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What Would A Muslim Brotherhood State Have Looked Like?

August 25, 2017

Morsi_SupportersIt’s one of the greatest controversies of the revolution: What would the state overseen by Egypt’s President Morsi have looked like if he had not been ousted in a popularly-supported military coup?

The Muslim Brothers claimed that they were committed to a secular state and civil government. Many Egyptians, perhaps the majority, feared that once they had established control, the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government would attempt to fulfill the original vision of the movement’s founder, Hassan al-Basri: to abolish the geographic borders of the country and impose its interpretation of the rules of Islam on Egypt, and – in due course – on the region, and the world as a whole.

In a new article entitled “The Egyptian Muslim Brothers’ ideal state model: a religious state – out; a civil state – in”, published in the journal Middle Eastern Studies, an argument is made that although the Muslim Brotherhood articulated an Islamic concept of a civil society, it was never fully committed to that vision.

Author Limon Lavie (of The Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem) argues that the concept of civil state was useful to the Brotherhood in its efforts to secure a strong place in the Egyptian public sphere, but widespread differences of commitment to that vision within the movement may have been one of the things that led to its political ouster.

Lavie argues that when one explores Muslim Brotherhood writings over time, one finds a real change in how governance is conceived:

In the movement’s original model, as drawn up by its founder Hasan al-Banna (1906–1949) in the first half of the twentieth century, Islam is dominant and the nation-state is only a phase on the road to pan-Islamic nationalism, and to the implementation of Islam across the entire world. In contrast, the new model, which has prevailed in the movement’s discourse since the 1990s and in its political platform since 2005, accepts the rules of the modern nation-state under certain limits and subjugates it to the rulings of Islam and its directives.

Lavie’s paper is divided into three parts.

  1. First, he examines the way in which top officials of the Muslim Brothers referred to the status of religion in the state, and to the notion of a nation-state through their descriptions of an ideal state model, during the first decades of the movement’s existence.
  2. Second, he describes the contexts in which the Muslim Brothers adopted a civil state model in the 1990s, and the interpretation that it gives to this concept.
  3. Third, he examines the attitude of the Muslim Brothers towards the civil state, religion and nationalism during the brief but eventful Morsi regime

Lavie offers a number of factors to explain what he portrays as a very real transformation of the Muslim Brotherhood’s model of governance into a civil state:

  1. For one, he argues that the Mubarak regime changed its policies in the early 1990s from trying to stop the Islamicization of the public sphere to actively seeking to “civilianize” it by simply defining any Islamic political activist who did not support the civil state concept as a radical associated with Islamist terror attacks–and whom, therefore, the authorities were allowed to persecute/prosecute.
  2. Second, while universities remained the most prominent public institution for the spread of political Islam, they were also increasingly sites for contesting it by intellectuals focused on the rights of Copts, women and other minorities. As a result, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood had to continually clarify how Islamic law would be implemented in such a way that it could coexist with–and support–such values as democracy, the sovereignty of the nation, and human rights and individual liberties.
  3. Third, a generation gap began to appear in the Muslim Brothers between a younger generation that sought to turn the movement into a formal political party, and an older generation of leaders who sought to maintain the conservative approach that had characterized the movement for decades. When these rebels broke away to form the Wasat Party, the Muslim Brotherhood had to begin to address the concerns of its youth or risk losing them completely.

By 1997, the Brotherhood was moving toward a new vision of what an Islamic state would look like. It published this statement in its official journal:

Subordinating democracy to Sharica does not at all mean the existence of a religious or theocratic government in the sense familiar from mediaeval Europe. The state in Islam is a civil state though it is not secular nor a state with a class of clergy, as in Europe. The ruler in the Islamic state is an inherent part of Islamic society, which appoints him and deposes him, according to the free will of the people.

Its 2007 party platform explained:

The Islamic state is necessarily a civil state, as its [public] offices are [manned] according to ability and professional experience and expertise, and its political office [holders] are elected citizens, by the will of the people… the authority of Islamic Sharica will be implemented in accordance with the [will] of the nation, through a parliamentary majority in a legislature that was elected freely, fairly, and with real transparency…

But there were important codicils that drew the ire of opponents.

  • One obliged the parliament to consult a committee of religious scholars which would have decisive authority.
  • Another forbade non-Muslims from running for the presidency.
  • A similar clause forbade women from running for the presidency.
  • Another clause obliged tourists in Egypt to respect the rules of Islam in public places.
  • And the platform stated that Islamic unity was a necessary precondition to Egyptian national security.

So was the shift to a civil state model mere rhetoric forced by consequences to be abandoned when they achieved power? Yes and no, Lavie writes.

On the one hand, many political Islamists–especially Salafists–emerged following the 2011 regime collapse to call for the establishment of an Islamic state whose constitution and rules would be drawn from the Qur’an and Sunna, and in which the ruler is obliged first to God, and only then to the people.


the official party of the Muslim Brothers – the Freedom and Justice Party – realized for the first time following the Revolution, could not renounce the civil state concept altogether and were required to meet the commitment they had made to the concept. The younger generation in the movement, the secular-liberal current and the international community expected the new leadership to be loyal to the civil state idea.

As the revolution continued, and the Muslim Brotherhood grew in authority, and created political alliances with the newly formed Salafi parties, its adherence to the discourse of civil society declined:

Hence, even in the post-Mubarak era, the Muslim Brothers’ discourse regarding the civil state remains confusing. The official discourse of the movement went back and forth, but overall there was a course of adherence to the civil model. But the discourse of the Muslim Brothers supporters and low ranks became harsher and more straightforward against the civil state model.

Lavie concludes with an examination of the new Constitution drafted by the Muslim Brotherhood, which he sees as irrefutable evidence that in the absence of the contexts that pushed them toward a civil society model, the Brotherhood moved back toward a vision of governance closer to that it had advocated in previous generations.

He concludes:

In summary, the Muslim Brothers’ attitude in recent years toward the civil state concept, and in that respect towards the role of religion in the country, was dual and inconsistent, both in theory and in practice. It was an attempt to fulfill different kinds of purposes and to satisfy different types of audiences. The movement did not have one coherent comprehension of the matter, which is what may have damaged its public credibility and contributed to its downfall.


Lavie, Limor. 2017. The Egyptian Muslim Brothers’ ideal state model: a religious state – out; a civil state – in. Middle East Studies 53(6): 996-1012.



One Comment leave one →
  1. August 27, 2017 1:26 pm

    Fascinating article. Yes I shudder to think what could have been and appreciate the lack of credibility with many Egyptians from the get.

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