How Muslim Brotherhood went from 7 members to Egypt’s presidency

McClatchy NewspapersJune 29, 2012 

— When Hassan al Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, the membership was just seven people – Banna and six other workers in the port city of Suez, his only surviving sibling, 91-year-old brother Gamal, recalled recently. The British were in charge of Egypt then, and Hassan al Banna feared that their rule would end Islam.

Banna, a teacher and imam who preached in mosques and coffee shops alike, hoped that members of the Brotherhood would gradually introduce Islamic thought into mainstream thinking, so that one day Egypt’s president and the society he led would be imbued with a shared way of thinking. He never contemplated, however, that the Brotherhood would become a political group or its members would seek political office, Gamal said.

Yet on Saturday, a member of Banna’s Brotherhood will become Egypt’s president. It’s the most concrete example of how Banna’s long-ago goal to save Islam from Western influences in his homeland came to define politics throughout the Arab world, engendering fear in the West and earning the Brotherhood the enmity of many Arab leaders.

The rise of Mohammed Morsi to the presidency is the story of the evolution of the Brotherhood, experts say, a tale of how a secret society with a history of violence – Banna was assassinated in 1949 – came to accept modern political compromise. One scholar of the Brotherhood called the group the Arab world’s Tea Party: “dogmatic but politically practical.”

The Brotherhood wants to apply Islamic law in a way that’s different from what the United States understands it to be, said former member Kamal al Helbawy. “It is freedom of expression, justice, shura (an Islamic advisory council) and human rights,” said Helbawy, who left the Brotherhood last year after a 60-year membership because he disagreed with what he characterized as the furtive way the group now was governed.

“The Muslim Brotherhood wants to revive the Islamic civilization. . . . We are trying to bring people back to the right approach of Islam that is based on the Islamic civilization,” said Amr Darrag, a Brotherhood member of the 100-person assembly that’s charged with writing Egypt’s new constitution. “I know (Morsi) on a personal level. He has a strong character and he doesn’t easily surrender. . . . He is a very good choice for this period.”

Banna’s group was one of many that popped up during the 1920s, when Egypt was liberal, occupied and itching for independence. But, as his elderly brother explained, in his office surrounded by books, Banna was the most organized of them all, a quality that defines the Brotherhood and allowed it to become Egypt’s largest political organization within 20 years.

Hassan al Banna welcomed anyone who wanted to join. Then he took his members, who represented every segment of society, and urged them to spread the message through their various unions, in media and in their communities.

Banna believed that Egypt had lost its Islamic way and could fix its political situation only by changing the thinking of every Egyptian. That required members to integrate themselves into society and urge Egyptians to reconsider every aspect of their lives: education, Arab nationalism, development.

As Gamal recalled, his older brother despised politics. In a push for a simple life, his brother didn’t own a car or have a bank account, Gamal said. But his organizational skills created a group that attracted power. And it empowered itself by providing social services to the less fortunate, earning their loyalty. From its earliest days until now, it sticks to message, a characteristic evident in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where supporters from throughout Egypt repeat the latest message from the Brotherhood verbatim.

“My brother once said, ‘We don’t want power, but power is seeking us,’ ” Gamal said. “He did not like politics, truly. But at the end of Hassan al Banna’s life it became the biggest organization in Egypt, so it had to be involved in politics.”

Although many members weren’t educated, the Brotherhood became a home for some Islamic scholars, who gave religious justification to the group’s thinking.

“You need someone to issue the fatwas,” said Ashraf el Sherif, a Brotherhood expert at the American University in Cairo, describing what became known as the al Azhar thread of the group, referring to the university in Cairo that’s Sunni Islam’s premier site of Islamic thought.

Violence wasn’t a part of the group’s early years, but the Brotherhood sent members to fight on behalf of the Palestinians in the war that led to the creation of Israel in 1949. That gave the Brotherhood a cadre of experienced fighters, and gave Egypt’s leaders the fear that it could be plotting a coup.

Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmi an Nukrashi Pasha was the first of many Egyptian leaders to disband the group, and in 1948 a young Brotherhood member dressed as a police officer entered the Ministry of the Interior and assassinated him. A year later, Banna was shot to death while waiting for a cab after the government officials he was scheduled to meet with failed to show up. The site is now home to two spinoff Brotherhood organizations.

The 1952 revolution that ended the British presence in Egypt was a turning point in Brotherhood thought. Believing that the leader of that revolt, then-Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser, would embrace the Brotherhood’s religion-based ideas, the Brotherhood worked with him to oust King Farouk and British imperialism.

But Nasser turned out to be more secular than the Brotherhood had expected. Once he became president, he began to monopolize power and arrest Brotherhood members. “The mistake of the Brotherhood was that they underestimated Nasser,” American University’s Sherif said. “They thought they were stronger.”

In October 1954, a suspected Brotherhood member attempted to assassinate Nasser, but the shots missed. Nasser retaliated with a massive crackdown that saw thousands of Brotherhood members arrested.

Among those who found themselves in jail was Sayed Qutb, whose writings in prison would reshape the Brotherhood.

Where Banna believed in slowly integrating into the existing order, Qutb believed in quickly creating a counter-society. It was secular, evil ideas introduced by British imperialism that threatened the Egyptian state, Qutb argued. The way to counter them was to create conservative communities, isolated from Western taint, he argued. His thinking took hold in part of the Brotherhood and would later become crucial to the philosophy of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaida.

Another strain of thought also was taking hold within the Brotherhood, and it was there that the group began to show its skill for political adaptability. It compromised, negotiated and worked with the existing secular state system.

“They wanted to stay out of jail,” said Mohammed Abbas, a 30-something Brotherhood member until last year, when he started his own youth party.

By the 1970s, Qutbists shared power within the Brotherhood with a strain of so-called Salafists, conservative Islamists who were financed by donations from Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations where the oil boom was generating enormous wealth. Those donations paid for schools and media campaigns that introduced more conservative thinking on issues such as women and relations with Christians.

The Brotherhood renounced violence, but its seemingly conflicting message led to several violent offshoot groups such as al Gamaa al Islamaya, which the United States considered a terrorist organization. Members of yet another splinter group were responsible for the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat after Sadat had signed a peace agreement with Israel.

It was during this period of ferment, in 1977, that Morsi joined the Brotherhood, while he was studying engineering in Los Angeles.

The period in which he joined continues to shape his thoughts today, according to Sherif. Morsi is both a religious conservative and a believer in moving quickly on reform.

“Morsi is a Salafist in how he understands faith but a Qutbist in how he understands organization,” Sherif said.

By the 1990s, a new type of Brotherhood member had emerged, one who was more liberal than the organization itself. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a onetime leading presidential contender, is a leader among this group. Such members embraced democracy and women’s rights and revived the kind of gradual integration that Banna called for.

Which strain of the Brotherhood Morsi will represent isn’t yet clear. He’s shown himself to be a willing negotiator. In his first speech after his election was confirmed, he peppered Islamic references with a call for national unity. He issued a 16-point plan to be implemented in 100 days that began with instilling Islamic values and creating 700,000 jobs. Perhaps realizing the limitations of power, he later adjusted his timeline to “as soon as possible.”

How he deals with Western influences is still to be seen. Many expect friction.

“The United States must now decide whether it will embrace a democratically elected Islamist or a secular dictator,” al Helbawy said.

However it turns out, Gamal al Banna, 14 years younger than his brother and never a part of his brother’s organization, is convinced of one thing: Morsi’s election would please his brother.

Very simply, he said, his brother would embrace it because “it was God’s will.”

McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.

Email: nyoussef@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @nancyayoussef

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