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Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

The sudden death of Mohammad Morsi, Egypt’s first elected prime minister, who was overthrown in a military coup in 2013 and was facing trial for various charges and a 20-year-sentence, has once again brought the international media’s focus on the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) — the party Morsi was a member of.

The MB was not a new party that had emerged from the rumblings of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011, an uprising that saw the toppling of a number of authoritarian regimes across the Arab world. It was, and still is, one of the oldest mainstream ‘Islamist’ outfits in the Middle East, which succeeded in coming to power in Egypt in 2012 through a general election.

The MB members also managed to win the largest percentage of votes — 37.4 percent — during the 2011 Tunisia election, as the Ennahda Party. Turkey’s Justice & Development Party (AKP) which has been winning elections since 2002, is often understood to be the Turkish version of MB.

Former president Mohammad Morsi’s tragic death in captivity has highlighted once again the tense relationship of his Islamist party and the Arab World’s establishment

According to Fait Muedini’s The Role of Religion in the Arab Spring, the MB only played a ‘limited role’ during the Arab Spring. Muedini writes that MB didn’t want to overplay its ‘Islamist’ credentials during the unrest, which could have made it convenient for the state and government in Egypt and Tunisia to denounce the uprisings as ‘Islamist.’ This way the protests may have lost international support.

As the ruling parties weakened and disintegrated during the protests, new parties emerged, but they were not as organised as the MB. Over the decades, the MB had established widespread political and social networks, which helped it win the largest number of votes during the first post-Arab Spring elections in Egypt and Tunisia. Professor Edip Asaf of Istanbul University writes in an essay that the MB looked towards Turkey’s AKP ‘as an example’. He echoes French political scientist and author Oliver Roy’s assertion that the AKP’s ‘Turkish model’ became popular among Islamic outfits such as the MB in their bid to become part of the political mainstream, without overtly flexing their ‘Islamist’ muscle.

Refuting the influential American academic Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ hypothesis — which could not find any cultural or political common ground between the ‘authoritarian Muslim world’ and the democratic West — the AKP and the MB responded with a new paradigm: ‘clash within civilisations.’ This differentiated between moderate, democratic Muslim forces and the radical and reactionary ones.

According to this paradigm, the friction and tension within the Muslim world (between the moderates and the radicals) had produced political phenomena such as Turkey’s AKP and, later, the democratic coming to power of the MB in Egypt and the Ennahda Party in Tunisia. These were Islamic outfits who agreed to become inclusive and focused more on addressing economic issues rather than on the imposition of religious laws.

But the AKP had evolved in a staunchly secular Muslim republic. The many movements which preceded the formation of the AKP were non-militant and accepted the principles of Turkish nationalism established during the formation of the modern Turkish republic in 1923 by Ataturk. Even though the MB had decided to let go of its militant tendencies in the 1970s, it could not entirely alter the perception that the party remained rooted in the ideas of one of its most celebrated heroes, Sayyid Qutb, who was executed in 1966 for allegedly plotting the assassination of then Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Interestingly, the MB was established in Egypt in 1928 as a movement inspired by Muslim Modernism and Pan-Islamism. Muslim Modernism had been developing ever since the mid-19th century as a way to address the rise of European colonialism through the adoption of modern sciences and economics. Muslim Modernism advocated the readjustment of Islamic traditions and polities through ‘modernist’ tools such as pragmatism, rationalism, science, capitalism and/or socialism.

Pan-Islamism, on the other hand, wanted to do this to help the Muslims gain ascendency in colonial conditions, and once in, dismantle Western colonial supremacy and carve out a modern universal Islamic caliphate. According to Malise Ruthven, in Islam in the World, the MB became more conservative and militant once various reformist ideas of Muslim Modernism began being adopted by various non-religious Muslim leaders and outfits.

By the 1940s, the MB was being accused for organising assassinations and bomb attacks against colonial British officials in Egypt and the country’s monarch. In 1948, an MB member assassinated the country’s prime minister. However, in 1949, MB’s founder Hassan Al-Banna was killed in a retaliatory strike by Egypt’s secret police.

According to H.M. Hamouda’s 1985 tome Secrets of the Movement of Free Officers, the Free Officers Movement which toppled the Egyptian monarchy in 1952 and ousted the British, was formed within the MB. According to an essay by Selma Botman in the 1986 edition of Middle Eastern Studies, anti-monarchy and anti-British Egyptian officers had used the secret network constructed by the MB to facilitate their attempt to take over power.

However, by 1954, the now-in-power Free Officers Movement clashed with the MB, accusing it of trying to assassinate Nasser. MB denounced the new government as being ‘anti-Islam’ and ‘secular.’ Hundreds of MB leaders were arrested and jailed.

One such leader was Qutb, an unassuming man who had joined MB after returning from a trip to the US. Influenced by the writings of controversial French eugenicist and alleged Nazi sympathiser Alexis Carrel — who often attacked Western modernity — and by the prolific South Asian Islamic scholar Abul Ala Maududi who had described modernity as modern-day ‘jahiliya,’ Qutb advocated an armed social and political struggle against this jahiliya.

Many MB activists escaped arrest and were given asylum by Saudi Arabia. After Nasser’s death in 1970, and Egypt’s restoration of friendly ties with the US and Saudi Arabia, hundreds of MB members were allowed to return to the country. MB decided to renounce violence and enter mainstream politics. Disagreeing with this resolution and angered by Egypt’s recognition of Israel in 1979, two groups separated from MB. They insisted on following Qutb’s teachings. One such faction assassinated Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981.

Nevertheless, the MB as a whole continued on its ‘mainstream’ path. But the MB is condemned by its own history. Those who came out to protest against the Morsi regime claimed that, no matter how ‘moderate’ it pretends to be, MB’s end goal remains the enactment of a totalitarian theocracy. The opponents of this view bemoan that the coup against Morsi marked the end of a unique experiment in which a once-militant Islamist outfit was willing to take a more pluralistic and democratic path.

MB’s erstwhile backers, the Saudi monarchy, disagreed. In an environment of monarchy-backed reform within the kingdom, it now sees MB as a dangerous impediment which can use its vast network across the Arab world to undermine Saudi influence and trigger populist uprisings, including one in the kingdom.

Either MB will look to further modify its course to prove that it is no more a theocratic threat or a democratic ruse, or it may restore its militant tendencies. But I believe the latter is not possible in a world where there will not be a Saudi Arabia or a US welcoming escaping MB cadres from the arm of the Egyptian state.

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 30th, 2019