The Muslim Brotherhood (known in Arabic as al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen) is Egypt's oldest and largest Islamist organization. As the most organized opposition group following the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the brotherhood became the country's dominant political force, winning a near majority of seats in the post-revolution parliament, and its candidate, Mohammed Morsi, winning the presidency. Some Egyptians are concerned about the group's aim to establish a state ruled by sharia, or Islamic law, and ambiguity over its respect for human rights. Such concerns intensified after Morsi announced new sweeping powers for the presidency in late 2012 and a draft of the proposed constitution was published. The domestic political challenges also provide a difficult road for U.S.-Egypt relations, especially with regards to foreign aid.
A History of Violence
Founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood is widely considered the world's most influential Islamist organization, with numerous branches and affiliates. It is "the mother of all Islamist movements," says Shadi Hamid, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center. The brotherhood's original mission was to Islamize society through the promotion of Islamic law, values, and morals. An Islamic revivalist movement from its early days, it has combined religion, political activism, and social welfare in its work. It adopted slogans such as "Islam is the solution" and "Jihad is our way." It played a role in the fight against British colonial rule and was banned for a short time in 1948 (BBC) for orchestrating bombings inside Egypt and allegedly assassinating Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Nuqrashi. It then experienced a short spell of good relations with the government that came to power through a military coup, which ended British rule in 1952. But following a failed attempt to assassinate President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954, the group was banned again.
At that time, Sayyid Qutb, a prominent member of the brotherhood, laid down the ideological grounds for the use of jihad, or armed struggle, against the regime in Egypt and beyond. Qutb's writings, in particular his 1964 work Milestones, has provided the intellectual and theological underpinnings for the founders of numerous radical and militant Islamist groups, including al-Qaida. Extremist leaders often channel Qutb to argue that governments not ruled by sharia are apostate, and therefore legitimate targets of jihad.
The Muslim Brotherhood has spawned branches across the globe. These organizations bear the brotherhood name, but their connections to the founding group vary. In addition, some of the world's most dangerous terrorists were once Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members, including Osama bin Laden's top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
But Ed Husain, a senior fellow at CFR, says it is wrong to make the Muslim Brotherhood "responsible for the actions of all of its intellectual offspring." Since 9/11, prominent members of the brotherhood have renounced violence publicly and tried to distance themselves from al-Qaida's violent practices. The brotherhood's foray into electoral politics has also widened the schism between it and groups like al-Qaida. Zawahiri had been openly critical of the Brotherhood's participation in the 2005 parliamentary elections.
But like other mass social movements, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is hardly a monolith; it comprises hard-liners, reformers, and centrists, says terrorism expert Lydia Khalil. And some hard-line leaders have voiced support for al-Qaida or use of violent jihad. For instance, as recently as 2006, Khalil points out, a member of the brotherhood elected to parliament, Ragib Hilal Hamida, voiced support for terrorism in the face of Western occupation.
Toward Pragmatic Politics
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has more than 300,000 members and runs numerous institutions, including hospitals, schools, banks, businesses, foundations, day care centers, thrift shops, social clubs, and facilities for the disabled. Since the 1970s, the group has not engaged in violent activity, even though it was officially banned by the Mubarak regime. In the last three decades, the brotherhood increased its advancement into the political mainstream through alliances with other opposition parties and through members running for parliament as independents.