Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Who Are the Muslim Brothers?

by Steven A. Cook
August 7, 2012

A street vendor sells merchandise of the Muslim Brotherhood during a celebration for victory in the election at Tahrir square in Cairo (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters). A street vendor sells merchandise of the Muslim Brotherhood during a celebration for victory in the election at Tahrir square in Cairo (Amr Dalsh/Courtesy Reuters).

Who are Egypt’s Muslim Brothers?  Over the last eighteen months much has been written about the Muslim Brotherhood.  Once limited to the realm of academic specialists and Middle East policy analysts, the Brothers have become part of the broader foreign and, at times, domestic policy conversation in the United States.  The election of Mohamed Morsy as Egypt’s first civilian president has only heightened interest in the Brotherhood.  Although there are sophisticated analyses of the Brothers, too often the organization’s complexities are overlooked, leaving observers with erroneous notions about the way the Brotherhood works, its perspective on violence, and the Brothers’ ultimate goals.  Part of the problem is the ambiguity with which the Brotherhood often speaks about sensitive issues including the relationship between sharia and Egypt’s future political order, the role of women in society, and major foreign policy issues such as Egypt’s relationship with the United States, and the states of its peace treaty with Israel.

It has become cliché in some circles to declare, “The Muslim Brotherhood is not monolithic,” which is true.  While there may be significant discipline among the Brothers, observers and insiders have noted a robust debate within the organization’s leading councils.  Indeed, the Brotherhood’s current power structure comes from widely differing backgrounds and experiences, suggesting anything but a uniform approach to Egypt’s present problems.  The first step in gaining a better grasp of the Brothers and what they want is understanding who they are. The following list is far from exhaustive, but it covers some of the organizations prominent members or former member in the case of President Mohamed Morsy.

Dr. Mohamed Badie Abd al-Magid Sami (known commonly as Mohamed Badie) is the Brotherhood’s General Guide and as such the organization’s leader.  Badie does not have the gravitas of many of his predecessors and is widely regarded to have been a consensus candidate when he was elevated to the Brotherhood’s leadership position on January 16, 2010. Badie is a veterinarian by training who has been a member of the Brotherhood since the 1960s. Some observers believe that during his early years in the organization he was among a cadre of Brothers who followed the work of Sayyid Qutb—a leading theorist of jihadism.  Badie has spoken out in support of Hamas and justified violence in response to the repression of Muslims whether it is in Palestine, the Caucasus, or South Asia.

The Secretary General of the Muslim Brotherhood, Dr. Mahmoud Hussein, was born in Jaffa in 1947, but after the establishment of Israel was raised in Rafah. The Secretary General is responsible for implementing the decisions of the Guidance Council.  He is an engineer by training and, along with the General Guide Badie, among the organization’s conservatives.  Hussein spent three years in prison in the mid-1990s.  He became a member of the Guidance Council in 2009.

Dr. Mohamed Saad al Katatni is the Speaker of the Maglis al Sha’ab (People’s Assembly).  Until he assumed leadership of the lower house of Egypt’s parliament, he served as the Secretary General of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which is the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Members of the FJP contend that their goal is to make the party independent of the Brothers in the future, which is why Katatni is no longer a member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Council.  Until Mohamed Morsy was elected president in June, Katatni was the most senior elected official from the Muslim Brotherhood.  A botanist by training, Katatni, who is 60 years old, is among a relatively younger group of Brothers who have advocated for the organization to become more actively involved in politics in contrast to the more traditional, circumspect approach to politics that older and more conservative members of the organization hold.  Partly because of his efforts to push the Brotherhood into the political arena, Katatni is widely considered a reformist, though there is no hard evidence that he holds progressive political views.  It has become a standard part of the Brothers’ discourse to, for example, support democracy even as their conception of it is based on the Islamic concept of shura or consultation, which could mean practically anything.

 Another prominent member of the reformist camp within the Brotherhood is Dr. Essam el Erian, the vice chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party. El Arian is among the most well-known Brothers outside of Egypt, and as head of the political bureau and chief spokesmen for the Brothers, he was often the face of the Brotherhood prior to the uprising.  Although a doctor by training, el Erian also holds a degree in law and, in contrast to his colleagues few of whom have any formal religious training, he also earned a degree from al Azhar University in Islamic law.  He is a prominent reformer who, like Saad al Katatni, has long been a proponent of dropping the Brotherhood traditional caution when it comes to politics. El Erian’s reformist credentials are better than the Speaker of the People’s Assembly given his outspoken support for human rights, though like other prominent members of the Brotherhood, el Erian’s statements about democracy tend to be qualified. He is on record claiming that the United States and the Brothers could develop good ties, if only Washington altered its approach to the organization and the region.

Dr. Mohamed Beltagy is among the most prominent members of the Freedom and Justice Party.  He serves as both the party’s Secretary General for Greater Cairo and a member of the party’s national committee.  He was a leading member of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary delegation from 2005-2010, which numbered eighty-eight representatives.  Beltagy is enormously popular with Egypt’s revolutionaries for his early and lasting support for the January 25th uprising and his advocacy for political, civil, and human rights during the Mubarak era.  He was also an outspoken critic of Egypt’s closure of Gaza and was aboard the Mavi Marmara when Israeli forces interdicted the vessel in late May 2010.  He is a physician by training.

If there is a name with which even casual observers of Egyptian politics have become familiar in recent months, it is the Muslim Brotherhood’s Dr. Khairat al Shater.  His official position is Deputy General Guide of the Brotherhood, but al Shater is widely believed to be the power behind the General Guide and now, President Morsy.  According to various sources, Al Shater holds no less than seven educational degrees. After his MA in construction management in 1980, it seems that his other fives certificates were awarded between 1998 and 2002—an impressive amount of scholarship in such a short period of time.  His power is derived from his unofficial position as the Brotherhood’s finance chief, which was no doubt a contributing factor in his 2007 convictions for terrorism financing and money laundering—charges that were almost certainly politically motivated.  He was released from prison shortly after the Mubarak era ended in February 2011.  Al Shater was briefly the Brotherhood’s candidate for president until he was disqualified from running by the Supreme Presidential Election Commission due to his past criminal record.  Al Shater’s extensive business activities—he allegedly controls firms in a variety of sectors, including a new chain of supermarkets—has made him an important interlocutor with foreign business leaders and governments interested in investment opportunities and Egypt’s economic development.  This is quite a change for someone who was a committed Nasserist in his youth. Al Shater is not easily identifiable as either a reformer or conservative.  The most oft used adjective to describe him is “pragmatic,” which in the current state of debate about the Muslim Brotherhood means that al Shater will likely focus his attention on Egypt’s economic needs rather than hot-button issues like sharia, Israel, and relations with the United States. That said, there is little doubt that, in keeping with his public pronouncement during his short-lived presidential campaign, he is a supporter of implementing some form of Islamic law and is hostile to both Washington and Jerusalem.

Finally, Mohamed Morsy, Egypt’s unlikely first civilian president was, until his nomination for president in March 2012, a Brotherhood apparatchik.  Until his election, he was the chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, though his profile was considerably lower than Saad al Katatni.  Between 2000 and 2005, Morsy was a member of the Brotherhood’s unofficial nineteen member delegation in the People’s Assembly as well as the head of the organization’s trade unions office.  He is a professor of Material Engineering with a degree from the University of Southern California. Morsy’s power is largely derived from his personal relationship with Khairat al Shater.

 

 

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