Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

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Understanding Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

by Elliott Abrams
August 11, 2013


Why did the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt behave in ways that led to its removal from power so quickly–and with widespread public support for that move? Can the Brotherhood (or “MB”) ever change, or is that a foolish Western misunderstanding of the group?

One of the best analysts of the Egyptian scene is Samuel Tadros, an Egyptian himself and right now both a Research Fellow at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and a contributor to the Hoover Institution’s Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.

Tadros has just written “Victory or Death: The Muslim Brotherhood in the Trenches” for Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, Hudson’s excellent publication. This article is an in-depth explanation of the MB’s behavior, especially asking–and answering–why it behaved in ways that may seem to us self-defeating and led to its ouster from power. As Tadros notes, the MB established a political party but is not itself a party. He comments on remarks by Khairat al-Shater, the group’s strongest leader:

But why then did the Muslim Brotherhood establish a political party? Does this not show a sign of a change in thought? No, “The Gama’a [Arabic for group, in this case meaning the MB] may establish a party, an association, schools, and many other means for some of the secondary tasks; but the Gama’a is to remain the instrument which establishes an entire life for the Ummah on the basis of Islamic reference or the basis of the Islamic method.”

Shater’s articulation leaves little doubt as to what the Brotherhood is and what it is not. Shater’s rejection of political parties is not merely because they are Western, but more importantly because they are limited to politics and competition. The Brotherhood however is much wider; its scope is not merely politics, but life itself, which it seeks to Islamize. As Shater states, “everywhere, the Ikhwan are working to restore Islam in its all-encompassing conception to the lives of people, and they believe that this will only come about through the strong Gama’a.”

Tadros argues cogently that too many Westerners have persuaded themselves the MB was changing, or indeed had changed, into a modern political movement. “If the Muslim Brotherhood was not already a moderate organization,” they believed, “its very participation in the democratic process would moderate it or, in the worst circumstances, it would be forced to moderate due to the burdens of governance and a failing economy.” But he explains that the structure and belief system of the MB are mutually reinforcing in being conducive to conspiracy theories and closed ranks:

Stressing uniformity limits innovation, enforcing obedience diminishes free thinking, and upholding discipline and rigid structures destroys the possibility of self-reflection, criticism and reform. When Abdel Moneim Aboul Fetouh decided to run for President, disobeying the Brotherhood’s Guidance Council, his decision was not merely described as a betrayal. As Mohamed Badei, the current General Guide, put it, he “violated his covenant with God.”

About modernization he is dubious, and believes two paths now lie before the MB: politics and violence.

The Brotherhood’s triumphant moment lasted much shorter than it envisioned. One year after its victorious entry into Egypt’s presidential palace and its assumption of the commanding heights of the state, it finds itself back in prison cells….To make matters worse, while Egypt’s generals were ultimately responsible for ending the Brotherhood’s dream, the moment did not arrive without a significant portion of the population cheering along. As Brotherhood members get rounded up, leaders thrown into prisons without charges, Islamist channels closed and Brotherhood demonstrations attacked, the majority of the population is quite indifferent with many gloating and asking for more.

In due time, the occupation with daily developments will give way to long-term considerations and the Brotherhood will look back at its one year in power, start the process of self-reflection, and attempt to find answers for essential questions. What did we do wrong? Could we have avoided this scenario? How can we reach power once again and maintain it?

Occupying the horizon ahead of the Brotherhood will lay two paths. The first is that of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party. Learning from their mistake, the Brotherhood as a whole or some significant portion of it may realize that they need to change their ways, give up their organizational structure, open up to society, moderate their discourse and develop actual governance plans. An Erdogan may rise from the ranks of the second-tier leadership of the Gama’a or in the person of a previous leader of the Brotherhood who was kicked out of its ranks, such as Abdel Moneim Aboul Fetouh, with the ability to capture the Brotherhood’s constituency and expand it.

But another path also dominates the horizon: that of Said Qutb. The characterization of the events that led to Morsi’s ouster as part of a conspiracy against Islam or the Islamist project, and which involves the military, seculars and the West, may lead to positions hardening instead of softening. It can also lead to a questioning of the whole methodology of the Gama’a. The ballot box will be questioned as the preferable route and the bullet will provide a tempting alternative.

Which path will the Brotherhood take? Erdogan or Qutb? The question remains unanswered, but the Brotherhood will not approach it in a vacuum. Two issues will shape how the Brotherhood answers the questions of today as it aims to come up with the answers of tomorrow: what room its enemies will allow it to play in the country’s political sphere and how its own historical experience will shape how it views things. Rationality, after all, is not value free.


The article bears careful reading, and American policymakers should be wondering if there are things we can do, or advice we can give (if anyone in Egypt is taking American advice these days), that will make it more likely that any parts of the MB will turn to modern politics rather than terror. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have just visited Cairo and offered a view similar to Tadros’s about the importance in the MB’s future of “what room its enemies will allow it to play in the country’s political sphere.” They wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that:

It is essential for Morsi’s supporters, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to accept that his actions generated massive public discontent and that he will not be reinstated as president of Egypt; that they must refrain from acts and incitement of violence; and that eventually they will need to move out of the streets and into the political process, because there is no good or effective alternative to advance their interests.

At the same time, it is essential for the civilian government and armed forces to recognize that, no matter how much they may dislike Morsi’s supporters, they are Egyptians, too, and it is neither realistic nor right to try to exclude them from the life of their nation. This means dealing with them magnanimously, not vindictively. It means setting a specific timetable to achieve the transition to democracy and enabling all Egyptians to participate in amending the constitution. It means ensuring that credible Egyptian and international organizations are able to observe the upcoming campaigns and elections. And it means releasing political prisoners, including Morsi supporters.

This may seem unduly “soft” or optimistic, but as Tadros explains there has been dissent within the MB and there will be more in the future. Many in the MB will conclude that a vast conspiracy explains their failure, but some may actually think carefully about the mistakes the organization and its leaders made. There will be debates and divisions, and the argument is that some portion of MB voters and even MB activists may be persuaded to turn to politics not violence–thereby weakening and diminishing the ranks of those who choose the wrong path. One has to hope that Egyptian generals, their supporters in the Gulf Arab states, and American policymakers are thinking all this through while there is still time.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Ezzat F. Guirguis MD

    I have been saying what Mr. Tadros has said for almost two years. My only outlet has been the comments in WP and others and whoever was prepared to listen.
    Very quickly however it became apparent that Erdogan had also reached the same conclusion and already chosen his path. Namely to APPEAR to accept the political route.
    Slowly by coercion and popular support that is built from the ground up he can bring about the true aims of the MB.
    His behaviour in three times trying to amend the Turkish consitiution, his moving quietly away from rying to join the EU and his latest attempts to bring about the Takseem square changes are clear indicators.
    The fact he failed so far does not change the chosen direction. He aspires to a Caliphate and an Islamic state run on Koranic protocols,as interpreted by him. He may not make it but the movement will not die.
    It has survived for eighty years in Egypt and the concept itself goes way beyong Sayed Kutb or Hassan El Banna. It goes as far back as Gamal El Din Al Afghani.
    He and another colleague from India studied under Abdel Wahab the founder of the Wahabis 150 years ago.

    more recently an emminent memeber of the MB reflected aloud that the movement may do better to return to its “Comfort Zone”.
    By that he meant going underground to influence the grass roots of the community (he was reffering to Egypt). At that level they could gain strength through the type of grass roots work they did
    in Sadat’ and mubarak’s time. Set up clinics, schools aid the poor and win converts.
    They will do that again. I hope they pick the confrontational approach which will subject them to defeat by keeping them in the open.
    The West unfortunately has a few thinkers like Mr. Tadros but are contolled by their Western notions and understandable prejudices that blind them the Arab and Islamist perspectives on life which certainly do not include democracy in any form.

  • Posted by Adel Bishai

    An excellent article. However, it does not pay sufficient attention to the inherent contradiction between “Islamism” and free will / democracy. No matter how much the MB develops, the fundamental theology will stand in the way of democracy. Even the Erdogan model will be facing problems, as already beginning to be demonstrated by the recent revolts.

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