It is more than ironic that the success of the Muslim Brotherhood has been a cause of its misfortune. After winning five elections since 2011, its detractors in the military elite have cracked down on the movement. However, past experience suggests that it is likely to emerge from this current crisis even stronger than before. Its Supreme Guide Dr Muhammad Badie explained the secret of the movement’s success with his now famous saying, “Our peacefulness is stronger than the bullets.”
When Badie made his remark at a mass rally just after the July 3 coup he was not exaggerating. He was, indeed, speaking from personal experience. As a 22 year-old he was arrested at the height of the 1965 crackdown ahead of the 1966 execution of Sayyid Qutb, one of the most influential of the movement’s writers.
That was followed by the Six Day War of 1967, which proved to be an unparalleled national disaster for Egypt. It exposed the weakness of the state and unleashed a storm of popular discontent. Calls were raised for change and the restoration of national dignity. The military regime was held responsible for the loss of some 20,000 Egyptian lives as well as the Sinai Peninsula. In the aftermath, Israeli troops were stationed on the east bank of the Suez Canal, just 105 kilometres from Cairo.
Many ordinary Egyptians saw the humiliating defeat as a form of divine retribution for the crimes committed against the Muslim Brotherhood. Deputy Supreme Guide Dr Rashad Bayoumi, who was detained with Dr Badie, spoke of his encounter with his torturer, a certain Shams Badran, in the 1950s: “He tortured me himself and when I told him to fear God, he replied, ‘I will put God in the cell next to you if he comes down here’.” Such were the depths of depravity and inhumanity Brotherhood members faced.
During the early seventies many who survived the prison sentences of the 1950s and 60s were released. The Brotherhood thereafter embarked on a process of rebuilding. Tensions with the military lurked beneath the surface. As a banned organisation, it was denied the right to spread its Islamic message openly.
This repression actually served as a catalyst for the movement’s popularity not only in Egypt but across the region as well. Because Egypt was seen as the home and epicentre of political Islam, the resurgence of the Brotherhood greatly disturbed regional authorities, as well as their foreign allies. All were wary of the intellectual and political implications of its growth.
One area where this was especially manifested was in Palestine, which has been a central concern of the Muslim Brotherhood ever since it was founded by Imam Hasan Al-Banna in 1928. The involvement of the Brotherhood in Palestine can be traced back to 1935 when two senior members, Abdur Rahman Al-Sa’ati and Muhammad Asad Al-Hakim visited the Holy Land in August of that year. Some accounts recall that a small number of Egyptian volunteers actually entered Palestine and participated in military operations in the north of the country during the 1936-39 Uprising.
With this sort of background it was no wonder that the Brotherhood denounced the 1978 Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Then under its third Supreme Guide, ‘Umar al-Tilmisani, it declared the treaty to be a betrayal of the Palestinian people and their cause.
By the 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood had come of age politically. Its members participated in the 1984 elections, despite the raft of conditions and restrictions imposed upon them. Being unrecognised, they cooperated with the Wafd Party. The main demands centred on freedoms and rights; the revocation of the ban on the movement; and social and economic reforms.
Meanwhile, the exiled members of the movement invested in a number of projects in the Middle East and other Muslim countries. These included hospitals, schools and publishing ventures. So successful were these initiatives that the regimes of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak left no stone unturned to seize their assets and proceeds wherever possible. Many observers point out that the ruling military elite viewed the Brotherhood’s economic success as a direct challenge to their own substantial economic interests. Indeed it is believed that part of the army’s opposition to President Mohamed Morsi was based on the fact that he tried to break the military stranglehold on some sectors of the Egyptian economy. The recent appointment of military governors in the provinces is one example of the army’s attempt to regain the initiative and protect its leaders’ financial interests.
The political history of Egypt for most of the last century has been overshadowed by the struggle between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Tensions between the two were always difficult to conceal or control. This latest encounter which saw the arrest of thousands of Brotherhood members and supporters is in every respect a continuation of the Mubarak era.
Shortly before his own detention Dr Badie recalled that during the Mubarak era some 35,000 members of the Brotherhood were tried before military courts and sentenced for a combined total of 15,000 years in prison. Just as he emerged from prison in the seventies to breathe new life into the movement, a new generation has already taken up the challenge of filling the vacuum created by the absence of their jailed leaders.
Since 2011 the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood have gained a wealth of experience at the local community level. Throughout the struggle of the revolution and the recent turmoil they have refused to be drawn into an armed confrontation with the military; the tragic example of Syria serves as a strong deterrent. Yet by their peacefulness they are continuing to gain support for their movement and its renaissance project. It is truly ironic that this success is the cause of the Islamic movement’s current misfortune. History shows that this is cyclical, though, so don’t write off the Muslim Brotherhood just yet.