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Muslim Brotherhood - Early History

Islamic political activism has a lengthy history in Egypt. Several Islamic political groups started soon after the Great War ended. The most well-known Islamic political organization is the Muslim Brotherhood (Al Ikhwan al Muslimun, also known as the Brotherhood), founded in 1928 by Hasan al Banna. The association of Muslim brothers was the first wide-scale, organized, international Islamist movement. Banna is famously quoted as saying that “it is the nature of Islam to dominate, not to be dominated, to impose its law on all nations and to extend its power to the entire planet” [remarks which may alarm an un-tutored Western ear, but which represent a self-evident trivial truism to a Muslim].

Since its founding it has remained a semisecret organization, with a cellular organization and a focus on attracting youth. Some youth groups were known to be paramilitary. The Brotherhood has a network of social, educational and economic activities and enterprises. Tithing ("Zakat") of members also helps to finance the organization.

Throughout the 1940’s, the paramilitary branch of the movement carried out targeted bombings and assassinations. After World War II, the Muslim Brotherhood acquired a reputation as a radical group prepared to use violence to achieve its religious goals. In 1946, the U.S. Army issued an intelligence report, stating that the Muslim Brotherhood “maintains commando units and secret caches of arms.” In addition to playing a part in resisting and finally ending the British occupation of Egypt, in 1948 the Brotherhood defined two organizational objectives: implementing an Islamic social system and contributing to social service in Egypt. For a period between WWII and consolidation of the military regime in 1952, King Farouq permitted the Brotherhood to function as a political party to counter the power of the Wafd Party.

In 1948, Brotherhood volunteers participated in the war for Palestine. Upon their return to Cairo, they were accused of plotting against the monarchy with the intent of establishing a theocratic republic. Prime minister Mahmoud el Noqrashi [also seen as Naqrashi] struck first, issuing a decree dissolving the Brotherhood, impounding its assets and arresting its members. Twenty days later, a young Brotherhood member assassinated Noqrashi. In early 1949, the Brotherhood supreme guide el Banna was murdered, it was rumored, by government agents.

The Brotherhood had contacts with the Free Officers before the 1952 Revolution and supported most of their initial policies. The Brotherhood, however, soon came into conflict with Gamal Abdul Nasser. The government accused the Brotherhood of complicity in an alleged 1954 plot to assassinate the president and imprisoned many of the group's leaders. The government banned the Brotherhood as a political party the same year.

An intense period of underground activity followed. A new supreme guide, Hasan el Hodeiby took over as head of the organization. In 1951, the court lifted the ban and the Brotherhood was permitted to recover some of its assets and resume overt activities after the Wafd Party won the elections and formed a new government. Shortly after the revolution, a 1953 decree banning political parties was deemed not to apply to the Brotherhood on the grounds that it was not a political party. Nonetheless, in 1954, Nasser invoked the decree, dissolving the Brotherhood, which was plotting his overthrow and rounded up thousands of Brothers. Six Brotherhood leaders were tried, convicted and executed; 7 were sentenced to life in prison.

In 1960, Brotherhood dissenters, lead by Sayyed Qutub, openly advocated the use of violence to overthrow Nasser's "apostate regime." Once again, massive arrests of Brotherhood leaders and members took place. After Nasser's death in 1970, Sadat released a number of jailed Brothers and the mainstream organization renounced violence as a tactic. Bolstered by its relationship with Sadat, the Brotherhood in 1977 asked the administrative court to lift the 1954 military decree banning it. The court refused to overturn the ban [in 1992 an appeal was filed with a higher court].

The Government outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, but tolerated its operations with varying levels of interference. Muslim Brothers spoke openly and publicly about their views and identify themselves as members of the organization, although they remain subject to arbitrary detention and pressure from the Government. In the 1970s, Anwar as Sadat amnestied the leaders and permitted them to resume some of their activities. But by that time, the Brotherhood was divided into at least three factions. The more militant faction was committed to a policy of political opposition to the government. A second faction advocated peaceful withdrawal from society and the creation, to the extent possible, of a separate, parallel society based upon Islamic values and law. The dominant moderate group advocated cooperation with the regime.

As the organization tried to moderate its posture in the 1970's, militant Islamic factions including the Gama'a Islamiyya, Egyptian Islamic Jihad and Vanguards of Conquest sprang from its ranks. Since the attacks upon tourists in Cairo and Luxor in 1997, extremist Islamist groups have been severely crippled by the security services and popularly discredited. Luxor seemed to deepen the divide between the Brotherhood and its extremist offspring. Al Hayat reported that following the attack in Luxor, the Brotherhood leadership warned its members to have no contact with the attackers who have "no religion and no conscience."

In 1995, in an effort to marginalize the Brotherhood, President Mubarak made a decision to limit official discussions with the Brotherhood. As a result, the Brotherhood's only channel for official communication with the Government of Egypt was through the security services, an interlocutor unlikely to negotiate broad political reforms.

Brotherhood leaders were perpetually in and out of jail as the government attempts to control or shut down Brotherhood activities, the most obvious of which continued to be applying an Islamic social system and delivering social services. They participated in the People's Assembly as Socialist Labor Party members in the 1980s. In coordination with the SLP, the Brotherhood won 37 seats in the 1987 legislature. Their prominence called into doubt their competence, with only Dr. Essam el Arian recognized as a serious parliamentarian. The Brotherhood boycotted the following elections until the fall 2000 elections. In September 2000, during a rare show of strength at the funeral of Brotherhood Secretary General Ibrahim Sharaf, Supreme Guide Mustafa Meshhour predicted that the Brotherhood would establish an Islamic state in Egypt by the year 2030.

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