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Muslim Brotherhood: the fantasized threat?


By Baudouin Long


The Montréal Review, April 2011




It was the darling of the media, the fear of the West, the scarecrow brandished on every occasion. "The Muslim Brotherhood out of the shadows" could be read in Le Figaro. Newspapers emphasized the "ambiguous strategy" and the risk of an Islamic "takeover". They pointed out the murky links of the "nebula" with Iran, Hezbollah and "Palestinian fundamentalists" - understand Hamas. 1

The Egyptian revolution had barely begun and the West was already haunted by the spectre of the Muslim Brotherhood. They were worrying about their hidden role in the uprising. Does the Brotherhood plan the overthrow of the regime? Is Egypt about to implement an Islamic and totalitarian system that could be even worse than that of Mubarak?

All those questions reflected neither the real issues of the revolution, nor the reality of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

A popular revolution  

The protest movement that has brought Egypt for eighteen days (25 January - 11 February) was not the revolution of the Muslim Brotherhood. Those who launched the protests that finally pushed Mubarak aside are the young Egyptians of the "Facebook generation". They were the politicized youth, activists of the web, independent of traditional political currents. Their demands were not religious. They fought for freedom and justice, denouncing corruption, the rising cost of living and violations of human rights. They wanted a democratic system that would put an end to the emergency laws, generalized torture and corruption.

Thousands of Egyptians have responded to the call for demonstrations on January the 25th. 

Muslim Brotherhood members who were participating in the protests did so for the same reasons as many others. They were Egyptians who were simply fed up with the system. The leadership of the Brotherhood rallied only gradually and timidly at first. When it decided to join those who demanded the departure of Mubarak, their huge involvement has been regarded with wariness. 2

Such fears were not taking into account the scope of the protest movement that finally forced Mubarak to step down. During the eighteen days of continuous protests on Tahrir Square, the symbolic centre of the protest movement, slogans were not religious. The traditional motto of the Brothers, "Islam is the solution", was conspicuously absent. The slogans were purely nationalist. They demanded only more freedom, social justice, jobs and a regime change.

Social diversity of Tahrir Square demonstrators reflected a desire for change of an entire nation. It was an aspiration that went beyond the goals of any single group. It was neither the prerogative of the Brothers, nor of the "Westernized" students. Many people protested against any kind of domination by the Muslim Brotherhood. A protester then declared: "Look, it is a popular revolution ... people are mobilizing without political parties and they do not want political parties to organize it." This declaration reflects the spirit of the people during the revolution. 3 Among the protestors, there were several Copts who decided to commit to the revolution because they were convinced that Mubarak had never been protecting the Christians.4

Youssef El-Chazli, a researcher on political mobilization at the University of Lausanne, who went to Tahrir Square as an Egyptian, affirmed that "in demonstrations, the movement was too broad to play into the hand of a single political group and the Brothers have not attempted to take it over". "The Brothers are followers of this movement ... If someone tried to use it, it's more El-Baradei. The brotherhood is aware that such an attempt on his part would not be supported by the people" he concluded. 5 As a consequence, any attempt of the Brotherhood to participate too intensively in the protests would have been detrimental to the uprising.

The long-term goals of the Brotherhood  

It is also noteworthy that the objectives of the Muslim Brotherhood are confined to just reaching power as analysed Leslie Piquemal, CEDEJ researcher and specialist on the Brotherhood. Of course, the Brothers would benefit from the organization of free parliamentary elections and could well win a relative majority of seats (less than 50%).

Some members would not be opposed in this case to have a candidate run for the presidency, but Mohammed El-Beltagi, a leader of the movement, said on February 4th that the Brotherhood did not wish to do so in the next election. For L. Piquemal, "they do not seek to take the executive power in the short term and they know that, for now, they mobilize on average less than 50% of the votes in the parliamentary elections." 6

However, their reflection addresses the society as a whole. L. Piquemal asserts that "what they want is to achieve a fundamental transformation of society. It is the Egyptian society that should finally call to fuller implementation of the sharia." Until they can achieve this goal, the Muslim Brotherhood has a tendency to consider that it has more weight being in opposition than in power.

The Brotherhood put their organization at the service of protest, devoting their resources to the treatment of the wounded, the organization of militias to secure neighbourhoods abandoned by the police and providing security checks at the entrance to Tahrir Square, where they were suspected of having a hidden agenda, a strategy. Such acts are nonetheless very natural for an organization that prides itself on having gained his popularity by dedicating a lot of its activities to social work. It is also the way they have propagated their thoughts for years, by being close to the society when the state was not.

The brotherhood after the revolution

It would be naïve to ignore the strength as well as the determination of the Brotherhood. Once Mubarak stepped down, the time of union rapidly ended. The Muslim Brotherhood fully engaged in the political debate over reforms. Mohamed Badie, the supreme guide of the organization, clearly rejected any idea of secularization of the state. 7

The spontaneity of the movement resulted in a coalition of pro-democracy movements that are not yet organised. On the other hand, the Muslim brotherhood which was only a follower during the revolution clearly appeared as the main organised opposition.

They rapidly announced the creation of political party named "the freedom and justice party" and forbad its members to join any other political party. 8

During the campaign about the amendments to the constitution, the gap became visible between the brotherhood and many pro-democracy groups including many young people of the uprising, Amr Mussa and El-Baradei, two prominent politicians potentially running for the presidency. While many pro-democracy supporters called on voters to reject the constitutional amendments, the brotherhood strongly supported them. The youth and figures as El-Baradei or Amr Mussa wanted a new constitution and more time to form new political parties before the parliamentary elections. 9

Endorsing the amendments was beneficial firstly because it would allow them to retain their advantage over the other opposition groups. Thus, they are likely to gain many seats at the parliamentary elections that are to follow the referendum. 10

On the background of the debate, the issue of the secularisation of the state also emerged and became a strong bone of contention and object of debate. Christians hoped that the article 2 would be suppressed or at least changed. 11 This article is indeed specifying that "Islam is the religion of the state" and "the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia)". 12 They continue to campaign vociferously for a new draft where this has been changed. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups also campaigned for the Yes, and notably argued that article 2 should not be modified. They linked the rejection of the amendments to the second article they wanted so clearly to preserve. 13 During the period preceding the poll, they had been very keen on using this argument to make people vote "Yes" although it was discreetly done. 14

The referendum gave a large victory to the amendments with 77.2% of the voters saying "Yes". Despite this, it would be hasty to draw the conclusion that the result of the poll is a demonstration of the Brotherhood's influence, although it cannot be denied that this is a success for them as well as Islamist groups such as Salafi. 15

Nevertheless, one should be careful to understand the complexity of the situation within the Brotherhood. Mubarak's fall is the fall of a regime. It is the fall of traditional politics in Egypt. The movement which was the main opponent of the regime failed into changing the situation. The old guard of the organisation was taken aback by the uprising and its first reaction was to be wary.

Following the revolution, many divisions were brought to light, between the conservative head of the brotherhood and the reformists or the young Brotherhood members involved in the protests. There is a split that cannot really be assessed between a part of the youth in the Brotherhood and the leadership. Young members of the brotherhood were the first to join the protests while their leadership was still hesitating. For Khaled Hamza, the editor of Ikhwanweb, a fundamental gap now separates the youth from the older leadership. 16

Moreover, the Brotherhood is divided on the future guidelines to adopt. Some members have already resigned while debates remain within the party. 17 Thus, the rumours of Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh's resignation, are telling. This prominent member of the highest executive body within the group, often interviewed by the media and well known for being reform-minded, has had strong criticism to the leadership. 18

Muslim Brotherhood vs. Mubarak regime  

If the Brotherhood has not taken over the movement, it nonetheless remains a key player of the opposition. Its participation in the revolutionary movement has made its presence necessary in the debates on reform. Omar Suleiman, the vice-president of a week, and Marshall Tantawi (the former minister of defence and head of the Military now ruling the country) understood this very well and expressly invited the brothers to come to the negotiating table.

The events will be beneficial to the fraternity as their involvement in the campaign for the referendum had already shown. However, it is easy to wield a threat that is, for now, only fantasized about while the record of Mubarak's regime is real and known. Who is it that, for years, has repressed rights, tortured, shamefully amassing riches while 40% of the population lives below the poverty line? As Y. El-Chazli has pointed out, "we do not know what the Muslim Brotherhood will do, but we know what the Mubarak regime is." 19

The uncertainty of the future had served the regime of Hosni Mubarak for too long and it cannot be used again. Too often it had been a pretext for the regime to violate human rights of the Egyptian people, to keep the country under emergency rule (established after the death of Sadat), to allow corruption, sectarian tensions and poverty to grow.

Predicting a Iran-like scenario and comparing Egyptian situation to the revolution of the Ayatollah in 1979 should not be done too hastily. Their objectives, their historical background are too different in many respects.

Rather, the question that should be raised concerns the reasons for the success of rigorist Islamism in Egypt. It surely reflects an expression of long-standing frustration maintained by the corruption of the Egyptian rulers.

The success of the Brotherhood is built on their occupation of a social vacuum where the state failed in its role, particularly where health and education are concerned. A gain of freedom, the progress of human rights and socio-economic conditions in Egypt could make fundamentalist agendas less attractive. Once the Brotherhood are no longer opposed and repressed by the state, the door would be left open to the moderation of the movement.

Of course, there is no question here of justifying the organization. It is not about hiding how the plans of Brotherhood can sometimes be troubling, whether concerning women's rights, freedom of conscience or on the place of non-Muslims in society. However, what was written in 2002 by Francois Burgat, in the preface of his book Face to Face with Political Islam, applies more than ever to the Brothers, "the West is depriving itself of understanding that at least a part of the demands voiced by this generation of Islamists is no more illegitimate than those expressed by their nationalist fathers in their time". 20

Those who do not wish to see the Muslim Brotherhood come to power should first understand that the era of President Hosni Mubarak is gone and that authoritarianism has never been a shield against fundamentalism and such pretexts are no longer acceptable. They should understand that the search for new options and a truly democratic alternative that respects the rights of all Egyptians is the only way for Egypt to avoid becoming an "Islamic dictatorship".


Baudouin Long lives in Cairo where he holds a scholarship for Arabic Scholars at the French Department of Arabic Studies in Cairo. He regularly freelances for Al-Masry Al-Youm English Edition . He has got a MA in Politics and International relations (Sciences Po Aix) and a MA in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies (King's College London).


The author would like to thank Youssef El-Chazli and Leslie Piquemal for their advice as well as Morgane Hofstetter and Gabrielle Odah for reading the drafts.



1 See for example: Jean-Marc Gonin, "Les Frères musulmans sortent de l'ombre en Egypte", Le Figaro , February 4, 2011 or Denise Ammoun, "L'ombre des Frères musulmans", Le Point, February 3, 2011

2 See for example: Ibidem and Dore Gold, "The Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Crisis", Jerusalem Issue Briefs, Vol. 10, No. 26 February 2, 2011

3 Personal interviews, 28 January-11 February 2011, Cairo

4 Personal interviews, 16 March 2011, Cairo

5 Personal interview, January 31, 2011, Cairo

6 Personal interview, January 31, 2011, Cairo

7 Hani El Waziry, "Muslim Brotherhood reformist wing rejects constitutional amendments", Al Masry Al Youm English Edition, February 18, 2011

8 "Muslim Brotherhood to establish 'Freedom and Justice Party'", Al Masry Al Youm English Edition , February 21, 2011. And

9 Al Masry Al Youm , March 16, 2011

10 They will take place in September 2011.

11 Personal interviews with Coptic pro-democracy supporters, March 16, 2011, Cairo

12 Egyptian government website

13 Hani El Waziry, "Muslim Brotherhood reformist wing rejects constitutional amendments", Al Masry Al Youm English Edition, February 18, 2011

14 Personal interview with an activist close to the Brotherhood, February 30, 2011, Cairo

15 "Prominent Egypt Salafi proclaims victory for religion in referendum", Al Masry Al Youm English Edition, March 23, 2011;

16 Patrick Haenni, "Les Frères musulmans confrontés à une nouvelle culture politique, Entretien avec Khaled Hamza",February, 16, 2011, www.saphirnews.com

17 Noha Al Hennawy, "Political freedom, competition drives rifts between Muslim Brotherhood factions", Al Masry Al Youm English Edition , February 24, 2011; and: "Reformist Islamist denies resigning from Muslim Brotherhood", Al Masry Al Youm English Edition , March 30, 2011

18 "Prominent reform-minded leader resigns from Brotherhood", Al Masry Al Youm English Edition , March 29, 2011; "Reformist Islamist denies resigning from Muslim Brotherhood", Al Masry Al Youm English Edition , March 30, 2011

19 Op.cit.

20 François Burgat, Face to Face with Political Islam, IB Tauris, 2002, 288p.; p. xvi


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