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The Inclusion-Moderation Thesis: Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt

Summary and Keywords

The Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) is one of the most popular and influential socio-religious movements in the Muslim World. Over the past century, the movement dominated the religious sphere in several countries, with its extraordinary ability to blend religion, politics, and activism. With its comprehensive and elastic ideology, disciplined structure, and enormous resources, the Muslim Brotherhood (hereafter, the Brotherhood) was able to galvanize and mobilize Muslims in order to achieve its political, social, and religious objectives. Over the past few years, the Brotherhood has been a subject of debate and disagreement among scholars, particularly regarding its ideology, tactics, and objectives. Also, scholars disagree whether the Brotherhood should be studied as a religious, social, or political movement. In fact, the multifaceted character of the Brotherhood, which is part of its very nature since the beginning, has something to do with this confusion and disagreement. Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Brotherhood, adopted a comprehensive vision of Islam that encompasses religion, politics, preaching, activism, and charity. He envisioned the Brotherhood as a movement that combines the mundane and spirituality, religion and politics, and charity with activism.

Also, some scholars tend to apply the so-called “inclusion-moderation” hypothesis in order to explain the behavior, ideology, and strategy of Islamist movements. It assumes that the integration of the anti-establishment parties and movements can lead to the moderation of their ideology, behavior, and strategy. However, the “inclusion-moderation” hypothesis suffers two key limitations. The first one relates to the controversial nature of the concept of “moderation” itself and the disagreement among scholars over its definition. And the second lies in the mechanical and linear thrust of the hypothesis. Moderation is an ambiguous and highly controversial term in the scholarship about Islamists. Although some scholars equate it with nonviolence, others stretch it to include liberal and progressive views. Also, the integration of Islamist movements is not inevitably conducive to moderation, nor does it necessarily lead to democratization. Similarly, the exclusion of Islamists does not necessarily result in radicalization or extremism. Surprisingly, in some cases exclusion led to the moderation of Islamists, such as in Tunisia under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Therefore, it is more useful to focus on the processes and dynamics of Islamists’ inclusion than focusing on the outcome of these processes and dynamics. The case of the Brotherhood after the Egyptian uprising of 2011 provides an important example for examining the limits and shortcomings of the inclusion-moderation hypothesis and to what extent it can be applied to Islamist movements. It also helps us to understand the relationship between the internal and external factors and how they shape the ideology and behavior of Islamist movements.

Keywords: Al-Banna, Egypt, inclusion, moderation, Muslim Brotherhood, politics and religion


The Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) is one of the most popular and influential socio-religious movements in the Muslim World. Over the past century, the movement dominated the religious sphere in several countries, with its extraordinary ability to blend religion, politics, and activism (Wickham, 2002). With its comprehensive and elastic ideology, disciplined structure, and enormous resources (Al-Anani, 2016), the Muslim Brotherhood (hereafter the Brotherhood) was able to galvanize and mobilize Muslims in order to achieve its political, social, and religious objectives. Although operating under highly authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes (Brown, 2012), the Brotherhood managed to create a colossal social network (Brooke, 2019) and to survive different waves of repression and exclusion (Brown, 2012; Wickham, 2013). Although the movement operates legally and openly in many countries, albeit under different names, its activities are banned and outlawed in other countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab of Emirates. Furthermore, as a social movement, the Brotherhood has a unique code of collective identity that encompasses individuals from different social strata. Its well-designed and intensive indoctrination process reshapes members’ identity and guides them in everyday life (al-Anani, 2016). Also, whereas the Brotherhood separates religion and politics in some societies, such as in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, it combines them in other places, such as in Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait.

The literature on the Brotherhood is burgeoning. Several scholars have studied the movement extensively during the past two decades, particularly after 9/11. Some scholars have studied the history and formative years of the Brotherhood (Lia, 1998; Mitchell, 1969; Munson, 2001), and others have focused on the ideological and political evolution of the Brotherhood (El-Ghobashy, 2005, Wickham, 2013; Zollner, 2009). Also, although some researchers examined the organization and structure of the Brotherhood (Al-Anani, 2007, 2016), others studied the Brotherhood’s political activism and tactics (Al-Awaḍi, 2004; Brown, 2012; Masoud, 2014; Wickham, 2002). Another line of scholarship has focused on the Brotherhood’s social service provision (Al-Arian, 2014; Brooke, 2019). However, despite this rich literature, the Brotherhood has always been a subject of debate and disagreement among scholars, particularly regarding its ideology, tactics, and objectives. Scholars disagree whether the Brotherhood should be studied as a religious, social, or political movement. In fact, the multifaceted character of the Brotherhood, which has been part of its very nature since the beginning, has something to do with this confusion and disagreement. As this article explains, Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Brotherhood, adopted a comprehensive vision of Islam that encompasses religion, politics, preaching, activism, and charity. He envisioned the Brotherhood as a movement that combines the mundane and spirituality, religion and politics, and charity with activism.

To provide a plausible understanding to the Brotherhood, one needs to situate it within the broader context of understanding and studying Islamism as a sociopolitical phenomenon. Over the past few decades, two influential scholarly trends have dominated the study of Islamist movements. First is the essentialist trend that treats Islamism as a rigid and immutable phenomenon. According to the proponents of this trend, Islamism is a mere reaction to the tension between Islam and modernity. Moreover, they claim that Islam, as a set of traditions and cultural values, has a deep problem with democracy (Berman, 2004; Huntington, 1996; Pipes, 1983; Sivan, 1985; Tibi, 1998). Not surprisingly, they tend to identify Islam as a rigid cluster of idioms and symbols that shapes Muslims’ vision toward the self and the other (Ismail, 2006). The second trend is contextualists who view the emergence of Islamist movements as a mere response to the crises that wrecked the Middle Eastern countries over the past six decades. According to them, the problems of urbanization, unemployment, poverty, and corruption had eroded the legitimacy of political regimes and paved the way for Islamist movements to exist and thrive. According to the advocates of this current, authoritarian durability and socioeconomic failure fueled the Islamist resurgence in many parts of the Muslim world (Anderson, 1997; Ayubi, 1991; Guazzone, 1995; Hudson, 1977; Ibrahim, 1996). Clearly, these two currents were mainly preoccupied by the impact of culture and politics on the emergence and development of Islamist movements. They focused on the “externality” of Islamism, that is, examining its discourse and behavior without paying much attention to the internal dynamics and interactions that could explain Islamists’ ideology, behavior, and tactics. Therefore, a new generation of scholars has emerged over the past decade and sought to fill this gap. The new trend has its roots within social movements’ theory. The proponents of this trend tend to view Islamism as an intricate and multifaceted phenomenon that can’t be understood without unpacking its complexity. Hence, they focus on the institutional and ideational aspects in examining Islamist movements. Issues such as identity, mobilization, framing, and collective action are the locus of this trend (Bayat, 2005; Munson, 2001; Wickham, 2002; Wiktorowicz, 2003; Yavuz, 2003).

Some social movement scholars tend to apply the so-called “inclusion-moderation” hypothesis in order to explain the behavior, ideology, and strategy of Islamist movements. It assumes that the integration of the anti-establishment parties and movements can lead to the moderation of their ideology, behavior, and strategy (Clark, 2006; El-Ghobashy, 2005; Schwedler, 2006; Wickham, 2004). However, this hypothesis has been a subject of critique and revision (Brown, 2012; Schwedler, 2011; Tezcür, 2011; Wickham, 2013). Generally, the “inclusion-moderation” hypothesis suffers two limitations: its mechanical or linear thrust and the ambiguous and highly controversial nature of the concept of “moderation.” Following the same line of scholarship, this article runs against the “inclusion-moderation” hypothesis. The argument put forward is that the integration of Islamist movements is not inevitably conducive to moderation, nor does it necessarily lead to democratization. It suggests that instead of focusing on the “outcome” of the inclusion process and whether or not it is moderation, it would be more useful to concentrate on the “process” itself and how the internal and external variables interplay within Islamist movements. The case of the Brotherhood after the Egyptian uprising of 2011 provides an important case for examining the limits of the inclusion-moderation hypothesis and to what extent it can be applied to Islamist movements.

Therefore, this article aims to provide a lucid and comprehensive understanding of the Brotherhood’s ideology, structure, and tactics. The first section of the article provides a brief historical background on the emergence and evolution of the Brotherhood in Egypt. The second section explores the main ideological and organizational contours of the Brotherhood and how they are constructed, developed, and changed over the past few decades. The third section studies the Brotherhood’s involvement in formal politics particularly after the uprising of 2011 in Egypt. And the final section examines the ideological and behavioral changes of the Brotherhood through the lens of the inclusion-moderation hypothesis.

The Muslim Brotherhood: A Historical Background

The Muslim Brotherhood was established in 1928 by a schoolteacher named Hassan Al-Banna. Al-Banna aimed to promote Islam and to spread Islamic values and teachings in Muslims’ everyday life. He believed that Islam should be an integral component of Muslims’ identity and that reforming Muslim societies should be based on Islam. Al-Banna’s personal life was a mixture of piety, preaching, and activism. He was born in 1906 in a small rural town called al-Mahmudiyya, about 90 miles northwest of Cairo. His father, Ahmed Abdelrahman al-Banna, was a traditional sheikh and local imam (prayer leader) who had a great influence on his son. Al-Banna was sent to a traditional Islamic school (kuttab) to learn Arabic and study Quran. At his early age, al-Banna joined the Sufi Hasafiya order and became involved in its religious and spiritual rituals (Mitchell, 1969, p. 1). In 1923, al-Banna moved to Cairo to study at Dar-al-Ulum (House of Sciences), which was established in 1873 and is considered “Egypt’s first ‘modern’ institute of higher education” (Wickham, 2013, p. 21). The move to Cairo had a significant impact on Al-Banna’s religious and political views. Moving from a traditional and highly conservative environment in rural Egypt into the capital constituted a new phase in al-Banna’s life, which resulted eventually in establishing the Brotherhood after a few years (Al-Anani, 2016, p. 52). Al-Banna was dismayed by what he describes the “immoral and non-Islamic life” and the lack of religious knowledge and awareness among ordinary Egyptians (Al-Banna, 2002, p. 51). He was also disappointed by the political rivalry and divisions among the national elite, particularly in the aftermath of the revolution of 1919 and “by the secular orientations of the new Egyptian university and the literary and social salons, newspapers, and magazines” (Wickham, 2013, p. 21). However, the most important impact on al-Banna happened when nationalist Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, which dismayed Muslims around the world. Therefore, it was not a surprise that al-Banna founded the Brotherhood four years later and aimed to reinstate the caliphate.

Al-Banna viewed Islam as a comprehensive faith that encompasses different aspects of life. In fact, he was the first Islamic scholar who adopted and promoted the idea of Islamic comprehensiveness (shumuliyyat al-Islam), which became a key component of the Brotherhood’s ideology. Also, contrary to his counterparts, who adopted an apolitical vision of Islam, al-Banna adopted a revivalist and inclusive version of Islam that can provide political, social, and economic solutions to the problems of the Muslim world. He states:

We believe that Islamic teachings are comprehensive and they include life and hereafter. Islam is a faith and worship, a state and nationality, a spiritual and deeds, a holy text and a sword . . . the Glorious Qur’an considers these things to be the core of Islam.

(al-Banna, 2002, p. 171)

The context that prompted al-Banna to establish the Brotherhood is paramount. Living under British colonialism, Egypt witnessed the birth of Egypt’s national movement after the revolution of 1919, which strived to gain independence. However, Egypt’s political elite suffered factionalism and divisions, and the momentum of the revolution gradually evaporated. In addition, the monarchial regime that was created by Muhammad Ali in 1805 and preserved by his dynasty was not only weak and corrupt but also submissive to the British authorities. Therefore, the British presence in Egypt increased and became more visible. Also, al-Banna was irritated by the growing Christian missionary activities in Egypt’s cities and villages, which he himself encountered at a young age at al-Mahmudiyya (Mitchell, 1969, p. 13). Moreover, Egypt’s identity was a subject of disagreement and debate among Egypt’s intellectuals, who were divided between Islamic revivalists and Westernized modernists. The former believed that Islam is an integral component of Egypt’s identity whereas the latter adopted a secular vision to that identity should be based on law and reason (Al-Anani, 2016, p. 52). Al-Banna was a disciple of sheikh Rashid Reda (1865–1935), a Salafi scholar who had a great influence on Islamic thought in the beginning of the 20th century. In his memoir, al-Banna spoke highly of Rida and how he was influenced by his thought and ideas to the extent that some scholars consider al-Banna to be the successor of Rida (Ghanim, 1992). Rida himself was a committed student and sincere follower of the well-known Islamic scholar Muhammad Abduh (1849–1906) who championed the idea of Islamic reform.

Also, al-Banna was influenced by other sheikhs and Islamic scholars such as Sheikh Muhibbuddin al-Khateeb, who was a political activist, Islamic journalist, and prominent writer. The impact of al-Khateeb on al-Banna was profound. For example, after he moved to Cairo, al-Banna spent most of his time in al-Khateeb’s Salafi Bookshop (al-Maktaba al-Salafiyyah), where he met many Islamic scholars and sheikhs (al-Banna, 2002, p. 62). Moreover, al-Khateeb gave al-Banna the opportunity to publish some of his early writings at al-Fath newspaper. In addition, al-Khateeb was among those who founded the Young Men’s Muslim Association (YMMA) in 1926; al-Banna joined and became involved in its social and preaching activities (Lia, 1998, p. 30). A political dissent from Syria, al-Khateeb had sophisticated political and organizational skills that enabled him to form clandestine networks and groups in order to resist the French occupation in Syria during the 1920s. Al-Banna was able to benefit from al-Khateeb’s skills and experience in forming the Brotherhood (Ghanim, 1992, p. 166). Moreover, in his memoirs, al-Banna celebrated his relationship with al-Khateeb, which continued after al-Banna established the Brotherhood. For example, al-Banna refers to using al-Khateeb’s bookshop to print and publish the Brotherhood’s leaflets and pamphlets (al-Banna, 2002, p. 56).

In 1927, Al-Banna was appointed as a teacher at a primary school at the Suez Canal Zone town of Ismailiyya, which had a large British military facility and where the headquarters of the European-owned were located (Wickham, 2013, p. 21). At that context, al-Banna began to preach his religious views among the public in mosques, coffeehouses, and schools in a new and nontraditional way, which attracted many people to his religious views. In fact, the idea of establishing the Brotherhood was born in Ismailiyya when al-Banna was approached by six workers who were inspired by his religious commitment and preaching style. Al-Banna described that moment:

In March 1928, six brothers visited me at my house with shining eyes and devout faces and they said, “we want to serve Islam and our nation with faith and dignity, and the only way to achieve that is to form a group that could defend Islam and die for it.

(al-Banna, 2002, p.84)

The Brotherhood’s Ideology and Organization

The Brotherhood’s ideology evolved and changed over time. The Brotherhood began as a religious movement that aimed to spread Islamic teachings, values, and morals in everyday life. Al-Banna envisioned the Brotherhood as a vanguard movement that embodies these values and morals and propagates them across the Muslim world. He states:

We call people to have a principle in their lives, to believe in it . . . our movement has a principle; our principle is calling for Islam. Islam in our understanding encompasses every aspect in our life . . . our call (da’utna) stems from the Qur’an and Sunna.

(al-Banna, 2002, p. 23)

Theologically, the Brotherhood belongs to Sunni Islam and follows the Asha‘rite school of thought, as do most of Sunni Muslims in the Middle East. Al-Banna’s ideology was a unique mixture of Salafism and Sufism, two Sunni religious trends that are always in disagreement and stand against each other. He was influenced by the theological views of the Islamic philosopher and thinker Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058–1111), who championed the Asha’rite doctrine (Halverson, 2010, p. 13). The Brotherhood’s ideology does not claim to represent all Muslims; however, it does consider itself to be a representation of mainstream Islam, which calls for Muslims’ unity and reform. This unity can take the form of a caliphate, as al-Banna believed, or another integrative and collaborative form, as Brotherhood’s contemporary leaders argue for and propagate. The Brotherhood adopts an open religious vision that calls for spiritual and social reform for both individuals and society. This reform can be achieved through preaching (da’wa) and education (tarbiyya). It also calls for Muslim unity and rejects attempts of religious and sectarian divisions among Muslims. It tolerates other visions of Islam, such as Shi’ism, and considers them Muslim believers.

Politically, the Brotherhood represents itself as a reformist movement and seeks social and political change through peaceful means. In fact, one of the key features of the Brotherhood that distinguishes it from other Islamist movements lies in its gradualist approach for change, which focuses on educating Muslims and enhancing their religious awareness to become righteous individuals. This gradualist approach relies on tarbiya (education) and starts by reforming individuals’ character and behavior before moving into the wider society and reformulating it to become an Islamic society. This Islamic society would pave the way to establish an Islamic rule that would apply the Islamic law (Shari’a) and lead humanity. As al-Banna points out, the Brotherhood’s objective is “to lead humanity towards the well-being under the banner of Islam” (al-Banna, 2002, p. 168). The Brotherhood emerged in a time of tremendous political and social turmoil. According to Wickham, the Brotherhood was “a classic case of an ‘anti-system’ group situated outside—and against—the established political order” (Wickham, 2013, p. 22). Within a few years, the Brotherhood became the largest social movement in Egypt, with several branches around the country and thousands of members joined the movement. According to Munson, the Brotherhood had over 2,000 branches throughout Egypt, with an active membership of 300,000 to 600,000 by 1949 (Munson, 2001, p. 488). For almost a decade, the Brotherhood was an apolitical movement and only focused on religious proselytization (da’wa) and charity activities. It was not until the early 1940s that al-Banna began to express and propagate his political views. He became involved in the political debate and called for political, social, economic, educational, and judicial change in Egypt (al-Banna, 2002, p. 169). Moreover, al-Banna contested parliamentary elections during the 1940s and negotiated with the government for more freedom for the Brotherhood’s preaching and social activities. However, the Brotherhood’s involvement in politics created many problems and complicated its relationship with the government, the monarch, and the British authorities. In the early 1940s, al-Banna established the Brotherhood’s military wing, Al-Tanzim al-Khas, or the Special Apparatus, which was involved in violence against the British authorities and Egyptian government. The conflict between the Brotherhood and the government led to banning the movement and assassinating its leaders at the end of the 1940s.

Organizationally, the Brotherhood has a highly solid and disciplined structure, which enabled it to endure for decades. Al-Banna was keen to create a hierarchal organization that is connected through a chain of leadership from the top to the bottom. This structure has different organizational levels, starting from the base, where a group of members form what is known as usra, or family, to the General Guide, who resides at the top of the movement. Also, the Brotherhood has a rigorous system of membership and multitiered system of membership that plays a vital role in strengthening members’ identity. Under this system, members have to follow certain rules and norms and align themselves with the Brotherhood’s ideology. The organizational structure of the Brotherhood can be divided into two principal axes: vertical and horizontal. The vertical axis is the hierarchical structure, which starts from the family usra, the basic organizational unit of the Brotherhood, to the Guidance Bureau (maktab al-irshad). In between these two come branches (shu‘ba), districts (manatiq), and governorates offices (muhafazat). The chain of command and the flow of orders, decisions, and instructions from one level to another are governed by general bylaws and explicit procedures that are respected and followed by all members. As Brown aptly puts it, “the [Brotherhood] movements not only work hard to follow formal procedures; they take great pride in doing so” (Brown, 2012, p. 67). On the horizontal axis are committees (lijan), sections (aqsam), and units (wahdat). The communication and interaction on the horizontal axis are defined and articulated by internal bylaws and regulations. The Brotherhood’s code of organizational norms revolves around a certain set of values such as allegiance (bay‘a), obedience (ta‘ah), trust (thiqa), commitment (iltizam), and loyalty (intima). These norms help the movement to create internal solidarity and coherence. Also, Education (tarbiyya) is a central concept in the Brotherhood’s ideology and structure. It refers to the process of reshaping an individual’s identity through practice. As one of the Brotherhood’s well-known leaders succinctly puts it, “The most important product which is expected from tarbiyya is that it provides us with individuals who adopt certain values in everyday life” (El-Ghazali, 2000, p. 218). That is, tarbiyya exemplifies the underlying process that alters an individual’s views, perceptions, and behavior to align with the Brotherhood’s ideology. It is through the tarbiyya process the Brotherhood can reformulate a member’s worldviews and practice in everyday life.

The Brotherhood in Politics

The Brotherhood participated in formal politics since the early 1940s. However, during the 1950s and 1960s, the movement clashed with Nasser’s regime, and it was banned, with thousands of its members imprisoned and tortured. At the beginning of the 1970s, the Brotherhood returned into political life after the departure of Nasser. President Sadat, Nasser’s successor, released the Brotherhood’s leaders from prison and allowed them to rebuild their social and organizational network. Under Mubarak, the Brotherhood plunged into formal politics, enhanced its political clout, and expanded its social network. It shrewdly seized the new opportunity created by Mubarak’s partial political openness to enhance its political and social clout (Al-Awaḍi, 2004; El-Ghobashy, 2005; Ibrahim, 1996; Wickham, 2002). Therefore, the movement participated in the 1984 and 1987 elections and achieved significant gains. Moreover, the movement reached out to secular, liberal, and leftist forces and built electoral alliances with them during the elections. Because it was a banned movement, the Brotherhood’s members had to run in elections as independent candidates. However, because of the extant Electoral Law 114/1983, which followed the absolute list system that required political parties to reach a threshold of 8% of the votes before seats could be gained in parliament, the Brotherhood had to build electoral alliances with other political forces. It allied with the al-Wafd Party and Labor and achieved surprising results (El-Ghobashy, 2005; Wickham, 2002). In addition, the Brotherhood dominated several professional syndicates. Dissatisfied with the corruption and poor socioeconomic performance of the syndicates (Al-Awaḍi, 2004; Zahid, 2012), many doctors, lawyers, and engineers have sought to change the executive boards. Emboldened by its emerging political gains, the Brotherhood fielded many candidates in the professional syndicate and associations elections. The movement won the majority of seats in medicine, pharmacy, and engineering (El-Ghobashy, 2005; Wickham, 2002). By the end of 1980s, the Brotherhood had become the major opposition movement in Egypt as it consolidated its presence in the political arena and expanded its social and organizational network across the country (El-Ghobashy, 2005; Ibrahim, 1996; Wickham, 2002). However, Mubarak came to the conclusion that the political rise and social expansion of the Brotherhood can undermine his legitimacy and threaten his National Democratic Party (NDP). Therefore, by the beginning of the 1990s, confrontation between Mubarak and the Brotherhood was unavoidable. During the 1990s, the Mubarak regime carried out the heaviest crackdown by the state against the Brotherhood since the 1950s (El-Ghobashy, 2005). Mubarak used the surge of violence in Egypt during the first half of the 1990s as a pretext to suppress all Islamists, no matter their ideology and tactics and whether or not they are peaceful and moderate. The Brotherhood, in turn, sought to de-legitimize Mubarak’s regime and discredit the NDP. Therefore, it boycotted the parliamentary election in 1990 and reached to secular and liberal forces. It also increased its presence in civil society and expanded its social network. Its candidates swept many syndicate and university elections (Al-Awaḍi, 2004; El-Ghobashy, 2005).

Moreover, the movement witnessed the birth of a new political generation that would lead the movement in the following decades (Al-Awaḍi, 2004; El-Ghobashy, 2005). This generation adopted a progressive discourse and enabled the Brotherhood to enhance the relationship with secular and liberal forces. Also, it created significant changes in the Brotherhood’s ideology the following decade. Therefore, in 2004, the Brotherhood issued a “political reform” initiative that was a hallmark in the movement’s ideological and political evolution. The initiative adopted democracy, pluralism, and political reform as key objectives. The Brotherhood also has reached out to other ideological and political forces in order to thwart Mubarak’s attempt to cede power to his son Gamal. It thus coordinated with the Kefay movement (enough), supported the demands of judges for more independence, and campaigned for more political and constitutional reform. In 2005, the Brotherhood, surprisingly, won 20% of the parliament seats before Mubarak unleashed a harsh and heavy crackdown campaign against the movement. The security apparatus arrested many of the Brotherhood’s senior leaders, including Khairat al-Shater, Hasan Malek, and Mohamed Ali Beshr, who were tried before a military trial and got sentenced to between 3 to 10 years (al-Anani, 2007). It was not until the uprising of 2011 that many of the Brotherhood leaders were released and attained their political freedom.

After the downfall of Mubarak in February 2011, the Brotherhood emerged as a key player in Egypt’s incipient political order. It took power in June 2012, and its leader, Mohamed Morsi, became Egypt’s first freely and democratically elected president. Following a short period serving as a government-in-waiting (Perry, 2012), the Brotherhood became the new ruler of Egypt, with all power aspirations and challenges included. The group’s failure to make the needed transition from a vocal opposition movement to a ruling force became glaringly evident during Morsi’s tenure, as the Brotherhood ironically embodied both identities. In addition, the Brotherhood encountered tremendous political, social, and economic challenges that required fundamental changes in the movement’s discourse and strategy. After only one year in power, Morsi was toppled on July 3 through a military coup backed by popular protests in June 30, 2012.

The Brotherhood’s Paradoxical Moderation

The case of the Brotherhood poses many challenges to the inclusion-moderation hypothesis. These challenges stem mainly from two key points: the meaning of moderation in the context of Islamism and the mechanical and linear relationship between inclusion and moderation. There is a little agreement among scholars on how to define moderation and what might constitute a moderate and radical ideology and behavior (al-Anani, 2010; Schwedler, 2011). Also, the scope and level of moderation have been a subject of debate and disagreement among scholars. Although some scholars argue that moderation refers to peaceful participation in politics and acceptance of democratic values such as freedom, pluralism, tolerance, and equality (al-Anani, 2010, p. 1), others believe that moderation should be comprehensive, that is, ideological, behavioral, and strategic (Ashour, 2009; Wickham, 2004). Also, the inclusion-moderation hypothesis entails a mechanical and linear relationship between its variables. This hypothesis is problematic and suffers many problems. First, it assumes that Islamist movements are not moderate by nature and that they tend to adopt a radical and rigid ideology that requires their engagement in order to become moderate. In fact, most Islamist movements who are involved in politics embrace moderate worldviews and are adamant participants in formal politics through elections and peaceful activism. Second, it argues that Islamists’ moderation is consecutive to their inclusion in the political process. Although this argument has validity, as many Islamists became more pragmatic and are leaning toward the center in their political and ideological stance, some movements became moderate, with exclusion, not inclusion, as in the case of Tunisian Ennahda. As the study of Cavatorta and Merone (2013) shows, the moderation of Ennahda was a result of its exclusion from politics during the reign of Zine El Abidine Bin Ali. They argue that “repression and social marginalization that has led the Islamist party Ennahda to move from its extreme anti-systemic position of the 1970s to become the mainstream conservative party it is today” (Cavatorta & Merone, 2013, p. 857). Third, the inclusion-moderation hypothesis reinforces the moderate–radical dichotomy in studying Islamism. It reduces the differences among Islamist movements into two rigid categories that do not reflect the complexity of Islamist politics. Moreover, this typology has hampered scholars from understanding the ongoing changes among Islamists, particularly after the so-called Arab Spring. Islamists have undergone significant changes and transformations during the past few years that are far more intricate than putting them under the moderate–radical typology. As Jillian Schwedler points out, “Moderates and radicals were no longer concepts that facilitated understanding: They were empirical categories, and our scholarship focused on a range of questions stemming from that distinction” (Schwedler, 2015).

The moderation of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood challenges the assumptions of the inclusion-moderation hypothesis. It reveals the shortcomings of its interpretive framework and undermines its causal relationship. In fact, the exclusion rather than inclusion of the Brotherhood under Mubarak that led to significant changes in its ideology, discourse, and behavior. As explained earlier, the movement has participated in formal politics since the 1980s and built alliances with secular, liberal, and leftist parties. Also, the movement issued different political initiatives that reflected its ideological and political development. However, after the uprising of 2011, and with the extraordinary political openness that followed the uprising, the Brotherhood struggled to adapt to the new environment. Therefore, the moderation of the Brotherhood was less significant after the uprising, which can be explained by two key factors: The Brotherhood’s conservatism and the organizational stagnation and inertia. For the first factor, as the paper illustrated earlier, the Brotherhood is a conservative movement that adopts a traditional and orthodox ideology. It couldn’t reconcile its conservatism with the revolutionary demands of the 2011 uprising. The Brotherhood speaks proudly of its “gradualist” strategy, particularly when compared to extreme and radical movements that adopt radical views. This gradualism corresponds with the broad and relatively ambiguous objectives of the Brotherhood. It also resonates with the politically and socially conservative Egyptians who prefer gradual change as opposed to confrontation with the regime. Over the past few decades, the Brotherhood avoided revolt or rebellion against Egypt’s autocratic regimes, despite repression and exclusion. In fact, not only has the Brotherhood tolerated Mubarak’s regime repression, it has also struck deals and bargains with it in some instances. The Brotherhood firmly believes in gradual reform based on a “bottom-up” approach that starts by reforming and purifying individuals, then moves to Islamizing the society before capturing the state. In fact, the Brotherhood’s statements and texts eschew the very idea of “change,” using the notion of “reform” instead. Al-Banna was clear in emphasizing the “reformist” character of the Brotherhood. He explicitly stated that the Brotherhood “does not believe in revolution” (al-Banna, 2002, p. 65). Although conservatism helped the Brotherhood broaden its constituency by appealing to the low and lower-middle classes in Egypt, it became a burden after the January uprising. Moreover, the Brotherhood’s gradualist and reformist strategy was irrelevant and hampered the movement’s inclusion after the uprising of 2011. Not only has the Brotherhood struggled to adapt to the fast-changing environment, it has also failed to achieve its objectives. The Brotherhood was torn between its long-standing “conservatism” and the revolutionary momentum and spirit that were created after the uprising, it thus failed to live up to the uprising’s demands and aspirations. This conservatism, or lack of a revolutionary mindset and agenda, was a major cause for the Brotherhood’s failure in power. It also alienated activists and other political groups who lost faith in the Brotherhood’s ability to build a democratic system during its first year in power.

Second, although the Brotherhood takes pride in its powerful and disciplined structure, this organizational robustness worked against the movement and affected its political agenda and behavior, particularly after the uprising of 2011. The Brotherhood’s tight-knit structure has blocked attempts to restructure the group in order to become more democratic and progressive. This organizational inertia has affected the Brotherhood in different ways, such as by enhancing the control and domination of the conservative faction at the expense of the reformists and increasing the rigidity and exclusiveness of the decision-making process within the movement. The domination of the conservative wing started in the second half of the 1990s, especially under the tenure of Mustafa Mashhur, the fifth general guide of the Brotherhood. This was clear when key reformist figures, such as Abu Ela Mady and Essam Sultan, broke away from the Brotherhood, criticizing its rigid structure. They called for establishing a political party for the Brotherhood, but the movement’s leadership rejected that move, which led both figures to leave the movement and establish the Al-Wasat Party. By the end of the 1990s, the conservatives controlled the Brotherhood and solidified their grip on power within the movement. Between 2001 and 2011, the conservatives dominated the Brotherhood’s leadership, restructured its organization, and controlled the decision-making process. Two key figures paved the way for these changes: Mahmoud Ezzat, the former secretary general of the Brotherhood, and Khairat al-Shater, the deputy of the general guide, a business tycoon, and the chief strategist of the Brotherhood. Both men were the most influential leaders within the movement for almost three decades. They created a closed power circle that is loyal to them and adopts their conservative vision. This was evident when they began restructuring the top two institutions in the Brotherhood: the Shura Council and the Guidance Bureau. The selection of these two institutions’ members became based on how much they are loyal to the Brotherhood’s leadership. During the 2000s, many of the Brotherhood’s senior and mid-level leaders, such as the former President Mohamed Morsi; Sa‘ad al-Katatni, the former spokesperson of the parliament; and Sa‘ad al-Hossini, the former governor of Kafr El-Shaikh during Morsi’s tenure; and members of the Guidance Bureau were selected and promoted through the connections and blessings of al-Shater and Ezzat. Tensions and bickering between the conservatives and the reformists were simmering for years. However, it reached a tipping point after the January uprising, when the Brotherhood expelled many of its young members and reformist figures such as Abdel Moniem Aboul Fotouh, who was excluded from the Brotherhood after his bid for presidency in 2012. Ostensibly, he was dismissed for breaking the Brotherhood’s vow not to contest presidential elections. However, it was a culmination of the long-lasting dispute between him and al-Shater. Other young members and prominent young activists such as Islam Lotfy, Mohamed El-Kassas, and Mohamed Abbas, among others, were reproved as a result of their calls for internal change and restructuring the Brotherhood to become more open and progressive. Thus, they broke ranks with the movement and established a new political party called the Egyptian Current (Al-Tayyar al-Masry).


The Brotherhood provides a critical case for the inclusion-moderation hypothesis. It prompts scholars to question the basic assumptions of this hypothesis. Overall, we can highlight several key issues that might explain the shortcomings of this hypothesis and open new horizons to rethink it. First, the casual relationship between inclusion and moderation is far from being linear or mechanical. In fact, the case of the Brotherhood shows that repression, not inclusion, played an important role in shaping the Brotherhood’s ideology and behavior, particularly under Mubarak. The Brotherhood improved its stance on political pluralism, individuals’ freedoms, and women and Christians’ political rights in order to broaden its support, improve its relationship with other political factions, and enhance its political gains. Second, the original formula of the inclusion-moderation hypothesis does not pay much attention to the impact of inclusion on the structure and internal dynamics of Islamists. The Brotherhood’s case shows that these dynamics are affected and shaped by the mode of inclusion or exclusion. For example, the relationship between the conservatives and the reformers in the Brotherhood was shaped by regime repression. Conservatives shrewdly utilized oppression to maintain power and control over the organization. Moreover, they employed regime repression to undermine and de-legitimize internal calls for reform. Members who oppose the leadership or call for reforming the internal system and structure to become more transparent and democratic are regularly marginalized and excluded.

Third, it is important to examine the pace of Islamists’ inclusion and whether it happens gradually or suddenly. The Brotherhood’s case reveals that the abrupt inclusion can reverse the process of moderation and lead to opposite results. The Brotherhood moved abruptly from being an opposition movement for almost eight decades, to become Egypt’s ruler without the ability to adjust its ideology and behavior to this drastic change. This caused confusion and lack of vision within the Brotherhood. The movement needed gradual inclusion and adaptation before moving to power. Finally, the inclusion of the Brotherhood did not happen under normal circumstances. Instead, it occurred within a highly contentious context shaped by deep political and social polarization. This context affected the Brotherhood’s views and strategy and resulted in confusion and miscalculations. The movement was under significant pressure from other religious and political forces, which pushed it in the direction of rigidity rather than openness and moderation. To sum, the inclusion-moderation hypothesis needs to account for these factors in order to better explain the ideology and behavior of Islamists, particularly during transition times.


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