An organization with a long history and growing popularity, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is nothing if not tenacious and has benefited from a series of government blunders.
So said Carnegie Mellon University history professor Laurie Eisenberg, who spoke about the Brotherhood’s history at a May 9 lecture sponsored by the Omer Institute at the Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation in Squirrel Hill.
While refusing to speculate on the future of Egyptian politics and Egyptian-Israeli relations, Eisenberg noted an uptick in anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt in the last year manifested through demonstrations, political rhetoric and acts of terrorism.
Founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, the Brotherhood emerged from disaffection among ordinary Egyptians with the disparity of wealth in the country, the indifference of its government and disdain for British rule.
Al-Banna believed that a new Egypt should be guided by Islamic principles.
“Muslim goals — charity and social responsibility — would create an Islamic country in theory and practice,” Eisenberg said.
Al-Banna and the Brotherhood won the hearts and minds of ordinary Egyptians, she said, by “talking to them in the ordinary language of their everyday lives and by providing them with an education, medical care, food and employment.
“[The Brotherhood] became a shadow government,” Eisenberg said. “It was meticulously organized, popular and competent.”
The government of King Farouk perceived the growing popularity of the Brotherhood as a threat to its stability and arrested al-Banna’s top lieutenant in 1941. As a condition of his release, the Brotherhood was admonished to stay out of politics but encouraged to continue its charitable work.
That crackdown, and then easing of restrictions on the Brotherhood, was the beginning of a pattern that was repeated several times over the next 50 years by ensuing Egyptian governments, according to Eisenberg.
As conditions worsened in Egypt in the post-war period, Egyptian politics became increasingly unstable. The prime minister was assassinated in 1948. In turn, government agents assassinated al-Banna in 1949.
While al-Banna thought the evolution of an Islamic government would take several generations, his successor, Sayyid Qutb, theorized that a Muslim society could be imposed from the top down in a short time. Hung by the Egyptian government in 1966, Qutb is considered the grandfather of al-Qaida.
After a failed assassination attempt on President Nasser in 1954, the Egyptian government banned the Brotherhood. However, it tried to assassinate Nasser again in 1965 but failed, leading to another round of suppression of the organization.
The government arrested more than 1,000 people, including Qutb, who refused exile. While in prison, he wrote two books that “increased his elevated status as a leader and firebrand,” Eisenberg said.
The Egyptian government’s suppression of the Brotherhood eased under President Anwar Sadat. However, his lenient policy and Islamic religiosity failed to win over the organization. Moreover, the Brotherhood regarded Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel as a huge betrayal of its beliefs.
“The Muslim Brotherhood saw it as going back to the days of the King Farouk,” Eisenberg said.
After Sadat’s assassination in 1981 and trial of the ringleaders, Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak felt confident he could suppress extremist groups. He failed, as a spate of attacks against public officials and tourists gripped the country in the 1990s.
Eventually, Mubarak ruthlessly suppressed the extremists, partly through the creation of an intelligence service that Eisenberg noted “becomes an asset for Israel because it helped it fight Hamas.”
While supporters of Israel and democratic uprisings have been pleased by the excitement of Tahrir Square and the fall of Mubarak, they are also troubled by the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of anti-Israel sentiment in the country.
While Egypt-Israeli relations are in flux, Israeli defense planners are planning for the worst-case scenario after 30 years of peace with Egypt, and that nearly all candidates for president in Egypt denounce Israel, Eisenberg cautioned people not get overly alarmed.
“For most presidential candidates, Israel is not the priority,” she said. “[The election] is a family affair. … Egypt’s economy is a huge part of the campaign.”
(Ron Kaplan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)