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Muslim Brotherhood's key role in Egypt

By Fawaz Gerges, Special to CNN
  • Fawaz Gerges says Muslim Brotherhood is one of keys to Egypt's future
  • He says group has sought to position itself as a mainstream movement
  • Its past includes a history of violence and militancy, he says
  • Gerges says its support for opposition movement indicates desire for centrist role

Editor's note: Fawaz A. Gerges is a professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics, London University. He is author of "The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global."

London (CNN) -- One of the biggest questions hanging over the Egyptian revolution is the role of the Muslim Brotherhood. It's impossible to fully understand the importance of the Brotherhood's position today without referring to its violent past and its efforts since the 1970s to position itself as a mainstream religious and political movement in Egypt.

In the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood reinforced this centrist position by recognizing the important role of young people in organizing the mass protests, calling for all opposition groups to unite against the Mubarak regime, and supporting Mohamed ElBaradei, a secular figure, as the main representative of the opposition uprising.

A historical examination of the Muslim Brotherhood reveals how far the group has evolved.

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in the 1920s by the prominent Egyptian schoolteacher, Hassan al-Banna. By the end of the 1940s, its numbers had swollen to more than 500,000 on the back of three major causes: battling British colonialism, resistance to a new Jewish state and fighting corruption in Egypt. Now it is Egypt's most powerful opposition movement and has inspired Islamist movements worldwide.

Even though it was supposed to be apolitical and religious, in the 1930s al-Banna established a paramilitary wing. It carried out multiple operations against prominent Jews and targeted political leaders and judges in Egypt. In 1948, one of the Brothers assassinated Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmoud Nokrashy. As a result, the security services killed al-Banna, creating a chasm in the Muslim Brotherhood between the political and paramilitary wings.

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Nevertheless, the British-backed monarchy was still the target for the Brotherhood. It backed the three army officers, including Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led the Officer's Revolution in 1952, which toppled the monarchy.

The tactical alliance did not last more than a few months. The two parties had divergent political goals and ambitions: the Muslim Brotherhood believed in the establishment of a Quran-based state, whereas the military officers believed in the establishment of a nationalist, secularist one.

An attempted assassination of Nasser led to the brutal suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and the imprisonment of Sayyid Qutb, one of its leading ideologues. When Nasser sent Qutb to the gallows in 1966, it sparked the birth of the jihadist movement. A year after Qutb's death, Ayman al-Zawahiri set up a jihadist cell at his school and invited a few friends to join. He was 16 at the time. He became and remains to this day one of al Qaeda's most prominent leaders.

By the 1970s, the Muslim Brotherhood realized its survival was put in doubt because of the extremist militaristic position it had adopted since the 1940s. Learning from its traumatic experiences, the Brotherhood then sought to reposition itself as a centrist religious-political movement. It is this new position that has saved the group from total collapse.

As long as Mubarak ruled, the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood remained. But even so, the Brotherhood's new position allowed it to enter the last election, as well as to enter talks between the army and the opposition, at the invitation of Gen. Omar Suleiman, who was appointed vice president in the final days of Mubarak's regime. Many members of the opposition grew wary of the Brotherhood's ultimate intentions from these negotiations, suspecting that they might have been capable of making backdoor deals, even with the hated Mubarak regime.

It's clear that the army will fill the vacuum of governing after Mubarak, while still trying to engage with the multifaceted opposition. Yet, the opposition faces major challenges. Historically, it has been deeply fragmented along ideological and personality lines. Every party has suffered from major cleavages because of the strong personalities controlling them.

The Muslim Brotherhood is the only exception in this regard and has thus been the only viable social and political opposition that could mobilize a few million people to vote for it and win a minimum of 20% of parliamentary seats.

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The Muslim Brotherhood was not responsible for the current uprising, and they know it. Even though it is the most powerful and most organized opposition group, they know that the other groups, and the youth specifically, can tip the balance of power in favor of ElBaradei or someone else, such as Ayman Nour, a liberal-leaning dissident politician, or Amre Moussa, head of the League of Arab States and a popular politician in Egypt.

ElBaradei has an especially strong chance of leading the opposition. He has already bridged the divide between different opposition groups and promised the Muslim Brotherhood it would be legalized and integrated into mainstream politics. And young activists who organized the revolution might emerge as the new leaders in post-Mubarak Egypt.

The Brotherhood, with a new generation of young leaders, has come a long way to the point where its members recognize the need to cooperate with the other opposition groups. Moreover, they now know the Egyptian people are deeply involved in politics. What was the silent majority has become active and outspoken. It may not be as organized and institutionalized as the Muslim Brotherhood, but what we are seeing on the streets is an effective and vibrant movement comprised of middle-class citizens as well: centrists, students, activists and professionals.

This is the new force that will decide which opposition group emerges on top. We need the active majority to organize themselves and find a voice. If they don't, the Muslim Brotherhood will probably be the dominant power in the next Egyptian parliament and that could pit the movement against the army in a scenario that could spell a repeat of Algeria in the early 1990s.

When Islamists won a majority of parliamentary seats in Algeria in 1992, the army intervened and dissolved the political process, causing a civil war that killed 150,000 people. Aware of the Algerian case, the Brotherhood leadership has already stated that it won't field a candidate in the forthcoming presidential election. The Brothers have also stressed that they won't make a bid to govern Egypt or gain a majority in the new parliament, even though they plan to actively participate in Egyptian politics

One of the lessons I've taken from my interviews with the Brotherhood rank-and-file over the past decade is that the movement has matured and learned from its mistakes. The Muslim Brothers are traveling a similar journey to that of their Turkish co-religionists, but they still have a long way to go to fully embrace democracy.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Fawaz A. Gerges.

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