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Brothers in arms: Rise and Fall of Muslim Brotherhood (اخوان المسلمین )

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They were waiting for some divine intervention to save their reputation, which they had earned over the past eight decades. They waited for 40 days and were finally shaken. They were Brothers and believed they had acquired the rule in Egypt as a divine reward for their long struggle. In 2013, they had staged a sit-in across the country to provide political and moral support to the Muslim Brotherhood’s first president, Mohamed Morsi. It was an incredible event in Egyptian history which was broadcast live by local and international media, including Al-Jazeera.

Political scientists usually see the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood movement in historical, ideological and contemporary political contexts. But Hazem Kandil, an Egyptian political sociologist at the University of Cambridge, has brought in another perspective to understand the Islamist movement, which is the spiritual element that glues the Brotherhood with its members. In his book, Inside the Brotherhood, Kandil mainly attempts to explore the sociology of the Islamist movement, which defines its ideological and political spectrum as well. But the most interesting part of the book is an explanation of the relationship of the Brotherhood members with the divine.

The Brotherhood members were confident that some divine help would come to rescue their government, but after 40 days, Kandil notes, they were visibly shaken by the absence of any such intervention. This is an important question for a political scientist to understand: why do ideological tendencies undermine the political discourse of a movement? In the Brotherhood’s case it is a structural issue. The movement is a unique case study because it nurtured a specific mindset over eight decades and kept its members in an environment that was conducive to transforming certain perceptions into beliefs.

Hazem Kandil’s book offers an analysis of the various facets of the Muslim Brotherhood movement
The initial chapters of the book deal with the organisational structure of the Brotherhood, including how it evolved its systems and created a close community. Many other Islamist movements across the world learned from the Brotherhood’s practices. The following sentence, which is used to welcome a new member into the Brotherhood movement, may sound familiar to Pakistan’s Islamist organisations: “One cannot choose to join the Muslim Brotherhood; one has to be chosen.”

This verdict is a foundation for the character building of a new member. Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami, for example, constitutes five ranks of members. The first rank is muhibin or sympathisers. After initial learning, a sympathiser member can be promoted to the rank of brother, which has its own sub-ranks, and eventually becomes a member of the nucleus group usra, or the family. These ranks are stages of the ideological, religious and sanctimonious growth of an individual.

The founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, had evolved these stages gradually. Before this, the Brothers had to attend a cultivating school, which was opened in 1928 with 70 students. As members multiplied, al-Banna organised them into small study groups. The members of the core group met every week, shared personal and professional concerns and lived like a family. The core group also ran the affairs of the movement. The members of the Brotherhood movement believe that this brilliant organisational method is itself a divine blessing bestowed upon al-Banna and the Brothers.
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The Brotherhood considers everything fair to achieve its ultimate goal. In the third chapter of his book, Kandil writes: “In the name of necessity, therefore, Brothers allow themselves considerable latitude.” He notes that the Brotherhood’s most frequent violation had always been disinformation and the irony is that they believe it is all religiously sanctioned.

The fourth chapter deals with the rise and fall of the Brotherhood movement in Egypt. In explaining the factors behind the slow rise and rapid fall of the Brothers, Kandil argues that historically, Muslim scholars and rulers coexisted in separate spheres. They sometimes negotiated, sometimes clashed, but mostly worked around each other with minimum friction. However, al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, whom he calls the Marx and Engels of Islamism, had come up with the approach to bridge the gap.

He also explains how al-Banna’s and Qutb’s different backgrounds contributed to shaping the movement. Though they were born in the same year (1906) in small villages and graduated from the same college, al-Banna had a religious zeal since childhood, and Qutb grew up as a Westernised secularist, and both operated in very different political contexts. Al-Banna started his work under the liberal monarchy of the 1920s, and Qutb in contrast converted to Islamism on the eve of the 1952 coup that led to the authoritarian regime of Mohamed Naguib.

When Egypt’s last monarch first dissolved the organisation in December 1948 — after documents were found about the movement’s militant wing and that resulted in the killing of al-Banna — Qutb revised the whole strategy of the movement. The Brothers responded to the ban and killing of their founder by supporting the coup of 1952. The new Nasser regime had lifted the ban and Qutb was hired as a cultural advisor. This was the time “when [the] Brothers decided to combine the doctrine of al-Banna and Qutb to adapt to their new environment: they would capitalise on the space made available to them by the rulers to garner popular support, while continuing to nurture their pious vanguard to take power when chance allowed (as it did in 2011)”.

Kandil also touches upon the Salafis-Brothers gap and claims that Wahabi thoughts influenced Egypt after the oil boom. The immediate response of the Brothers was “how to absorb the fundamentalist (Salafi) youth that had been active in universities under the rubric of a new organisation: The Islamic Group (Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiya)”. Interestingly, the Islamic Group’s religious and political views were quite different from those espoused by the Brotherhood movement. Kandil elaborates that Islamic Group activists “had no elaborate theories about the comprehensiveness of Islam or the laws of history; they simply wanted to put pressure on rulers — as fundamentalists had done throughout Islamic history — to implement a few legal injunctions: prohibiting alcohol, outlawing usury, segregating genders, etc.” And when the Brothers failed to absorb them, they came up with quite an opposite approach. “Yet [the] Brothers realised that if they did not co-opt them, they would have to compete with them (as they did with their progeny in 2013),” Kandil notes. The Salafis and Brothers divide also helps readers understand how ‘pious’ Egyptians could turn against the Brothers in 2013 without feeling that they had turned against religion as such.

However, the major reasons behind the electoral success of the Brotherhood were its organised political and organisational structures. Apart from other reasons which contributed to the downfall of the movement, two factors were crucial. First was their strict political position: they failed to deliver because of their ineptitude at political bargaining — a skill they had never developed. Second, they attempted to keep relations smooth with the military establishment. Kandil describes how the Brothers dutifully avoided any hint of challenging the autonomy and privileges of the armed forces and even the president buried a fact-finding commission report detailing security abuses during the 18-day uprising. One can justify their accommodative approach giving the reason that the Brothers had earned the right to rule after eight-and-a-half decades of spiritual purification and socio-political toil. They adopted the appeasement policy with the armed forces, but at the same time their major focus was to regulate public morality, foil global conspiracies against Islam, and eventually secure worldwide hegemony. For this purpose they needed an army, which they did not have, and counted instead on divine support to boost their ranks.

The last chapter of the book focuses on Islamism in Egypt and beyond, and provides a comparative analysis of Islamist movements in different regions. Overall this is a comprehensive study of a contemporary Islamist movement, which could also help in understanding the violent expressions of other Islamist movements.

The reviewer is a security analyst and director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), Islamabad.

Inside the Brotherhood: (SOCIO-POLITICS) By Hazem Kandil, Polity Press, UK, ISBN: 978-0745682914, 240pp. Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 20th, 2016

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