Whither the Muslim Brotherhood?
OXFORD, ENGLAND — Even as the mass demonstrations began in Tunisia, who would have thought that Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime would have collapsed so quickly? Who could have predicted that Egypt would soon witness such unprecedented popular protest? A barrier has fallen. Nothing will be the same again. It is quite likely that other countries will follow the lead of Egypt, given its central and symbolic significance. But what will be the role of the Islamists after the collapse of the dictatorships?
The Islamist presence has for decades justified the West’s acceptance of the worst dictatorships in the Arab world. And it was these very regimes that demonized their Islamist opponents, particularly Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which historically represents that country’s first well-organized mass movement with the political influence to match.
For more than 60 years, the Brotherhood has been illegal but tolerated. It has demonstrated a powerful capacity to mobilize the people in each relatively democratic election — for trade unions, professional associations, municipalities, parliament and so on — where it has been a participant. So, are the Muslim Brothers the rising power in Egypt, and, if so, what can we anticipate of such an organization?
In the West, we have come to expect superficial analyses of political Islam in general and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. However, not only is Islamism a mosaic of widely differing trends and factions, but its many different facets have emerged over time and in response to historical shifts.
The Muslim Brothers began in the 1930s as a legalist, anti-colonialist and nonviolent movement that claimed legitimacy for armed resistance in Palestine against Zionist expansionism during the period before World War II. The writings from between 1930 and 1945 of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Brotherhood, show that he opposed colonialism and strongly criticized the fascist governments in Germany and Italy. He rejected use of violence in Egypt, even though he considered it legitimate in Palestine, in resistance to the Zionist Stern and Irgun terror gangs. He believed that the British parliamentary model represented the kind closest to Islamic principles.
Al-Banna’s objective was to found an “Islamic state” based on gradual reform, beginning with popular education and broad-based social programs. He was assassinated in 1949 by the Egyptian government on the orders of the British occupiers. Following Gamal Abdel Nasser’s revolution in 1952, the movement was subjected to violent repression.
Several distinct trends emerged. Radicalized by their experience of prison and torture, some of the group’s members (who eventually left the organization) concluded that the state had to be overthrown at all costs, even with violence. Others remained committed to the group’s original position of gradual reform.
Many of its members were forced into exile: some in Saudi Arabia, where they were influenced by the Saudi literalist ideology; others in countries such as Turkey and Indonesia, Muslim-majority societies where a wide variety of communities coexist. Still others settled in the West, where they came into direct contact with the European tradition of democratic freedom.
Today’s Muslim Brotherhood draws these diverse visions together. But the leadership of the movement — those who belong to the founding generation are now very old — no longer fully represents the aspirations of the younger members, who are much more open to the world, anxious to bring about internal reform and fascinated by the Turkish example. Behind the unified, hierarchical facade, contradictory influences are at work. No one can tell which way the movement will go.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not leading the surge that is bringing down Hosni Mubarak: it is made up of young people, of women and men who have rejected dictatorship. The Muslim Brotherhood, and the Islamists in general, do not represent the majority. There can be no doubt that they hope to participate in the democratic transition when Mubarak departs, but no one can tell which faction will emerge in a dominant position. That makes it impossible to determine the movement’s priorities. Between the literalists and the partisans of the Turkish way, anything can happen; the Brotherhood’s political thinking has evolved considerably over the past 20 years.
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