that you have a strong Muslim Brotherhood presence, the chances that you”re going to have al-Qa”eda show up are really limited. It”s in places that there is no strong Muslim Brotherhood presence that you see the chances for al-Qa”eda to come in and sort of operate. I don”t know that I buy that completely, but I think that it does say something. I mean the Muslim Brotherhood is a model for all these organisations.

Matthias Kuntzel: Well this is always the same question with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or in Hamas or even within the leadership of Iran, is there any hope, do we see any moderate opposition we can build on? Of course it would be great if we could see really such signs, but it”s mainly the kind of delusion I think in the West. You have just to look the programs of such movements; you have to look at what their leaders say. Of course there is a big temptation to say Well these are masses of people, they are educated, they have doctoral positions and everything like this. But the universities were the main centres of anti-Semitism during the “20s in Germany. So my recommendation is that we have to really take a close look to what they say and what they write. We have to learn from history that we have to take what anti-Semites say literally.

Tariq Ramadan: I think if we are serious about democracy you don”t dialogue only with the people you like or with whom you share principles and projects and political projects, all the people who are knowing the Middle East, and knowing Egypt, they are quite powerful and they are representing something within the society. You may disagree with them but if we are serious about democracy, you have to talk to everyone and to come to a better understanding of what are their objectives, what do they want, and which way we can find ways of agreement or disagreement, but at least we have to talk to the others and at the end when they don”t like what the people are going to choose, that if we want them to evolve, if we want them to come to something which is a more open society, it”s through the intrinsic dynamics of societies, and not by just having the hypocritical policy towards the dictatorship and not seeing what are the forces that are present at the grassroots level.

Annabelle Quince: Today”s guests have been Tariq Ramadan, Matthias Kuntzel, Joshua Stacher, and Gilles Kepel.

Thanks to sound engineer Jenny Parsonage, and to ABC Archives. I”m Annabelle Quince and this has been Rear Vision on ABC Radio National.