The end of the 1920s found the Muslim world in total disarray due to the expansion of European colonialism and, even more importantly, the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate and its replacement by a secular republic in Turkey in 1924.
Al-Ikhwan al- muslimun, also known simply as the Ikhwan or the Muslim Brotherhood, was founded in 1928 by an unassuming Egyptian schoolteacher, Hassan al-Banna. The creation of the MB was to some extent a response to these two events, an attempt to fill the void and reunite the ummah (the Muslim nation). Interestingly, the MB, a Sunni organization, did not view itself as a political party but rather as a grassroots political movement engaged in mass mobilization. Thus in order to gain access to the largest possible target audience, the MB created local branches and divisions for adults, youth and women. The MB also built schools, hospitals, factories and welfare societies, and distributed food so that it could attract a large following. This greatly helped al-Banna draw on the support of the small Egyptian bourgeoisie while enjoying very good relations with the Egyptian King Farouk, who saw the MB as a counterweight to Arab secular nationalists.
The organization gained in popularity by the day: indeed, from just six members at the start, the MB grew to 1,000 members in 1933, then 20,000 in 1937, 200,000 in 1943, 500,000 in 1945 and close to 2 million in 1951. The MB is strongly hierarchical in structure, with numerous elaborate layers. At the top of the organization sits the General Guide. The Arabic term, al-Murshid al-Aamm, indeed means ‘General Guide’, which differs considerably from ‘chairman’, the much more Western and neutral English translation used by the MB.
This difference is itself sufficient to provide food for thought. Amad Abdu Chaboune, the first Egyptian imam to be elected as a MB Member of Parliament, explained that if the government were to dismantle the first level of the organization—that is, the level made up of leaders well known to the public—there would always be the second, third, fourth layers and so on, down to the last member of the Brotherhood. Indeed, from the beginning, the MB created numerous tiny cells— with no more than five members—and this made it almost impossible to dismantle.
The MB also had its own army and was the only effective resistance force against the British occupation of Egypt. Political violence started to increase in the late 1940s, and the MB paramilitary branch took part in it by perpetrating terrorist acts. In fact, this secret apparatus, which was approved by al-Banna, was behind the bombings of two Cairo movie theatres and the assassination of members of government, among other events. In 1949 al-Banna was murdered. Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in a coup in 1952. Allies at first, Nasser and the MB later became competitors.
Then, after an assassination attempt on Nasser in 1954, allegedly by a member of the MB, the regime first dissolved the MB and then imprisoned many of its leaders. Most of them were executed, including, in 1966, its most influential thinker, Saïd Qutb. Other MB leaders were able to flee. Most ended up in Saudi Arabia, but others found their way to Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Maghreb and Europe.
Olivier Guitta is a security and geopolitical consultant based in Europe.
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