A look at Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

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Soon after the February 2011 fall of Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood opened its first public headquarters in a luxury villa in Cairo, with its symbol, two golden swords under the Quran with the slogan “Prepare,” displayed on giant sign on the front. It was a landmark moment: After decades as a banned organization, the Muslim fundamentalist group was declaring it was now legal, public and a powerhouse in the new Egypt. Symbolically, the headquarters was located on a plateau where many of the group’s early, executed leaders were buried decades ago.

Elections made it the strongest party in parliament and elevated one of its own, Mohammed Mursi, as the country’s first democratically chosen president. On Monday, that headquarters was overrun, burned and ransacked by protesters who demanded Mursi’s ouster.

A look at the Brotherhood:


The Brotherhood was founded in 1928, advocating rule by Shariah, or Islamic law, and grew into Egypt’s most organized, disciplined and widespread political group, with millions of members nationwide and branches across the Islamic world.

At the top is the “general guide,” currently Mohammed Badie. The group’s executive leadership body is the Guidance Council, made up of 16-19 members. The general guide and the guidance council are chosen by the Shoura Council, the group’s version of a legislature made up of 75-90 members chosen by regional councils nationwide.

The man believed to be the most powerful member is Badie’s deputy, Khairat el-Shater, a wealthy businessman who was initially the Brotherhood’s candidate for president until he was disqualified because of a previous prison term. Mursi ran in his place.

The Brotherhood’s members swear an oath to “listen and obey” the group’s leadership and are organized into a tight hierarchy. At the base is the “usra” or “family,” basically a study group small enough that its members can meet regularly, build personal bonds, and discuss the group’s teachings on Islam. Each of the thousands of “families” nationwide reports up a pyramid of authority and gets instructions from above.

Families in the blood-relative sense of the word also play a major role. Brotherhood members tend to marry within the organization, socialize together in its network of mosques, clubs and schools, and raise their children in the group. Its members include a wide range of professionals - doctors, engineers, teachers and, importantly, very successful businessmen whose profits along with required dues help fund the group.

The group also runs extensive charities, providing free or cheap medical care, food and other services to the poor.

That structure helped the group survive and even spread during its years of arrests and crackdowns, particularly under Mubarak. It also made it a powerful force in elections, able to bring out many highly organized volunteers to campaign for Brotherhood candidates.


“The banned organization”

In its early decades, the Brotherhood was involved in assassinations of Egypt’s British colonial rulers and Egyptian officials. In 1954, President Gamal Abdel-Nasser banned the Brotherhood after blaming it for a failed assassination attempt against him. Leaders were executed and thousands of its members imprisoned, often subjected to torture.

In the next nearly 60 years, however, it grew, sometimes underground, sometimes semi-overt. It would test the limits of what the regimes would allow or would strike tacit deals with authorities, sometimes facing heavy crackdowns if it went too far.

Abdel-Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, initially gave it some room to maneuver, and the group formally renounced the use of violence in 1973. The Brotherhood and other Islamist movements established strong networks in the universities, although Sadat arrested many when student activists began to denounce his rule. They were later freed by Mubarak, who took power after Sadat’s 1981 assassination.

Under Mubarak, the group made forays into parliamentary elections, although the regime’s rigid control and vote-rigging ensured opposition victories were minimal. It was allowed to run candidates under recognized opposition political parties in the mid- 1980s. In the early 1990s, it performed strongly in union elections, winning control of the leadership of several. Mubarak lashed back, suspending union leaderships and arresting Brotherhood members.

In the 2000s, the group pushed back into politics, running candidates as independents in parliamentary elections. Moderates in the group argued that the Brotherhood accepted the principles of democracy, and that the only way Egypt could be truly democratic was if the group was legal and allowed to compete freely. Its biggest victory came in 2005, when its candidates won a fifth of parliament’s seats, despite clashes when Mubarak’s security forces tried to block opposition voters.

The stunning showing prompted a new backlash. Mubarak’s regime accused the group of plotting violence and money-laundering, jailing some of its top leaders, including al-Shater. Mubarak also rolled back promised political reforms, passing constitutional amendments that solidified his party’s grip on elections.

When mainly leftist and secular youth called for massive protests against Mubarak on Jan. 25, 2011, the Brotherhood’s leadership declined to join. However, young members did, and after a few days the leadership backed the protests. Still, even during the height of the 18-day uprising, Brotherhood officials met with Mubarak’s intelligence chief, raising accusations they were willing to strike a deal if the ban on the group was lifted.

Soon after Mubarak fell on Feb. 11, 2011, the military rulers who took power lifted the ban. It quickly formed its first political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, initially led by Mursi.


The organization calls for rule by God’s law in Egypt, although it is often vague. Members say the group tolerates a range of opinion, but all on the conservative end of the scale.

Two figures hold a powerful sway over the Brotherhood’s thought: Hassan al-Banna and Sayed Outb.

Al-Banna, a former teacher, founded the Brotherhood to resist both Britain’s colonial rule and secularism in Egyptian society. Deeply conservative, he was a strong organizer and emphasized the idea that preaching and activism will spread the word of Islam. He was assassinated in 1949.

Qutb, a secular writer-turned-Islamist, rose in the Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s. He advocated a hard-line view that Islam must transform society and that a society that did not follow its precepts was in the “Jahiliya,” or pre-Islamic pagan age. His ideology had a strong influence on modern-day jihadist groups. He was executed by Abdel-Nasser’s regime in 1966.

The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party’s platform calls for Egypt to be a “civil, democratic state with an Islamic basis,” saying it accepts the precepts of liberal democracy, such as free elections, the transfer of power and the will of elected bodies in establishing law. But the group, along with other Islamists, put clauses into the post-Mubarak constitution strengthening requirements that laws passed by parliament must not contradict Shariah.

At the same time, many in the top leadership are seen as religious hard-liners, and the ultraconservative Salafi ideology has made strong inroads into the group recently.

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