The Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Crisis
Will the Obama administration’s policy toward Egypt be based on a perception that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood would be extremely dangerous? Or have they taken the position – voiced in parts of the U.S. foreign policy establishment – that the Brotherhood has become moderate and can be talked to? Initial administration reactions indicate that it does not rule out Muslim Brotherhood participation in a future Egyptian coalition government.
Since January 28, the Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement has become more prominent, with its support of Mohamed ElBaradei to lead the opposition forces against the government. In the streets of Cairo, Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators disdainfully call people like ElBaradei “donkeys of the revolution” (hamir al-thawra) – to be used and then pushed away – a scenario that sees the Muslim Brotherhood exploit ElBaradei in order to hijack the Egyptian revolution at a later stage.
There has been a great deal of confusion about the Muslim Brotherhood. In the years after it was founded in 1928, it developed a “secret apparatus” that engaged in political terrorism against Egyptian Copts as well as government officials. In December 1948, the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Nuqrashi Pasha. It also sought to kill Egyptian leader Abdul Nasser in October 1954.
Former Brotherhood Supreme Guide Muhammad Akef declared in 2004 his “complete faith that Islam will invade Europe and America.” In 2001, the Muslim Brotherhood’s publication in London, Risalat al-Ikhwan, featured at the top of its cover page the slogan: “Our Mission: World Domination.” This header was changed after 9/11.
The current Supreme Guide, Muhammad Badi’, gave a sermon in September 2010 stating that “the improvement and change that the *Muslim+ nation seeks can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death, just as the enemies pursue life.”
Initially, it was widely observed that the Muslim Brotherhood has been very low-key during the current crisis in Egypt. Most analysts admitted that it is the best organized and largest opposition group in Egypt, but they played down its role. Yet since January 28, the Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement has become more prominent. One tangible example is the support the Brotherhood has given to Mohamed ElBaradei to lead the opposition forces against the government.
In the streets of Cairo, Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators disdainfully call people like ElBaradei “donkeys of the revolution” (hamir al-thawra), to be used and then pushed away.1 Thus, there is a scenario that sees the Muslim Brotherhood exploit a figure like ElBaradei in order to hijack the Egyptian revolution at a later stage.
What is the Muslim Brotherhood? It is known as Ikhwan al-Muslimun in Arabic, or just Ikhwan, established in 1928 by an Egyptian schoolteacher, Hassan al-Banna. Outwardly, it was a social and religious organization, but over the years it developed a “secret apparatus” that engaged in military training of its cadres and political terrorism against Egyptian Copts as well as government officials. This dualism continued years later. In December 1948, the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Nuqrashi Pasha. It also sought to kill Egyptian leader Abdul Nasser in October 1954.
The Muslim Brotherhood also had an expansionist agenda right from the start, and called for the re-establishment of the Islamic Empire. In the late 1930s, its newspaper called for retaking “former Islamic colonies” in Andalus (Spain), southern Italy, and the Balkans.2 This theme was maintained in recent years by its former Supreme Guide, Muhammad Akef, who in 2004 declared his “complete faith that Islam will invade Europe and America,” with the caveat that Westerners will join Islam by conviction.3 Others have also made this point. According to Sheikh Yousef Qaradawi, widely regarded as the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood:
Constantinople was conquered in 1453 by a 23-year-old Ottoman named Muhammad ibn Murad, whom we call Muhammad the Conqueror. Now what remains is to conquer Rome. That is what we wish for, and that is what we believe in. After having been expelled twice, Islam will be victorious and reconquer Europe....I am certain that this time, victory will be won not by the sword but by preaching.4
Over the years, the Muslim Brotherhood opened branches in a number of Arab countries and even has front organizations in the UK, France, and the U.S. But it has not disavowed its original commitment to Islamic militancy and its global ambitions. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood’s publication in London, Risalat al-Ikhwan, has maintained a clearly jihadist orientation; in 2001 it featured at the top of its cover page the slogan: “Our Mission: World Domination” (siyadat al-dunya). This header was changed after 9/11, but the publication still carries the Muslim Brotherhood’s motto which includes: “Jihad is our path; martyrdom is our aspiration.”5
The current Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Muhammad Badi’, gave a sermon in September 2010 stating that Muslims today “need to understand that the improvement and change that the [Muslim] nation seeks can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death, just as the enemies pursue life.”6 In short, the Muslim Brotherhood remains committed to supporting militant activities in order to advance its political aims. From looking at the biographies of its most prominent graduates, one can immediately understand the organization’s long-term commitment to jihadism:
1. Abdullah Azzam (of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood) and Muhammad Qutb (of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) taught at King Abdul Aziz University in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, where they had a student named Osama bin Laden. Azzam went off to Pakistan with his student, bin Laden, to help the mujahidin fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.
2. Ayman al-Zawahiri (bin Laden’s deputy) grew up in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
3. Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (the al-Qaeda mastermind of the 9/11 attacks) came out of the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood.
Given this background, the Muslim Brotherhood has been widely regarded in the Arab world as the incubator of the jihadist ideology. A former Kuwaiti Minister of Education, Dr. Ahmad Al-Rab’i, argued in Al-Sharq al-Awsat on July 25, 2005, that the founders of most modern terrorist groups in the Middle East emerged from “the mantle” of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Many columnists in the Middle East have warned in recent years about the Brotherhood’s hostile intentions. Tariq Hasan, a columnist for the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, alerted his readers on June 23, 2007, that the Muslim Brotherhood was preparing a violent takeover in Egypt, using its “masked militias” in order to replicate the Hamas seizure of power in the Gaza Strip. And columnist Hussein Shobokshi, writing in the Saudi-owned Al-Sharq al-Awsat on October 23, 2007, said that “to this day” the Muslim Brotherhood “has brought nothing but fanaticism, divisions, and extremism, and in some cases bloodshed and killings.” Thus, both Arab regimes and leading opinion-makers in Arab states still have serious reservations about the claim of a new moderation in the Muslim Brotherhood.7 4
Ironically, in the last five years, prominent voices in the West have considered opening a political dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood. For example, Dr. Robert S. Leiken and Steven Brooke published an article in the March-April 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs called “The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood” in which they advised the Bush administration to enter into a strategic alliance with the organization, which they referred to as “moderate,” calling it a “notable opportunity” to use the Brotherhood to promote American interests. James Traub echoed many of their arguments in the New York Times Magazine on April 29, 2007, in which he claimed that “the Muslim Brotherhood, for all its rhetorical support of Hamas, could well be precisely the kind of moderate Islamic body that the administration says it seeks.” In addition, a committee in the British House of Commons also advocated the UK opening a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood, as well.
At the same time, some U.S. officials and dignitaries seemed to have softened their approach to the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pressed President Mubarak to open up participation in the Egyptian parliamentary elections, resulting in a major increase of elected Muslim Brotherhood members from 15 to 88. Subsequently, Mubarak became more reluctant to take U.S. advice.
Visiting U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer met twice in 2007 with the head of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, Mohammed Saad el-Katatni, according to Brotherhood spokesman Hamdi Hassan.
The critical question is whether the Obama administration’s policy toward Egypt will be based on a perception that the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood would be extremely dangerous. Or have they taken the position – voiced in parts of the U.S. foreign policy establishment – that the Muslim Brotherhood has become moderate and can be talked to? The initial reactions of the Obama administration indicate that it does not rule out Muslim Brotherhood participation in a future Egyptian coalition government.8 Unfortunately, there is a dangerous misconception about the Muslim Brotherhood in parts of the foreign policy community in the West that could affect calculations in Washington and London in the weeks ahead.
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1. Yoni Ben Menahem, Israel Radio - Reshet Bet, February 1, 2011.
2. Brynjar Lia, The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt – The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement 1928-1942 (Reading, UK: Ithaca Press, 1998) p. 80.
3. Lorenzo Vidino, The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), p. 92.
4. Lt. Col. (res.) Jonathan Dahoah-Halevi, “The Muslim Brotherhood: A Moderate Islamic Alternative to al-Qaeda or a Partner in Global Jihad?” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Jerusalem Viewpoints, No. 558, 1 November 2007.
5. Ibid. 5
6. “Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide: ‘The U.S. Is Now Experiencing the Beginning of Its End’; Improvement and Change in the Muslim World ‘Can Only Be Attained Through Jihad and Sacrifice,’” MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute), Special Dispatch No. 3274, October 6, 2010;
7. Halevi, “The Muslim Brotherhood.”
8. Paul Richter and Peter Nicholas, “U.S. Open to a Role for Islamists in New Egypt Government: But the Muslim Brotherhood Must Renounce Violence and Support Democracy, the White House Says,” Los Angeles Times, Latimes.com, January 31, 2011; http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-fg-us-egypt-20110201,0,2958266.story/.
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Ambassador Dore Gold, President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was the eleventh Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations (1997-1999). Dr. Gold served as foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first government and has advised Israeli governments since that time on U.S.-Israel relations. He is the author of the best-selling books: The Fight for Jerusalem: Radical Islam, the West, and the Future of the Holy City (Regnery, 2007), and The Rise of Nuclear Iran: How Tehran Defies the West (Regnery, 2009).
This Jerusalem Issue Brief is available online at: http://www.jcpa.org