In June 2012, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood won a tightly contested election to become the first freely elected president of post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt. His ascent marked a stunning reversal in the political fortunes of the Islamist movement. For decades, the Brotherhood had engaged in politics with clearly understood limits on its power and under the constant threat of repression. Morsi, like most other top leaders in the organization, had recently spent time in prison for his political activities. No roadmap existed for predicting what he might do with his newfound presidential power.
Morsi’s victory, along with an earlier Islamist near-sweep of parliamentary elections, forced Egyptians and outside observers alike to suddenly confront long-simmering questions about the compatibility of Islamism and democracy. As Carrie Rosefsky Wickham’s fascinating and marvelously detailed new book makes clear, the Muslim Brotherhood itself has long struggled internally with the same questions. Mubarak ironically helped the Brothers dodge the toughest challenges by making it impossible for their true intentions to be put to the test of governance. His fall has brought those contradictions to the surface.
Few would contend that the Brotherhood has risen to the challenge. The newly open political arena has demonstrated the prowess of its electoral machine, to be sure. But the Brotherhood’s political rise has sparked deep and intense fears among many Egyptians. Politics has polarized sharply between the Brotherhood and its rivals of all description (it is telling that no single label beyond “anti-Brotherhood” can capture the essence of this coalition). Sectarianism and street clashes have spread through society. Many fear that the Brotherhood seeks to establish its hegemony over all parts of the state and to place its people at the top of key institutions. A million headlines have bemoaned the descent of the so-called “Arab Spring” into an “Islamist Winter.”
The performance of the Muslim Brotherhood after the fall of Mubarak has therefore forced a rethinking of a wide range of assumptions about the organization’s ideology, intentions, strategy, and political competence. Shocked by the Brotherhood’s behavior in power, many critics now dismiss the tentative optimism of previous scholarship and view the Brotherhood as a monolithic radical organization bent on domination and the imposition of Islamic law and values through state power. Epithets such as “fascist” and “jihadist” that were once confined to the extreme anti-Islamist fringes now circulate in mainstream discourse in Cairo and abroad. Revolutionaries who once denounced the military now openly yearn for it to step in to overturn electoral outcomes, send the Brothers back to prison, and essentially bring back the Mubarakism they once opposed. Nuance and historical context are no longer in favor when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood.
By looking carefully at some three decades of the Brotherhood’s behavior, ideas, and conflicts, Wickham offers a very different guide to rethinking the Islamist movement. She insists on “breaking into the black box” of the Brotherhood’s politics to take seriously “the balance of power among its internal factions, the distribution of authority among its administrative subunits, its patterns of internal decision making, its strategies of recruitment and socialization, and its methods of enforcing internal conformity and discipline.” Twenty years of intensive study of the Brotherhood’s role in Egyptian politics, including hundreds of interviews and scrutiny of public and private documents in Arabic, position her well to deliver on this promise.
Wickham’s findings will likely not satisfy either side of this hotly polarized debate. She demonstrates conclusively the existence of real disagreements within the Brotherhood about democracy, leadership, and engagement with society. While some within the Brotherhood did evolve toward a more pluralistic and tolerant political vision, the more moderate factions have almost always lost those battles, and many of the reformers ended up being driven from the organization. Wickham documents the disorientation of the Brotherhood during and after the revolution that overthrew Mubarak, and the costs of its erratic grab for power. Those who saw the potential for democratic engagement by the Brotherhood will find ample evidence for those hopes, but few will emerge from this challenging book optimistic about its ability to move beyond its past and play a constructive role in the evolution of a genuine Egyptian democracy.
The Muslim Brotherhood was established in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, an Egyptian schoolteacher who had only an informal Islamic education, but who had a genius for political organizing and a potent vision of Islamic renewal in the face of British colonialism. The group grew quickly during the following turbulent decades of Egypt’s struggle toward independence. By the 1930s, it claimed a membership of some half a million and was widely regarded as the largest civic association in the country. Banna conceived of a fully Islamic society touching on every aspect of life, from children’s summer camps to subsidized clinics to education. The Brotherhood approached the parliamentary life of the day cautiously, with Banna himself declaring his candidacy for a seat but withdrawing under pressure in 1942 and losing rigged elections a few years later. Like many other movements of the time, it also maintained a controversial secret armed wing.
Recent scholarship suggests that the Brotherhood later played some role in bringing Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in 1952. But Nasser quickly turned on this powerful potential rival with a brutal crackdown. Thousands of Brothers suffered horrible abuses in Nasser’s prisons, while countless others fled Egypt, often establishing Brotherhood branches in their new homes. In the period after Banna’s assassination in 1949, Sayyid Qutb, an intellectual force within Brotherhood circles (and the intellectual forefather of Al Qaeda), developed his radical theories of jahiliyya, which deemed all contemporary Muslim societies as equivalent to the pre-Islamic age of ignorance and all current Muslim rulers effectively infidels. His ideas led to a profound schism within the divided and dispirited Brotherhood, with some breaking with the organization to seek more radical and violent paths to political change. In response, the Brotherhood released a comprehensive refutation of Qutb’s ideas, “Preachers Not Judges,” under the name of Supreme Guide Hassan al-Houdaiby, as the guiding doctrine for the organization.
The Brotherhood’s fortunes changed in the early 1970s, as new President Anwar Sadat settled upon it as a potential ally against leftist and Arab nationalist forces loyal to the deceased Nasser, who was allied with the Soviet Union and had been the driving force behind secular pan-Arabism. After Sadat’s assassination and the rise of Mubarak, the Brotherhood, despite being technically illegal, participated sporadically in parliamentary elections, often in alliances with legal secular parties.
The era of Sadat and Mubarak takes up the heart of Wickham’s book. Over that time, the Brotherhood experienced several key reversals of fortune, suffered a number of important splits, developed a sophisticated political machine, and waged ideological debates of real political significance. Its behavior and ideology changed multiple times. Tracing those in detail allows the author to show both genuine ideological change in the Brotherhood’s “middle generation,” but also the limits of its moderation and the internal dominance of the more conservative forces.
Some parts of the Brotherhood did undeniably change through political participation. The crucible for change, in Wickham’s telling, was the participation of Brothers in professional association and student elections in the 1970s and 1980s. “[P]articipation of Islamist groups in the political process,” she argues, “not only generated new strategic interests but also prompted internal debates about their ultimate goals and purposes”—at least among those who took part. Brothers elected in student and professional groups demostrated a high level of effectiveness in those electoral arenas, though not because of large Muslim Brotherhood majorities in those institutions. Wickham writes:
The Brotherhood’s landslide victories in the syndicates and faculty clubs reveal little about the preferences of Egypt’s professionals, since only a minority of them actually turned out to vote. Rather, they demonstrated the Brotherhood’s superior organization, financing, and electoral tactics, which enabled it to mobilize supporters in electoral contests from which other organized trends were conspicuously absent.
This organizational advantage has been a recurrent theme right up until today.
Muslim Brothers who were elected to the associations had a very different experience of Egypt than did their more insular counterparts. Wickham illustrates how the constant interactions with non-Brotherhood members on professional issues as well as broader political concerns changed many of these politically engaged Brothers. They learned, in ways the older generation of Brotherhood organizational men did not, about the value of compromise and how to forge pragmatic coalitions. They grasped the importance of self-limitation, often ceding seats or leadership positions to non-Brotherhood candidates. And when they lost elections, they vacated their offices and learned their lessons. Wickham recounts that when Brothers who had been overly focused on Islamic issues were trounced in Veterinary Association elections, they were told to learn from it and better defend the interests of veterinarians the next time.
The same was not true at the national level, however. The certainty of holding only a symbolic number of parliamentary seats and thus sharing no responsibility for governance allowed the Brotherhood to play a different game. “With no practical responsibility for lawmaking,” Wickham writes, “Brotherhood deputies indulged a penchant for grandstanding”—especially on cultural and religious issues. She quotes the head of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc declaring from the floor of the legislature in January 1988 that “Either you have God’s law or you don’t; there is no middle ground between them.”
Wickham sees a generational and ideological divide that emerged within the Brotherhood due to disagreements over these modes of participation. The generations disagreed about the meaning of sharia and its relationship to civil legislation, about the legitimacy of democracy, and about the ability of non-Muslims and women to be fully equal citizens. Members who led professional associations developed a far more tolerant and reformist discourse than was common inside the organization. The centers of power within the Brotherhood remained in the hands of a very different cohort, however: older men who came of age facing Nasser’s prisons and viewed the world outside their Islamist milieu with skepticism, caution, and fear. The internal rifts were real—but the conservatives invariably won.
Those arguments came to a head in the mid-1990s, when reformist leaders pushed to create a political party that would represent their vision. They chafed against the centralized control and political caution of the Supreme Guide and the Guidance Bureau that controlled the organization’s strategic policy decisions, and pushed for democratic reforms inside the Brotherhood. When their entreaties were rejected by their leaders, they split from the Brotherhood to form a new party they dubbed al-Wasat (Center). But the party failed repeatedly to obtain official recognition from the Mubarak regime, and the Brotherhood punished members who signed on to the project. Within a few years, little was left of al-Wasat but a handful of publicly influential but politically marginal intellectuals.
By the 2000s, Egypt was a country in political ferment with a wide range of broad-based political protest movements such as Kefaya and the April 6 Youth Movement, and intensifying battles against the expected succession of Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal to the presidency. At that time, the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau was dominated strategically, if not numerically, by figures from Wickham’s more moderate “middle generation.” Elections were overseen by a battle-tested, veteran group of expert political managers. Then-Supreme Guide Mohammed Mehdi Akef, a bastion of the old guard prone to saying outrageous things in public, nonetheless maintained a careful balance inside the Guidance Bureau and encouraged political outreach and participation. In the parliamentary elections of 2005, the Brotherhood won an unprecedented 88 seats and formed an unusually effective parliamentary bloc to focus on corruption, governance, and accountability.
The response by the Mubarak regime was to crack down hard. Many top Brotherhood officials were imprisoned on trumped-up charges, the finances of the organization came under unprecedented scrutiny, and a regular barrage of propaganda attacked it at every turn. It was a lesson, as then-Deputy Supreme Guide Mohammed Habib ruefully told Wickham, in the dangers of overreaching; had the Brotherhood limited itself to 50 seats instead of 88, he suggested, everything would have been fine. The payoffs of political participation were meager, and by 2010, the organization found itself under siege from the regime and increasingly conservative and defensive.
And so the Brotherhood turned inward. Wickham recounts a series of controversial internal elections that marginalized key reformist figures. In by-elections for vacant seats to the Guidance Bureau in 2008, five seats were won by top conservatives. The next year, two reform leaders lost their long-held seats. Shortly thereafter, there was another election and Akef was replaced by the little-known conservative figure Mohammed Badie. It was this conservative Guidance Bureau, dominated by organization men suspicious of the political realm and untouched by the ideological transformations that had changed the middle generation, that headed the Brotherhood when the revolution erupted.
The Muslim Brotherhood offers one of the best and most detailed presentations of a robust school of thought among students of Islamism. Like Wickham’s previous book, Mobilizing Islam, it is likely to become a standard text and will be received as a major summary statement of decades of research and analysis.
It is not without its problems, however. It may offer too rosy and unidirectional a view of the ideological evolution of the middle-generation heroes of her narrative and exaggerate their overall importance within the organization. Despite a comparative chapter that touches on four other Muslim Brotherhood organizations around the Arab world, it remains heavily Egypt-centric and does not fully explore the ways in which institutional context and local political cultures shape national Brotherhood organizations.
Wickham’s reading of the Brotherhood’s evolution has a lot to say about some of the major debates about and within the organization. There can be little doubt from Wickham’s narrative that a distinct faction did emerge within the Brotherhood in this period that held very different ideas about democracy, pluralism, and political participation from the conservative mainstream. She shows who changed, how and why their views evolved, and how they attempted (but failed) to bring the Brotherhood along with them. She carefully traces their writings and interviews on core issues such as violence, pluralism, democracy, and the rule of law, and in the end convincingly establishes the sincerity of their changed ideologies. The book demonstrates that viewing the Brotherhood as a monolith with overbearing internal discipline misses vitally important ideological, strategic, and organizational trends over the decades.
But Wickham’s analysis gives only partial and necessarily unsatisfying answers to the core question about the Brotherhood’s ability to be truly democratic. She struggles to explain why the hard-earned lesson of avoiding overreach failed to carry the day after the revolution, or why some individuals she viewed as reformists have fallen in line with the group’s controversial new policies. She sees the potential for democratic commitment, but is also unsparing in noting the “profound inconsistencies and contradictions” in the Brotherhood’s discourse, “yielding agendas in which newly embraced themes of freedom and democracy coexist uneasily with illiberal religious concepts.” That those questions remain unresolved has haunted the intensely controversial negotiations over a new post-Mubarak Egyptian constitution and has contributed to the dangerous polarization of its society.
Wickham observes that neither participation nor repression had obvious, predictable effects on the Brotherhood. Repression, seen by conventional wisdom as strengthening the extremists, actually had dual effects. The radicalization of some parts of the Brotherhood in the face of Nasser’s prisons has long been recognized as part of the story of the emergence of Al Qaeda and radical forms of Islamism. Sayyid Qutb formulated his doctrines of jahiliyya under torture, and Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad Organization emerged out of a radical splinter of the Brotherhood. But repression also aided the movement’s gradualist wing as some Brotherhood leaders “worked closely with regime authorities to rein in more extremist elements in the student movement.”
As for democratic participation, there is a vast difference between joining elections where the outcome is preordained and where victory is a real possibility. As Nathan Brown convincingly argues in his recent book When Victory Is Not an Option, the Muslim Brotherhood was profoundly shaped by the certainty that it could not come to power. Authoritarian realities shaped every aspect of the organization: its ideology, its practice, even its operations. It could avoid the tension between democratic participation and religious law because it never had a chance of governing. It could commit fully to democratic participation as part of its broader social outreach without having to worry about actually taking on the burden of government. Its careful balance between political and social work survived for decades.
Mubarak’s fall changed all that. For the first time, the Muslim Brotherhood faced the prospect of actually holding power—and that opportunity proved tantalizing and utterly destabilizing. After decades of careful, shrewd, pragmatic maneuvering, it suddenly made error after error. The Brotherhood’s violation of its vow not to field a presidential candidate shattered trust in its commitments. Morsi’s declaration of absolute power in order to force through the new constitution infuriated and alienated virtually everyone in Egypt and abroad. The Brotherhood has indulged in reckless and divisive sectarian rhetoric. It has alienated most of those who once gave it the benefit of the doubt, from Salafists on its Islamist flank to liberals to revolutionaries. Two years of spectacularly inept political overreach have destroyed decades of patient movement building.
Wickham’s narrative helps to explain the confusion that the revolution produced at every level within the organization, along with the peculiar mix of paranoia and arrogance that permeates it. She shows why its most pragmatic and forward-thinking members were gone when they were needed the most, and helps us understand how a movement famous for its discipline has proven unable to maintain a coherent message or deal effectively with Egypt’s intensely contentious and open new public sphere.
While it remains to be seen whether the Brotherhood will accept punishment at the ballot box and peacefully cede power, it has thus far remained committed to democracy and elections, and has shown little sign of living up to the often-aired fear that it would allow “one man, one vote, one time.” It is the Brotherhood’s opponents, instead, who talk of boycotting elections and speculate about the benefits of a military coup. But accepting elections is only one part of a commitment to democracy. Many Egyptian liberals worry that the Brotherhood’s views remain majoritarian at their heart, with core questions about tolerance, citizenship, and the relationship between sharia and civil law unresolved.
The Brotherhood has also been strikingly incompetent. It has utterly failed to get Egypt’s economy or institutions working effectively. Its inability to understand how threatening it appears to others, rooted in its own deeply ingrained paranoia, has prevented it from building the broad national consensus that post-revolutionary Egypt so desperately needs. For better or for worse, the Brotherhood has likely squandered any chance of establishing itself as a broad-based, moderately Islamist majority party, such as Turkey’s AK Party—an early ambition of the group.
None of this offers much in the way of reassurance about the movement’s future, or about its ability to deal with Egypt’s massive challenges today. Its newfound power is forcing the Brotherhood to take clear positions on issues it long kept intentionally vague—and its choices have often been disturbing. The polarization and political frustration of the last two years may change the views of the Brotherhood’s members in ways that overwhelm the lessons of earlier years. And Wickham’s book may one day be seen as an epitaph for what the Muslim Brotherhood might have become.
This article originally stated that Nasser came to power in 1956. In fact, he ascended to power as part of a military coup in 1952, and assumed the presidency in 1956. We regret the error.