Debunking Three Myths About the Muslim Brotherhood

Sorting out truth from myths on Egypt's powerful Islamist party.

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New Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi makes his first televised address. (Reuters)

Since Egypt's Supreme Presidential Election Commission declared Mohamed Morsi the winner of the presidential election, there has been a lot of commentary about the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi, an engineer by training, was a long time member of the Brotherhood and was a member of its political department. Morsi has resigned from both the Brotherhood and its party, Freedom and Justice, but that is more symbolic than substantive. The Muslim Brotherhood is now in control of the Egyptian presidency, previously the fulcrum of power in the political system and observers are asking, "Who Lost Egypt?" The answer is no one; 51.7 percent of Egyptians voted for Morsi. The race was close and, no doubt, there are Egyptians fearful about their future, but there has been so much mythmaking about the Muslim Brotherhood, it is worth debunking a few.

1. A History of Violence?

It is true that beginning in 1941, the Muslim Brotherhood established a para-military group called the jihaz al sirri or "the secret apparatus" and stockpiled weapons. It is also true that during the late 1940s, the Brothers were among a number of political factions that destabilized the Egyptian political system. In December 1948, a Brother named Abdel Magid Hassan murdered Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmi Nuqrashi. Yet since that time -- indeed, since the Brotherhood's founder, Hassan al Banna, was assassinated while getting into a taxi in downtown Cairo in February 1949 -- the organization has not been involved in violence. There is, of course, the allegation that the Brothers were behind the attempted hit on Gamal Abdel Nasser in October 1954, but there continue to be questions whether the would-be assassin, Mahmoud Abdel Latif--who was a member of the Brotherhood--was working on behalf of the Islamists or another group intended to discredit the Brotherhood. No one has been able to prove the story one way or the other, but it is curious that not only did Nasser survive Abdel Latif's eight shots fired from close range, but he was unscathed and went on to finish his speech, which was a turning point in his political career. The Brothers were subsequently dismantled and ceased to be a significant force in Egyptian politics until the 1970s, when they officially renounced violence.

Observers often point to the fact that Sayyid Qutb and Ayman Zawahiri were Muslim Brothers to confirm the group's violent tendencies. In the case of Zawahiri, he had a brief flirtation with the Brothers in his teens, though it is unclear whether he was actually a member of the organization. Zawahiri was arrested in 1966 (at the age of 15) for being a Brother, but it is more likely that he was part of a vanguard that split from the mainstream Brotherhood in the late 1950s and 1960s. This vanguard was a radical faction that followed Sayyid Qutb--a Brother and an intellectual architect of jihadism--and whose members wanted to engage in a direct confrontation with Nasser and the Egyptian state. Although the Brotherhood's Supreme Guide, Hassan al Hudaybi, tolerated the vanguard for a time, the two factions ultimately fell out over doctrinal issues as well as over al Hudaybi's desire to seek an accommodation with the leaders of the Egyptian regime.

2. From Shura to Democracy?

It has become accepted wisdom in some circles that the Muslim Brotherhood is a force for progressive change, even democracy, in Egypt. Since the mid-1980s when the Brotherhood entered electoral politics in a coalition with the allegedly liberal Wafd party, its leaders have embraced the rhetoric of political reform. On the eve of the 1990 parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood's then Supreme Guide Mohamed Abul Nasr penned an open letter to President Mubarak in which he boldly stated, "Freedom is dear and it is preferable for you to avoid your nation's anger and riots. It cannot be imagined that any people will remain under subjugation and repression after hearing and witnessing surrounding nations achieve their freedom and dignity...A nation's power is derived not from material power, but from the entire citizenry's liberty, the people's trust in the government, and the government's trust in the people." Those are reassuring (and prescient) words--even 22 years after the fact--but the Brothers have always been rather fuzzy about what democracy means to them, falling back on the concept of shura or "consultation," which could or could not be the foundation of Egyptian democracy. They have also been vague about shari'a. While Morsi and Brotherhood big wallas have said that they will implement Islamic law, members of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party told the American foreign policy establishment during a visit in March that they support "the principles of shari'a, but not necessarily its particular legal rulings." I guess that sounds fine to the uninitiated, but the statement amounts to nothing more than obfuscation.

Presented by

Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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