A Look at the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt

Egypt’s largest and only organized opposition party may be nonviolent but it formally seeks the implementation of Islamic law.

As tens of thousands continue to call for the immediate resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in the streets of Cairo — despite his promise to enact constitutional reform and not stand for reelection come September — the future of the country’s largest opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, has come under scrutiny.

Although the Brotherhood is formally banned, it has managed to win office by running candidates as independents in the past.

In what is largely a Muslim country, the Brotherhood is not estimated to enjoy mass following. Both the president of the United States and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, now an outspoken member of the Egypt opposition, have put public support for the organization at around 25 percent.

At the same time, the Brotherhood is the only organized opposition platform in Egypt. During the thirty years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, other dissident voices were oppressed. The Muslim Brotherhood could survive because it is both a political and a religious organization and met in mosques.

Observers in the West fear that if the Mubarak regime were to collapse, the Brotherhood could assume power, imperiling the country’s decade-old peace treaty with Israel and creating an Islamist state in the heart of the Arab world.

Yet protesters in the streets, who initially organized online and want Mubarak out, are calling for civil government and democracy. The military, widely respected in Egypt and extremely powerful, is clearly secular.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a transnational organization with offsprings throughout the Middle East. It formally endorses the implementation of Islamic law and some of its most prominent of intellectual leaders, including Egyptian theologian Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwiy, have called for holy war against America and the annihilation of the Jews. Hamas is an offspring of the Brotherhood but Al Qaeda has renounced it.

During the 1990s, then head of the Egyptian intelligence and security services, Omar Suleiman, oversaw an aggressive suppression effort of radical Islamism in Egypt, prompting many prominent fanatics to flee the country. Some found safe haven in Afghanistan and are now part of the Taliban there.

Most experts agree that the Brotherhood that exists in Egypt today is a nonviolent organization that has dedicated itself to humanitarian work. But its principles remain diametrically opposed to Western notions of freedom and equality. As former Dutch parliamentarian and now a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, Ayaan Hirsi Ali told CNN Wednesday night, “whether they work with violence or peacefully, they’re working toward the goal of establishing Islamic law.”

There may be hostility between the Muslim Brotherhood and violent Islamist organizations, including Al Qaeda, but “that hostility should not blind us to the shared objectives,” she added.

Even as Muslim Brotherhood supporters probably comprise but a minority of the Egyptian population, it is a sizable minority nonetheless. It has therefore been party to talks with now Vice President Suleiman about amending the country’s constitution and having free and fair elections later in the year.

The Brotherhood has announced that it will not field a candidate for the presidency. It would likely win many seats in parliament if free elections are held however and play an instrumental role in forming the next government.