Who are the Muslim Brothers?

With a long history, this organisation, considered a terrorist group by the United States, has been persecuted and tolerated, eventually ruling Egypt, but also leaving a large number of victims and inspiring many terrorist groups
The flags of the Muslim Brotherhood

PHOTO/AFP  -   The flags of the Muslim Brotherhood, Jordan and other political parties are waved with other signs of protest denouncing the US-led Middle East economic conference in Bahrain

Being the oldest Islamist organisation in the Arab and Muslim world means that the actions and changes of direction have been varied. But if your ideological base is also a radicalised Islam, it means that you could be the seed of several of the jihadist groups and organisations that exist or have existed throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

The organisation called the Society of Muslim Brotherhood (Jami'at al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun), also known as the Muslim Brotherhood or Muslim Brothers, was born in 1928 in an Egypt that was experiencing the last vestiges of the Ottoman Caliphate Abd al-Madjeed al-Thani. With a network of supporters and members of between half a million and a million people in a country with a total population of 80 million and with great international influence, it is one of the Islamist organisations that has the greatest presence abroad.

Mujeres marchan con banderas de la Hermandad Musulmana
PHOTO/AFP - Women march with Muslim Brotherhood flags during a post-Friday prayer rally in the Jordanian capital, Amman, on 21 June 2019
Origin and consolidation

British colonial presence in Egypt and the continuous attacks against the local population led a school teacher, Hassan al-Banna, to decide to form a small Islamic association, which at first tried to encourage good behaviour among its members and to develop charitable activities for the most needy. Founded in the city of Ismailyyah, in the northwest of the country, it soon moved to the capital, The Cairo, where in two decades it managed to gather nearly two million people.

With a pan-Islamist approach and based mainly on the need to embrace Islam as the only form of liberation from British power, Al-Banna increased its fame. "Islam is the perfect system of social organisation, which accompanies all aspects of life," the leader of the Muslim Brothers would say in one of his speeches. The idea of this brotherhood was founded on the return to the original Islam, based on the Koran and the Sunnah, and on the implementation of the Sharia as the only form of government.

Los estudiantes de la Universidad de El Cairo
PHOTO/REUTERS - Students at Cairo University, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, wave a flag during a protest against the army 

Al-Banna noticed the neglect of the Egyptian authorities towards the population and saw in the construction of health centres, schools and mosques the way to reach the whole population - what is known as "social aid" or "clientelism" - and also managed to gain a foothold in countries such as Jordan and Syria.

But the peaceful activity would not last long, and soon a violent wing would be set up to carry out attacks against the British, to whom Al-Banna had expressed his animosity. 

Estudiantes palestinos que apoyan a Hamas
REUTERS/MUSSA QAWASMA - Palestinian students supporting Hamas hold a poster depicting Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood

Under the reign of Farouk, as well as during the government of the secularist and pan-Arabist president Gamal Abdel Nasser, they were harshly repressed. Nor were they legalised during the subsequent Mubarak regime.

Sayyid Qutb, great leader

As a great supporter of the Palestinian cause, Al-Banna embraces the Arab revolt in Palestine in 1936, through a campaign of large donations and rallies. The violent wing of the Egyptian brotherhood will join this struggle and take part in the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, finally being defeated. This conflict served to further radicalise the group, in addition to the death of their leader in 1949 at the hands of security agents of the then King Farouk.

Miembros de la prohibida Hermandad Musulmana de Egipto
AFP/KHALED DESOUKI - Members of Egypt's banned Muslim Brotherhood are seen inside a glass dock during their trial in the capital, Cairo, on 28 July 2018

This death caused the intellectual and Islamist theorist Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) to take the reins of the society and the organisation to turn definitively towards extremism, where the jihad is the motor of its activities against all the infidels. Qutb spent long periods in prison, where he wrote several works that defined his approach and have been taken as guides to be followed by the members and followers of the Muslim Brotherhood. Accused of participating in an assassination attempt against the now president Nasser, he was hanged in 1966.

This was a severe blow, which triggered a renewal of the Society in the 1970s, with many young students joining the organisation. Furthermore, the 1967 defeat of the Egyptian Army in the Six-Day War at the hands of the Israelis made many of these young people view Nasser's secularist project as a failure, and they began to support a strict Islam, such as that defended by the Muslim Brothers.

Militantes enmascarados de Hamas ondean sus banderas nacionales
AP/ADEL HANA - Masked Hamas militants wave their national flags during a protest against the US President's announced Middle East plan
Brotherhood in the international field

During these years, the group took different paths: on the one hand, there were those who advocated a peaceful movement, whose activity would be based on different initiatives and services of a social nature; while the other branch was more inclined to follow Qutb's trail of intensifying the activity of the violent wing, becoming the seed of some of today's jihadist groups. One example is the Palestinian Hamas, which declares itself as the "arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine", although in 2017 it announced its independence from the Egyptian group.

However, it should be noted that it is not only Palestine that has been under the influence of the brotherhood. The vocation to expand its action throughout the Muslim community has caused its tentacles to reach Jordan, Syria and other Gulf countries, finding Qatar in the early years as a great ally and Iran as a source of funding.

This Iranian support sets it against the interests of Saudi Arabia and its co-religionists, where Riyadh saw a possible threat in the area to its leadership in the Muslim world. In fact, the Saudi kingdom declared the organisation a terrorist group, a move later made by other countries in the region such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Combatientes de la unidad Nureddine al-Zinki
AFP/NAZEER AL-KHATIB - Fighters from the Nureddine al-Zinki unit, a moderate Syrian opposition faction affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood and composed of former fighters from the Syrian Free Army
Entry into Egyptian politics

In an attempt to achieve political legitimacy, during the 1980s, Brotherhood leaders formed alliances with different political parties, thereby becoming the main opposition force.

The new millennium was beginning and, in the 2000 elections, the Muslim Brotherhood won 17 seats in the People's Assembly, and five years later, 20% of the seats in parliament. This rise of the brotherhood worried then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who began a wave of repressive arrests among members and supporters. The movement ended up being outlawed. An update to the Egyptian constitution stated: "Any political activity and any political party based on religious principles is forbidden". In addition, anti-terrorism laws were adopted giving the authorities the power to arrest suspects and limit public meetings.

Un joven palestino utiliza su teléfono para hacerse una foto frente a un cartel que representa al difunto ex presidente egipcio Mohamed Morsi
AFP/ SAID KHATIB - A young Palestinian uses his phone to take a photo in front of a poster representing the late Egyptian former president Mohamed Morsi

Then came 2011 and the destabilisation of North African regimes such as those in Tunisia and Libya, in the framework of the so-called 'Arab Spring', which also served as a springboard for the Muslim Brotherhood. On February 11 of that year, and after intense and violent demonstrations and uprisings against the Mubarak government, as the so-called 'Friday of Anger', the Egyptian leader presented his resignation and elections were called, where all the parties that had previously been banned were legalised, including the Muslim Brothers.

From success to exile: the final years
Vista general de una sesión del Parlamento egipcio
PHOTO/LOBNA TAREK - Overview of a session of the Egyptian Parliament

In the wake of Ennahdha in Tunisia, an Islamist party that won 40 percent of the seats in parliament, or the Islamists of 'Justice and Development' in Morocco with 107 seats out of 395, the Muslim Brotherhood won 45 percent of the votes in the 2011 parliamentary elections.

A few months later, in the presidential elections and under the name of the Freedom and Justice Party (PLJ), Mohamed Morsi became the first Egyptian president of the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition, the ultra-conservative formation, the 'Salafist Party', came in second place, with which the Islamists managed to control 70% of the lower house, as well as achieving a similar result in the upper house. At the time, it seemed that nothing could stop the fundamentalist drift of one of the most developed countries in the region.

El presidente egipcio Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
PHOTO/REUTERS - Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi

The spectacular support at the polls translated into a great legitimisation by public opinion of the ideological bases that since the beginning of the last century the society of the Muslim Brothers had defended. But the ghost of authoritarianism and the desire for power soon appeared in Morsi, and shortly after he became president, he issued a constitutional decree giving the president quasi-absolute powers. The opposition managed to have it revoked, but the gesture and intentions remained imprinted on the Egyptian citizenry. 

The debt and precarious economic and social situation in the country of the Nile at the time, which led to the collection of 20 million signatures against him, together with the authoritarian drift that Morsi had taken and growing tension with the armed forces, were the necessary ingredients for the triumph of a coup d'état on 3 July 2013, led by former defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which led to the dismissal of the government and the suspension of the constitution. Morsi was imprisoned and died in 2019. After one of the sessions of the trial against him - for various offences: espionage, intimidation and torture of opponents or incitement to the murder of demonstrators - according to the Egyptian Attorney-General's Office, the former leader collapsed in front of the court where he died after a heart attack.

El presidente turco Recep Tayyip Erdogan
PHOTO/AFP - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses mourners during a symbolic funeral ceremony for former Egyptian President at the Fatih Mosque in Istanbul

It was not long before the new interim government, supported by the army, declared the Muslim Brothers a terrorist group, following one of the bloodiest attacks in the region against a police station in Mansura, leaving 16 dead and more than a hundred injured.

The democratic intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood were just that, intentions, as dozens of attacks on the security forces, particularly on the Sinai peninsula, have been committed by the brotherhood, sowing deep hatred among a large part of the Egyptian population. For the time being, the Brotherhood continues to operate underground.