The Egyptian Uprising through the Lens of the Muslim Brotherhood: A New History of the Movement Assesses Its Failure in Government and the Fallout under Sisi
In his introduction to the 1993 edition of Richard Mitchell’s classic monograph The Society of the Muslim Brothers, John Voll notes that when it was first published in 1969 the Muslim Brotherhood was viewed as a fringe group that had been unable to stem the hegemonic march of secularism in Arab politics. The organization was an important political force in Egypt during the 1940s, but after clashing with the Free Officers following the 1952 coup it was suppressed, its leaders jailed and executed, and there was little public outcry when Sayyid Qutb was put to death in 1966. Mitchell would write in his original preface: “The essentially secular reform nationalism now in vogue in the Arab world will continue to operate to end the earlier appeal of this organization.”
The ground, however, was moving beneath Mitchell’s feet. The theory of modernization as a universal characteristic of human progress led by Western liberalism, one of whose features was the diminishing role of religion, lost ground globally in the mid-twentieth century – a phenomenon for which Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war with Israel came to be seen as a marker of relevance in terms of the Middle East. The dynamic of state vs. Islamism became a defining feature of regional politics in subsequent decades. This was a dynamic that regimes were happy to perpetuate since it reduced political contestation to a simple binary that worked well before their Western military and financial backers, rather than allow leftist, liberal and nationalist parties to organize in an open and pluralistic culture of electoral and parliamentary politics. All of which is to say that the Muslim Brotherhood did not emerge as the strongest player after the 2011 uprising in Egypt because it necessarily had the best arguments. Rather, its message was the one best positioned to survive an emasculated political arena due to its very simplicity – “Islam is the solution” – and the fact that it had given more attention to developing highly effective political cadres whose organizational capacities in running the professional syndicates in particular compared favorably to the mobilizational capacities of the state itself.
This basic problematic of Islamist strength by one reading but weakness by another came into stark relief during the momentous events of Egypt’s brief democratic opening between 2011 and 2013, and it forms the basic framing of Victor Willi’s new history of the organization The Fourth Ordeal: A History of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, 1968–2018 (Cambridge University Press, 2021). Taking the student protest movement following the 1967 defeat as its starting point for analysis of the group’s regeneration after the Nasserist repression, Willi presents an oral history based on interviews with around 140 people including past and present leaders, mid-level and rank-and-file members of the group, interviewed in different places and on different occasions between 2011 and 2018, from Cairo during the uprising to exile in Istanbul and other capitals. To this the author adds the writings of al-Banna, some works of Sayyid Qutb, various memoirs of Brotherhood leaders and activists published since the 1980s, and much of the copious secondary literature.
Theory of the ‘Fourth Ordeal’
Willi’s thesis develops the schema already outlined in the academic literature (e.g., Khalil al-Anani, Inside the Muslim Brotherhood; Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, The Muslim Brotherhood) of an out-of-the-touch ageing leadership in conflict with a new generation of leaders schooled in the arts of modern politics. He examines the history of these competing trends within the organization, their worsening rivalry in the atmosphere of increasing opposition to the Mubarak regime from 2005, and a seemingly decisive victory in 2010 for the old guard, the side the worst placed to manage the Brotherhood through the uprising and most likely to make the series of catastrophically bad decisions that led to the denouement of 2013’s military coup and subsequent suppression on an unprecedented scale. This is the fourth ordeal of the title, as activists have explained it to Willi, following three previous crises in the group’s own internal narrative of its past – its dissolution in 1948, leading to its founder Hasan al-Banna’s assassination in 1949; the first Nasserist crackdown; and the trial and execution of Qutb and his followers in 1965-6. This forms a new twist on previous discussions of the group’s penchant for the narrative of ordeal (mihna).
This old guard included Mustafa Mashhur and Ma’mun al-Hudaybi, who died in office as general guide in 2002 and 2004 respectively, and Mohammed Badi’, the current leader (in jail) who assumed the position in 2010, Mahmud ʿIzzat, the acting leader after Badi’s arrest in 2013 who police found in hiding and killed in 2020, his replacement, the London-based Ibrahim Munir, and deputy leader Khairat al-Shatir (in jail). Most of them shared memories of prison in the 1960s, and in some cases of al-Banna’s years alive, but more than this, they favoured a conservative, authoritarian approach that preferred the societal work of expanding membership and promoting overt religiosity to the political goal of forming governments through party mobilization and positive engagement with rival political forces. The latter was the vision of Omar al-Tilmisani, the general guide who resuscitated the movement in the 1970s and masterminded the Brotherhood’s successful policy of contesting parliamentary and professional syndicate elections in the 1980s.
The figures who rose through the organization’s ranks during that time (such as Abd al-Mun’im Abu al-Futuh) were dramatically sidelined in the guidance council elections of 2009, and the rank-and-file activists who fought the security forces alongside other activists during the uprising had no effective support within the group’s upper echelons as a result. Willi outlines a litany of mistakes the leadership made, from shunning the 2011 protests at their onset, attempting to placate the military in the following months rather than making common cause with activists from groups outside the Brotherhood in ensuing clashes with security forces, to a dictatorial turn during Mohammed Morsi’s presidency that aimed to cement Islamist domination of social and political life with the blessing of both the military and the Obama administration. The book’s approach is essentially teleological. The spectacular fall after the group’s sudden rise appears inevitable, a conclusion that seems consonant with the fact that a preponderance of the author’s interlocuters appear to stand in the reformist camp. Indeed, there are no senior leaders among the list of primary sources.
Where this study stands out is in its coverage of the period following the coup up to 2018. Here the binary division of conservative/reformer, old guard/new generation begins to break down in fascinating ways. With most of the leadership in jail or in hiding in Egypt, a second rank leadership emerges – also operating clandestinely from within Egypt – which has the pulse of the rank-and-file who face the brunt of regime persecution (which includes 85 recorded cases of rape between 2013 and 2015, Willi’s sources reveal). This leadership manages to conduct elections in 2016 among 270,000 members across Egypt – while 500,000 follow the exiled official leadership’s directive not to take part or abstain from a position of neutrality – and to institute a grand review of the organization’s failures during the uprising and recommendations for the future, a document that the Istanbul leadership has effectively suppressed. But these reform moves must be judged alongside the momentous decision of this renegade leadership to conduct revenge operations against Egyptian state officials. The old guard in Istanbul have managed to instrumentalize this controversial policy of guerrilla warfare– which Willi establishes was in existence from 2015 – to rally supporters around the world to its side as the party carrying the torch of responsible leadership and rejection of violence: these themes formed the centrepiece of Ibrahim Munir’s speech at a grand celebration in Istanbul in 2018 of ninety years since the Brotherhood’s founding.
The question of violence raises further problems with the characterization of the old guard as “Qutbists,” terminology that has been used elsewhere but which Willi replicates without adequate justification. The term is misleading in that it gives an impression of the old generation of leaders as mujahidin-style warriors, since this is the widely received characterization of Qutb’s ideas in public discourse. However, Qutb’s famous tract Maʿalim fi al-Tariq (Milestones) was not a manifesto for violent jihad against ruling regimes, but for a vanguard elite to withdraw from profane society in preparation for the time when conditions would be more propitious for mass acceptance of his utopian Islamic system. Violence is only explicitly considered as a response to state efforts to hunt down the vanguard. The old guard did not even particularly consider themselves a vanguard in Qutb’s conceptualization – for a start, their history in the organization predated his rise to prominence – and their experience of jail under Nasser did not define them as a group to the exclusion of others. Tilmisani was also among those imprisoned, as was the general guide at the time Hasan al-Hudaybi, who authored the famous tract, Duʿat La Qudat (Preachers Not Judges) that aimed to counter the radical ideas of Qutb as they gained popularity with a certain faction in the 1970s (discussed in Barbara Zollner, The Muslim Brotherhood: Hasan al-Hudaybi and Ideology). Those who explicitly claimed to carry Qutb’s mantle were the “jihadist” groups – to use more recent parlance – who developed theories of legitimate violence against Muslim rulers in ideological conjunction with movements linked to Wahhabism and the “Salafism” innovation of Syrian scholar Nasir al-Din al-Albani. Indeed, Willi offers no evidence that his Qutbists ever used this term to describe themselves (see memoirs/studies by insiders including Ahmad ʿAbd al-Majid, Ahmad Raʾif, Mahmud Muhammad ʿAbd al-Halim, ʿAbd al-Fattah al-Khalidi, Abu al-Munʿim Abu al-Futuh, Omar al-Tilmisani, et al.).
One other problem with Willi’s teleological presentation is that it does not do much to explain why it was that this secretive clique that so devalued public political work should have run a full panoply of candidates in the 2011 parliamentary elections and then gone on to fight the presidential election after stating they would do neither of those things. Once they had ventured so brazenly into the political space so long disparaged, these hardliners proved incapable of managing the democratic transition and interacting effectively with Egypt’s various political forces, aggressively marginalizing and removing those who had experience in just that sort of activity. This flipping at an opportune moment of a long-held theory of daʿwa-over-politics again suggests the model of old/new, hardliner/moderate may require further analysis.
Normalizing the Brotherhood
One of the strengths of this book, however, is its insistence on thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood outside the essentialist framework that obsesses over Islam as a unique force in global politics. Rather than a social movement driven by ideology, Willi sees it as a political organization in which individuals and trends develop constituencies and compete over leadership and influence. He writes: “The Brotherhood’s ideology seems to say little about the underlying historical, social and psychological dynamics that have shaped political decision-making during the period of Morsi’s rule.” He draws here on political scientist Michael Freeden’s argument that ideology is not a fixed and immutable entity dictating human behaviour but a fluid, performative and continuously contested “cluster of concepts” through which we can interpret the actions and thinking of individuals. In this context the Istanbul anniversary event in 2018 struck Willi, who was in attendance, as a gathering of exiles in a “spiritual and psychological support in the womb of an emotional community.” The Brotherhood becomes for them “a vessel through which they could make sense of their shattered lives and find meaning for the pain and hardship they had endured.”
Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of this movement since its inception has been its ideological flexibility and chameleon-like wish to be all things to all men. Al-Banna famously told supporters in 1939 that the Brotherhood aimed to be not only a Salafi call, a Sunni way and a Sufi truth, but a political organization, an athletic group, a cultural institution, an economic company, and a social idea. This language deliberately swapped around adjectives and conflated concepts, so that the tariqa was Sunni and the truth was Sufi, eschewing the modernist and self-styled “Salafi” distaste for Sufism while at the same time keeping those constituencies within the broad tent. As Husam Tammam (Tasalluf al-Ikhwan) and others have noted, the Brotherhood later underwent a notable shift in its social-religious outlook through the influence of Saudi Arabia, but its interest in the details of creed and law remained superficial. Sayyid Qutb is one of the few figures from its fold whose work managed to break through the monopoly on ideological thinking that was granted to al-Banna. Willi provides lists of curricula for Brotherhood study groups that demonstrate this perpetual insistence on maintaining al-Banna as the intellectual leader above all others, with the addition of only a smattering of works by figures from across the spectrum of modern Islamic thought. This deliberate downgrading of ideology was aimed primarily at maintaining organizational unity and discipline.
Qutb’s contested legacy is in fact quintessentially Brotherhood, liminally interested in the question of political violence and rounding out al-Banna’s central concept of shumuliyya – Islam as the solution to every aspect of modern life, the referent for how the individual experiences the world in terms of politics, business, leisure, health, community, et al. In this al-Banna was channelling the modernist movement’s rethinking of Islam in terms of a post-Enlightenment world religion, or what Wilfred Cantwell Smith called its “reification.” In the context of the secularization of the modern period, the abolition of sharia courts, the reduction of religion to a private affair with no business in the public sphere, Qutb went one step further to argue that a society that had become entirely un-Islamic must be made entirely Islamic again (his binary of jahiliyya/hakimiyya). But in making society Islamic again this ideological Islam moved even further away from the Islamic tradition of the precolonial, premodern era. Many religious scholars whose currency was the traditional forms of knowledge (kalam, fiqh, etc.) that formed their training looked askance upon the nouveau theorizing of people like Qutb no less than they did al-Banna’s. Indeed, al-Albani dismissed Qutb as merely an intellectual, a thinker (mufakkir), and the Turkish scholar Hüseyin Hilmi Işık denounced Qutb and his Pakistani peer Mawdudi as “Orientalist unbelievers” (müsteşrik kafirler), so tainted by Western paradigms had their “Islam” become. It is therefore quite wrong to think of Qutb as an advocate of takfir as the term is understood today, as a follower of Ibn Taymiyya, or as a “Salafi” (itself a new taxonomy). Takfir is a word from the traditional lexicon of Islamic thought that Qutb intentionally bypassed to create his own conceptual vocabulary. His thought is not substantially different from that of al-Banna’s, but through so comprehensively expanding on al-Banna’s ideas via Qutb’s vast output between 1949 and 1965 Qutb became a rival claimant for the affections of the Islamist masses.
Finally, setting aside the vexed question of what comes next for such a movement, which is tied to the broader question of the trajectory of the Arab uprisings (an ongoing process, not a completed event), it is worth considering the issue of the Brotherhood in the academic and policy imaginary. When Arab nationalism and the Soviet-backed Left were deemed inimical to US interests, the Muslim Brotherhood began to attract the interest of Western policy makers in the early 1950s. This interest blossomed into American instrumentalization of Islam in coordination with Saudi Arabia, culminating in the US-Saudi effort to back the Afghan mujahidin in the 1980s, in which the Brotherhood played a part. But as Willi notes, two sharply opposing views developed in US policy circles following the September 11 attacks: one that saw the Brotherhood as a stepping-stone to violent anti-Western extremism and another that saw it as a catalyst for democratization, and these had their impact on scholarly work through the murky intersection of think tanks. This debate became and has remained ferocious since the Brotherhood’s experiment in power, with various regional states intervening heavily in an effort to steer Western government policy. I would venture to guess that the continued grip of the old guard in London and Istanbul, amply laid forth in this book, will do little to engender a positive approach in Western policy circles. The dynamism of new blood and new thinking would on the other hand amount to a new roll of the dice on all fronts.
[This article was originally published by Maydan on 28 January 2021.]