Who Is The Muslim Brotherhood?
Perhaps no other Islamic group is as organized as the Muslim Brotherhood. With its intricate hierarchy and tight ranks, it has, over the years, emerged to be one of the most influential and politically savvy Islamic entities in the Arab world. The group was formed by Hassan EI Banna, an Islamist thinker and teacher born in 1906, who, after moving from the countryside to Cairo, deemed society too Westernized and decided to bring back the traditional morals of Islam. In 1928, after studying the writings of Salafi thinkers and preaching for two years, EI Banna officially created the Muslim Brotherhood to promote a return to the fundamental rules and practices of Islam to combat secularism and what he regarded as the growing influence of Western colonization. He believed Islam alone could cure the ills of the morally decaying society and offer the right way of living.
EI Banna’s ideas inspired the founding of 2,000 branches of the Brotherhood across the country in the 1930s and 40s, gaining massive popularity through his numerous visits to villages around Egypt. By 1948, the Muslim Brotherhood had grown to half a million members in Egypt, with numerous others in other countries.
Well-structured with a clear chain of command, the Brotherhood is headed by a Supreme Guide, or murshid, who is bound by loyalty to the organization’s members who in turn swear allegiance and owe him an almost blind obedience. EI Banna was the first murshid; today it is Mohamed Badie who heads the organization at the national level. The guidance office, or Maktab Al-Irshad, handles all the affairs of the group across the country. Each branch has its own administration and structure, which all ultimately report to the Supreme Guide.
The Brotherhood, unlike other Islamist groups, has taken a more subtle and diplomatic approach to their cause, making peace with the government at some points and assassinating officials at others.
EI Banna stressed on a gradual change from the bottom up, believing the way to go about it can’t be through an uprising or coup d’etat, but rather by infiltrating society first. The first phase of the Brotherhood’s mission was to spread their calling and gain popularity nationwide. The second phase was to mobilize members and organize the movement to train volunteers, leading to the final stage of execution where Islamic rules and principles are implemented in society to reach a complete transformation into an Islamic state.
The Brotherhood first started spreading its message throughout society by publishing newspapers, magazines and periodicals as well as sponsoring community development projects such as schools and hospitals. However, in the 1940s, the group shifted approaches to adopt the use of violence as part of the resistance to the British presence in Egypt. They also expanded the use of violence to include those whom they saw as enabling the infringement on the rights of Muslims in Egypt, including members of the government. They created a secret military wing to carry out these attacks.
Due to political threats in the region, including a war in Gaza, and threats of a coup d’etat by the Brotherhood, late Prime Minister Mahmoud El Nokrashy dismantled the group in 1948, out of fears of their growing popularity and increasingly radical ideology. EI Nokrashy then ordered the arrests of the most prominent Brotherhood members.
The Brotherhood responded with series of attacks on officials, including the assassination of Judge Ahmed Khazendar, who had imprisoned members of the Brotherhood for attacking British soldiers. The Brotherhood also assassinated EI Nokrashy in 1948 and attempted to bomb a court complex to burn evidence against them.
In turn, EI Banna was assassinated by the state in February 1949. EI Banna was succeed by the more moderate Judge Hassan EI Hodeiby. However, the real crackdown on the Brotherhood came during late President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule in 1954. The Brotherhood’s relations with Abdel Nasser soured as he suppressed their attempts to control the political scene, and the group launched a series of attacks on the regime’s policies, occasionally resorting to violence in several cases.
The most notable of the attacks included an alleged assassination attempt on the life of Abdel Nasser. Although on the surface they were trying to reach an agreement with the regime, Abdel Nasser accused them of trying to assassinate him in 1954 while he was giving a speech in Alexandria’s Mansheya Square. After the attempt failed, he banned the group and exiled or imprisoned most of its leaders during late 1950s and early 60s.
In an attempt to combat Nasserism, Sadat in 1975 freed the prisoners and allowed the exiles to return to Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood began to reestablish itself with a more moderate agenda, which alienated several members causing the creation of several offshoot Islamist groups.
The Brotherhood however was banned during the reign of former President Hosni Mubarak, whose regime alternated between tolerating the group and cracking down on it. Unable to function as a Political party, Brotherhood members ran in the elections as independents and in 2005, won one fifth of the Parliament’s seats – a sign of their growing popularity.
The Brotherhood’s beliefs mellowed over time. However, their doctrine came to be influenced by the radical writings of Islamist thinker and member of the Brotherhood Sayed Kotb.
In his book Milestones, Kotb declared the society a pagan one that has to be changed from the roots through jihad that should extend to all countries, not just Egypt. This reflected the Brotherhood’s belief in unity among all Muslim nations and bringing back the Islamic umma. They advocated loyalty to religion and not a country to neutralize nationalism.
Milestones solidified this belief, influencing not only the Brotherhood but several other Islamist groups in the region. The Brotherhood never officially adopted violence except if the rights of a Muslim community were infringed upon. Therefore during the 1940s and 50s, several assassination attempts were attributed to them mostly against the British and government officials who supported their presence in Egypt. EI Banna had stated that the Brotherhood “will use practical force whenever there is no other way and, whenever they are sure the implementation of faith and unity is ready.”
Their reformation in the 1970s, when Sadat allowed the Brotherhood to regroup, led to a shift in beliefs and policies that included renouncing violence. Abandoning jihad created a rift between the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.
The Brotherhood now officially refuses any violence or coups that affect the unity of the country “because such plots may allow their organizers to supersede the political social realities; but would never allow the masses the opportunity to exercise their free will.
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