The Rise and Fall of the Muslim Brotherhood

It took the Muslim Brotherhood eighty-five years to reach the pinnacle of its power in Egypt — culminating in the inauguration last year of one its members, Mohamed Morsi, as the country’s first elected president — only for the group to lose it all twelve months later. 

After a wave of popular anger led to an unprecedented mass mobilization on June 30, opening the door for Morsi's sudden overthrow in a military coup, the Brotherhood went from controlling the presidency, the legislature and the cabinet to finding itself thrust out of office, its members protesting in the streets and hounded by security forces.

This was neither predicted nor preordained. Although the Brotherhood faced immediate political opposition upon winning at the ballot box, along with a declining economy and stiff resistance within the judiciary and state bureaucracy, critics largely blame the organization’s precipitous fall on its unilateral decision-making and an exclusionary style of governance — marked by hubris and a winner-take-all logic — that left it politically alienated, engendering open hostility from most sectors of Egyptian society.

"This happened because of the terrible mistakes that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood made over the past year," says Khalil al-Anani, a scholar of Middle East politics and Islamist movements at Durham University, and who was in touch with Brotherhood leaders in the days leading up to June 30. "They were disconnected from reality and underestimated what has happening in the street. They did not have a Plan B and gave no room for any political solution but for the military to intervene and end the deadlock."

The Rise of a Conservative Wing

The Brotherhood’s decision-making authority is centralized and concentrated in the upper ranks of the organization, whose rigid hierarchy is marked by discipline and a strong tradition of deference to superiors. With its "listen and obey" credo, the upper echelons of the Brotherhood's hierarchical pyramid came to be dominated over the last decade by a staunchly conservative wing of the organization, which asserted control over the group’s key decision making bodies, the sixteen-member Guidance Bureau and the 110-member Shura Council.

The ascendancy of the conservatives came in the wake of elections in 2005, which saw the Brotherhood win an unprecedented fifth of the country’s parliamentary seats — only to be rewarded with a crackdown by the Mubarak regime, including increased arrests, harassment and a constitutional amendment designed to prevent further electoral participation. This was successfully exploited by the groups’s conservative wing, which, Anani explains, "used to benefit from oppression in order to take control and dominate the movement."

The growing hard-line trend within the movement was manifested in the political platform the Brotherhood produced in 2007 that sparked criticism for barring women and non-Muslim men from running for president. More controversially, it also called for a government structure that would include the establishment of a council of elected senior religious scholars—effectively giving governance power to an extra-constitutional entity.

The same conservative bloc would cement its control of the organization in 2009, when the Brotherhood held internal elections for seats in the Guidance Bureau. It edged out more reformist members, including such notable figures as Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Deputy General Guide Mohamed Habib, who publicly cast doubt on the legitimacy of the poll and eventually left the group.

After the 2011 overthrow of Mubarak, the Brotherhood went from being a banned and repressed movement to the most powerful political force in Egyptian politics, armed with a nationwide grassroots presence, a well-oiled electoral machine and established patronage networks. And it was the conservative wing that was in control to pave the group's new path to power.

The Brotherhood initially vowed, as it had for years, "participation, not domination" in the political process after the revolution, signaling its limited political ambitions. It pledged, for example, to target only a third of seats in parliament. But during the military-led transitional period following Mubarak's ouster, the Brotherhood came under heavy criticism for going back on these promises. When elections came in November 2011, the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (the group’s political arm) entered nearly all of the electoral races, winning a plurality of seats, with 46 percent of the People's Assembly.

But it was the Brotherhood's decision, in late March 2012, to field a presidential candidate that proved far more controversial. It put forth its top strategist and financier, Khairat al-Shater, a multimillionaire businessman known as "The Engineer" to his friends, who served as deputy to the General Guide. Imprisoned for twelve years under Mubarak, he had continued to run the Brotherhood from his jail cell. "Khairat Al-Shater is the most powerful person in the Guidance Council and he controls the political party," says a prominent Brotherhood member.

Senior Brotherhood leaders, including Shater himself, had repeatedly pledged that the group would not seek the presidency, going so far as to expel another member, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (the reformist who failed to win a seat at the Guidance Bureau in 2009), when he declared his candidacy. The choice to nominate Shater was deeply contested within the Brotherhood itself. The group's Shura Council met at least three times before coming to a decision on the matter, in a split vote of 56 to 52. "Khairat al-Shater and his trust network sort of dominated," says Mona El-Ghobashy, a professor of political science at Barnard College who studies the Brotherhood. "They’re the ones who crucially steamrolled the organization into the decision to run for presidential election."

Today, the Brotherhood defends its decision to field a candidate by pointing to the military’s refusal at the time to allow the newly elected parliament to name a prime minister and form a government.

Tags: egypt, hosni mubarak, mohammed morsi, muslim brotherhood

    • Sharif Abdel Kouddous
    • Sharif Abdel Kouddous is an independent journalist based in Cairo. For eight years he served as a senior producer, co-host, and correspondent for Democracy Now! and he remains a frequent contributor to the program. Originally from Cairo, he returned to Egypt in 2011 to cover the Egyptian revolution. He has written for The Natio...

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