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Reflecting on the Muslim Brotherhood’s Place in Post-Revolutionary Egypt

August 30, 2012

Whatever else happens in the wake of the Presidential elections and the military council’s decree, it seems clear that in post-revolutionary Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood will play a considerable role in Egyptian politics for the foreseeable future.  The group is likely to wield a great deal of power and influence for a long time in post-revolution Egypt.

That’s why it is useful to review Nathan Brown’s Carnegie paper from earlier this year on the Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts to come to terms with its own success. This paper was written after the Ikhwan’s success in the parliamentary elections but before their candidate won the presidency–indeed, back when they still said they weren’t going to run a candidate for the presidency.

The main focus of this paper was the changing philosophy of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as it prepares to transition from a semi-illegal opposition party to being one of the main political forces in Egypt.  The picture that emerges of the group is of a pragmatic political organization that seeks to develop it’s own policies, especially in terms of the economy, but is willing to compromise on some of the issues it had previously taken critical stances on (most notably on cultural issues and foreign policy) in the interest of moving the country forward.

Brown cites the movement’s old slogan “participation, not domination,” several times throughout the piece as evidence that the Brotherhood wants to attempt to build a real multi-party democracy in Egypt.  He also offers as evidence the fact that the the group had promised not to field a candidate for president, and even revoked the membership of one prominent follower because he had declared his candidacy. Does the fact that the Brotherhood reneged on this promise and, in fact, won the presidential elections change anything?

Brown certainly acknowledges that the Brotherhood desires to be a dominant force in Egyptian politics.  He writes:

Khayrat al-Shatir indicated that while the Brotherhood will not spend its political capital on matters that are not likely to have long term effect…it will take a strong stand on those involving Egypt’s political reconstruction, such as writing the constitution.

Combined with the fact that they are going to have a majority in parliament for the foreseeable future, this gives them very large influence in what the new Egyptian constitution is going to look like.  It remains to be seen exactly what the group’s main motives are, as Brown repeatedly points to the vagueness of their real programs.

In terms of economic policy, the Brotherhood differs from the more leftist, secular parties in a number of ways.

First, in spite of its longstanding commitment to the poor, the Brotherhood appears to be more supportive of free market economics than many other parties, who espouse social justice through economic reform.  However, the Brotherhood is trying to find a way to mix Islamic teachings with liberal, free market economics, and it remains to be seen what the results of that will be.

Second, the Brotherhood makes a strong claim of being “virtuous” in contrast to the virulently corrupt old regime, and they have not only the theological underpinning to back them up, but also their decades of running food banks and other relief programs for the poor.  As in the Palestinian Elections of 2006, when Hamas was able to defeat Fatah due to their stronger claim that they would act morally because of their strong commitment to Islamic law,  the Brotherhood in Egypt has been able to claim the high moral ground in an anti-corruption campaign.

Brown also writes that the Brotherhood’s main goal on social and cultural issues is to leave them on the back burner until they consolidate a coherent and workable economic agenda, saying “it has…come to realize that there are few areas where it sets off domestic (and even international) fears more quickly than in the cultural realm.”

It remains to be seen how well this will hold given the unforeseen victories of the ultra-conservative Salafist parties. If the Salafists press cultural issues, Brown argues, the Brotherhood might feel the need to prove their bona fides on these issues so as not to risk losing the support of Egyptian conservatives..  However, if the group maintains a moderate position on social issues (and indeed, Salafists in other countries, like Kuwait, have been amenable in this regard), then they have the chance to prove to the world and to secular and non-Muslim Egyptians that they are a legitimate political party not a one-sided organization bent on imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law on all sectors of society.

In terms of foreign policy, Brown writes, the Brotherhood has been much more vague in terms of what it would do.  Though the group has always had some interest in foreign policy, it has mainly been in line with populist Egyptian opinion:

  1. suspicious of U.S. interests in the region
  2. viewing Gaza as a humanitarian issue, and
  3. opposing Israeli in terms that range from the critical to the histrionic.

It is this last point that most worries American policy makers, as Mubarak’s regime was useful to the United States in that he guaranteed regional stability (to an extent) by keeping the peace with Israel.  However, even on this point the Brotherhood’s true stance is ambiguous at best.  Brown writes,

The Brotherhood also has a long term, almost visceral dedication to the Palestinian cause, dating back almost to the movement’s founding, that casts it not simply as an Egyptian or Arab issue but also as an Islamic one.

However, one prominent member of the movement (whose name Brown does not reveal) said that (paraphrased in the article)

Brotherhood leaders increasingly viewed Israel from the perspective of the Egyptian state rather than the more parochial one of a religious movement, but that past rhetoric and the feelings of the movement’s grass roots placed a limit on public expressions of the evolving view.

Brown also wrote that the Brotherhood could be expected to mainly be focused on consolidating its domestic gains in the short to mid-term, saying, “the movement will likely defer to the presidency, the diplomatic corps (in Egypt, still seen as a nonpartisan and professional institution), and even the security establishment,” on matters of foreign policy.

Ah, but what does this mean now that the president is also a member of the Brotherhood?

–Written by Jack Nelson and Mark Allen Peterson


Brown, Nathan J. 2012. “When Victory Becomes an Option: Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Confronts Success.” The Carnegie Papers. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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