What is the Muslim Brotherhood?

A closer look at the biggest political opposition in Egypt.

Who are they?

The Muslim Brotherhood (known in Arabic as al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen) is a transnational organization headquartered in Egypt. Founded by Hassan al-Banna in Ismailia, Egypt in 1928, the brotherhood is the oldest and largest Islamic political group, with representation in most Middle Eastern countries.

According to the group’s founding document, it is "an international Muslim Body, which seeks to establish Allah’s law in the land by achieving the spiritual goals of Islam and the true religion." The current chairman of the group is Mohamed Badie.

Due to its often fraught relationship with ruling parties across the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood operates under different names in different countries, from the Al-Menbar Islamic Society in Bahrain to Hadas in Kuwait to the Islamic Movement in Israel. Hamas, the party that currently rules Gaza, is a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. To circumvent a ban on the group in Egypt, the Brotherhood fields independent candidates in elections.

Although the various offshoots share some core principles, their political tactics often differ. Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Nathan J. Brown referred to the Brotherhood as "a tame framework for a group of loosely linked, ideologically similar movements that recognize each other, swap stories and experiences in occasional meetings, and happily subscribe to a formally international ideology without giving it much priority."

What are their beliefs?

Al-Banna founded the group as a response to a growing secularism in Muslim society. The Brotherhood views liberal Arab governments as an impediment to the establishment of Islamic states.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s stated objectives, as laid out in the group’s founding document, are as follows:

  • Inform the masses of Islamic teachings.
  • Unify mankind under Islamic teachings as well as bring "closer the viewpoints of the Islamic sects."
  • Raise the standard of living of marginalized people.
  • Expand social justice and social insurance to cover every citizen.
  • "Liberate the Islamic nation from the yoke of foreign rule."
  • Establish the country as an Islamic state and defend the nation against "the internal enemies."
  • Support global co-operation based on the provisions of Islamic Sharia law.

Stance on jihad

The Brotherhood shares Al-Qaeda’s goal of Islamist sovereignty, but the Brotherhood disdains jihadi methods — for example, the Brotherhood condemned the 9/11 attacks. Islamic radicals often criticize the Brotherhood for their lack of nerve. The Brotherhood believes violence is counter-productive and that an Islamic state can be achieved through political means.

Political status in Egypt

Since its formation, the Brotherhood has officially opposed violent means in meeting its goals, yet it has been linked to several brutal acts, including the assassination of Egyptian prime minister Mahmud Fahmi Nokrashi in 1948. In 1954, the group was convicted of attempting to murder Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Brotherhood denied that it planned the hit, but the group was subsequently banned in Egypt and members have been subject to persecution and torture ever since. (Sayyid Qutb, arguably the group’s most seditious member and a hero to many in Al-Qaeda, was executed in 1966.)

As a result of its hostile relationship with the Egyptian regime, the Brotherhood has had to devise a slower, more methodical strategy to challenge the government — mainly through political mechanisms. In the 2005 vote, Muslim Brotherhood "independents" won 88 seats in the 454-member parliament. Despite its outlaw status, the Brotherhood was for many years seen as the most organized opposition in Egypt.

At the outset of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the Brotherhood was decidedly subdued, even refusing to take part in the protests. But as the demonstrations escalated — and then-president Hosni Mubarak’s government looked ever more tenuous — the Brotherhood became more vocal.

With Mubarak turfed from office, the Brotherhood took part in Egypt's first free elections in late 2011 and 2012. It won a plurality of seats in Parliament and its presidential candidate, Mohammed Morsi, captured the country's highest office in June 2012. He was ousted in a military coup a little more than a year later. 

Foreign policy views

The Brotherhood has long criticized American interests in the Middle East, from sponsorship of Mubarak to the 2003 Iraq war to its staunch support of Israel. This final issue has been a point of concern for some critics, who worried that when the Muslim Brotherhood took power, Egypt’s conciliatory role in the Arab-Israeli conflict would be jeopardized.