The Muslim Brotherhood emerged in 1928 as the Sufi-inspired intellectual product of Egyptian teacher Hassan al-Banna. Its community-oriented structure attracted a wide variety of religious and political characters, and the group quickly spread through Egypt’s major population centers. From the beginning, and perhaps owing to its Sufi heritage, the Brotherhood had a secretive air about it. Though its original aims were peaceful, the anti-British sentiment that was pervasive throughout Egypt in the post-World War II period engendered a more violent ‘secret organization’ within the group, of which al-Banna and the majority of the Brotherhood had little knowledge. The secret organization made inroads with the Egyptian military, fought in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, and following the Free Officers’ banning of the Brotherhood in 1954, even attempted to assassinate Gamal Abdel-Nasser. This resulted in an intense crackdown by Egypt’s newly minted military regime, which witnessed the incarceration and brutal treatment of Salafi ideologues such as Sayid Qutb. Though the Muslim Brotherhood as a whole eventually reoriented toward a moderate direction under the auspices of its second leader, Hassan al-Hudaybi, the ideas of Qutb and his peers, who were radicalized in prison, went on to inspire a generation of well-known jihadis, including Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Ladin.
Since the early days of Mubarak, scholars have generated reams of evidence as to how the current iteration of the Muslim Brotherhood is moderate and inclined toward democracy, citing its commitment to civil society and an internal democratic structure based on Islamic ijma. While this may be true, two key considerations are often missed. First, little attention is paid to the vastly different experiences within different generations of the group’s members. Though the younger group may indeed be interested in democratic governance and moderate implementation of Islamic law in Egypt, there still exists an older group that remembers the harder times of the mid-twentieth century and the frequently changing attitudes of the Mubarak government. Second, it is often forgotten that while the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have historically taken apparently peaceful approaches toward their interpretation of al-Banna’s vision, they also have a tendency to miss radical elements within the group that are more given to acts of violence. Would-be terrorists can be motivated by the Brotherhood’s ideological forebears and undertake operations against figures they find objectionable without being sanctioned by the group itself. Further, the group’s history of secretiveness makes it difficult to determine whether such acts are inspired by individuals close to its leadership, without being directly sanctioned by any official ruling or consensus.
The security puzzles facing the United States in light of the Muslim Brotherhood’s historical experiences are many fold, especially given the organization’s recent (and likely continuing) foray into the Egyptian political realm. First, it must understand that negotiating and coming to accords with Morsi and his political allies is not equivalent to doing so with the Brotherhood itself. There is still a trend within the group toward concepts that are horrifying to some Western observers such as the abrogation of the Camp David Accords and complete institution of Islamic law in Egypt, evidenced by the seemingly endless stream of Brotherhood clerics that make their way into headlines regularly. While younger members may not adhere to these concepts they are still alive and well within the organization, and if they are able to spread readily to a majority of Egyptians with a legitimate vote, they may lead to figures who are far more openly extreme than Morsi. The security ramifications of such a political development would be deadly for the US, which depends on a pro-American Egypt for the maintenance of the current status quo in the Middle East. Second, American observers must remember the Brotherhood’s secretive history and its tendency toward benign oversight of any aspect of its membership that wishes to engage in acts of violence. The key stipulation here is that an unwillingness to directly order plots against Western interests does not mean there is a willingness to stop them if they are crafted independently by the group’s members. Given that the Brotherhood’s ideological framework has generated some of the most enduring pillars of the current wave of jihadist terrorism, the United States would do well to keep its eyes and ears open within the organization’s general membership and understand that rumblings from below may be more dangerous than trumpeting from above.
Though Muhammad Morsi and the current version of the Freedom and Justice Party may plot a course for Egypt that is stridently anti-American, it is important to understand that their growing influence and freedom of action could have important consequences for the United States in the Middle East. If Americans are unwilling or unable to acknowledge the historical behavioral tendencies of the Muslim Brotherhood, it will encounter difficulty trying to work within the atmosphere of Morsi’s Egypt and deter what could ultimately be an environment that tacitly accepts the development of plots against the US and its interests where once there existed a veritable oasis of security under the authoritarian Mubarak. Only when this is accomplished will it be possible to adjust to an ‘Ikhwanized’, as it is colloquially phrased, Egypt, and work to forge policies for the future that will prove attractive to Western and local entities alike.
McGhee Cost is an Analyst at 361Security