The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: An Overview


    1.0 Introduction

    Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is a politico-religious organisation, espousing the long-term goal of implementing shari’a (Qu’ranic law) as the basis of national law. Following Hosni Mubarak’s 1981 ascension, the Brotherhood has used a three-fold strategy to gain influence in the existing political framework.

    First, it sought to gain properly elected representation in the Egyptian parliament, largely through coalitions with other smaller parties. Second, it has taken control of professional and student associations, again through the proper electoral process. Finally, it has established a network of social services in neighbourhoods and villages.

    These initiatives fill gaps in government services. Mostly by creating a degree of popular support for the Brotherhood without directly challenging the government.

    2.0 History: Unwavering Durability

    Founded in 1928 as a religious and charitable organisation, the Brotherhood has been instrumental in shaping Egypt’s socio-political milieu.

    During the 1930s, its primary involvement included charitable and social activities, with little to no interest in politics. Entry into politics came in the 1940s, when Hasan al-Banna, an Islamic revivalist, ran in the 1942 parliamentary election. Although he withdrew in light of pressure from the government.

    Hasan al-Banna, the first General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood.
    Fig.1 Hasan al-Banna, the first General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood.

    In the late 1940s, the Brotherhood’s military wing (the Special Apparatus) engaged in violence against British, Jewish, and Egyptian targets. The Brotherhood’s assassination of Egyptian Prime Minister Mahmud al-Nuqrashi led to al-Banna’s own assassination in 1949 and the subsequent dissolution of the movement.

    As one might anticipate, al-Banna’s assassination cemented an internal political crisis. Hasan al-Hudaybi emerged as the Brotherhood’s next General Guide. In July 1952, the Brotherhood endorsed the Free Officers’ coup under the direction of Gamal Nasser. However, the Brotherhood became quickly disillusioned with a regime that would not implement Sharia.

    2.1 Political Sedition and Repression Under Nasser

    Under the Nasser regime, the Brotherhood was subject to harsh political repression and even eradication attempts during the 1950s-1960s. The organisation’s repression peaked after the movement was outlawed in 1954. Hundreds of its members were arrested, prosecuted in military courts, and tortured. The Brotherhood’s opposition culminated in a crisis when a member of the movement attempted to assassinate Egypt’s President, Gamal Nasser.

    Consequently, Nasser ordered the execution and imprisonment of the movement’s members. Among them was Sayyid Qutb who wrote extensively during his imprisonment. He devised a revolutionary ideology for the overthrow of despotic Muslim leaders and the introduction of Sharia rule. In 1956, the state executed Qutb. Yet he remains the forefather of the radical Islamist ideologies within the Brotherhood and beyond.

    2.2 Dissemination of Ideology 

    In the mid-1940s, the Brotherhood established branches in Jordan, Syria, and Palestine. In partnership with the Hashemites, the Jordanians maintained a commitment to pursuing its goals through legal, nonviolent means. They did so by establishing a network of civil society institutions. Not least, serving in parliament and cabinet from 1989 to 1993.

    A variant of the Muslim Brotherhood erupted against the secularist Baathist regime in Syria. Although quickly eliminated, the clashes remained until the late 1970s when the Baathist regime eradicated the Brotherhood in Hama in 1982. Moreover, the Brotherhood remained active in the West Bank and Gaza with a reformist educational and charitable platform. In 1988, the Muslim Brotherhood formed Hamas to abandon its policy of reformism and join the intifada.

    In brief, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is the ‘parent’ of contemporary Islamism. It spawns numerous and ideologically disparate Islamist organisations across the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq; Europe; and North America.

    Fig.2 Palestinian students supporting the  militant group Hamas hold a poster depicting Hassan Al-Banna, during an election campaign for students’ council at Palestine Polytechnic University in the West Bank city of Hebron in 2015

    2.3 Politics of Plunder

    However, the Brotherhood experienced a resurgence in the early 1970s after President Anwar Sadat assumed power. His accommodating stance led to the release of members and their return to political life. The Brotherhood then plunged into formal politics. It also expanded its social network and reached out to liberal and secular forces during the 1980s. However, the Mubarak regime readily accepted the Brotherhood’s sudden expansion as an existential threat. As one might anticipate, the relationship between President Murarak and the Brotherhood reached an impasse after the fraudulent 2010 elections. During which, the Brotherhood won no parliamentary seats and subsequently boycotted the second round of voting. 

    2.3.1 Morsi: Statesman or Member of the Brotherhood?

    It was not until the popular uprising of 25 January 2011, and the ouster of Mubarak that the Brotherhood re-emerged as a key political force. In June 2012, Mohamed Morsi, chairman of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FIP), became Egypt’s first democratically elected President. It was a transient victory, however, as the Egyptian military -including current President Sisi- ousted Mohammed Morsi in 2013 following mass protests. Since then, hundreds of the Brotherhood’s members have faced execution, imprisonment, or exile [source], [source].

    Supporters of Morsi gathered in Tahrir Square to celebrate his electoral ascension
    Fig.3 Morsi supporters gathered in Tahrir Square to celebrate his electoral ascension [source].

    Of particular significance, the state executed the movement’s most senior leaders, including General Guide Mohamed Badie [source]. Not least, the Brotherhood’s financial assets have been frozen and its charity/educational centres have been seized by the government [source].

    Yet despite this unprecedented repression, the Brotherhood endures and maintains its activism, particularly in rural and suburban areas. The Brotherhood itself has retained a reformist agenda. It has evolved into the largest and most popular Islamist organisation in Egypt, with broad participation in civil society organisations.

    3.0 Mottos, Symbols, and Patches

    3.1 Mottos

    The Muslim Brotherhood – also called Muslim Brethren or The Society of the Muslim Brothers (Arabic: جمعية الأخوان المسلمون Jamiat al-Ikhwan al-muslimun). The movement’s official motto reads: ‘Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.’

    3.2 Symbols

    Often, variants the Brotherhood’s official logo [see: fig.4] will depict a dark green circular emblem. Within it, two swords converge with a red Qu’ran featured atop. In the central crest, the Arabic reads وأعدوا [English: prepare].

    This image depicts the Muslim Brotherhood's official logo. It is white circular emblem featured on a dark green backdrop. Within the emblem, two swords converge with an image of the Qu'ran featured atop. In the central crest, written in Arabic, it reads 'prepare'
    Fig.4 Muslim Brotherhood’s official logo
    This image depicts the Muslim Brotherhood's Party Flag. It is white circular emblem featured on a dark green backdrop. Within the emblem, two swords converge with an image of the Qu'ran featured atop.
    Fig.5 Muslim Brotherhood’s Party Flag

    4.0 Organisation

    4.1 The Teachings of al-Banna

    At the turn of the 20th century, Egypt was undergoing an identity crisis and uncertainty on how Egypt would achieve a renaissance [source]. Some Egyptians favoured a society premised on secularism. Others favoured the state’s Islamic character, especially following the removal of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924. 

    This struggle evolved into two main intellectual camps. The so-called Western modernists (tahdithyiun) and the Islamic revivalists, or reformists (islahyiun) [source].

    Modernists believed that the Renaissance would not be possible without emulating the West and benefiting from its socio-cultural and political production. Rather than Islamic conventions, they believed that national sentiment took precedence. For them, modernisation was the lynchpin of Egypt’s push for independence.

    By contrast, the Islamic revivalists feared that an Egyptian identity based on nationalism and modernism would be the beginning of the secularisation of Egypt. Of equal note, they also perceived secularists’ celebration of the removal of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924 as a sign of betrayal and a threat to the Islamic character of Egypt. They claimed liberal-secular intellectuals sought to emulate the Turkish model that separated Islam and politics and was led by the Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

    4.2 The Brotherhood’s Core Tenets

    Hasan al-Banna, the Brotherhood’s founder, believed in the progressive moral purification of Muslim societies. Not least, their eventual political unification in a Caliphate under sharia law. As a result, the notion of pan-Islamism in al-Banna’s ideology derives from the demise of the Islamic caliphate in Istanbul. He believed that the only way to preserve the Islamic character of Egypt was to embody Islamic teachings in everyday life. The only way to achieve this goal was by establishing a movement capable of reshaping Muslims’ perceptions and identities.

    By setting the Brotherhood’s organisational structure, drawing its key objectives, and crafting its code of norms and values, al-Banna endowed the movement with a coherent and distinctive identity that has preserved the Brotherhood and nurtured its political and social activism.

    For instance, al-Banna interweaved the collective identity of the Brotherhood through the Islamic notion of jama’a – a notion that derives from Islamic traditions, specifically the Qur’an and Sunna, where Muslims are urged to act collectively in order to unite the entire umma.

    4.1.1 Aims and Objectives 

    Hasan al-Banna articulated three broad aims for the Brotherhood:

    • Leading humanity toward greater well-being under the mantle of Islam
    • Reinforcing Islamic identity among Muslims 
    • Creating a movement that embodies Islam in everyday life.

    Accompanying objectives include:

    • Liberating Islamic countries from foreign occupation.
    • Resisting the materialist and atheist wave that dominates Muslim nations.
    • Reformulating political, social, economic, educational, and judicial systems to be based on Islamic principles.
    • Implementing Islamic teachings in everyday life.
    • Uniting all Muslim countries under the mantle of Islam.
    • Disseminating the Islamic call (al-Da’wa al-Islamiyya) around the world.


    4.2 Recruitment Under the Brotherhood

    Preaching (da’wa) is instrumental in selecting and recruiting new members of the Brotherhood. Throughout the recruitment and mobilisation process, recruiters adopt a dynamic, interactive strategy to infiltrate the potential member’s private life and initiate a persistent but gradual psychological and ideological change that leads them to join the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood capitalises on different types of social networks—kinship, friendship, social gatherings, and religious occasions—to expand its constituency. 

    For instance, in each district, there is a bara’im [English: ‘buddy’] committee that is responsible for attracting and recruiting young members. The Brotherhood also has an active section called Maktab al-Talaba (Students’ Office) which is responsible for recruiting students in secondary schools and universities.

    There are three stages to the recruitment process: 

    • Disseminating the call (nashr al-da‘wa), which aims to reach out to society broadly.
    • General connectivity (ar-rabt al-’am), which targets a narrow circle of individuals with whom each recruiter should operate.
    • The individual call (al-da‘wa al-fardiyya), which focuses on potential members.

    The time invested varies across individuals, but recruiters typically surround potential members with Islamic idioms, symbols, and norms. In addition, they capitalise on the individual’s religious and conservative values to facilitate the recruitment process.

    (1) Disseminating the Call

    This stage is the broadest in the sense that recruiters reach out to the entire public. The primary goal at this stage is to disseminate the Brotherhood’s ideas and ideology among the general population. It follows al-Banna’s command to spread the Brotherhood’s ideology in both rural and urban areas.

    The objectives of this stage are twofold. First, establishing the initial connection between recruiters and the public. Second, refuting negative stereotypes perpetuated by the regime or the Brotherhood’s political and religious adversaries [source]. The forums used to achieve this stage’s objectives include media campaigns, sermons in mosques, and public lectures. Throughout this stage, recruiters tend to keep their affiliation with the movement a secret. They seek to be identified as good Muslims rather than as members of the Brotherhood. Therefore, when delivering talks and lectures as well as endorsing social activities, they stress that their purpose is for the sake of Islam alone.

    (2) General Connectivity

    The most effective recruitment tool is the use of social networks such as kinship and friendship. The Brotherhood targets individuals in schools, workplaces, universities, and neighbourhoods. In time, the potential member is subject to significant emotional, religious, and psychological influence, which facilitates their recruitment.

    At this stage, however, recruiters will refrain from revealing their affiliation with the movement. Rather, at the inception of the recruitment process, recruiters focus on propagating broad Islamic values and ethics among their networks. This connectivity is established through a variety of tactics, including organising sports competitions and retreats, giving gifts, and distributing leaflets. After a brief period, recruiters gradually proselytise their message with the Brotherhood’s ideology. Those who demonstrate religiosity and sympathy with the cause become potential members. Once identified, recruiters will pursue them tirelessly until they officially join the movement. Thereafter, a new course of recruitment begins.

    (3) The Individual Call

    After identifying potential members, recruiters begin to preach the Brotherhood’s ideology and become more explicit about its objectives. Recruiters will reveal their alignment with the movement and focus on reshaping the perceptions and mindset of potential members. At this point, the recruiter builds a personal relationship with the potential member using different means such as gifts, home visits, and regular phone calls.

    4.1 Da’wa

    The Brotherhood has been created for nothing but da’wa

    – Shaykh Abdul Khaliq Al-Sherif, Head of the Brotherhood’s Da’Wa Division.

    According to Al Sherif, the Brotherhood has 140 preaching schools. They possess at least 45,000 preachers from Al-Azhar and other educational institutions [source]. 

    Individuals join the Brotherhood not only because of its social and political activism but also as a result of its preaching and outreach activities. Due to the state’s repression and security surveillance, Da’wa is the Brotherhood’s only way to communicate with its constituency.

    4.3 Structure of the Muslim Brotherhood

    From its foundation, the Muslim Brotherhood organised itself into a secretive ‘cell’ structure, with elaborate induction and education programmes for new members. It relied heavily on group solidarity and peer pressure to maintain discipline.

    The Brotherhood's internal hierarchical structure ascending in order of superiority.
    Fig.6 The Brotherhood’s internal hierarchical structure ascending in order of superiority [source].

    4.3.1 Usra

    The Usra is the basic unit in the Brotherhood’s structure. It consists of five to seven individuals who meet weekly to discuss different issues, ranging from religious to political matters. In the Brotherhood’s formative years, the key task for Usra was to familiarise and then indoctrinate members with the movement’s ideology and objectives.

    In the contemporary moment, the Usra is more organisational and political. Activities now include planning for political events such as elections and social campaigns.

    Each usra includes a financial unit that covers and sponsors its activities and provides assistance for members in need. According to the bylaws, each usra must elect a naqib, or captain, who is usually the oldest member in the usra. Each member in the Brotherhood, including senior members, must join an usra and actively engage in its activities.


    4.3.2 Shu’ba

    Superior to the Usra in a hierarchical structure is the Shu’ba [English: local division], which comprises between five and six Usar (plural of Usra), totalling thirty to forty members. Unlike the Usra, only members of the Brotherhood are eligible to join the Shu’ba.

    It is the chief organisational level responsible for achieving the Brotherhood’s organisational, social, and political objectives in a certain geographical area. It runs the Brotherhood’s da‘wa, recruitment, and social activities through its local network. Further, it also manages internal affairs such as promotions, complaints, and financial matters.

    According to the bylaws, each shu’ba should elect a head (rais) and deputy (naib). Both of whom should be active members, and elected to two four-year terms.


    4.3.3 Mantiqa

    The Mantiqa (English: a district) includes three to four local divisions (shu’ab) that meet regularly to discuss and implement the Administrative Office’s plans. Attendees must have spent at least two years in the Brotherhood.

    Its principal task is to run the Brotherhood’s activities in a designated geographical area and provide recommendations to the higher organisational level: the Administrative Office. Mantiqas also supervise Shu’ba activities and resolve any institutional/organisational problems that arise at the lower membership levels. Each Mantiqa possesses an elected office, headed by a chief and deputy who are directly elected.


    4.3.4 Maktab Idari

    The Maktab Idari [English: Administrative Office] constitutes the administrative authority at the governorate level.

    Each governorate has a Maktab Idari composed of Mantiqas. The Administrative Office is the executive body of the Brotherhood on the governorate level. According to the bylaws, the Administrative Office is responsible for implementing the Brotherhood’s plans in its governorate.

    The Maktab Idari holds two meetings each month to discuss and supervise the Brotherhood’s organisational, social, and political activities in a designated geographical area. It has full authority over members in each governorate. Of note, it has jurisdiction to form technical committees that serve the movement’s objectives, such as charity and political committees.

    According to Article 29 of the Brotherhood’s bylaws, the Administrative Office is required to provide an annual report on its activities to the governorate’s Shura Council.

    The Shura Council elects members of the Administrative Office to four-year terms, and they are eligible for re-election for subsequent terms.

    Article 30, however, grants the Guidance Bureau the authority to suspend an Administrative Office or freeze its activities for thirty days until the governorate’s Shura Council elects a new Office.


    4.3.5 Majlis al-Shura

    The Majlis al-Shura [English: Shura Council] is the Brotherhood’s legislative body. It consists of ninety members who are elected from the governorates’ Shura Councils.

    Members of the Shura Council must meet the following requirements:

    • Be at least thirty years old.
    • Have been an active member for at least five years.
    • Be a member of their governorate’s Shura Council (Each representative serves in the Shura Council for four years).

    The Shura Council is responsible for discussing, outlining, and approving the Brotherhood’s broad plans, policies, strategies, and budget.

    However, its most important function is electing the Guidance Bureau and the General Guide, the highest executive in the Brotherhood. Therefore, the Guidance Bureau is responsible before the Shura Council and must provide a detailed and comprehensive annual report on its activities during the previous year. The Council can dismiss any member of the Guidance Bureau and choose his successor in secret voting.

    4.3.6 Maktab al-Irshad

    The Maktab al-Irshad [English: the Guidance Bureau] is the Brotherhood’s highest executive body. The Shura Council elects the Bureau’s sixteen members via direct, secret voting. Guidance Bureau members serve a four-year term, which can be extended by an additional term by the Shura Council. The Shura Council can also renew the terms of Guidance Bureau members if it decides it needs more time to elect a new Bureau. This was the case during the Mubarak era, as the Brotherhood could not hold internal elections for security reasons. However, some members claim that the Guidance Bureau frequently abuses this rule for its own benefit.

    The key function of the Guidance Bureau is to execute the plans and policies of the Brotherhood relating to its organisational, political, social, and religious activities. It is also responsible for making urgent decisions, such as dealing with the arrest of its members or with regime repression. It has the power to form technical committees to aid the implementation of its plans and objectives. The Bureau is responsible before the Shura Council and the General Guide.

    4.3.7 Al-Murshid al-‘am

    Al-murshid al-’am [English: the General Guide] is the head of the Brotherhood and presides over its executive and legislative bodies.

    The Shura Council elects the Guide via secret voting. The Guide must be at least forty years old and an active member of the Brotherhood for at least fifteen years.

    After the election, the General Guide receives bay’a [English: allegiance] from the Brotherhood’s members.

    The General Guide is responsible for supervising the Brotherhood’s institutions and representing the movement in society. He is also responsible for ensuring that those at the lower levels of the Brotherhood’s structure follow the rules and strive to achieve the movement’s objectives. He has the power to call the Guidance Bureau or the Shura Council for meetings and to question any of their members.

    All plans, policies, and strategies are presented before the general guide and receive his approval before they are implemented. Put simply, the general guide is the highest position in the Brotherhood, with far-reaching powers over the movement. However, the general guide’s authority is neither absolute nor unchecked.

    As mentioned, key Muslim Brotherhood ideologue, Sayyid Qutb, drew on the thought of the Indo-Pakistani theorist, Abdul Ala’a Mawdudi, founder of the Islamist party Jamaat-eIslami, to promote the doctrine of takfirism. This has consistently been understood as a doctrine permitting the stigmatisation of other Muslims as infidel or apostate, and of existing states as un-Islamic, and the use of extreme violence in the pursuit of Islamisation.

    However, Qutb’s views have at times been reinterpreted by some in the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet they have never been institutionally disowned, sometimes even explicitly endorsed and remain central to the Brotherhood’s formational curriculum. Qutb’s thinking led to a resurgence of takfiri ideology, inspiring many terrorist organisations, including those who assassinated Sadat, Al-Qaeda and its offshoots.

    5.1 Is the Brotherhood a Proscribed Terrorist Group?

    In return for the freedom to reorganise politically and socially in the 1970s, the Brotherhood officially disavowed violence. However, the movement repeatedly defends Hamas’ attacks against Israel, including the use of suicide bombers and the killing of civilians [source]. In the contemporary moment, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood facilitates funding for Hamas.

    The leadership of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, its Jordanian counterpart, and Hamas are closely connected [source]. Of note, on the Brotherhood’s official website, senior members routinely use virulent, anti-Semitic language [source].

    While some of the movement’s members have criticised Al-Qaeda, by and large, the Muslim Brotherhood claims that 9/11 attacks were fabricated by the US, and that the so-called ‘war on terrorism’ is a pretext to attack Muslims.

    For the most part, the Brotherhood have preferred non-violent incremental change on the grounds of expediency, often on the basis that political opposition will disappear during the process of Islamisation. Yet the movement is willing to countenance violence – including, from time to time, terrorism – where gradualism is ineffective. They deliberately and openly incubate and sustain Hamas – whose military wing is proscribed as terrorist by the UK (and which has been proscribed in its entirety by other countries).

    The writings of the leading Muslim Brotherhood ideologues are routinely used to legitimise AQ-related terror. Some leading Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters have endorsed attacks on Western forces.

    5.1.1 Detractors and Supporters of the Brotherhood

    At present, the Brotherhood’s primary state backers include Qatar and the AKP-ruling party in Turkey [source], [source]. In contrast, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Syria, Egypt, and the UAE have all proscribed the movement as a terrorist organisation.

    In the US, several efforts have been made to designate the movement as a terrorist organisation. Including under the Trump Administration in 2019 – none of which have seen fruition. Similarly, the Brotherhood has not been linked to terrorist activity in and against the UK [source]. However, its affiliate, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), will be tested against the UK’s new 2024 criterion for defining extremism [source].

    6.0 Future Trajectory of the Brotherhood

    Despite the Brotherhood’s extensive foothold at home and abroad, the political space within which the movement can operate is limited somewhat. Last year, Turkey and Egypt briefly flirted with the prospect of rapprochement which, at present, is currently ongoing. As such, Turkey has demonstrated reluctance to entertain the use of its territory as a base for anti-Sisi campaigns.

    As a movement shaped by successive waves of political repression, it has failed at many junctures to define itself on its own terms and adopt a comprehensive social and political outlook. With waning external support, the movement may seek to unify with its offshoots and international coalitions to preserve its existence, much less seek a radical upheaval or revitalisation.

    7.0 Conclusion: Domesticated or Revolutionary?

    Under Sisi’s regime, it seems that the Brotherhood may be regressing back to a domesticated and compromising force, in lieu of being a revolutionary and confrontational movement. The post-coup regime demonised the Brotherhood and proscribed it a terrorist organisation, which in turn has affected its image and led to its subsequent isolation.

    Alex Purcell
    Alex Purcell
    Alex is a Junior Intelligence Analyst, specialising in West Africa and the Sahel. She holds a BA in International Politics with French from the University of London Institute in Paris. She is currently pursuing an MA in International Affairs, specialising in Espionage and Surveillance at King's College London. Her research interests include African security affairs, the Middle East, and (military) defence intelligence.

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