Egypt, home to one of the great ancient civilizations recognized in Western historiography, has once again become a center of world attention. Following the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings which toppled long-time ruler Hosni Mubarek, various forces of Egyptian society have emerged in an ongoing contest over social and political power. Of these forces, one of the most prominent has been that of organized Islam, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. How did Islam come to Egypt and how has it manifested itself in modern organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood? What has been its role in Egypt since independence, and what role will political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood likely play in the future?
Dynastic rule of the Egyptian pharaohs came to an end in 341 BCE following the invasion of the Zoroastrian Persian empire. The Nile river valley was subsequently brought under the rule of the Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines over the next centuries. Islam and Arabic were brought to the region during the seventh century, and the area was controlled by Muslims for more than 1,000 years afterwards. (1)
Like much of the world, the region which now includes Egypt was eventually subsumed under the rule of European colonialism. Whereas France’s attempt to establish a colony lasted less than three years between 1798-1801, the British Empire established stable control over the territory, notably the Suez Canal, in 1882.
Throughout world, the beginning of the recent era was marked by the end of WWII and the rise of decolonization movements in the Third World. For Egypt, recent history begins in 1952, when the Free Officers Movement carried out a military coup d’etat, ending British occupation and the comprador Ali monarchy. Following the ascent to power by Gamal Nasser and over the next decades, the newly independent country began to pursue secular nationalist domestic policies oriented towards industrial development, social reforms, and welfare. Egypt under Nasser also pursued a foreign policy which gravitated towards the Soviet Union, the Non-Aligned Movement and Pan-Arabism. Nasser, an early Arab Muslim leader in the decolonization movement, was an influence for later figures such as Muammar Qaddafi, Ahmed Ben Bella, and George Habash. (2)
Whereas the policies pursued by the newly independent Egypt were positive in regards to areas like land reform, welfare programs, the extension of women’s rights, and its international vision, the method of governance was overall undemocratic (though not illegitimate). The post-revolutionary Egyptian government suppressed dissent from both the left and right. Both religious and secular organizations were barred from formally participating in politics, and a system of one-party rule with little representation was instituted as part of the 1956 constitution. (3) Various populist reforms and anti-imperialist measures gained the Nasser-led government a degree of legitimacy and aided in tempering serious internal opposition. Nevertheless the limits of the ‘post-colonial’ political and economic model which Egypt pursued began to be felt at the same time the global counter-offensive by capital, known today as neo-liberal globalization, got underway.
A major turning point in Egyptian history occurred in 1970, the year Nasser died and Anwar El-Sadat became the new president. Sadat ushered in a policy of ‘de-Nasserization’ and opened the doors of Egypt’s economy to western finance capital. Though Egypt’s economy succumbed to liberalization in the early 1970’s, its political system did not. One of Sadat’s first political accomplishments after assuming power was to purge Nasser supporters, and other critics of his ‘reforms,’ from the political landscape. Additionally, as these new policies further alienated the Egyptian people from the state and heightened social tensions, the Sadat-led regime began to cultivate support from those on the Islamic right. (4)
Political Islam in Post-Nasser Egypt
For nationalists such as Nasser, the Soviet Union offered a model of economic and state development which paralleled the perceived needs and desires of Egyptian society and its political leadership. Like other leaders and countries associated with the Bandung era, the goal was not to become part of the Soviet Union’s orbit, but to accomplish a similar degree of political self-determination, economic development, and social welfare. The construction of a strong secular state was a means of securing such economic and social ends. However, the construction of such a state also required a limited amount of democratic political practice. Nasser’s doctrine of ‘Arab socialism’ consciously denied the role of class struggle, and amounted to a series of programs and situational demands of Egypt’s revolutionary nationalist leadership. Thus, civil society was allowed a limited political role, and repression was carried out against those who were critical of the regime.
While Nasser tried to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood outright, Sadat cultivated support from the Islamic right after he abandoned many of the Nasser-era programs. At the same time Sadat’s rapprochement with the West and Israel coincided with his rapprochement and tolerance of reactionary Islamic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Though the Brotherhood was barred from formal politics, it was allowed room to dominate other aspects of life, from religion and education to social services and law. While Sadat’s policies ruined the education and public service programs created under Nasser, the Muslim Brotherhood was later able to insert itself precisely in these areas, thus increasing its influence in public life. Under Sadat’s neo-liberal economic and foreign policy reforms, inroads of informal social power were created for Islamists, Sharia law again gained a place in public life, and centuries-old oppression of women and religious minorities began to resurface in Egyptian society. As part of the offense of western capital beginning in the 1970’s, neo-liberal ‘de-Nasserization’ also marked the beginning of the re-Islamization of Egyptian society. (5)
Sadat’s tolerance and implicit promotion of the Muslim Brotherhood eventually led to his assassination by its members in 1981 following the his signing of the Camp David Accords. It also founded the situation which would last throughout the rule of Hosni Mubarek until the Arab Spring movement. (6)
Writing at the onset of the protests in Eygpt, journalist Kenan Malik noted the continuing reactionary role of the Muslim Brotherhood:
“After Sadat’s assassination, Hosni Mubarak took over as Egypt’s strongman. During his 30-year-long brutal rule, there have been deep tensions between secular and religious authorities, tensions that have often broken out into open conflict. But there has also been recognition by both sides of their mutual dependence. The Egyptian government has needed not just a police state but also a viable Islamist opposition to keep secular radicals in check. The Muslim Brotherhood is officially banned, but in practice tolerated. Its candidates are allowed to stand in elections as independents and now form the largest opposition group in parliament. The Islamists, in turn, have used the repressive policies of the government to promote themselves as the only legitimate oppositional voice. But they, as much as the government, despise and fear popular power and democratic institutions.
“The cynicism of secular politicians in Muslim countries has been matched only by the cynicism of western policy. Western governments have been concerned primarily not with promoting freedom but with maintaining stability. Where Islamists have threatened that stability, or challenged western interests, then western governments have been happy to see them brutally suppressed, even when they have came to power through the ballot box, as happened in Algeria in 1991. But where fundamentalists have played a useful part in maintaining social order, or establishing western benefit, then the west has been happy to support them, from jihadis in Afghanistan in the 1980s to the Saudi regime today. […]
“The crushing of radical secular movements is one of the reasons that in recent years opposition protests in Egypt have been led mainly by the Muslim Brotherhood. What makes the current protests so different is that ordinary secular voices, repressed for so long by both religious and secular authorities, have finally broken out.” (7)
The Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt Today
Speaking on the recent uprising, Egyptian-born economist Samir Amin contends that the division in the Muslim world should not be considered as between Islamists and secularists, but between “reactionaries and progressives.” (8)
The Muslim Brotherhood opposed the anti-Mubarek protests initially. On the fourth day, as the movement was clearly and quickly gaining steam, the Muslim Brotherhood encouraged its members to join street demonstrations. Following two more weeks of widespread civil unrest and violence, Mubarek was removed by a military junta on February 11th.
There is strong indication that Islam will gain influence in the future of Egyptian politics and take over part of the role formerly played by Mubarek’s secular rule. During the country’s first parliamentary election since Mubarek’s departure from the political scene, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, took 40% of the seats, followed by the Salafi (ultra-conservative) Nour Party. First rounds of presidential elections are scheduled to take place on May 23 and 24th. (9)
But the Muslim Brotherhood and reactionary Islam are not the only forces acting to influence Egyptian society. According to Amin, youth, along with middle class democrats and the radical left, were also significant actors in the movement against Mubarek.
Describing these youth in an interview at the time of the uprising, Amin noted,
“They are politicised young people, they are organised very strongly, they are more than one million organised, which is not at all a small number. They are against the social and economic system. Whether they are anti-capitalist is a little theoretical for them, but they are against social injustice and growing inequality. They are nationalist in the good sense, they are anti-imperialist. They hate the submission of Egypt to the US hegemony. They are therefore against so-called peace with Israel, which tolerates Israel’s continued colonisation of occupied Palestine. They are democratic, totally against the dictatorship of the army and the police.” (10)
Yet the question remains, will democratic anti-imperialist visions prevail, or will the neo-liberal state reconstituted with Islamic leadership become Egypt’s new dictatorship? In a more recent interview, Amin indicated that the Arab Spring “has been neither successful nor defeated.” Instead for Amin, the Arab Spring represents a potential positive step for the region and a possible advance for the left. As well, what we are today witnessing may only be “the start of a wider movement.” (11)
It will take more than protest movements, demands for reform, election campaigns, and single-issue organizing to truly remake Egyptian society in a positive manner. Real progressive change will come as the people of Egypt, its workers, women, progressive democrats, radicals, and inspired youth, organize for their own social, economic and political empowerment: something which can only come at the expense and ultimately through the overthrow of the extant reactionary state and the western powers behind it.
For the Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab Spring and fall of Mubarek will offer a significant opportunity to entrench itself in the power of that reactionary state. Once tolerated as a better of possible oppositions by a repressive secular government, Islamists may emerge as key surrogates for capital and western powers in maintaining the larger order. Acting alongside the Egyptian military establishment and international allies such as the United States and Israel, reactionary Islamists, if not checked through progressive class struggle, will likely become a prominent oppressive force in Egyptian social and political life.
(1) CIA World Factbook
(2) Forsythe, David P.. “Egypt From Nasser to Present.” In Encyclopedia of human rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. p109-110
(4) Ibid. p 112
(6) Malik, Kenan. ” The Muslim Brotherhood may gain power in Egypt by default .” The Guardian . http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/jan/31/egypt-secular-protests (accessed April 30, 2012).
(8) “Samir Amin: The movement has neither won nor lost in Egypt” Newsclick.in. http://newsclick.in/international/samir-amin-movement-has-neither-won-nor-lost-egypt (accessed May 1, 2012).
(9) “Egypt News — Presidential Elections, May 2012.” The New York Times. http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/egypt/index.html (accessed April 30, 2012)
(10) Amin, Samir . “Egypt: How to overthrow a dictator.” Pambazuka. http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/71173 (accessed April 29, 2012).
(11) “Samir Amin: The movement has neither won nor lost in Egypt” Newsclick.in. http://newsclick.in/international/samir-amin-movement-has-neither-won-nor-lost-egypt (accessed May 1, 2012).
Amin, Samir . “Egypt: How to overthrow a dictator.” Pambazuka. http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/71173 (accessed April 29, 2012).
Forsythe, David P.. “Egypt From Nasser to Present.” In Encyclopedia of human rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 108-115.
Malik, Kenan. ” The Muslim Brotherhood may gain power in Egypt by default .” The Guardian . http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/jan/31/egypt-secular-protests (accessed April 30, 2012).
“Egypt News — Presidential Elections, May 2012.” The New York Times. http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/international/countriesandterritories/egypt/index.html (accessed April 30, 2012)
“Samir Amin: The movement has neither won nor lost in Egypt” Newsclick.in. http://newsclick.in/international/samir-amin-movement-has-neither-won-nor-lost-egypt (accessed May 1, 2012).
“World Factbook.” CIA. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/eg.html (accessed April 26, 2012).