What is the Muslim Brotherhood?

The Muslim Brotherhood came up frequently during the GCC rift. Here is a breakdown of the group’s ideology and roots.

Supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mursi take part in a protest in Cairo

The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has been in the news lately as one of the reasons behind the current diplomatic crisis between Qatar and other Gulf countries.

On June 7, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters during a visit to Paris that Qatar “must stop supporting Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood”.

Jubeir’s statements came two days after Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in the worst rift to hit the GCC region.

Qatar became a central target of the Saudi-Emirati-Israeli joint lobbying efforts for its perceived role in promoting the Muslim Brotherhood and hosting members of Hamas’ political bureau.

Saudi Arabia and other GCC nations also released a list of alleged terrorists with links to Qatar. The list included the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates. 

In response to the allegations, the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said the classification of the entire Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists is problematic.

During his June 14th testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Relations, Tillerson pointed out that “there are elements of the Muslim Brotherhood that have become parts of governments.”

“I think you can appreciate the complexities this enters into our relations with [governments in the region],” he added. 

But who is the Muslim Brotherhood and do they pose a grave risk to regimes in the region?

Here is a breakdown of the group’s ideology and historic roots.

Who are the Muslim Brotherhood?

The MB is the oldest political Islamist group in the Arab world. It is not allowed to operate as an official political party in some Arab countries.

When and where was the Muslim Brotherhood founded?

The MB was founded in Egypt in 1928 by and Islamic scholar and teacher by the name of Hassan al-Banna. He had a vision of a universal Islamic system of rule that could be attained by promoting Islamic laws and morals and by engaging society through offering social services.

READ MORE: The evolution of Islamists

What are the main principles of the Muslim Brotherhood ideology?

The ideology of the MB is mainly focused on reform of existing political systems in the Arab world. It embraces the idea of political activism and social responsibility, organising charitable works and social support programmes as part of its outreach to its core support base of lower-income populations.

The members of the MB represent a broad spectrum of interpretations of the initial ideology of Hassan al-Banna. Many members embrace a more pragmatic idea of achieving their goals, urging political participation and cooperation.

Has the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology shifted or changed?

There were a couple of shifts in the MB’s ideology over the years, as they developed from an active participant in a nationalist movement to a banned group forced to operate underground and leaning towards an armed struggle for their ideology, and then back to a reformist-minded party.

Throughout they have always adhered to their ideal of a society governed by Islamic laws and morals.

Who are the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood?

The supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is Mohamed Badie, who is currently in prison, having been sentenced to a number of life in prison and death sentences for a variety of charges.

Abdel Nasser wanted a secular socialist country rather than the Muslim Brotherhood's push for Islamic rule [AP]
Abdel Nasser wanted a secular socialist country rather than the Muslim Brotherhood’s push for Islamic rule [AP]

Is the Muslim Brotherhood a violent organisation?

In its early days in Egypt, the MB was involved in the active struggle against British occupation, and also cooperated with the Free Officers movement to liberate Egypt from the monarchy.

A difference of opinion arose between the Free Officers (led by Gamal Abdel Nasser) and the MB, with Abdel Nasser preferring a secular socialist country to one ruled by Islam.

An assassination attempt on Abdel Nasser in the 1950s led to the jailing of Sayed Qutb, a leading MB figure. His writings from prison advocated armed struggle against the Egyptian regime and others in order to spread the MB ideology. Qutb was executed in 1966 but his writings are used by many Islamist groups to justify armed struggle.

The MB officially renounced violence in the 1970s during the rule of Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat. They formally adopted a mandate of democracy in 1995 and their influence became apparent in professional work syndicates and social welfare work circles.

READ MORE: The Muslim Brotherhood and Trump’s terror list

Has the Muslim Brotherhood ever made political gains in the Arab world?

Here are some notable cases of Muslim Brotherhood or MB-affiliated political gain.

In late 2011, Tunisia’s Ennahda party (an Islamist party inspired by the MB) won the first parliamentary elections to be held in the country after the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

In 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood ran a candidate in the post-Arab Spring presidential elections in Egypt. Mohamed Morsi won the election and was Egypt’s first democratically elected leader until a coup by the Egyptian armed forces in 2013 overthrew and jailed him along with many individuals in the MB leadership.

In Jordan, the Islamic Action Front, which was a Muslim Brotherhood party until it cut ties with the mother organisation in 2013, has a large presence in the Jordanian parliament.

In which countries is the Muslim Brotherhood active?

Other than Egypt, which is the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood, there are parties that can be considered offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood in a number of Arab countries, as they were inspired by the core tenets of MB ideology. These include Hamas in Palestine, the Ennahda party in Tunisia, and Kuwait’s Islamic Constitutional Movement.

In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood is represented in the Islamic Action Front, the political wing that is one of the largest blocs in the Jordanian parliament. It broke formal ties with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood after the 2013 coup in Egypt. In Bahrain, the political arm of its Muslim Brotherhood group is known as the Minbar.

Not all Islamist parties are MB, a clear example of that is the Salafi movement of Egypt, which was Islamist in nature, but chose its own path in various political situations including the 2013 overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi by the armed forces in Egypt.

In 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood ran a candidate in the post-Arab Spring presidential elections in Egypt [Amr Dalsh/Reuters]
In 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood ran a candidate in the post-Arab Spring presidential elections in Egypt [Amr Dalsh/Reuters]

Which countries call the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist organisation”?

To date, the countries that have labelled the MB as a “terrorist organisation” are: Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates.

Why do Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates dislike the Muslim Brotherhood?

In 2013, Saudi rulers threw their weight behind Egypt’s brutal crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters. In March 2014, the kingdom designated the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist” group.

Analysts have concluded that a brand of Sunni Islamism that called for political participation and electoral legitimacy, of which the Muslim Brotherhood is perhaps the best example, was seen as almost an existential threat, because it offered a different model of Islamist politics to that of the Saudi state.

Source: Al Jazeera