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The State, the Brotherhood, and Their Fight for Power

Updated on December 21, 2010
Egyptian President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak.
Egyptian President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak. | Source

Who is to say that within a state, there can only be one set of institutions which can be described as “the state?” What if a separate set of institutions, ostensibly a part of the “civil society,” could perform some vital functions of the state, while at the same time being opposed to the regime of the state, and in fact from time to time plan violent attacks against that state? Such is the situation with Egypt, which from the founding of the Arab Republic has had to coexist with a viable threat to their monopoly on power: the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization seeking to make Egypt into a pure Islamic state. That is not to say that the Muslim Brotherhood has served as an enduring source of violence, but that it has supplanted the Egyptian state in performing certain roles that would be expected of a state, such as providing economic security for the people. Thus in some respects, the Muslim Brotherhood exists as the fundamentalist counterpart to the secular civil government, with the two sharing legitimacy as holders of power and popular support. Yet in such an arrangement, the relationship between the two powerbrokers is not equitable; who exactly holds the power is subject to analysis.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt by Hasan al-Banna in 1928 for the purpose of pro-Islamic advocacy. After the Brotherhood was blamed for the assassination attempt against President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954, many members of the Brotherhood were imprisoned – some without trial, and some even being sentenced to death. What followed was a decline in the organization, in part caused by the members being split up and sent into different prisons. Yet what especially caused a decline in the organization was an internal fight for control.

Essentially, before membership in the Muslim Brotherhood became a crime, the question of whether violence could be considered a means of achieving goals. While al-Banna, the founder of the Brotherhood, was considered to be the true leader of the group, there were considerable challenges to his power. The “Secret Unit” within the Muslim Brotherhood had developed some authority of its own. While Hassan al-Hudaybi took over as the General Guide in 1951 after al-Banna’s death in 1949, the leaders of the Secret Unit were powerful enough as to be considered viable competitors to the General Guide’s power. Nasser had this internal discord to his advantage when bringing down the organization and the internal dispute continued as leaders and members were imprisoned. The organization was faced with a complicated question: how would they go forward as a group? Sayyid Qutb, who had been tortured as a prisoner, was convinced that the state was evil, and that it should be overthrown. Around 1958, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to resume its communications, with Nasser having granted leniency. To help achieve his goals of doing away with the Egyptian state, Qutb created what would later be called Organization 1965, which sought to educate whom he considered to be the defenders of Islam. While he was caught and accused of overthrowing the government, it was unlikely that Organization 1965 had any plans for carrying out terrorist attacks, though it did try to build an arsenal of weapons.

What started as a peaceful advocacy organization had established a militant wing, which started as a Secret Unit within the group and steadily gained momentum in the organization, as revolutionary Islam inspired the group once more. After all, the more moderate al-Hudaybi allowed Qutb to establish the Organization 1965 and carry the Muslim Brotherhood in the direction it was heading toward, as both had the revival of the Brotherhood in mind. As Qutb had become disillusioned in the 1952 revolution, he sought – with the acquiescence of al-Hudaybi – to use violence as a means of achieving the Brotherhood’s goal: the opposition of secular government and the un-Islamic Nasser in favor of Islamic government. Of course, discovery of the Organization 1965 led to, unsurprisingly, more persecution, which prevented the Brotherhood from continuing to flourish as an organization. In essence, the Egyptian state demonstrated its policing power.

It is important to note, however, that policing power is not the only type of power. A more moderate wing of the organization would be able to exploit the poverty of the populace to further its own popularity. While the economic policy of the Muslim Brotherhood encouraged the idea of capitalism and private property, it also believed in providing services for the people, such as social security and some nationalized resources available for the common good. To that end, the Muslim Brotherhood built mosques, schools, hospitals, and it also founded some small businesses and social clubs. This ideology grounded in economic development and equality is what John Walsh of the Harvard International Review described as “centrist Islamism”.

Such a moderate brand of political Islam was able to work with President Hosni Mubarak, who became President in 1981. The Muslim Brotherhood was able to strike common ground with Mubarak, who was trying to distance himself from his predecessor, by renouncing violence as a means of implementing the use of Sharia and agreeing to work within the political system. From this perspective, Egypt as a state maintains its monopoly of power, with the Muslim Brotherhood serving at its pleasure. As the Brotherhood at this point sought power through election to Parliament and to student and professional organizations, it was working within the political constructs that existed within the Egyptian state, rather than using violence to create its new, desired order.

That is not to say, however, that the Muslim Brotherhood worked entirely within the system. If there is the power of policing, which at this point was held entirely by the Egyptian state, the Brotherhood was able to use the power of money. The Brotherhood built up its support largely by bypassing government welfare organizations and creating its own, earning the organization widespread popularity. For instance, it won elections to professional organizations by offering health insurance, and it similarly offered services for students. The goal was to provide basic services for the people where the government was not able to; rather than compete with the government in providing resources, it would be the government in providing resources. From the perspective that the state exists to provide for the needy, the private charities operated by the Muslim Brotherhood were better at serving as a state-like figure than the state itself. This was especially noticeable after the 1992 earthquake in Cairo, where the Brotherhood was providing aid and re-investment into the city while the state itself failed to act in a timely manner. While the Egyptian state had leverage over the people through violence, and was thus legitimate because of its monopoly over violence, the Muslim Brotherhood used social services – and the subsequent social network and popularity – to have leverage comparable to that of the state. Their popularity can be summed up in this quote: “When the Muslim Brothers are asked, they open the drawer and they give you something. When you ask government officials, they open the drawer and they ask you to give something.”

Mubarak’s response to such a strong organization is to deem them a threat and to limit their activities. Amr Moussa, the interior minister, said to The Economist “The Brotherhood is a greater threat to the safety of the state than the terrorists and the militant groups.” Such fervent opposition to non-violent centrists is entirely unnecessary. While militant organizations were indeed a threat, particularly to the monopoly on violence held by the Egyptian government, the centrist Islamists did not pose such a threat. As a matter of fact, they helped prevent revolution. While the 1990s saw an outbreak in terrorist activity, leading to the arrests of Muslim Brothers, what did not happen? As the Muslim Brotherhood was providing for the basic needs of the population, the typical, not-necessarily-ideological Egyptian was not rebelling. There was no working class rebellion of Egyptians, demanding that their basic needs be addressed, since the Muslim Brotherhood was addressing those needs for them. The Egyptian regime thus owes its continued existence to the Brotherhood, for keeping the population complacent.

In fact, this arrangement has ironically contributed to the prolonged existence of the Egyptian state. Consider what is so unusual about this: while some elements within the Brotherhood – particularly, the Qutbists – sought to bring an end to the Egyptian state for being un-Islamic, the more moderate elements were interested in providing for the people, while not insisting on any hard and fast timeline for a transition to a system of Sharia. Surely both had the implementation of Sharia as their goal, but could it be argued that the moderates are not that interested if they are not willing to fight for it?

As the power arrangement worked out, the Egyptian state maintained its monopoly on force. More extreme elements of the Muslim Brotherhood challenged the state to this monopoly, but in the face of even a perceived threat, the governments of Egypt, be they led by Nasser or Sadat, have successfully performed mass imprisonments of Muslim Brothers. This is the mark of a very strong state, as on multiple occasions their use of coercion has triumphed over all other uses of coercion. Thus the use of violence to affect change in a country may be very counterproductive to fulfilling a goal of public policy, especially if it runs counter to the interests of the current regime.

Thus the centrists were very cunning by giving up, in the short term, on their goal of implementing Sharia. Instead, they looked to a different part of their ideology: non-violent social networking for the purposes of advancing the lives of their fellow people. They succeeded where the militant factions have not: having the government of Egypt agreeing to work with them. The purity of Qutbism is thus irrelevant, since they could not affect their change on Egypt, whereas the centrist Islamists were very successful – almost to the detriment of the militant Islamists.


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