Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood: Understanding Centrist Islam. (World in Review)

By Walsh, John | Harvard International Review, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood: Understanding Centrist Islam. (World in Review)


Walsh, John, Harvard International Review


The West's traditional suspicion of anything that could be called an Islamist movement has increased in light of recent events. In the rush to distinguish friend from foe in the Islamic world, US favor has gravitated toward the stable, secular, and overtly "friendly" regimes of the region, of which Hosni Mubarak's Egyptian government is probably the best example. There has always been a tendency to group the moderate and radical branches of Islamist movements together, but recent developments have made it especially important to realize how much they differ.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood provides an example of the goals and methods of centrist Islamism. This group and Egypt's radicals share the long-term goal of implementing shari'a (Qu'ranic law) as the basis of national law. The Brotherhood, however, has committed itself to working within the current Egyptian system to achieve this objective and renounces--at least in its official statements--the violent tactics of militant splinter groups such as al-Gama'at al-Islamiyyah and al-Jihad. Since Mubarak's 1981 ascent to power, the Brotherhood has used a three-fold strategy to gain influence in the existing political framework. First, it sought to gain properly elected representation in the Egyptian parliament, largely through coalitions with other small opposition parties. Second, it has taken control of professional and student associations (the most prominent private organizations in the country), again through proper electoral process. Finally, it has established a network of social services in neighborhoods and vi llages. These initiatives fill gaps in government services, creating an enormous degree of popular support for the Brotherhood without directly challenging the government. In return, Mubarak has declared that he would work together with nonviolent Islamists, although not with the radicals. Though this policy has proven successful, Mubarak has never followed it scrupulously, and most Islamist successes within the Egyptian system have met with some measure of repression from the regime. The Brotherhood's experiences in the past 20 years have suggested that it may be more capable of providing social services to the Egyptian population, more reliable in keeping the promises it has made, and even more democratic than the secular regime that has enjoyed consistent US support.

Ascendancy Under Mubarak

As in many other areas of his rule, when handling Islamic groups Mubarak has steered a middle course between the policies of his predecessors Gamel Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. From the beginning, Mubarak balanced accommodationist and repressive strategies, mixing the expected sweep of arrests in retaliation for Sadat's 1981 assassination with surprising gestures of conciliation. On one hand, members of the radical factions blamed for the assassination were arrested by the thousands. On the other hand, Mubarak attempted to reduce the Islamic movement's ill feeling toward the regime; like Sadat a decade earlier, he aimed to distance himself from his predecessor. This effort began with the release of Supreme Guide Omar Tilimsani and other Brotherhood members imprisoned during the crackdown of Sadat's final years. The shuffle of Islamist prisoners between these two initiatives illustrates Mubarak's early differentiation between radical and moderate groups.

Despite retaliating for the assassination of Sadat, Mubarak offered an olive branch to centrist Islamists. Both sides had much to gain from this arrangement. By legitimizing the Brotherhood as the primary representatives of centrist Islamism, Mubarak could place militants outside the mainstream. Once they were isolated, he could take forceful measures against them with little protest from Egyptians sympathetic to centrist Islamists. In return for his leniency, Mubarak expected the Brotherhood to restrain itself from attempting to co-opt the political system and even to deliver a measure of support for his initiatives. …

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