Mona el Ghobashy’s “The metamorphosis of the Egyptian Muslim Brothers” is one of the best historical pieces on the MB I have read.
She calls for assessing the MB based on their actual ideological and political history, rather than pre-assumptions we have about political Islam, and shows that the MB have never hesitated to collaborate with a state they saw as illegitimate, despite it contradicting their “Islamic” platform.
Here are some excerpts. (Note it was written in 2005.)
Over the past quarter-century, the Society of Muslim Brothers (Ikhwan) has morphed from a highly secretive, hierarchical, antidemocratic organization led by anointed elders into a modern, multivocal political association steered by educated, savvy professionals not unlike activists of the same age in rival Egyptian political parties. Seventy-seven years ago, the Muslim Brothers were founded in the provincial city of Ismailiyya by the charismatic disciplinarian and shrewd organizer Hasan al- Banna (1906–49).
The transformation of the Muslim Brothers from a religious mass movement to what looks very much like a modern political party has its roots in electoral politicking that began in the 1980s. The fevered attention accorded Islamist groups by Western policymakers, Arab state elites, and some academics exaggerates their perceived threat (to democracy, Western interests, stability, or “national unity”) and organizational capabilities and occludes clear thinking on how they are shaped by their institutional political environment.
I am calling for a critical rethinking of the assumption of exceptionalism with which Islamist movements are approached.
The case of the Ikhwan confirms that it is the institutional rules of participation rather than the commandments of ideology that motivate political parties. Even the most ideologically committed and organizationally stalwart parties are transformed in the process of interacting with competitors, citizens, and the state. Ideology and organization bow to the terms of participation.
Yet as this article has argued, regardless of moral valuations, the rules of political engagement hold powerful sway over the behavior and make-up of political actors. There is no clearer evidence of this than the recent desire of radical Islamist groups in Egypt to morph into legal political parties partaking of the electoral game, stunted and distorted as that game is in authoritarian Egypt.
Yet it behooves us to note that the Ikhwan are not losing ideological uniqueness and becoming a “catch-all” party. As their behavior in the 2000 Parliament indicates, they still grant culture and identity issues pride of place in their platform, with the caveat that as the culture wars rage on in Egypt, particularly over Americanized globalization, the Ikhwan’s gripes over the moral turpitude of Egyptian culture are sounding less and less distinctive.
The trajectory of the Egyptian Ikhwan urges a return to empirical studies of Islamist groups and their interaction with their political contexts, informed by the accumulated knowledge on party behavior in 19th- and 20th-century advanced industrialized democracies.