August 2007 – Der Spiegel
Dancing with the Devil: Charting the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood
The recent putsch in the Gaza Strip by Hamas is shedding light on an organization exercising considerable influence on the entire Arab world — the Muslim Brotherhood. As both a social movement and a militant Islamist political outfit, its power stretches from the Atlantic coast to the Indian Ocean.
Abu Leila does his best to play down the violent reputation of the Muslim Brotherhood. “We want to bring peace and justice to the entire world,” he says. Western society is sick, its families are falling apart and its children threatened by drugs. And most Arab countries are being destroyed by corruption. “We have the proper medicine against it all,” he says pointing to the Koran. “Islam. We want to spread this medicine throughout the whole world.”
For many Muslims, Hamas is the tip of the Brotherhood’s spear, the polished diamond of political Islam. The neighboring secular Arab regimes see it as a threat to their very existence — or in Syria’s case — as a means to an end in the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.
Both Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah moved quickly to support moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last week. Mubarak said Hamas had undertaken a “putsch” in Gaza. He sent his diplomats stationed there to Ramallah in the West Bank, where Abbas’ Fatah party remains in control, and he closed the border crossing into Egypt at Rafah.
But Mubarak and Abdullah already seemed to be plagued by doubts at a summit at Sharm el-Sheik. The number two leader of the Islamist terrorist network al-Qaida, the Egyptian Ayman al Zawahiri, had called on all Muslims to support Hamas only a few hours earlier. Mubarak that evening quietly urged Fatah to negotiate with the new rulers in Gaza.
No other regime in the region is as concerned about the implications of the takeover by Hamas as Egypt is. The most populous Arab nation has good reasons to be so. The newspaper Al Ahram, which acts as an Egyptian government mouthpiece, commented that “the problem of Hamas isn’t limited to Gaza. Here in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood does not recognize the legitimacy of the government, the constitution and the law. Whoever ignores that takes us to the gates of Hell, which Gaza has opened.”
The Egyptian authorities have arrested over 600 members of the group since December. They are students, businessmen, doctors and engineers. They also confiscated large amounts of assets. The state-controlled press compares the Brotherhood to a “tumor in the populace” and a constitutional amendment in March was intended to finish off the organization politically.
It’s the toughest crackdown in some time and it seems as if it could spell the end of the fleeting historical flight of fancy that started five years ago under the moniker of the ” democratization of the Middle East.”
Gaining Political Traction in the Region
The drama, however, is far from over. The United States government might have hoped to implement an “agenda of freedom” for the Arab world following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but other priorities have taken over in the meantime. Indeed, Washington hasn’t even bothered to comment on the latest mass arrests diplomatically. Further, political Islam — with the Muslim Brotherhood at its vanguard — has emerged stronger from the current episode of US policy in the Middle East. It is now a power in both its moderate and militant manifestations from the shores of the Atlantic all the way to the Indian Ocean.
- In Morocco the Party for Justice and Development is on its way to becoming the largest opposition party in elections this September. And in Algeria the Movement for a Peaceful Society supports President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s ruling coalition.
- The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt increased its number of independent parliamentarians from 15 to 88 in the 2005 election. The group even managed to quadruple its number of seats despite having candidates in only 160 from 444 districts in order to avoid an early confrontation with the ruling regime.
- The Islamic Action Front in Jordan is the political wing of the Brotherhood, accounting for 17 out of 110 parliamentarians. The group has become part of Jordan’s political establishment.
- In Yemen, Bahrain and Kuwait the Muslim Brotherhood operates as part of the parliamentary opposition. They have learned to cope with political defeats — such as women’s suffrage in Kuwait — but their victories are growing.
What exactly is the Muslim Brotherhood? What do they want in Egypt and Jordan? What do their ideological counterparts in Morocco hope to accomplish?
Birth of a Movement
A ramshackle brick house in Mahmoudiya, a small town in the Nile Delta, is falling apart. The beams have collapsed, it stinks like trash and it is infested with rats. This is where Hassan al Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, was born 101 years ago. He started the organization in 1928 in Ismailiya, where the administration for the Suez Canal is located. “Allah is our highest truth, the Prophet our leader, the Koran our law, the struggle our path,” so begins the movement’s credo. From the outset, the Brotherhood has been dominated by two seemingly contradictory aspects: It has a charitable side that has acted as a reform-oriented social movement and the other is its undeniably authoritarian and dogmatic politics.
Its antagonistic attitude to Britain’s colonial power, the Egyptian monarchy and later to the totalitarian regime of Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser brought forth the group’s militant side early on. Banna, who always emphasized the educational aspect of the movement, never shied away from radical rhetoric. “Victory can only come from mastering the art of death,” he wrote. The joy of martyrdom and jihad as armed struggle — both still some of the group’s central precepts today — were developed early on.
In the early 1940s, Banna created a paramilitary “secret apparatus” that initiated its members in freemason-like ceremonies. Their assassinations of politicians, judges and British soldiers would soon come back to haunt Banna, however. As he got into a taxi in Cairo on Feb. 12, 1949, he was shot dead — most likely by government agents. His grave in a cemetery in the poor district of Bassatin is distinguishable from the anonymous dead only by its epitaph: “This is the temple of the martyr Hassan al Banna.”
After a failed attempt to assassinate Nasser in 1954 by a member of the Brotherhood, the movement came under much greater pressure from the authorities. Still, it also began to flourish as many activists fled abroad to set up new networks. And just as Egypt was struggling to cope with a growing number of rural inhabitants moving to the cities and growing poverty, so too were many other Arab countries, helping the Brotherhood to quickly establish itself across the entire region as a reliable charity for the struggling millions.
At the Farouk Clinic in Cairo’s Maadi district men, children and veiled women sit under a corrugated tin roof on green plastic chairs. Nearby there’s a blood-smeared stretcher and a pharmacist hands a patient medicine through a window.
A list of prices hangs in the hallway: A simple checkup costs around €1.50, a birth €100. It’s less than one-tenth of what a private hospital charges, but the hygienic standards are still much better than those of a state clinic. “Some patients are treated for free,” says the doctor Abel Fatah Risk. The hospital is partially funded from fees and partially from donations.
The Islamists run a number of similar institutions throughout the Arab world — be it in the slums of Casablanca, the overfilled streets of Gaza City or the Sunni-dominated western part of Baghdad. They are always there were the governments have most failed their people. They offer healthcare, education and when someone is in trouble and needs it, a loan or legal help.
The average member of the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t a rabble-rouser, either — he’s a doctor, pharmacist, teacher or lawyer. He wears Western trousers and shirts, not the ankle-long dishdashah garment traditionally worn by Arab men. He’s middle class — and he’s filled with rage. Rage over what he sees as the close cooperation between his government and the hopelessly corrupted West. Kept from pursuing his political aims, he is often a functionary amonst his contemporaries in Arab professional associations for doctors, engineers and attorneys.
Zaki bin Rashid is a 50-year-old engineer with a carefully trimmed full beard and brown callus on his forehead. The spot is a symbol of his piety, since he got it from bending over and putting his head to the floor in prayer. Rashid is the secretary general of the Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. He lives in a clean new building in the center of Amman. The party’s flag on his desk shows two joined hands and his computer’s screensaver is a picture of a sword and the Koran.
Jordan is an exception. The Muslim Brotherhood has been tolerated here for almost 60 years. The small Hashemite kingdom has chosen to pursue dialogue and understanding with the Islamists. “We don’t want install a theocracy like in Iran. We are moderate Islamists,” says Rashid.
In countries where the Brotherhood is well established like in Jordan, the foundations usually go back to the 1970s and 80s. Backed by the West during the Cold War, many autocratic Arab regimes specifically catered to the Islamists in the hope they would provide a counterweight to the communists. In the end, though, it turned out to be a miscalculation of historical proportions.
Egypt was the first to discover what the militant spin off of political Islam was capable of: During a parade on Oct. 6, 1981 in Cairo members of the group Islamic Jihad stormed the stands to murder President Anwar Sadat.
But it was al-Qaida’s most successful operation that also led to a split within the political Islam movement. Despite Zawahiri’s recent plea for Muslim solidarity with Hamas, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 caused a rift between the jihadists and the reformists. Zawahiri complained that the Brotherhood was luring “thousands of young Muslim men to voting booths instead of recruiting them for holy war.”
A Safety Valve for Moderate Islam?
And that’s exactly what many of the Brotherhood’s leaders claim is their main duty. “Without us most of the youth of this age would have chosen the path of violence,” says Essam al Eriyan of Egypt. “The Brotherhood has become a safety valve for moderate Islam.”
But are statements like that worth anything? Is the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world truly determined to follow the example of the Turkish Islamists and become a part of the democratic process? Or is what the Cairo weekly Rosa al Yousef wrote last week true? “For the Brotherhood democracy is nothing but a dance with the devil,” the paper wrote. “It is the means to come to power. Afterwards they will whip democracy and behead it with the sword.”
Political Islam has many faces — one wears modest makeup and brown headscarf and a matching brown silk outfit. Devout while still chic, Nadia Yassine is the 48-year-old spokeswoman of the illegal but tolerated Justice and Welfare association and the face of Morocco’s Islamists, who have so far been kept out of parliament.
Whoever wishes to speak to her must travel to Salé, Rabat’s nearby sister city. The slums there are an Islamist stronghold. A car with darkened windows is parked in front of her apartment. “I’m under surveillance,” she says apologetically while offering sweet peppermint tea and pastries.
Across the Maghreb, it’s small extremist groups that have been particularly active in recent years, including carrying out terrorist attacks in Casablanca in May 2003 that killed 45 people. After Morocco’s King Mohammed VI responded by announcing an “end of the laxity,” Justice and Welfare had to move quickly to avoid being equated with the bombers. “We are a violence-free, a spiritual movement,” says Nadia Yassine, the daughter of a prominent Sufi sheikh.
Yassine, who studied political science and cultural studies, could one day follow in her father’s footsteps — which would certainly be unique in the Arab world. For her part, Yassine doesn’t see any contradiction in being what a self-described feminist and Islamist. “Our religion is very much friendly to women,” she says, “but the men, these little machos … it’s their fault that the whole world believes the opposite.” Would she get rid of the country’s growing democracy if an Islamic state was created according to her conditions? “We demand a Muslim pact that includes all social groups,” she says. Otherwise it will be impossible to rule out further attacks or even a coup d’état — in Morocco or other Arab countries. The West will have the choice of whom it supports in the future.
Egyptian Amr Hamzawy admits he’s become more cautious with his judgments over the past two years. The renowned political scientist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. is an expert on Islamists movements in the Arab world. Two years ago he was still optimistic. “The moderate Islamists have embraced democratic procedures and have shown a strong commitment to the rule of law,” he wrote back then. Europe and the United States would be well advised to engage these “grassroots Islamists” and talk autocratic regimes out of pursuing repressive measures against them.
“Islamists Will never Use the Word Secular”
But these days he’s a bit more reticent. There are “gray areas” where the Islamists need to make clarifications on where they stand: for example, their understanding of sharia, or Islamic law, as well as their take on women’s rights, religious minorities and violence. But Hamzawy also says the West has to get use to the fact that Islamism uses a different vocabulary than Western political discourse: “Islamists will never use the word secular to describe the impartiality of civil institutions. And one shouldn’t expect them to give up their emphasis of Islamic teachings as the foundation for all actions.”
The Muslim Brotherhood’s success over the years can be attributed to two things: the failings of Arab governments and the charitable deeds they have done for the poor, ill and disenfranchised. Whether they can continue to do so in the Gaza Strip under increasing pressure from the West remains to be seen.
Hamas is already trying to move forward with its agenda. In addition to watching over the new traffic cops, Hamas’s paramilitary police force — decked out in blue trousers and black t-shirts — has also carried out drug and alcohol raids and confiscated weapons. They’ve now stopped wearing their balaclavas, or face masks, so that the public won’t perceive them as a danger or threat.
“First we gave the people security again,” says Hamas leader Abu Leila, who then goes on to explain that the next step is to restore law and order in the Palestinian Authority.
“We will need more time before installing sharia,” he says, “but time is working in our favor.”
AMIRA EL AHL, CHRISTOPH SCHULT, DANIEL STEINVORTH, VOLKHARD WINDFUHR, BERNHARD ZAND