Muslim Brotherhood

The movement of the Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin) is the first politico-religious movement born in the Arab world. Created in 1928 by the Egyptian Hassan Al-Banna, its primary purpose is to fight against the secular Egyptian Constitution of 1923 by obtaining the creation of an Islamic society on the model established in the Arabian Peninsula by the Al-Wahhab. The Muslim Brotherhood advocated a return to fundamental values of Islam while fighting against government of King Farouk. After the defeat of Egypt and other Arab States facing Israel in 1948, they are in open revolt against the regime and take part in the revolution that led to the advent of Nasser. Nasser was nationalist and he wanted to modernize Egypt according to a socialist model. He will quickly enter into conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood which, after an assassination attempt, are forced into hiding or exile, mainly in Saudi Arabia. The change in attitude of President Sadat, Nasser’s successor, who distances himself from the USSR and promotes a re-islamisation of the State to counter the left opposition forces, has lead to a semi formalization of the organization. It is particularly during this period, in the years 1970, that the leadership of the Brotherhood formally renounces violent actions. The President Sadat is assassinated by a member of Islamic Jihad, Khaled al-Islambuli, in 1981 after the signing of the peace agreement with Israel that moved Egypt aside of the Arab League (1977). In 1984 Egyptian authorities recognized the Brotherhood as a religious organization but denied it as a political party. This status persists even today: they are tolerated, without being formally authorized.

Membership fees and donations allow the Brotherhood to have significant financial resources. The charitable component of its action is based on the shortcomings of government in education and health. Indeed, as the Egyptian State disengages itself, giving precedence to the private sector, support from the Muslim Brotherhood becomes increasingly essential for the population. Especially present in Cairo, Alexandria and the Delta cities, the Brotherhood has firmly infiltrated unions, associations and institutions in both civil society and the State. Their message is in line with developments and aspirations of the Egyptian society: return to Islamic values, rejection of the regime and  corruption. On the economic front, the Brothers are advocates of liberalism. They denounce the excesses of bureaucracy and are supporters of a lesser involvement of the State. In foreign policy, they are in total disagreement with the official policy on regional policy, support to Palestinians and the rejection of normalization with Israel. On the eve of the 2005 elections, their claims have joined those of any opposition: lifting the state of emergency, release of political prisoners and extension of civil liberties.

At the moment they form the main opposition movement. Taking advantage of a certain laxity from the government responding to U.S. pressure in their great project of democratizing the Middle East, they manage to have 88 deputies elected on 454 to the People’s Assembly during the 2005 elections thought they had to present their candidates as independents because the movement remains illegal in politics. This victory for the Muslim Brotherhood has had two major consequences.

Firstly, in terms of communication they have opted for a less extreme message by abandoning their project of a theocratic state, expressing respect for democracy and replacing their slogan « Islam is the solution », now politically illegal, by « The reform is the answer. » The other major consequence is the always more tightening attitude ot the governement towards Islamist movements. During the months that followed the elections, 900 members of the Brotherhood have been arrested. $ 87 million in total have also been confiscated by the State by freezing the assets of some contributors, and so undermining the Brotherhood’s social action that has always been so popular in the country. Since the amendments of the Constitution of March 2007, it is forbidden to form a political party on a religious basis. This amendment destroys any hope for the Brothers to legalize their political activities. This hardening phase is going on without reaction from the Westerners, not tempted by the prospect of seeing an Islamist regime in Egypt, especially after the example offered by the victory of Hamas in Palestine.

However, the Muslim Brotherhood does not seem to be ready to take power. Although the integration movement in the political game has started in the years 1980 and is supported by most young members of the Brotherhood, the dominant idea among the Brothers’ leaders (especially among older, more conservative) is that society is not yet enough Islamized. The Islamic movement may yet not switch its priorities from preaching to pure political action. Indeed, the repression suffered by the Brotherhood after the elections of 2005 resulted in the creation of a fracture within the movement between supporters of the political line facing the advocates of a more traditional line, who think that the mission is primarily spiritual, that the Brotherhood should focus on the supervision of society through charitable activities and preaching (dawa). At the moment, most Egyptians that support politically the Muslim Brotherhood do it by opposition to the government, and not in the hope of establishing one day an Islamic regime in Egypt. This recent increase is less the result of deep convictions than a protest vote against a government that fails to meet people’s expectations.

In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood has spread very early in many Arab countries and is now experiencing a important increase in popularity in Jordan, Palestine and Syria.

Although their Jordanian branch assassinated King Abdallah of Jordan in Jerusalem in 1952, they are now officially allowed to participate in the political life of the country under the name of the Islamic Action Front. They presented for the first time candidates for legislative elections in 1989 and won 20 seats, but they refused to participate in the legislative elections of 1997 to protest against the reform of the voting system. In 2003, the IAF won 20 seats out of a total of 84.

In Palestine, the Muslim Brotherhood is developing in the Gaza Strip; Hamas, founded in 1987, is a wing of the Brotherhood and quickly became popular thanks to its social actions. At the 2006 elections, Hamas won with 74 seats.

In Syria, the Brotherhood appeared during the years 1930. The Emergency Law of 1980 establishes the death penalty or life imprisonment for any member of the movement. The Brotherhood organized in 1982 an armed insurgency in the city of Hama that was brutally crushed by the army. In February 1995, during the 25 years in power of President Hafez al-Assad, many members of the Muslim Brotherhood were released while several leaders of the organization were allowed to return from exile. At the moment, the association is no longer a political force in Syria, although they are supported by networks in Europe. Like their Egyptian counterparts, the Syrian Brotherhood has abandoned violence and respects democracy.

See also Islamic fundamentalism.