Hazem Kandil spent almost a decade researching the organisation, ideology and membership of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt through unrivalled access to the Brotherhood’s internal documents and day-to-day operations. What does he conclude? Most importantly that the Brotherhood is an organisation whose ideological heart is “religious determinism”. Worldly success comes from religious devotion. The answer to failure is piety rather than planning. It is not the leadership’s role to find solutions to real life problems for those will be provided by God once the community is cleansed and reborn. Brothers have to change themselves not the world.
The Brotherhood is a millenarian cult creating a segregated community within wider society. Brothers marry Sisters, break off relations with family members who have not joined the organization, and shop, work and socialise with other Brothers to the exclusion of all others. Their task is to infect society with a morality that trickles up from the bottom to the top. You don’t join. You are invited to join and start the long march through the Brotherhood’s serried ranks to finally achieve full membership. On the way the ends justify the means permitting immoral actions to secure moral ends.
The Brotherhood’s Marx and Lenin were both born in 1906, but their personal paths couldn’t have been more different. Hassan al-Banna started his religious work early under the liberal Egyptian monarchy of the 1920s that gave him the freedom to proselytise through sermons, writings and even running – unsuccessfully – for Parliament. In contrast Sayyid Qutb converted to Islamism late – after a traumatic sojourn in Greeley, Colorado – on the eve of the 1952 coup in Egypt and the authoritarian regime that followed.
For Qutb. normal channels of communication were closed. Instead he was reliant on the Brotherhood’s secret vanguard to pass the Message. But that didn’t stopped both of them being executed. For al-Banna, the process was the inevitability of gradualness, while Qutb’s favoured revolutionary conspiracies and the use of movement’s armed wing “The Special Order” – which fought against the British in 1948 – who, under Qutb’s influence, turned to plans for insurrection and coups.
In Egypt over the following decades, the Brotherhood and the General Guide – the Leader – came and went from prison to parliament and back again as they, the “corrupt” politicians, the military and the security services engaged in a complex dance for position. Finally their time came with the 2011 “uprising”, and Mohamed Morsi and the Brotherhood sneaked into power with 51 per cent of the votes in the presidential election of June 2012. They were swept aside 12 months later by the army, but they had long lost their support. Even when they were elected, 70 per cent of Egypt’s voters believed the country’s major challenges were economic and only 17 per cent religious. This plus bumbling inaction, nepotism and political incoherence saw Morsi’s support collapse from 79 per cent to 32 per cent in a year. Egyptians finally saw them unmasked.
Outside of Egypt the Brotherhood’s history has been, if anything, even more tortuous. It’s branches have mutated in every direction possible. In Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco they have been complicit with their monarchs. In Sudan they helped trigger the bloody civil war that saw South Sudan spin-off into independence, while in Tunisia post the Arab Spring they have been a loyal part of a ruling coalition. In Turkey – at the heart of the fallen Caliphate – they evolved into friends of Brussels and Washington, even as corruption rots their ranks and they ham-fistedly try to put down dissent. In Hama in Syria in 1982 they led a brutal insurrection against Assad and tens of thousands died. Membership became punishable with death. They are now marginalised in the Syrian opposition.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s most lasting legacy is likely to be from the Qutbists, who chose to short circuit change from below by instead beheading Islam’s corrupt rulers through violence. They saw the Brotherhood’s gradualism as a mixture of fatalism and cowardice. The time for persuasion was over. One of these was Ayman al-Zawahri. In 1989, he and Osama bin Laden, after the Soviet pull out from Afghanistan, ordered the seasoned veterans back to their countries to topple their regimes. The Muslim Brotherhood may be yesterday’s tomorrow in Egypt, but their legacy lives on in terror from the US to Syria, Libya to Xinjiang and much in between.