Problematic Relationship Between Muslim Brotherhood And Civil Society: From Foundation To Fall

Since its establishment, the Muslim Brotherhood sought to engage in civil society in order to gain support and legitimacy among the general public. This continued until 2013, when the group adopted an approach close to Western ideas, therefore; this paper seeks to clarify and discover the characteristics of the Muslim Brotherhood's position on civil civic work, and also how the group dealt and employed such work at different stages.

by Dr. Hani Nsera
  • Release Date – Feb 2, 2023

Since its establishment, the Muslim Brotherhood sought to engage in civil society in order to gain support and legitimacy among the general public. This continued until 2013, when the group adopted an approach close to Western ideas, therefore; this paper seeks to clarify and discover the characteristics of the Muslim Brotherhood's position on civil civic work, and also how the group dealt and employed such work at different stages.

Since the establishment of their group, the Muslim Brotherhood interacted with the idea of charitable and civil work, attempting to employ them to be a parallel space for government and official work, and also to make a legitimate and social channel out of them attracts the public to be recruit and mobilize the grass roots in the society and among people. The Muslim Brotherhood expanded its activities in such filed without politicization in its early years, though it mixed politics with civil and political work later. Nevertheless, in its second constitution (after the seventies of the last century) the Muslim Brotherhood heavily focused on its political goals, despite its expansion in charitable and civil work and their development. This expansion was made through the Muslim Brotherhood's soft penetration of most of the large religious associations in Egypt, and also via the establishing the Muslim Brotherhood's own associations, as well as the expansion of relief work at home and abroad. Then, the civil work of the Muslim Brotherhood concentrated the group in the period of its rise and political participation before 2011. The civil work, or establishing an effective civil society (after the fall of the group's rule in 2013) was almost the only work the Muslim Brotherhood was doing, especially in Western and foreign countries that resorted to and was stationed in it after such fall.

Perhaps the values of civil society, as modernist values believing in political, intellectual, and civil tolerance, were not fully enabled in the Muslim Brotherhood's rhetoric. These values were just an employment attempt the Muslim Brotherhood use it according to its goals, challenges, and messages that it would like to send. The Muslim Brotherhood's focus on these values, during the period of political work before 2011 and then after the fall of its rule in 2013, is nothing but an attempt to integrate politically and address the West in a convergent language.

Hence, this paper is seeking to clarify and discover the features of the Muslim Brotherhood's position on civil and civic work, and also the ways in which the Muslim Brotherhood deals and employs such work at different stages. The paper distinguishes these works as follows:

First: What is meant by "civil work" is social and charitable work that aims to help the needy and the poor, through non-profit activities, which Egypt and the Arab region came to know since the beginning of the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The civil work in not politized, rather, it functions within the frame of law and order and do not conflict them nor it targets them. Usually, the civil work has a conventional, religious, and instructional nature, whether for its actors or its beneficiaries.  

Second: What is meant by the "civil society" and its overall concept is: that wide space of formations, organizations, and non-governmental institutions, which are formed voluntarily within the legal framework, independently of governments and official institutions. It includes associations, parties, unions, and non-governmental organizations. It is characterized by its participatory, reciprocal, and intellectual characteristics that believe in pluralism and participation in the public sphere. It is also characterized by its modern nature, whether in its discourse, organization, effectiveness, besides being parallel to the state, with a possibility of disagreeing with the state and criticizing it, which is what parties, unions, and organizations express, especially the human rights groups.

First: Contradictions and the position of Brotherhood thought on civil society

The first civil society in Egypt (the Greek Society in Alexandria) appeared in the early nineteenth century, specifically in 1821. About four decades later, associations were established, which contributed to the revitalization of the rising modernist and civic consciousness in Egypt at the time, as well as the charitable, educational, and religious motivation consciousness too.

In this socio-cultural context, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded on March 22, 1928 in an active civil society in Egypt, which witnessed, before the First World War, the establishment of about (20) Islamic associations, and (11) Christian associations. The Committee for the Aid of the Poor Muslims, is the first civil association, it had an Islamic character as it appeared in 1878, before its name changed to become the Islamic Charitable Society, then it became under the patronage of the Khedivate. The most prominent symbols of such Association were:  Imam Mohammad Abdo, leader Mustafa Kamel, and Abdullah al-Nadim, in addition to other pioneers of reform and enlightenment in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The 1923 constitution also granted the right and freedom of civil associations in Egypt a great boom, which caused a huge boom, the matter that was exploited by religious and conservative currents, thus the Young Men's Muslim Association was founded, which Hasan al-Banna and some Islamic conservatives, such as Moheb al-Din al-Khatib, Saleh Pasha Harb, Sayyid Muhammad Rashid Rida, and others played a role in its constitution in 1927. Hasan al-Banna then defected to establish the Muslim Brotherhood Association - which represented his call and founded his group – in the following year 1928, under purely religious and advocacy guise, under the pretext of "confronting Westernization and Western morality, which spread in Egyptian society at the time, or in the face of Christianization campaigns, as well as confronting "colonialism politically and economically."

In the beginning, al-Banna did not announce the political goals of his group, and did not take a polarizing position towards other intellectual and civil forces, but he rather adhered that his group is a charitable association and does not address work or political affairs. The first law (Internal Regulations) of the Muslim Brotherhood Association Assembly, issued in Ismailia in 1930, approved that it has nothing to do with political work, where the second article stated: "This Association is does not deal with political affairs whatsoever". Article 15 stressed on not tackling political affairs during the meetings of the Assembly, Article 42 sets out the mechanism for amending the regulations, as it completely prohibits the change of some articles, including the Second Article, to which we have referred, which prohibits the association from participating in political work.

This trend, however, turned towards politicization, after the Group's power became greater, becoming influential in society, where political antagonism became possible, even necessary to Hasan al-Banna, and as the Muslim Brotherhood turned to be loyal to minority parties in the face of the Wafd Party, which was the majority. The language of advocacy, authorship, and containment turned into the language of loyalty, hostility, and disloyalty, which was made available to him in the 1930s amidst the emotional and religious momentum after the Palestinian revolution in 1935, which is expressed by Hasan al-Banna in the editorial of the first issue of Al-Nadhir magazine in May 1938, when he explicitly said: "Until now, O Brotherhood, you have not quarreled with a party or a body, nor have you joined them either. But today, you will be in a great adversary with all of them, whether in power or outside it, if they do not respond to you and take the reins of Islam as a platform to follow and work for. It's either loyalty or hostility".

In contrast to his inception, Hasan al-Banna insisted on affirming the political character of his group and association at the Muslim Brotherhood Conference of Regional Presidents in 1945, where he rejected the legal requirement that NGOs be away from political work, and believed that Islam could only be political. He presented the community as inclusive and representative of everything, including Islam, which he insists the Muslim Brotherhood monopolizes its understanding and validity, expressing Islam in the correct, comprehensive, and undiminished expression.

Politically, al-Banna realized when he founded the group until 1942, that the years of World War II were confusing and revealing, and did not want to reveal his orientation and political bias, so he confided to his followers, according to sources, to stop talking about politics publicly, and to appease with the government and the colonizer, in addition to focus on establishing social assistance offices, collecting zakat al-Fitr, and Adha sacrificial meat and skins, as financial sources for the organization.

But that activity and the suspicious role, indicated by the movements of the Muslim Brotherhood, drew the attention of the authorities and the parties at the time, as such activities contradict the Law of Associations, issued in 1945. The Muslim Brotherhood were demanded to clarify the nature of their work and association, they were also requested to disengage the political work from the charitable. Al-Banna decided to establish an entity from within the Muslim Brotherhood that is compatible with the Law of Associations but without a real existence. The Muslim Brotherhood were able to adapt to this situation in what was then called "the General Center for Charity and Social Service Associations of the Muslim Brotherhood", while the rest of the Groups' activities became that contradicts politics is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood's General Committee. However, during the fifties and sixties, the so-called "service offices and charity departments" collapsed, after charitable activities were halted following a dispute with the political leadership at the time.

We can find another feature of the contradiction in Hasan al-Banna's position on partisanship, where he stressed the denunciation of partisanship, and the rejection of parties in his time, whether from a religious perspective sometimes, or from a political perspective at other times. He described the parties as a creation of colonialism, and that the party system is hateful, and does not fit the situation of emerging nations, according to him.

But on the other side, contrary to the above, we find the Muslim Brotherhood at its early time welcoming tactical alliances, and prioritizing their pragmatic interest over others. The history of the Muslim Brotherhood, since the founder until 2013 is full of alliances and employing other parties for their goals. The Muslim Brotherhood participated in a list of candidates (about 17 candidates) in 1984 with the Wafd Party, upon an agreement between the Muslim Brotherhood guide at the time, Omar Tlemceni, and the head of the delegation at the time, Fouad Pasha Serageldin. The Muslim Brotherhood also established an electoral alliance with the Labor and Liberal Parties in 1987, divided as follows: 40% for the Muslim Brotherhood, 40% for Labor, and 20% for al-Wafd. The Muslim Brotherhood was able to obtain 37 parliamentary seats after that. A parliamentary bloc was formed Brotherhood headed by Al-Mamoun Al-Hudaybi, Deputy Guide at the time.

Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood experienced a contradiction between their foundational and theoretical position concerning the parties and their alliances; when the Muslim Brotherhood is in no need for other parties and can and prevail over them, their rejection comes, but when there are interests and needs that require joining others and allying with them to achieve common goals, the interdependence and alliance are coherent come. This can be seen in the Muslim Brotherhood's position on civil forces and parties after 2011, when the Muslim Brotherhood merged with the civil forces, then returned and overcame them, dominating the government, until the group's fall in 2013.


Second: Distinctive features from the return of the seventies until 2011

The Muslim Brotherhood tried to employ civil or civic work, depending on its circumstances and objectives in its various stages, although civil work dominated the first phase of its establishment between 1928 until 1948. The Muslim Brotherhood, then, mixed such work with political and civil work, specifically since the thirties of the last century, by al-Banna's attempt to run in the parliamentary elections, as well as the alliance with the Serail and minority parties, in addition to the involvement with social and political activities in defense of the Palestinian cause and conservative trends.

However, civil and civil work were not there during the Nasser reign, then both returned together since the second Muslim Brotherhood constitution, and the return of the Group to be present and effective in Egypt since the early seventies of the last century, despite banning the Muslim Brotherhood and the decision to dissolve it remained in force. The Muslim Brotherhood increased its activity in unions and through alliances, and then in running in parliamentary and union elections in the eighties. During this era, recruitment and integration with the wide space called civil society was undergoing.

The Muslim Brotherhood youth also expanded with the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, through various forms of civil, charitable, and relief work, as tools to enable their political presence and effectiveness, as the Muslim Brotherhood youth sneaked into rest of the civil society spaces, starting from the controlling professional unions, joining and allying with other political parties. This continued until 2011, after which the Muslim Brotherhood formed its own institutions and parties, such as the Freedom and Justice Party, which was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood on June 6, 2011, which was dissolved by a court ruling on August 9, 2014. Then came the last stage after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood rule On June 30, 2013, the group focused on the diaspora and exile by supporting and activating its civil, human rights, and media institutions that are based in the West, infiltrating other civil institutions, and establishing new ones in which the language of its discourse changed.

Thus, throughout its history, the Muslim Brotherhood has realized the importance of increasing the role of civil society organizations, as a means of public presence and political effectiveness, and also as a tool of pressure, mobilization, networking, alliance, and creating the civil image. The Muslim Brotherhood interacted with all the diversity it experienced in Egypt and elsewhere, so it succeeded in confirming its presence in various professional syndicates. Muslim Brotherhood penetrated other charities and civil societies, and established its own human rights organizations, following it at home and abroad, to denounce and oppose the regimes, defend their elements, challenging state institutions, the matter which the Muslim Brotherhood was active in, especially after its fall by the demonstrations of June 30, 2013.

Third: The Guise of Masks and Softly Penetrating the Others

The Muslim Brotherhood group concealed its charitable work by penetrating various associations and activities, and by working through syndicates, hence, the Muslim Brotherhood participated in  the  elections of the Doctors Syndicate in 1984. Within two years of that date, the group had lists in the elections of the syndicates of engineers, dentists, agriculturalists, pharmacists, journalists, commercial and lawyers. 

The Muslim Brotherhood's activity and ability to penetrate can be observed in their participation in the doctors Syndicate: In 1984, the Muslim Brotherhood won 7 seats, before expanding their influence within the Syndicate to raise their share to 20 seats out of 25 in the 1990 elections. Also, the Muslim Brotherhood won 45 seats in the Engineers Syndicate out of 61 seats in the 1987 elections, and thus the group's influence increased in various vocational syndicates. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood sought to penetrate major associations, such as the Sharia Association for Workers upon the Quran and the Sunnah, Ansar al-Sunna Association, and others.

The Muslim Brotherhood used the strategies of employing associations, through the trilogy of "penetration, adaptation, and constitution", via penetrating well-known associations, through hidden elements, infiltrating until they reach the board of directors, and then volunteering the association's activity for the benefit of the Muslim Brotherhood, as was the case in the Sharia Association in particular, the largest Islamic civil society that has 12,000 branches throughout Egypt. 

Reading the reality of the expansion of the Muslim Brotherhood, within the civil and civic work system in Egypt, necessarily requires tracing the paths of this soft penetration, which took place by exploiting the state declining role, especially in the service and charitable sectors, and the ability of religious associations to collect and recycle donations, and establish projects that concern the poor, during massive and tough crises such as the earthquake crisis in 1992, and the flooding crisis in the Red Sea and Sinai regions in the nineties and 2012. The Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamic associations, succeeded in filling the vacuum which the government left in the field of social, health, and other services.

In addition, in the period of the second Muslim Brotherhood constitution, the role of mosques was active. organizing mosques was not as what was after that in years, as well not exploiting mosques, which the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups have been good at employing by controlling them, whether in fundraising or in their ideological and advocacy promotion. The percentage of Islamic NGOs increased until it reached 31.02%, this increase continued in the eighties, until it reached about 33.93%.

The penetration, and the biggest goal of the activity and expansion of the Muslim Brotherhood, was the Sharia Association, the largest Islamic associations in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhoods succeeded in controlling the Sharia Association by attracting many of its sheikhs and actors, pushing its followers to the forefront and leadership, such as Sheikh Abdul Latif Mashtahri, Sheikh Mahmoud Abdul Wahab Fayed, and others. Al-Itisam magazine, issued by the Sharia Association, perfectly became a propaganda platform for the Muslim Brotherhood, with the appointing Muslim Brotherhood member, Mohamed Ahmed Ashour, to the position of editor-in-chief. The Muslim Brotherhood figures dominated the Preparatory Institutes of Preachers, where study therein is three years and is affiliated with the Sharia Association. With time, all lecturers became of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Brotherhood controlled the projects of the Association, most notably the Orphan Sponsorship Project, which was managed by the Brotherhood leader, Reda al-Tayeb.

At the beginning of the nineties, the Project covered about (18) Egyptian governorates, therefore, recruitment and enrolment operations continued in such organized manner, through the organization and mobilization of efforts, by employing and expanding the service cover. In light of the bureaucratic obstacles placed by the state-affiliated social institutions for those seeking assistance, the poor turned to these associations that practiced a kind of bargaining and political propaganda, which contributed to their increasing popularity, due to their ability to meet the humanitarian, social, and economic needs of the poor.

Fourth: The Muslim Brotherhood and Human Rights after the Group's Fall

The Muslim Brotherhood's activities and presence, in charitable work, varied in the first and second constitution, but its activity in trade unions and civil work, and the creation of organizations associated with it at home and abroad, in the fields of human rights, thought, knowledge, and Islamic literature, all increased the group's presence. So, human rights centers emerged working in the field of human rights, expressing the Muslim Brotherhood and defending its orientations and elements, some of which are funded by foreign countries, especially after the fall of the Group's rule in 2013, which the group, in its Western and modern language, considered appropriate to its rhetoric towards the West, and to the opposition to the regimes that are antagonist to the Muslim Brotherhood in the East and the Arab-Muslim world. 

The year 2004 is considered the year of the Muslim Brotherhood's organizations, as the group founded the "Sawasia for Human Rights" organization, and "Karama" organization in Geneva. In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood constituted the "Community for Justice" Foundation in Switzerland, run by Ahmad Mufarreh. A report by the Egyptian Center for Thought and Studies revealed the tactics used by the Brotherhood to penetrate the human rights community, namely:

1- Establishing organizations that are subject to it, but do not affiliate to it organizationally. ‎

2-  Penetrating international human rights institutions through their elements. ‎

3- Extorting organizations with the Muslim Brotherhood historical grievances.

4- Establishing relations with the founders and managers of these organizations, in order to allow the information they wish to convey to the public opinion.

5- The intensive participation of the Muslim Brotherhood members in international human rights meetings, whether in the International Council for Human Rights of the United Nations, or organizing meetings with members of the U.S. Congress or the European Parliament.

6- Providing funding for the activities of some of these organizations, in order to control their agenda.

In conjunction with this breach of the human rights file, the Muslim Brotherhood's media platforms, including satellite channels, websites, and communication sites, are active in promoting their positions and alleged grievances, and their positions in condemnation, abuse, and distorting the political systems in the region.

This means that the Muslim Brotherhood is aware of how the present time is different. The Muslim Brotherhood activity abroad is appropriate for its situation, whether inside the homelands or in the Western countries that shelter it. The Muslim Brotherhood  is also aware of the use of a more civil language, away from its ideological positions, as was the case in the stages of its first constitution.

* The opinions expressed in this study are those of the author. Strategiecs shall bear no responsibility for the views and/or opinion of its author on security, economic, social, and other issues, as they do not necessarily represent the views of the Think Tank.

Dr. Hani Nsera

Writer and Political Expert