The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement by Carrie Rosefsky Wickham - review by Michael Burleigh

Michael Burleigh

Brothers in Arms

The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement


Princeton University Press 352pp £19.95 order from our bookshop

On 30 June 2012 Muhammad Morsi was inaugurated as president of Egypt. Although there was nothing especially remarkable about this colourless engineer turned party functionary, Morsi’s rise represented an extraordinary achievement for the Muslim Brotherhood, the organisation to which he had dedicated his life.

Founded by a schoolteacher called Hasan al-Banna in 1928, the Brotherhood (or Ikhwan) survived decades of chicanery, persecution and siege at the hands of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak to become the surprise beneficiary of a revolution that enthusiastic Western commentators too facilely identified with the youthful
Facebook and Twitter protesters in Tahrir Square, even though a mere 2.6 per cent of Egyptians have access to such technology. Few noticed that the Muslim Brotherhood runs its own satellite television channel and is as ‘modern’ as the protesters, at least in that narrow and mainly irrelevant technological sense.

While Westerners congratulated their own superior social media in helping retrograde Arabs to overthrow corrupt and brutal dynastic regimes, the youthful protesters were edged aside as the residual military ‘deep state’ tried to stop ‘deep Egypt’ from assuming power. As it happened, at almost every stage the Brotherhood ran rings round the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Egypt’s senior judiciary, in the former case sacking generals after a counterterrorism operation in Sinai went very wrong.

Although parties based on religion were banned under the 1977 Political Parties Law, over several decades the Brotherhood built up the number of independents who supported it in parliament, overcoming every obstacle that successive regimes put in its way, including the rigging of elections in favour of the ruling National Democratic Party. The modern Brotherhood is a religio-political machine run by professionals – doctors, engineers and lawyers. It deliberately hung back from the chaotic events in Tahrir Square and then mobilised support for its freshly minted Freedom and Justice Party in the urban slums and conservative countryside to win the November 2011 parliamentary elections and the presidential contest in May 2012. The Freedom and Justice Party and its puritanical Salafist allies in the Al-Nour Party (Wahhabists who garnered around 20 per cent of the poll) packed the assembly charged with drafting a new constitution.

The political scientist Carrie Rosefsky Wickham acted as an electoral observer for the Carter Center, which monitored these elections and concluded that they were fairly conducted. Her book is a clearly written and balanced account of the Brotherhood from its modest beginnings to its coming to power. She eschews the predictable preoccupation with the question of whether it is the tip of a dangerous iceberg and instead concentrates on the tensions that exist between those brethren who believe in democratic pluralism and others who are implacably bent on establishing a Sunni version of Iranian-style theocracy.

Although she has interviewed a number of the brethren, the book is not strong on personality or incident. Nor does it convey a sense of the sort of gestural social conservatism that, for example, recently led Air Egypt to review (that is censor) its entertainment offerings after a Brotherhood politician protested about a business-class in-flight movie figuring erring housewives. She gives an anodyne account of the years of tribulation that surely gave the Brotherhood the credibility and extraordinary survival skills that have taken it to power. We read about large numbers of activists being rounded up and imprisoned for decades, but never how this (and the routine use of torture) might have influenced the way the Brotherhood operates. There is little discussion of its relationship to Islamist terrorist groups, for in Egypt the violence was not all one way. Nor does she discuss the tempting accommodations and betrayals that ensued when Sadat in particular tacked in the direction of social conservatism. We are none the wiser about where the money comes from, for the Brotherhood is clearly very well endowed, and there is no exploration of how the Brotherhood addressed social and welfare needs among poorer Egyptians: are they like the Victorian poor who sang hymns and took the handouts, before reverting to their reprobate ways? The mobilising power of anti-Semitism is wholly missing, which is odd given the old regime’s cold peace with Israel.

By contrast, Wickham is very good on the organisation of the Brotherhood, including its infiltration of professional bodies and student unions; it remains undemocratic (and dominated by a shadowy guidance council) even as it mouths democratic platitudes to widen its support. As with the Soviet Communist Party, candidates have to jump through many hoops to become fully functioning members, during which time their behaviour is subjected to group scrutiny. This means that when members drop out, they are effectively alienated from what has become an immersive way of life: ‘Your friends boycott you. They may not even say hello if they bump into you in the street. Your wife’s friends, who are usually from the Muslim Brotherhood, may boycott her as well.’ The organisation is run as a gerontocracy, and divisions of opinion are condemned as promoting ‘strife’ and ‘chaos’, though in practice there have been major disagreements about tactics if not strategy. In other words, the Brotherhood is culturally closer to a totalitarian organisation than to the Christian Democrats of European yore that some (residual) Western idealists compare it with. That is what worries the secular opposition, though the so-called National Salvation Front is divided and ineffectual.

Perhaps the main problem for the Brotherhood is that it is not equal to the scale of the problems that Egypt faces: glaring social inequality; an unemployment rate of 13 per cent; dependence on imported and heavily subsidised fuel; and population growth that will result by 2030 in 115 million people crammed into a fertile area the size of Holland. Even as the entire tourist industry has collapsed, Egypt’s new rulers are fretting about whether to introduce gender barriers in the middle of swimming pools or separate floors for men and women in dry, sharia-compliant hotels. Meanwhile foreign investors seek more congenial climes for their money, and since Morsi does not dare to curtail fuel subsidies, the IMF is hanging fire with a major loan. This probably won’t end well, for the Brotherhood or anyone else, though the reality of an Islamist government may have sucked the oxygen out of al-Qaeda-style terrorism.

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