By Edmund Blair,
March 29, 2012
The Muslim Brotherhood
has quietly spread its influence far beyond Egypt in its 84-year history, but
Arab revolts have opened broad new political horizons the group hopes will
reflect its founder’s vision for the Arab and Islamic world.
“There is no doubt
that Hassan al-Banna believed in Islamic unity and not just Arab unity. But
with such a vision we must consider reality and what is possible,” said Mahmoud
Ghozlan, a member of the Brotherhood’s executive bureau.
Interviewed at the
group’s new headquarters in Cairo, he called such unity a “long-term
objective,” but seemed alive to the possibilities thrown up by a ferment in
which Islamists are driving mainstream politics across North Africa and beyond.
“This region is in a
period of deep-rooted change,” the 64-year-old said. “Starting from Tunisia and
ending with Syria, the nature of the region and alliances will change.”
banned and repressed under President Hosni Mubarak, did not instigate the
uprising against him, but like Islamist parties elsewhere it has been the main
beneficiary, using free elections to sweep to the brink of power.
Its success, along
with election wins by Islamists in Tunisia and Morocco, and the emergence of
powerful Islamist players in Libya and inside Syria’s opposition, is forcing
the world to rethink how it deals with political Islam.
The Brotherhood, the
oldest and most established contemporary Islamist movement, could find itself
at the center of a Sunni arc of influence from the Atlantic to the eastern
“We can start to talk
of an emerging Sunni Islamist bloc from North Africa all the way potentially to
Syria. I think the Brotherhood is the most important part of that,” said Shadi
Hamid, research director at the Doha Brookings Center in Qatar. “They are part
of a broader movement, and it is that movement that is going to reshape the
The extent of the
transformation may yet depend on how Islamists perform in office as they
grapple with dysfunctional economies and exaggerated expectations, but change
The rise of Egypt’s
Brotherhood, the inspiration for Islamist groups throughout the region, is
helping to redraw political alliances across the Middle East in a historic
shift that is eroding the influence of Shiite Iran in the Arab world.
Spurred on by an
uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Brotherhood’s emergence has
helped draw Sunni Palestinian group Hamas out of the orbit of Syria, Iran and
Hezbollah, splintering an axis that has been a defining feature of regional
politics and conflicts for over a decade.
“The stronger the
Sunni Islamists are, the worse it is for the Iran-Hezbollah axis,” said Hamid.
Western states with
long-held suspicions about Islamist influence are nevertheless meeting the new
players. Conservative Gulf monarchies, some of them wary that regional unrest
may be contagious, are cautiously assessing their new interlocutors.
Turkey, outside the
Arab fold but part of the Muslim world, may engage more directly. Turkey’s AK
Party, with its Islamist roots, has delivered stellar economic growth that Arab
states faced with sky-high popular aspirations are keen to emulate.
“Turkey will have more
soft power than in the past and Turkey will exercise that power in a positive
way,” said Turkish Ambassador Husseyin Avni Botsali in Cairo, adding that Egypt
and Turkey could become an “axis of moderation and dialogue.”
At the heart of the
flux is Egypt’s Brotherhood, which grew Libyan, Syrian, Palestinian and other
offshoots over which it has no formal control. However, Ghozlan said they do
see Egypt as “the mother state, where the [Islamic] call first sprang up.”
The Brotherhood has shunned
some of its more radical outgrowths, such as the Egyptian militants who turned
to global jihad after Mubarak crushed their armed uprising in the 1980s.
And it faces new
challenges from hard-line Salafists impatient to install Islamic Shariah law
and eradicate Western influence.
Brotherhood is headed for power in Egypt, with likeminded parties also dominant
in some of its neighbors.
It has been a long
haul for the group founded by Banna in 1928. Born in 1906, he fumed at colonial
interference in Egypt and particularly Ismailia, a city where he taught, next
to the Suez Canal that was then under British control.
Starting in mosques
and coffee houses, his message spread to the rest of Egypt and, by the time he
was assassinated in 1949, the group had followers beyond its borders. By then
Egypt’s authorities also began seeing the group as a threat and a cycle of
crackdowns began. It was a similar story in other countries.
One group the
Brotherhood inspired was Palestinian Hamas, which emerged in the 1980s and now
controls Gaza on Egypt’s border. Isolated by Egypt under Mubarak, as well as by
other Gulf and Arab states and the West, Hamas was embraced by Iran, Hezbollah
and Syria in an alliance built on hostility to Israel.
Yet Hamas was the Sunni
odd man out in a Shiite-dominated axis. The Palestinian group had its
headquarters in Damascus, where the ruling Assad family, members of a minority
Alawite sect, had long repressed Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood.
A year after an
anti-Assad revolt erupted, Hamas publicly turned against its Syrian hosts,
perhaps encouraged by the Brotherhood’s political gains now shifting Egypt’s
In a mark of the
change from the Mubarak era, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was allowed to endorse
the Syrian revolt in a speech in February at Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar
Hamas and the
Brotherhood want Egypt to fully open its border with Gaza to alleviate a
blockade imposed by Israel with Egyptian cooperation, but Mahmoud al-Zahar, a
senior Hamas official, told Reuters it was too soon to talk of new allies.
focus for now, as it plans for government, is local. It needs to stabilize
Egypt’s shattered economy and stave off a currency crisis. And for that it
needs outside help.
Gulf states have promised
Egypt $10 billion to $15 billion in aid and investment. Yet just $1 billion has
But the Brotherhood’s
attempts to woo Gulf states have got off to a rocky start, as Ghozlan recounts.
“We told them ‘Come
and get to know us ... If you have concerns, we will eliminate them. If you
don’t come to us, send an invitation and we’ll come to you’ ... But they
haven’t taken that step,” he said, adding that only Bahrain’s envoy to Egypt
had met the group so far.
The Muslim Brotherhood
even delayed a meeting requested by Iran’s envoy for fear of upsetting Gulf
states, who see Tehran as a rival that meddles in their affairs.
“If he [the Iranian]
comes before them, it will increase their fears,” Ghozlan said.
Some Gulf states, who
counted Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali as close allies,
fret that regional turmoil will unsettle their own realms. Saudi Arabia and the
United Arab Emirates are notably wary of the Brotherhood.
“The Brotherhood have
a different approach to politics and this is what causes concern, mixing
politics with religion when they are two separate issues,” said one Saudi
The Brotherhood has
already had a spat with the United Arab Emirates over the expulsion of a group
of Syrians who staged a protest there. The Dubai police chief accused the
Brotherhood of fomenting unrest.
“There have been
restrictions placed on Egyptians coming to the UAE to work and this happened
after the Brotherhood took power [in Egypt’s parliament]. There is a fear that
they might stir trouble in the region,” said one UAE official.
Qatar, a tiny Gulf
nation with huge gas reserves, engaged with Islamists in Libya, but a Foreign
Ministry official said there had been no “official” talks with Egypt’s
Hassan al-Banna may
have dreamed of Arab and Islamic unity, but his movement has, in Egypt at
least, long been a cautious practitioner of the politically possible.
Nevertheless, like other Islamists in an Arab world where uprisings have
toppled four autocrats so far, the movement senses it has the wind in its
Source: The Daily Star