Paper - Intelligence Project

The Muslim Brotherhood: A Failure in Political Evolution

July 2017


Nawaf Obaid’s insightful analysis of the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Arab societies and the political process is a “must read” for understanding the basis for the intractable conflicts that plague the Middle East. Dr. Obaid offers a concise history of the Muslim Brotherhood country-by-country as a foundation for his incisive analysis on the principal reasons the group failed to achieve their political ambitions. Today, as the Muslim Brotherhood’s influence continues to wane, this report raises important questions on the future of the Middle East. Is the Arab Spring a thing of the past? Will the “old order” resume its role in ruling the Middle East? What is the future of political Islam?  These questions and others reverberate through the pages of this penetrating review of the Muslim Brotherhood’s legacy and how it continues to shape events that are unfolding, today.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Director, Intelligence and Defense Project



While the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) started as a movement centered on resistance to what it saw as the Westernization, or de-Islamization, of Muslim culture, it soon realized that resistance was only as effective as its access to power. Thus began the group’s long attempt to infiltrate the halls of governance. As this report will show, these attempts have failed. In essence, the tree of the Muslim Brotherhood has been unable to flower into a viable governmental structure for the Arab world because it is still fed by its oppositionist roots.

Three core elements of the MB have kept it from being able to mature into and be accepted by the Arab public as a preferred political entity. First, the MB’s primary objective was defined in its early years in educational terms: “to raise a new generation of Muslims who will understand Islam correctly.”[1] It was a return to Islam, “din wa dawla.” Islam was viewed not only as a guide to private belief and ritual but also as a comprehensive system of values and governance intrinsically different from (and superior to) the political systems of the West.

As one can see from the group’s nearly nine decades of history, this emphasis on religious ideology has not served it well when it comes to securing votes or being accepted into roles in governmental systems that, even in the relatively religious MENA region, inherently crave and reward more religiously neutral technocrats. Despite its extensive social efforts—in many countries it has filled large social gaps left open by inept bureaucracies by providing services such as food handouts, education, health information, and community-building campaigns—again and again, one finds MB representatives, and the organization itself, struggling to convince the larger public and government officials that its intentions are not tainted by an ideology bent on inserting more religion—including sharia—into politics and the legal system. And as this report will show, the Arab populace seems to have grown increasingly inimical to such insertion over the lifetime of the organization.

The second aspect of the MB that has kept it from being able to gain access to governance is the fact that the organization has frequently been unable to keep its members in step. The Brothers have split over various issues: the degree to which the organization should seek to implement sharia, the means by which that should be done, the methods proper to responding to the group’s suppression, the organization’s view on jihadist violence, and the types of candidates and positions to put forth during elections and in parliaments. This lack of ideological coherency has resulted in a sense among the Arab populace that the group is too riddled by infighting to be trusted with governance.

For example, under President Nasser, the Brotherhood was suppressed and dissolved in 1954, spurring the creation of the “secret apparatus.”[2] This group attempted to assassinate Nasser, who retaliated by putting on trial, exiling, and hanging members of the Brotherhood—a purge that lasted until 1970. The imminent threat of the Nasser regime caused a split within the organization, resulting in the ideological radicalization of many members and inspiring Sayyid Qutb’s call for holy war against the system and its supporters. Once again, Nasser harshly punished Brotherhood members and executed Qutb. The period of ease between the Brotherhood and the later-elected Sadat then wore thin and some Brotherhood members called again for holy war, while others urged a more conservative, institutional response. Constant pressures like these have incessantly tested the group, forcing members to continually alter their thinking and redirect their message, with the result that the overall position of the group has become muddled.

This example hints at the third innate MB feature that has prevented it from developing into a viable form of governance: its connection with and/or failure to refute connections to jihadist terror and political violence. The Brotherhood has been designated as a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia (Kredo, 2015). In December 2015, a report made by British Prime Minister David Cameron pointed out that although the Brotherhood has been vocal about its opposition to al-Qaeda, “it has never credibly denounced the use made by terrorist organisations of the work of Sayyid Qutb, one of the Brotherhood’s most prominent ideologues.”[3] This contrasts with the U.S.’s approach, which still acknowledges the organization as being overall nonviolent. In a National Security Council email, the argument is made that “the de-legitimization of non-violent political groups does not promote stability,” but rather “advances the very outcomes that such measures are intended to prevent.”[4]

Whether or not the MB is officially designated as a terrorist group, its actions have led many to link it with al-Qaeda, Hamas, and ISIS and other acts of politically or religiously motivated violence. The group’s support for violence in Egypt is well documented and discussed briefly below. In the 1970s and 80s in Syria, the MB consistently engaged in violent interchanges with the Baathist government.[5] These confrontations culminated in February 1982 with the killing of 30,000 civilians by Alawites and some Kurds.[6]

The IAF in Jordan has maintained that it has “consistently refrained from violent political action in Jordan and remained committed to nonviolent change.”[7] And yet, four IAF members attended a funeral tent erected by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—leader of al-Tawhid and member of al-Qaeda—on June 11, 2006.[8] The IAF has also expressed support for Hamas.[9] There have recently been reports that the senior official of the IAF “called for support of ISIS and condemned the Western air strikes in Syria and Iraq.”[10]

The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) was an offshoot of the Brotherhood that vehemently opposed Israel’s existence, designating Israel “as a manifestation of Western imperialism in the Islamic lands.”[11] In attempts to distract from the Oslo Peace Accords, the PIJ bombed a military bus by Netanya in January 1995 and set off a suicide nail bomb in Tel Aviv in March 1996 (BBC, 2003). And then there is Hamas, the Palestine branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is responsible for numerous acts of violence via its intifadas.

Finally, in Tunisia, the trend has largely been a failure of the Brotherhood to clearly and swiftly distant itself from jihadist terror. In August 2013, Ennahda declared Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organization, but for many Tunisians, this response was “too little, too late.” Then came the assassination of secular human rights activist Chokri Belaid and, five months later, his fellow leftist Mohamed Brahmi.[12] These assassinations created a rallying cry throughout Tunisia for change and led to Ennahda surrendering the interior ministry. The sense was that the group had been lax on fighting terrorists as countless cells had been allowed to form along the Algerian border in the mountainous areas.[13]

In short, as an oppositionist movement that has had a difficult time keeping its members united and that also has myriad links to terrorism and/or a failure to address terrorism, the MB has struggled to gain legitimacy as a viable form of governance. This report will trace why. It begins, in Chapter 1, with a history of the group—from its origins in Egypt and its central ideological underpinnings to its links to political violence and its engagement in the elections following the so-called Arab Spring. In Chapter 2, the major MB affiliates in other countries —Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Morocco, and Tunisia—are profiled. Then, Chapter 3 provides a more in-depth look at why the group failed in its objectives.

Finally, in the Conclusion, the claim is made that the Muslim Brotherhood is doomed to stay stuck in its past. Yes, it will most likely continue to offer social services, make religious assertions, and seek political offices. However, its history is far too riddled with infighting, violence, and resistance to give way to a cohesive organization that will ever gain widespread support as a source of respectable political leadership in the Arab world.

[1] Lia (1998).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cameron (2015).

[4] Emerson & Hoekstra (2015).

[5] Baltacioglu-Brammer (2014).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Brown (2006).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The Tower Staff (2014).

[11] Who Are Islamic Jihad? (2003).

[12] Legge (2013).

[13] Bechri (2014).

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:The Muslim Brotherhood: A Failure in Political Evolution.” Paper, Intelligence Project, July 2017.