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date: 23 January 2020

Religious Frames: Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

Summary and Keywords

When the Arab Spring of 2011 sparked a second revolution in Egypt (the first having occurred in 1952), it caught the longstanding Muslim Brotherhood almost by surprise. Arguably the oldest Sunni political mass movement in Egypt (having been established in 1928), it had proven remarkably resilient during more than eight decades of alternating repression and toleration by subsequent governments. Though its social composition changed over the years, its principles, as laid down by its founder Hasan al-Banna, continued to inspire large segments of the population in a quest for a state based on Shariʿa, and provided an alternative vision for a more just and moral society. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood built a wide network of social, educational, and welfare institutions.

From the early 1980s onwards, with Mubarak in power, the Brotherhood was condoned, if not officially recognized, and members were allowed to participate in several parliamentary and other elections. As an organization with formal traditional leadership bodies, but also a younger generation versed in the modern social media, the Brotherhood was seen to be slowly nearing a point where it would be able to make the transition to a party. It began to formulate a political platform and an economic blueprint for the country. A modicum of democracy was adopted, and more openness towards the integration of women was seen. After winning a relatively large (minority) representation in the 2005 parliamentary elections, the regime was scared enough to allow the Brotherhood to win only one token seat in 2010.

The revolution of 2011 ousted Mubarak and then led to relatively free elections with a solid victory for the Freedom and Justice Party, which had been formed by the Brotherhood, as well as a new Islamist-inspired constitution and the election of Muhammad Mursi as president. However, within a year the Muslim Brotherhood government had missed this historical window of opportunity. It proved inadequately prepared for efficient and orderly governance, did not bring order and stability, nor did it advance the aspirational goals of demonstrators. This is how the army, not for the first time in Egypt’s history, came to intervene and depose Morsi in July 2013, replacing him with Defense Minister ʿAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi. It was not long before the Brotherhood was once more suppressed and outlawed. With many leaders in jail, but latent support continuing, observers tend to believe it is not the end of the Brotherhood’s existence.

Keywords: Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt, Shariʿa, communalism, violence, Arab Spring, Freedom and Justice Party, parliamentary elections, President Muhammad Mursi, politics and religion


The Muslim Brotherhood is arguably the oldest political–religious movement in Egypt and is often considered the model for many such organizations in other Sunni countries as well. Established in 1928, the movement has gone through alternating periods of suppression by the Egyptian state as well internal rifts. The Egyptian revolution of 2011 became a defining though eventually failing moment in the Brotherhood’s history, as the events opened up a historical window of opportunity for a genuine political upgrade. The subsequent parliamentary elections confirmed the existence of wide popular support for the Brotherhood. Like other segments of society, it insisted on the establishment of democracy, civil liberties, and measures to address poverty and unemployment, demands that had been voiced at the main rallies in public squares, and for which many Egyptians braved the security forces and in some cases even lost their lives. In June 2012, Muhammad Mursi (sometimes transcribed as Morsi), the Brotherhood’s candidate, was elected president. However, his government did not bring order and stability, nor did it advance the aspirations of the demonstrators or even of the Brotherhood itself.

Owing to growing public unrest, the military intervened, as it had in 1952, and deposed Morsi in July 2013, replacing him with Defense Minister ʿAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi. Soon thereafter the Brotherhood was once more suppressed and outlawed.

This article examines the Egyptian Brotherhood as a religious mass movement that proved resilient even after more than eight decades of state suppression and societal challenges. It also offers an analysis of how the Brotherhood ultimately failed to govern.

A Compass for Modern Islamic Thought

The Muslim Brotherhood, with its many activists and followers in Egypt and neighboring countries, has drawn the attention of governments and security services, intellectuals, and researchers, and was well known to most readers of newspapers and media consumers. The movement’s ideology and modes of operation were subject to internal debates and ignited polemics with rivals. But one cannot dispute the movement’s grip on society or its role as an organized opposition.

The appearance of the Muslim Brotherhood on the Middle East scene at the beginning of the 20th century heralded the emergence of a new type of defiant Islamic politics, which sought both cultural purification and political power. Throughout Muslim history, urban protest movements, led mainly by ʿulamaʾ (religious scholars) and Sufi (mystic) shaykhs, focused on remedying political or economic wrongs on the part of political elites without undermining the existing order. In contrast, the Brotherhood held an alternative vision for a more just and moral society.

The Brotherhood’s leaders, who had communication and organizational skills, took part of their religious activity out of the mosques and religious colleges (madrasas) to the streets, coffee houses, markets, schools, campuses, and factories and made effective use of the mass media, including posters and graffiti. They presented themselves as a counter-elite to monarchical or revolutionary regimes, competing for legitimation, participation, and resources.

The opening stage was provided by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928, and from there the phenomenon took root in other Arab states (see, e.g., Heyworth-Dunne, 1950; Husaini, 1956; Krämer, 2010, pp. 25–46; Lia, 1998; Mitchell, 1969; Phelps Harris, 1964; Wickham, 2013; in Arabic see, e.g., Bayumi, 1979; Ramadan, 1982). In Syria, a leader named Mustafa al-Sibaʿi united a number of Salafi groups in various cities in 1945 under the umbrella framework of the Brotherhood. Similar branches were established in Palestine, Sudan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, North Africa, and even in Europe (Rubin, 2010, Pt. 2).

In 1982, an international body was established by the Muslim Brotherhood to increase coordination between the movements in the various countries. This body remained ineffective, however, since it suffered from financial difficulties and internal rifts, revealing a rather fragmented picture of a multiplicity of separate movements operating within national boundaries.

The weakness of the supra-territorial framework testified to the strength of local identities and agendas, which allows us to define the Muslim Brotherhood as a religious–national phenomenon firmly rooted in the local landscape. Its spokesmen, who were born into a post-Ottoman decentralized political reality and were educated in state educational frameworks, did not reject the geographical borders of the various national states, which were largely determined by the stroke of a colonial brush. Nor did the Muslim Brotherhood negate the state institutions. Its declared goal was to enhance the country’s moral quality, primarily through education and demands for the implementation of the Shariʿa. This rationale was largely compatible with the medieval perception that one can be a Muslim in separate territorial entities, as stipulated by influential thinkers such as al-Ghazali (d. 1111) and Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) against the backdrop of the eroded power of the Abbasid caliphate (Piscatori, 1986, pp. 47–100). Banna provided a modern formulation of this medieval approach when he demanded that Egypt’s citizens serve their homeland with devotion and strive to grant it glory and prosperity. “The Muslim is the most devoted patriot,” Banna stressed. In this context he cited the Prophet, who loved Medina but longed for Mecca, his hometown. Banna discarded the idea of practical action to restore the institution of the Caliphate and gave priority to cultural, social, and economic cooperation between the Muslim peoples (Banna, n.d., pp. 169–177).

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt served as an ideological beacon for sister movements in neighboring countries. Its history was fraught with vicissitudes and contention with suspicious and suppressive regimes. The movement also experienced internal rifts due to ideological and intergenerational schisms, which led to the emergence of more radical voices, such as the Egyptian Jihad in the early 1970s, or alternatively to more open formations such as the Wasat party (the Center) in the mid-1990s.

The Brotherhood managed to provide a compass for modern Islamic thought. The movement’s basic precepts—organic unity between state and religion, implementation of the Shariʿa or the promotion of social justice—became the province of many Islamic groups. These groups made improvements and adaptations to the Brotherhood’s outlook, but certainly did not abandon them. The movement’s continuing influence can be seen in the case of Hamas in Palestine and the Islamic Movement in Israel, two movements that profess loyalty to the ideology of the mother movement.

Historical Continuity

On March 28, 2008, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt marked its eightieth anniversary as a modern religious organization in the Arab Middle East. The date did not escape the attention of the movement’s leaders. A series of public activities in Egypt and abroad were organized to commemorate the founding event. The highlighted theme was that the movement had long been the idea or cause that many Arabs and Muslims embraced. Both the movement and the idea were identified first and foremost with Hasan al-Banna, their historical founder. Two other pivotal dates in the Muslim Brotherhood’s calendar were also celebrated: the centennial of Banna’s birth (2006) and the sixtieth anniversary of his assassination in 1949 (2009). Banna was revered as a religious reformer (mujaddid), an excellent organizer, a benefactor, a warrior (mujahid) against imperialism and Zionism, and, after his assassination, a martyr on the altar of faith (shahid).1

The commemorative events of the founding of the Brotherhood as a dissident group did not simply reflect nostalgia for the past, but more importantly helped it to strengthen its internal identity and cohesion and prevent its exclusion from society (see, e.g., Gershoni & Jankowski, 2004, pp. 1–24). For the Brotherhood, the three founding events projected resilience and power. Even sworn opponents were appropriated to glorify the name of the movement. For example, Sayyid Qutb (d. 1966), who withdrew from the Brotherhood in the mid-1950s, advocated violent jihad against local “apostate” regimes (Zollner, 2009, chs. 2–3). An article by Qutb, which praised Banna for establishing a strong movement that “iron and fire will not destroy,” occupied a place of honor in Brotherhood official publications (Qutb, 1988, 2006).

While one could debate the mythical aspects of the Brotherhood’s legacy, there is no doubt about its prolonged survival, not only in Egypt but also in neighboring countries including Syria (from 1945), Jordan (1945), Palestine (1945), and Sudan (1954).

Longevity in the public arena in the Middle East is unusual. It is possible to look at the issue in two different ways: viewing the Muslim Brotherhood as a religious–ideological movement, it should be compared with other Islamic currents, such as the Salafiya of the late 19th century (Commins, 1990; Weismann, 2001). Salafism (however defined) was the most recognized modernist movement before the Brotherhood and developed alongside it in its attempts to seek a rapprochement between tradition and modernity.

If, on the other hand, we see the Brotherhood as a religious–political organization in the Arab Islamic field, its ninety-year existence in Egypt, and somewhat less in other countries, appears to be an unparalleled achievement. By comparison, the Wafd, originally an Egyptian “delegation” to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, was “reincarnated” as a party in 1923, dissolved in 1953, and resumed official activity in 1976. A smaller party, the Socialist Labor Party, could also be considered a distant ideological heir to the Young Egypt from the monarchist period. On the other hand, the National Democratic Party (NDP) was a new creation initiated by the regime. Outside of Egypt, the Baʿth party, which was established in Syria only in 1945, with later incarnations in Iraq, Jordan, and elsewhere, also lacked the ideological persistence of the Brotherhood and has become largely defunct.

Thus, there is no Arab political movement that has lasted for as long a period as the Egyptian Brotherhood. Even after a violent confrontation with the Nasserite regime, in which thousands of activists were sent to prison, the movement did not disappear. Despite its systematic oppression, there were hidden sympathizers, activists who fled Egypt, and above all prison leaders who managed to keep the flame alive. These individuals revived the movement as soon as it became possible under Anwar Sadat in the early 1970s. Although it was not the same political structure that had been suppressed in 1954, the Brotherhood still represented an important segment of Egyptian society at large.

Despite limited election success under Hosni Mubarak, and an absolute failure to share government power, the Brotherhood’s perseverance as well as its success in shaping public discourse on issues of faith and morality were remarkable. One indication was the ideological distress of the Egyptian state, which felt it had to confront the Islamic challenge through a variety of strategies, including aggressive measures and political maneuvering. After decades of persecution, there is yet no single explanation that could enlighten us as to the endurance of the Muslim Brotherhood. Emmanuel Sivan has suggested three possible explanations. The first is its ideological message of opposition to Western cultural hegemony, and the ability of charismatic leaders such as Banna to market it in a simplistic manner to educated, bourgeois, and common people. The second is its efficient organizational structure, which also supervised a multidimensional system: culture, education, communication, sports, and so forth. The third explanation is luck (fortuna), namely benefiting from flaws in Arab regimes that were identified with military or economic calamities (Sivan, 2012).

In historical perspective, the regimes’ blemishes did not prevent them from persecuting the Brotherhood when they saw fit to do so. The first explanation, that of an attractive message, is important as it posed an alternative to the existing order. Yet, however attractive as an idea, it was closely associated with charismatic leadership, which was not always to be had. Hence we are left with the second explanation, that is, the organizational one, which seems to be more critical than the other two. The organizational structure was rooted in civil society thanks to networks generated by extensive daʿwa activities. The translation of daʿwa, literally “calling,” reflects a wide range of meanings, from preaching and recruitment to practical Islamic activities, such as education, welfare, and politics.

The strength of the Brotherhood’s structure was a variable element subjected to circumstances and opportunities, but its foundations were usually preserved. Some of the movement’s spokesmen claimed that a communal infrastructure was the main reason for its sustained position. For Muhammad Mahdi ʿAkif, the Brotherhood’s (seventh) Supreme Guide who retired in 2010, Banna’s main virtue was to turn Islam into a living reality; otherwise it would have remained confined to theological and legal texts or intellectual exercises.2

Association, Movement, Party?

The Muslim Brotherhood defined itself as a jamaʿa, which can be translated as association or even as society rather than as a party (hizb, kutla). On the contrary, although he had twice considered running for office (in 1942 and 1945), Banna opposed the principle of partyism (hizbiyya), in which he found an unwanted factionalism that detracted from the unity of the nation. This ambivalence, which may have been purely tactical, continued from the 1980s onwards, when the Brotherhood evolved towards a party format and only the government prevented its registration, referring to a legal prohibition on establishing religious or ethnic parties (El-Ghobashy, 2005).

It seems that the term “movement” (haraka) better represents the Muslim Brotherhood. It is argued that avoiding a party structure enabled the movement’s political resilience, while at the same time projecting the image of an open framework nurturing a common cause, and a sense of partnership and solidarity. “Networks of shared meaning” (Ibrahim, 1980; see also Melucci, 1989) constitute effective vehicles to recruit activists and supporters.

Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood displayed a strong element of discipline and solidarity, which translated into political strength. We don’t have clear estimates as to the quantitative strength of the Brotherhood, because of difficulties in accessing sources, the wariness of activists, or the state’s monitoring. But we do have several measures of public influence, such as the number of branches and members, the number of participants in demonstrations, the distribution of written and electronic books and magazines, and especially ballot results in trade unions, student associations, and general parliamentary elections. From the cumulative picture, it is possible to draw a portrait of a mass movement in which the three required conditions regarding social movements, as outlined by Charles Tilly, were fulfilled: it was characterized by an organized, collective, and persistent demand against political authorities; a reservoir of public manifestations, such as institutional bodies, public gatherings, media statements, demonstrations, and street parades; and finally, public and political representations of commitment and unity in promoting stated goals (Tilly, 2004, pp. 1–15).

Banna himself refrained from delineating the limits of his movement. He described it as follows: “A call for Salafism, a Sunni path, a Sufi truth, a political body, an athletic association, a cultural group, an economic philosophy, and a social thought” (Bannaʾ, n.d., pp. 248–249). Almost all of these concepts are loaded and have religious references. Here daʿwa, which is central in the ideology of the Brotherhood, refers to preaching and disseminating religious and moral values, in addition to political mobilization. It was seen as the main lever to repel the waves of materialism and permissiveness that had swept society. Other concepts were guidance (irshad) and education (tarbiyya). Contemporary Arabic terms were also used, testifying to the modern character of the movement. What is important here is the term “political body” (hayaʾ siyasiyya), which at the time meant less than a formal political party with registration of members and other organizational features.

Constants and Variables

It is only natural that in a longstanding movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood, changes took place over time and different emphases were developed. Here we shall try to identify some characteristic constants and variables.

The personality, organizational skills, and leadership abilities of Hasan al-Banna as a modest schoolteacher became mythical. Research literature also embraced Banna’s charismatic image. Christian Reinhardt wrote in 2009 that the Brotherhood was like raw material in the hands of the creator, Banna, who effectively controlled the movement (Rinehart, 2009, pp. 958–959, 964–972). However, not all scholars share the view that Banna was the movement’s undisputed leader. Some maintain that in fact he did not control the more distant circles of the movement outside Cairo, and that his leadership was often challenged, as can be seen from the assassination of Egyptian politicians in the 1940s, which he publicly denounced (Lia, 1998).

Banna’s writings are not numerous. Most of his ideas are derived from the Majmuʿat al-Rasaʾil, a collection of articles and speeches that have been reprinted many times since his assassination in 1949. Though rasaʾil in 20th-century Arabic discourse means “letters,” “religious tracts” would be a better translation. As his murder has commonly been ascribed to the Egyptian security services, Banna came to be considered a religious martyr (al-Imam al-Shahid), and hagiographical literature subsequently appeared. Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the influential preacher based in Qatar, also known as the Global Mufti, had been a member of the Brotherhood in his youth (Graf & Skovgaard-Petersen, 2009) and recounts in his autobiography (2001) the deep impact Banna’s sermons had on him in his childhood. He describes them as having a “prophetic aura.” He defines his relationship with Banna as that between a mentor and a disciple, a teacher and a student, and a commander and a soldier (Al-Qaradawi, 2001).

Banna himself chose the title “general guide” (al-Murshid al-ʿAm). The term murshid or “spiritual guide” has a strong Sufi connotation, but in Banna’s discourse it gained a modern usage. Both meanings, traditional and modern, embodied a demand for allegiance and authority. The title General Guide has been preserved to this day, as has one of the Brotherhood’s main bodies, the Guidance Bureau (Maktab al-Irshad). All those who held the post of General Guide had received a secular education, and were not graduates of al-Azhar or any other religious institute. In other countries, such as Syria and Jordan, the leaders of the local Brotherhood were given the title “General Inspector” (Muraqib ʿAm), a somewhat bureaucratic term, which is seen as preserving Egyptian supremacy. Between the leader and the activists there was an oath of allegiance (bayʿa), a traditional Islamic practice that received the added modern meaning of loyalty to a cause or idea, in addition to obedience to God, love of truth, and morality. The bayʿa as a concept and practice has been sustained over the years, mainly following the death of a guide and the choice of a successor (Landau–Tasseron, 2010, pp. 1–38; Podeh, 2010).

In addition to the Guidance Bureau, another of the movement’s institutions established by Banna, the Consultative Council (Shura), is also significant (shura is an early Islamic term for consultative assembly, which in modern times has assumed the meaning of “democracy”). Understandably, since the 1930s there have been exchanges of generations in both institutions. One mark of continuity from the 1930s that is not only institutional but also symbolic and visual is the logo of the movement: an open Qurʾan between two crossed swords, with the inscription “This is the Noble Qurʾan,” and under the swords “Be Ready,” which somehow reminds one of the world scouting movement.

Several of the movement’s slogans are no more than mantras. One that is often cited is: “Allah is our goal/the Prophet (Muhammad) is our leader/the Qurʾan is our constitution/the Jihad is our way/sacrifice on the path of Allah is our supreme aspiration/Allah is great, Allah is great” (Mitchell, 1969, pp. 193–194).

Since the 1980s, the slogan “Islam is the solution” has been widely used when the Brotherhood has entered electoral politics. However, its content has often led to debates and polemics. There is no doubt that part of the Egyptian public showed affinity for these declared religious ideals, especially the demand to implement the Shariʿa. However, Shariʿa is not an agreed-upon codex, but rather an applied method of interpreting the Qurʾan’s commandments, the sayings and deeds of the Prophet (sunna), and Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Hence it is clear that there are different interpretations of the religious codex (Hallaq, 2009; Hatina, 1997, pp. 71–96, 119–172). Moreover, the aspiration for a Shariʿa-based society does not mean that all the demands of the Brotherhood are religiously based; constitutional and social reforms, the struggle against corruption, and the independence of the judiciary were also discussed.

One essay written by Banna in 1932, a kind of credo that is even memorized by the movement’s activists, serves as a guide to religious–moral behavior, and does not amount to a program of action. Indeed, Banna’s articles do not add up to a comprehensive political platform. Fifty political, social, and economic desiderata submitted to the Egyptian authorities in 1936 may be seen as a more general political program: Islamic legislation, reforms in the civil service and education (including the introduction of Arabic as the exclusive language), a fight against corruption, elimination of foreign interests, improvement of rural life, public health, and more (Banna, n.d., pp. 192–198).

One characteristic of the Muslim Brotherhood is the rejection of Western ideologies: communism and capitalism, not to mention Western perceptions of liberalism, feminism, and sometimes democracy as a broad philosophy. This approach is not always consistent. In Brotherhood circles, for example, it is possible to discover feminist trends, and it is worth mentioning that in Europe and North America, too, feminism has gone through various phases and taken on different meanings. One of the permanent enemies of the Muslim Brotherhood is imperialism. The British and French threat was replaced over time by that of the United States, while Zionism (and Israel) was linked to imperialism writ large. The animosity towards Israel stemmed from the perception that its creation was an attack on the heart of the Arab and Islamic world. These positions often served as a lever to delegitimize domestic political opponents, who were perceived as a fifth column in a plot to erase indigenous identity. At the same time, the struggle against imperialism and Israel did not dictate the movement’s agenda, which was diverse.

Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood was many-faceted, sometimes displaying contradictory views. As early as 1957, the Canadian scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith was concerned about the apparent contradictions between the “reactionary” characteristics of the movement, notably aggressive reactions to Western influence, and its “constructive endeavor to build a modern society on a basis of justice and humanity” (Smith, 1957, pp. 156–159). One of the moral standards upheld by the Brotherhood has always been the issue of “social justice” and the prevention of wide gaps in the social fabric. In recent decades, the accumulation of (unfair) capital has often been translated into calls against economic and moral corruption, including the implications of economic neoliberalism and globalization.

Thus, the history of the Muslim Brotherhood has been characterized by duality: between the legacy of the past and reform, between tradition and visions of the future. The modus operandi of the Brotherhood always included modern features, and this was perhaps expected, given the fact that its members had acquired a modern education. One can discern the movement’s consistent efforts to develop new programs, including educational and cultural institutions, kindergartens, student support funds, summer camps for youth, sports clubs (including soccer teams), soup kitchens, and welfare institutions. Where the regime failed to provide sufficient social services to the needy, the Brotherhood entered these empty spaces and established alternative institutions according to its Islamic understanding. In a sense, the movement built itself as a “state within a state.” At least in the 1940s, the movement actively engaged in establishing textile factories, publishing houses, and also construction and housing projects (Kupferschmidt, 1995).

Meanwhile, conspicuous demographic changes took place, such as massive rural-to-urban migration and steep population growth. Initially, the Brotherhood’s foothold in rural areas was small, partly because of gaps in the religious experience—more rigid orthodox imperatives vis-à-vis popular religious customs. But the advancement of education and modern communication changed the map, and it is clear that the great rifts of the past between city and village have narrowed (Kupferschmidt, 1982). In terms of social composition and spread, one may conclude that the Brotherhood’s appeal for reform of the community was strengthened.

Social Composition

The Muslim Brotherhood’s backbone in Egypt has included a relatively educated human cadre—teachers and state employees, academics, students, lawyers, engineers, and journalists. These professionals were a clear product of modernization and expanded secular education. They gained experience in organizational methods, political recruitment, and communication, and held key positions in trade unions and student councils, striving to enlist workers and trade unions. In earlier decades many of the movement’s members were identified with the effendiyya—the educated urban middle class. From this effendiyya emerged most of the modern political ideologues of the 1930s and 1940s, including the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood (Eppel, 2009; Erlich, 2015, chs. 3–4). The growth of the effendi sector was also stimulated by social and economic distress, and by the emergence of a vibrant public sphere (especially with the introduction of print and electronic media) in which values, norms, and policies of the old ruling guard were contested.

By the 90th anniversary of the Egyptian Brotherhood (2018), enough time had passed to distinguish between generations of activists. Marc Lynch mentions four such generations. The founding generation, which includes Hasan al-Banna and Hasan al-Hudaybi, but also Mahdi ʿAkif, who served as the seventh “supreme guide” (2004–2010), suffered from Nasser’s brutal crackdown and lived through several episodes of imprisonment and torture. A second generation grew up in the 1970s in the universities and became skilled in organization, mobilization, and public engagement. A third generation was brought up under Mubarak’s tenure from the 1980s, when most activists were young academics holding key positions in professional unions and student councils. This generation was bruised by the violent confrontation between the regime and the radical groups, but also—for better or for worse—by the consequences of the so-called open door policy (Infitah). A fourth generation emerged in the 2000s, and was exposed to the information revolution (satellite television and the Internet) and human rights organizations. Some of them were sons and grandsons of earlier key activists. The common denominator of the last generation was not necessarily its young age, but its political thinking, striving for well-defined goals, and the scant attention paid to proselytizers. Compared with their predecessors, these young activists saw cyberspace as fertile ground for social and political activities, no less so than mosques or welfare associations. They attached great importance to politics based on consensus, mutual interests, and mutual respect. They also accepted the concept of citizenship as a regulating principle of the state and acknowledged the importance of forming alliances and coalitions with non-Islamist parties in order to promote democratic change in Egypt. Another trigger for their civic approach was the experience of similar Islamist movements in the Middle East, especially the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP; Justice and Development Party) in Turkey and the Justice and Development Party in Morocco (Lynch, 2007; Martini, Kaye, & York, 2012).

At the same time, intergenerational divides ignited power struggles over the Brotherhood’s ideological and political image. It was the young guard that challenged the movement’s inner discourse. As a representative figure, Ibrahim al-Hudaybi, who opposed implementation of the Shariʿa, complained about the insufficient integration of women into the ranks of the Brotherhood and a weak connection between the movement and the ordinary citizen. The young guard strengthened its position following the impressive achievements of the movement in the 2005 elections, when it won 88 seats in parliament (19.4%). Its voice could also be heard in the movement’s progressive 2007 platform. The old guard still carried weight, but the increasingly pragmatic trend of political compromise led by the younger generation continued. This development became more evident with the 2011 civil uprisings (Elad-Altman, 2006).

As a social movement, the Muslim Brotherhood assigned women a more active role in the community, aside from household management and childcare. The movement sought to harness a given reality that millions of women already worked outside their homes in educational and health institutions and other public workplaces, and had the right to vote for political bodies and even to be elected to them. The ideological justification was that the Qurʾan was not given to men only, and that women had a duty to serve both religion and community in whichever useful and productive field. Accordingly, the Brotherhood provided education for women and enlisted them in welfare activities. However, women were required to uphold family values and act modestly in public, inter alia by covering their heads, and their integration into the movement’s higher leadership echelons was minimal. Nevertheless, women became an organic part of the movement’s activities. Moreover, during periods of repression and arrest of the male leadership, as under Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s, women helped maintain the movement’s activities (Biagini, 2017, pp. 41–43; al-Imam al-Shahid, 1974, pp. 112–119).

Violence and Communality

How does the end justify the means? There seems to be a tendency to identify almost any Islamic movement with violence. Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood was not free from this attribute: in the 1940s they established a secret apparatus that carried out acts of sabotage and political assassinations. Banna’s personal involvement in this wave of violence remains controversial. He himself made it clear that power was the slogan of Islam. The Qurʾan clearly commands, “Prepare whatever forces you [believers] can muster, including warhorses, to frighten off God’s enemies and yours” (Sura 8: 60). But he also pointed out that the top priority of his movement was faith and internal unity, and only then force of arms—and this only after careful consideration of circumstances and necessity. Banna’s restraint derived from his ideological convictions, but would only hold as long as the Egyptian polity and its rulers did not cross the threshold between faith and heresy. However, one cannot ignore pragmatic considerations of inferiority vis-à-vis the state, which necessitated the adoption of a communal strategy, while demonstrating patience (sabr) in the face of political oppression (Banna, n.d., pp. 168–170).

Daʿwa also became an endeavor to bridge the gap between religious ideals and a grim reality. Brotherhood ideologues defined it as “social worship” (ʿibada ijtimaʿiyya) (al-Ghazali, 1965, pp. 32–40). A broad array of “civic” Islamic welfare societies, trade unions, youth clubs, student councils, women’s organizations, and media organizations was established to promote a comprehensive social revolution. These bodies allowed the Brotherhood to interact with the general public and served as pillars of support through which the Brotherhood sought to undermine the state’s power bases in society.

Some among the Muslim Brotherhood disagreed with this communal strategy, arguing that it entailed compromises with government policies. A few even left the movement and established militant organizations aimed at Islamization from above by toppling the regime. Their emphasis on the quality of the activists, rather than their quantity, and their drawing of rigid boundaries defining the surrounding “corrupted” environment constituted a clear defiance of the inclusive outlook of the Brotherhood. Such splits occurred from the beginning, as in the case of “Muhammad’s Youth” (Shabab Muhammad), as early as 1939. But later divisions were more significant, as in the case of the militant groups in the 1970s.

The radical organizations went beyond even the approach of their ideological mentor, Sayyid Qutb. Qutb had not completely renounced communal activity. He praised daʿwa as seeking the strengthening of morality and social bonds between Muslims, and as such it was expected to serve as a component of the jihad against “apostate” regimes (Hatina, 2006, pp. 185–187). Younger zealots began construing Qutb’s ideas first and foremost as revolutionary jihadism.

ʿAbd al-Salam Faraj, the chief ideologue of the Jihad organization whose members assassinated President Sadat in 1981, argued that education and philanthropy, as opposed to the sword, were “not a sharp and deterrent weapon capable of cutting the heads off the infidels” (Faraj, c. 1986, p. 21). Ayman al-Zawahiri, a leader of the Egyptian Jihad who later joined Usama Bin Laden in founding al-Qaʿida, labeled the Brotherhood members as traitors and apostates for their exclusive focus on civic activities and their integration into the state’s official bodies. The long historical record of the movement was summed up by al-Zawahiri in two words: “bitter harvest” (al-hisad al-murr) (Hatina, 2012).

The criticism by al-Zawahiri and al-Qaʿida aimed at legitimizing militant jihad and martyrdom—rather than daʿwa, or civic endeavor—as the worthiest course of action for Muslims. Al-Qaʿida projected an image as an assertive, groundbreaking, and daring movement. However, al-Qaʿida’s need to declare its superiority, in essence, revealed a sense of inferiority and distress. Aware of the communal strength of the Brotherhood, al-Zawahiri convinced al-Qaʿida affiliates, for instance in Iraq, that jihad must be accompanied by their intensive integration into society in order to gain the people’s loyalty and love (Hatina, 2012, p. 113).

The Muslim Brotherhood’s response to al-Qaʿida’s accusations was that focusing on the building of a civic infrastructure and providing educational and welfare services were the only effective means to expand the influence of Islam. The clash of narratives also touched the image of Banna. While radicals saw him as a warrior (mujahid), the Brotherhood crowned him as a preacher (daʿiya), thus making it clear that at the heart of the project of change in society lay the principles of persuasion and pragmatism, not of recklessness and fanaticism. Theological support for the virtues of daʿwa was found in the Prophet’s conduct in Mecca, where he preached to confront the weakness he encountered in the community of believers. This, Banna claimed, should also be the case in modern times, thus social action was the right path (al-Mukhtar al-Islami, 2006, p. 36). However, in order not to leave the monopoly of jihad entirely in the hands of the radicals, the Muslim Brotherhood sought to refresh the public’s memory by highlighting the movement’s heroic struggle against British colonialism in Egypt and the Zionist project in Palestine.

The Challenge of Democracy

Although the Brotherhood was widely involved in the fields of education, welfare, and community care, participation in elections and integration into state institutions ignited internal disputes. Politics was perceived as an inherent component of Islam. The striving for power, which its spokesmen presented as necessary to protect the faith from foreign aggression and immoral domestic conduct, was based on internal consensus. The proper means, however, were debated—restricting the movement’s ventures to communal activity as opposed to taking part in national politics.

The debate was not new, but was reinforced by the process of democratization, which was initiated by Sadat after Egypt’s defeat by Israel in 1967 and the collapse of the revolutionary ideologies of Nasser in Egypt and the Baʿth in Syria. These developments signaled what Jose Casanova calls “the thrust [of religion] into the public arena” (Casanova, 1994, p. 3). The imagined parliamentary achievements of the Brotherhood in the 1980s and 1990s met with great satisfaction among its members, but also concerns as to the imbalance between community activity, involvement in national politics, and the fear of a crackdown by the regime on the civic infrastructure of the movement. According to Mustafa Mashhur (d. 2002), who served as the fifth General Guide, the movement’s goal was not to win the support of the voters, but rather the support of those who were active in the communal sphere, while displaying honesty and loyalty to the establishment of an Islamic state: “This does not mean that we reject politics, but rather that we give it proper weight without eschewing other modes of actions” (Mashhur, 1984, pp. 39–48).

Whereas the old guard, as represented by Mashhur, wanted to subordinate politics as a secondary field of activity to communal activities, the younger members sought to turn it into the main focus by establishing a political party. The rationale for this was a more effective dissemination of ideas and values, viewing the political system as the most conducive arena for change. This was accompanied by demands to ensure the purity of elections, the rule of law, and the separation of powers.

In practical terms, the controversy within the Brotherhood over the establishment of an official party remained, for many years, largely an intellectual exercise, as the regime consistently forbade the establishment of parties on a religious or ethnic base. In the second half of the 1990s, this debate led to the withdrawal of some key activists from the Brotherhood, who founded the Wasat (Center) party. They defined it as a civilian party supporting political pluralism, defending national interests, and opening its gates to Christians, who were perceived as full partners in the Arab Muslim civilization. Viewing Islam as a civilization rather than as a religious–legal code shifted the emphasis to secular politics and earthly concerns of society, economy, and governance.

However, the political and ideological daring of the Wasat party was not translated into political power. Strong opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood, coupled with suspicions on the part of the regime, left the party on the margins (Hatina, 1997, ch. 9; Wickham, 2013, ch. 4). Nevertheless, it contributed to the enrichment of modern Islamist discourse by providing ideological alternatives. In the late 1990s, some scholars termed this a post-Islamist era, pointing to the growing absorption of values such as democratization, pluralism, women’s rights, and concern for young people (Bayat, 2007; Roy, 1999). The trend also sought to generate political benefits from increased manifestations of civil protest by young people, women, and ordinary citizens in general. They expressed demands for civil and political rights that had hardly been heard in the past (Bayat, 2007, pp. 7–8, 182–189; see also Bayat, 2010).

The issue of Islam and democracy stirred up considerable discussion among observers and scholars as to the link between the Muslim Brotherhood’s inclusion in national politics and its becoming more democratic and pragmatic (Esposito & Voll, 1996; Kramer, 1997). The theory of “political opportunity structure,” developed by social theorists such as Doug McAdam, John D. McCarthy, and Mayer N. Zald (1996) and Charles Tilly (2004), argues that social movements, as representatives and organized bodies of collective action, do not operate in a vacuum. They are part of a wider social context and, with the possibility of action open to them, are influenced by environmental factors, primarily by the degree of openness to or seclusion from the official political arena. Furthermore, this theory argues that expanding the scope of political opportunities has a moderating effect on the ideological perceptions of social movements and even makes them agents of democratization in their countries (McAdam, McCarthy, & Zald, 1996; Tilly, 2004, ch. 7). Researchers such as Quintan Wiktorowicz (2004), Jillian Schwedler (2006), and Asef Bayat (2007, pp. 1–15, 194–197) have applied this theory to the Middle East under the term “the inclusion-moderation thesis.”

According to Schwedler, who studied the case of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, political openness in the 1980s did not make the movement fully committed to liberal values, but it did moderate its ideology in the sense of greater openness and tolerance towards other perspectives. The same was true of the Brotherhood in Syria: Itzchak Weismann argues that their moderation in the 1940s and 1950s, and even later, expressed a genuine commitment to the basic principles of the democratic system, such as sovereignty of the people, representative government, and free elections (Weismann, 2010).

Still, it was Egypt that attracted the most scholarly attention. The impressive success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2005 parliamentary elections, winning 88 seats (out of 454), attested to an efficient organizational system, and brought to a peak the movement’s involvement in politics. But it also motivated the regime, which saw this achievement as a loss of control, to curtail the movement’s status. Thus, in the 2010 elections, the Brotherhood won only one seat in parliament. Such a result clearly indicated far-reaching manipulation by the regime (Elad-Altman, 2006; El-Ghobashy, 2010).

The Brotherhood’s participation in preceding elections yielded some interesting studies. For example, Mona El-Ghobashy (2005) argues that the Brotherhood’s consistent pursuit of public consensus—notwithstanding internal power struggles—turned it into a “normal” party reacting to political changes. In the past, she concludes, it had been an ideological movement, characterized by an anti-democratic hierarchy (El-Ghobashy, 2005). Another scholar, Christoph Schumann, argues that the Brotherhood’s encounter with electoral politics led not only to the adoption of liberal values such as civil rights, but also to a new, “softer” version of the state: a state with limited powers, guided by secular law and civil rights (Schumann, n.d.). Asef Bayat’s conclusion (2007) is more general than those of al-Ghobashy and Schumann. In his view, sacred imperatives are a matter of struggle and competing interpretations. It is human beings who define their truth. Social movements play a crucial role in changing and shaping the “truth” of scriptures according to their needs and circumstances. They mediate between the written word and the world, and in the process they change its meaning (Bayat, 2007, pp. 1–15). Yoram Meital (2006) has provided an additional perspective on the commitment of the Brotherhood to a clear ideological platform by analyzing the movement’s participation in the 2005 elections, as well as the official platform published in 2007. The platform was a detailed credo that, according to Meital, reflected unreserved support for the definition of Egypt as a civil state (Meital, 2006; see also Stilt, 2010).3 This scholarly debate left the alleged link between political openness and ideological moderation unresolved, especially in light of the poor governance of two Islamic movements that have gained state power: the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan (1989–2000) and Hamas in Gaza (2006). However, this debate delineated tensions within the Egyptian Brotherhood, in part relating to intergenerational struggles and to the external environment. Another part of the explanation relates to the movement’s dual agenda: a quest for cultural authenticity versus a quest for political power, goals that interlocked but also collided.

The first goal, the puritan one, was mainly related to questions of personal and social morality, an aspect widely elaborated on in Islamist literature. In the Brotherhood’s view, religious morality was perceived as a hallmark of indigenous cultural identity, which ought to be fortified in an era of penetrating globalization, free market economy, and the blurring of cultural boundaries. Morality also constitutes the parameter that distinguishes between a believing society and a secular, even corrupt, society. Giving up religious morality means the collapse of faith. From this we can understand the Brotherhood’s reservations about forming coalitions with secular and left-wing parties, although they shared much criticism of the regime as far as growing social gaps, rising prices, luxury, and corruption were concerned. The movement also expressed reservations about the permissibility of religious skepticism and freedom of belief, or the sweeping emancipation of women and non-Muslim minorities. In short, the Brotherhood remained a value-oriented movement, not just a political movement, that was fighting for values and meaning. On the other hand, the second goal, namely that of striving for political power, required constant coping with social and political constraints, and with the need to project a more inclusive image of Islam (al-Mukhtar al-Islami, 2006, p. 36).

Nevertheless, one of the premises of this article is that the Muslim Brotherhood has retained many of its principles throughout its history. The historical record shows that the Brotherhood, supposedly because its spokesmen were mostly lay professionals, did not espouse a dogmatic conception of the scriptures, like the Saudi Wahhabis, nor did they hold eschatological convictions, like the Shiʿis. On the contrary, the Brotherhood’s reading of Islamic traditions was innovative in many ways, enabling a combination of Islamic and Western values and perceptions. For example, they identified the shura institution (consultation) with parliamentary democracy. Likewise, the demand for social justice, a key concept in Islamic thought, corresponded with the notion of a welfare state. This does not mean that the Brotherhood hastened to disassociate itself from sacred values or from striving for the establishment of a community of believers, but it did conduct a lively dialogue with the changing reality. In the words of the political scientist James Scott, the Brotherhood represented the “little tradition” that challenges the “great tradition” or the hegemonic political culture. The Brotherhood competed for legitimacy, resources, and participation, as it came to see itself as an organic partner in Egypt’s national identity (Scott, 1977). The civil uprisings that swept through Egypt and the Middle East in 2011 did not necessarily alter this insight, since the Brotherhood was already in the midst of adapting to civil and partisan patterns.

The 2011 Uprisings

A wave of uprisings of this magnitude, in parallel in diverse countries, was rare in the region, but it was not exceptional in the history of Europe and the world at large. One may mention the revolutions of 1848 (the so-called Spring of Nations) when a wave of political uprisings affected almost all of Europe, or the revolutions in Russia, Iran, and the Ottoman Empire in the years 1905–1908. Once more, there was a chain of civil protest movements that led to the collapse of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, beginning with Poland in 1989, via the reunification of Germany in 1990, and finally the disbandment of the Soviet Union in 1991. Observers of the Middle East may wish to add a series of military coups d’état, which subsequently affected Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, and Sudan in the 1950s.

An important conclusion is that the consequences of the 2011 events have not been uniform, partly because they did not affect all states, and more so, because they did not lead to one and the same basic transformation in the systems of government, nor did they foment a philosophical and ideological change.

The protests of 2011 in the Middle East caught political actors and observers by surprise. Previously they had focused mainly on Islamic movements and authoritarian regimes. Now it turned out that the dramatic events had a profound impact on the younger generation. From its ranks many groups emerged to vent their anger against the limitations of personal freedoms, and against coercive manipulations, while expressing their frustration with both corruption and serious economic hardships. They called for the deposition of autocratic and corrupt leaders, the promotion of social justice, civil liberties, and democracy, but not necessarily for the creation of a Shariʿa-based state.

The 2011 uprisings erupted spontaneously, from the grassroots upwards, without a determined leadership and spearheaded by social networks (the Internet, Facebook, Twitter). They reflected, above all, the citizens’ political maturity and signified a Middle East that had become part of the global village and was intensively exposed to digital technology, mass media, and changing cultural values and norms.4 Public space in the Middle East assumed a new historical role. It was no longer a setting where rulers projected their authority through public speeches, processions, and official festivals, and in which the spectators were expected to legitimize them (Podeh, 2011), but an arena of open, popular defiance against the regime and a clear demand for change, and in which Cairo’s Tahrir Square served as a microcosm (Tschirgi, Kazziha, & McMahon, 2013). The Egyptian demonstrators were headed by embittered young people who challenged the symbols of sovereignty of the Arab state and clashed with its forces, creating new patterns of collective action or, in the terminology of the anthropologist Asef Bayat, a “new Arab street” (Bayat, 2011).5

For the younger generation of the Muslim Brotherhood it was one more link in a chain of series of heightened expectations, which began with the achievements of the movement in the 2005 elections. However, with many different forces involved, the revolution was not primarily fomented by the Brotherhood. On the contrary, one could argue that the Brotherhood was taken by surprise and even in the following months continued to navigate its course very carefully. It looked as if conditions were ripe for the Brotherhood to finally make the transition to sharing power by a democratic process that would do away with autocratic governance.

Once President Mubarak was ousted from power, it seemed that the way was clear for a change in the regime. New presidential and parliamentary elections would open new opportunities, and were expected to prove the strength of the Brotherhood among the population. We shall attempt to explain how and why these hopes were dashed and how the aftermath of the Arab Spring in Egypt turned out to be much different than had been hoped for.6

Freedom and Justice Party

As we have seen, the Muslim Brotherhood had initially been averse to establishing a party, but it was for years moving towards that objective. The idea to form a political party had been raised from the mid-1980s onward under Sadat, and slowly gained ground in the Mubarak era under the impact of parliamentary elections (as well as trade unions and student associations) and the pressure of the movement’s younger generation. The Wasat party episode may equally have worked as a catalyst from the outside.

The fact that the “hot” issues—such as the participation of women and their political rights in general and, in principle, also those of the Copts—were resolved smoothed the way towards a certain opening up to at least some liberal voters. An ideological innovation was promoted, concerned with the notion of marjaʿiyya islamiyya, usually translated as “an Islamic frame of reference,” by which was meant a civil rather than a theocratic leadership and the absolute supremacy of the Shariʿa. The idea was to deter neither the electorate nor the regime.

Thus, in the aftermath of the revolution of 2011, the logical sequel came in the form of the establishment of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP, Hizb al-Hurriyya wa’l-ʿAdala)—announced in February, endorsed in April, and formally registered in June 2011. As in the case of the parallel Islamic Action Front in Jordan and the Nahda Party in Tunisia, the Brotherhood clearly sought wider electoral appeal, beyond the ranks of its veteran adherents. Social justice, which had been a central theme since the 1940s, was supposed to appeal to the urban middle class and to the poorer segments of the population. This was less true with regard to the perception of economic liberalism, which penetrated the discourse of the movement much later, especially after the 1970s, in light of the effects of Sadat’s Open Door economic policy and the construction of new democratic values and institutions. The established link between freedom and justice also matched the demands of Tahrir Square revolutionaries. In addition, a new, more convivial logo was adopted for the party, which no longer showed the crossed swords that had been the hallmark of the movement in the past.

The FJP published a lengthy platform befitting a liberal party anywhere, with paragraphs on education, health, human development, and even gender equality. It also featured multiple references to economic issues, more or less in the spirit of Hasan al-Banna: it included the customary reference to social justice and, in particular, against corruption, and was followed by the usual emphasis on free market economy, private initiative, and small businesses, and included a call for national development projects.

However, one would expect to find more specific, Islamic aspirations in accordance with the Brotherhood’s well-known agenda. Indeed, there was a prominent, yet vague, demand that Egypt should be a “national constitutional Islamic modern democracy based on the Shariʿa as a frame of reference.” The Shariʿa was here understood as a combination of fixed texts and general principles, such as freedom, justice, development, and leadership. The notion of shura was explicitly introduced as democracy. Besides, the agenda clearly stated that Christians and Jews could continue to apply their own personal status laws. To stress relations with the Arab and Islamic countries, it also made mention of Palestinian self-determination and the “racist settler entity” of Israel, though these were not overly emphasized. Typically, the platform revealed a contradiction between the development of foreign tourism in Egypt and the rejection of “beach tourism.” Alcohol in public spaces was not allowed. Another interesting point concerns the strengthening of the waqf, the Islamic form of pious endowments, for public goals such as education, which had been more or less ignored by Banna.

In Power

The Muslim Brotherhood, which, as stated previously, did not lead the Egyptian revolution but joined it, was now required to compete at the ballot box with liberal, leftist, nationalist, and other ideologies and parties. The movement’s new party did meet expectations. Relatively free parliamentary elections were held between December 2011 and January 2012. Though results were difficult to break down (owing to the large number of independents), the Brotherhood’s list, called the Democratic Alliance for Egypt (al-Takhaluf al-Dimuqrati), received more than 10 million votes (with 37.5% participation, a percentage somewhat higher than in preceding elections). The list won 235 out of the 498 (ultimately 508) seats. Of these, the FJP proper gained 213 seats. The elections for the Shura, the upper house as it was then, followed suit, and here the FJP won 105 of the 180 seats.

The successful parliamentary elections increased the political appetite of the Brotherhood, which decided to put forward a candidate for the presidency—initially, the Deputy General Guide Khayrat al-Shatir. However, the authorities cancelled his candidature on formal grounds because of his alleged past oppositional activities and former imprisonment. This is how Muhammad Mursi, an uncharismatic engineer by profession, and a member of both the outgoing parliament and of the movement’s Guidance Bureau, was chosen to run for the presidency. He was duly elected in June 2012, defeating Ahmad Shafik, the last prime minister under Mubarak, albeit by a narrow margin of 2.4% (51.7% to 49.3%). These percentages are important to show the narrow rate of majority support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

By taking on the majority role in parliament and assuming the presidency, the Brotherhood completed the transition from persecuted movement to ruling party. In his victory speech, Morsi called this outcome a celebration of democracy. He attributed it to God and to the Egyptians who had sacrificed their lives. Morsi stressed that Egypt now needed to be united so that its people could harvest the fruits of their struggle and enjoy a life of dignity, freedom, and respect for human rights. “We are all patriots despite ideological and political differences … there is no place among us for the language of confrontation and accusations of treason,” he declared. Morsi also reassured his listeners that on the level of foreign relations, Egypt’s international commitments and agreements would be preserved: “We came to the world with a message of peace (al-Ahram, 2012)

Morsi’s Failure

Morsi’s ascendancy to the presidency and in particular the formation of his government, though naturally seen as a triumph, simultaneously reflected its lack of experience. The latter eventually became a stumbling block. When the movement reached the historic moment of assuming governance, it turned out that slogans such as “the Islamic alternative” and “Islam is the solution” were inadequately supported by action plans.

The belief of many observers in Egypt and abroad that the Brotherhood would indeed fulfill their commitment to a democratic system and to moderating its ideology were soon shattered. Morsi turned out to be arrogant and authoritarian. He refrained from cooperating with other political forces, including other Islamists such as the Nur Party or al-Wasat. He expropriated powers from parliament and the judicial system in order to fortify his position as president. He curbed the written and electronic media and limited the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the beating heart of the 2011 revolution.

Morsi’s regime also formulated a new constitution with a clearer Islamic orientation than in the past. From an historical perspective, the Muslim Brotherhood, which had started out with the premise that the “Qurʾan is our constitution,” never abandoned its goal to establish a Shariʿa state, although specifics remained vague. Meanwhile, under pressure from the Islamist camp (not the Brotherhood explicitly), a clause in the Egyptian Constitution of 1971 to the effect that legislation would be based on the Shariʿa as “a source” had been amended to “the source,” but this largely remained an empty goal. Now that the Brotherhood had come to power, the consolidation of this goal became part of the debate on a new constitution between Islamists and others. Thus, the draft Constitution of 2012, as endorsed in a referendum (with 64% support), for the first time spelled out a number of domains in which the Shariʿa would reign supreme (e.g., jurisprudence, paragraph 219), allocating wide responsibilities to al-Azhar. Morsi also took practical steps to restrict freedom of expression in the fields of the media, art, and culture in the name of defending “values of religion and morality.” There were also a number of symbolic decisions, such as allowing veiled women broadcasters on television. This authoritarian policy went hand in hand with an inability to deal with burning economic and social issues.

While a large part of the country’s hardships lay in the field of economics, only two subsequent ministers of finance had a professional background in economics, while five Muslim Brotherhood members of government were engineers, and the other three included a chemist, a physician, and a journalist. The lack of experienced economists in Brotherhood ranks, as compared with an abundance of engineers (as well as medical doctors), is quite typical. Even though several FJP ministers had made a career in the framework of labor unions, the government showed ambivalence about the recurrent strikes, a phenomenon that had plagued Egypt for a long time. During the Brotherhood’s tenuous year in power, an IMF loan failed. However, Morsi’s regime did not create any difficulties with regard to the raising of interest on other loans (though riba is forbidden in Islam). Income tax reforms, Islamic investment companies, and, surprisingly, the reinstitution of the zakat came up, but no substantive reforms got off the ground, nor was any real progress made in the fight against corruption.

Morsi’s policies ignited broad public outrage against the Muslim Brotherhood, which was accused of turning its back on the Tahrir Square protests against political tyranny and in favor of democracy and social justice. Public trust in the movement was rapidly shrinking as it failed to understand the expectations of the masses. Finally, exercising power became the Achilles heel of the movement. The Brotherhood was confident, as Hazem Kandil has observed, that the Egyptian people who had voted for it were faithful Muslims and that they would continue to back the movement as an authentic representative of Islam (Kandil, 2014, pp. 137–145). This turned out to be an erroneous assessment. The masses returned to the squares and confronted the symbols of the new regime exactly as they had done with Mubarak’s regime. Morsi’s fate resembled Mubarak’s; he was even compared to Nasser because of his oppressive policies.

Public unrest was once again spearheaded by the youth. As a result, 22 million Egyptians signed a petition calling for Morsi’s ouster, bringing about a mass rally at Tahrir Square on June 30, 2013, the first anniversary of the new president’s term. The army, not surprisingly since it had played a crucial role in Egyptian politics from 1952 onward and was still the strongest institution in the country, initially lent silent support to the Brotherhood, but then became active politically. Defense Minister ʿAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi, the army’s official commander, urged Morsi to respond to the demands of the demonstrators. When the latter refused, he was deposed and the rest of the Brotherhood’s leaders were arrested. The Brotherhood as such still made an attempt to stir up opposition to the impeachment of an elected president, but this did not gain public momentum and only exacerbated the general distress. In violent clashes with army forces in the area of the Rabiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya mosque (named after a female Sufi saint) in August 2013, at least 800 people were killed and about 4000 were injured, many of them supporters of the deposed president.7 The so-called “deep state,” directed by invisibly entrenched armed forces, intelligence, and some bureaucratic units, once again proved its strength and ousted the Brotherhood from government. The “Rabiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya massacre” became a new landmark of suppression in the annals of the Brotherhood, as emblematized by a hand holding up four (arba’a) fingers.

Ironically, one of the first steps Morsi’s government took was the dismissal of Muhammad Husayn al-Tantawi as chief-of-staff and the appointment of ʿAbd al-Fattah al-Sisi in his place. Apparently, Morsi never suspected that al-Sisi would become his nemesis, and his successor. One critic, the television satirist Basim Yusuf (who later fled the country), said: “The Muslim Brothers saw Egypt as a truck. They did not care to repair it, jumped immediately behind the steering wheel, and drove it exactly as the officers had done, with the same corrupt military and police at their side. They never learn a thing. Time and again they are deceived by the military.”8 After only one year at the helm, in June 2013, the Brotherhood was suppressed by the army and outlawed.

The reputation the Brotherhood had diligently built for 90 years as a moral movement and a political alternative collapsed overnight. So too did its commitment to democratic values and institutions. The collapse of the Brotherhood regime also played into the hands of observers who cast doubts on the ability of Islamists to run a state, with the poor record of Islamic regimes in Iran (1979–) and Sudan (1989–2000) before their very eyes. An opinion poll released in May 2014 showed that support for the Brotherhood fell from 63% in early 2013 to 38% a few months after Morsi was deposed, and that support for the integration of religious parties fell from 47% to 38% (Kandil, 2014, p. 142).9 The Brotherhood were no longer perceived as loyalists to God and the homeland, but as representatives of an opportunistic clique, an image that the Sisi regime sought to exploit by portraying the movement as the enemy of the Egyptian nation. The loss of public sympathy was of relevance to some of the movement’s activists, especially the young people who accused the veteran leadership of violating the public mandate they had received in the elections and failing to run the country. What went wrong? Where are we heading? These were the main questions that now preoccupied the Brotherhood.


Nobody knows how strong the Muslim Brotherhood has remained since 2013, but given its resilience under recurrent conditions of repression, stretching over almost nine decades, not a few researchers are skeptical as to whether this will be the end of the saga of the movement.

Several thousand activists, among them most of the top leaders, such as members of the Guidance Bureau, were sentenced to long prison sentences (several were even sentenced to death, but not executed) or to detentions. From 2013 onwards the ousted president Morsi went through several subsequent trials, being accused of killing demonstrators and of violence, causing chaos, and even of conspiracy and espionage. Though a death sentence was commuted into sixty years’ imprisonment, he collapsed and died suddenly in the midst of further court procedures in June 2019, which will probably turn him into another Muslim Brotherhood shahid.

All Brotherhood schools, welfare and health institutions, as well as food cooperatives, have been sequestered, and social and educational networks have been dissolved. In 2014, the press counted 1142 such institutions. But as long as the regime itself does not fill the gaps left behind through reforms, the possibility of a comeback is not precluded, given the Islamic inclination of Egyptian society at large.

In the final analysis, if a modicum of democracy and freedom were to be restored, we might well see the Brotherhood reemerge in some form or another. Some recent scholarly literature speculates on these questions, even though historians should not make predictions. Alison Pargeter (2016) called one of her books Return to the Shadows; Noha Mellor (2018) wrote: “Now, the Brotherhood is simply waiting for the mihna (crisis) to wane before its new dawn begins” (p. 218); and Kiki M. Santing (2017) concluded: “Although currently retired to a phase that reminds many Brothers of the days of Nasser, a core of the Muslim Brotherhood still remains present in Egypt awaiting its chance to return.” (p. 453).10 None of them have written off the movement, which previously survived decades of repression and hardships.


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(1.) Al-Masri al-Yawm, October 1, 2006. On Banna’s biography, see Krämer (2010).

(3.) For the full text of the 2007 program, see

(4.) For samples of literature on the Arab Spring, see Achcar (2013), Dawisha (2013), Filiu (2011), Gerges (2014), Khatib and Lust (2014), and Tschirgi, Kazziha, and McMahon (2013). On the Egyptian revolution, see Cambanis (2015).

(5.) On the youth in the Nile Revolution, see Shahatah (2011) and Sullivan (2013).

(6.) On the Brotherhood and the 2011 events, see Dara (2011), Tadros (2012), and Wickham (2013, ch. 7).

(7.) On the Brotherhood–Army encounter, see Bakri (2013).

(8.) As reported by the Dutch newspaper NRC (April 24, 2018).

(9.) On the fall of the Brotherhood regime, see Bakri (2013).

(10.) See also Kandil (2014, p. 178).