Supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi march on Cairo’s al Gamaa bridge, July 5.

The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement
Carrie Rosefsky Wickham
Princeton University Press, $29.95 (cloth)

When I walked into the office of Essam El-Erian in April 2007, I was greeted with a statement and a question. “I shake,” he said—as in, he shakes hands with women, which some observant Muslims believe is forbidden. Then El-Erian, a leader in Egypt’s now-banned Freedom and Justice party, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, asked, “Do you know Carrie Wickham?”

Wickham’s first book, Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt, was published shortly after September 11, 2001. It offered a rationalist account of those who joined Islamist movements and why they did. Drawing on stories of individual Egyptians, Wickham emphasized that the country’s Muslim Brotherhood—one of the region’s most prominent Islamist organizations—bears many of the traits of social movements around the world. Mobilizing Islam has been highly influential in academic circles and beyond, a fact not lost on Muslim Brotherhood officials charged with external relations.

Wickham’s new book, The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement, both picks up where Mobilizing Islam leaves off and fills in the backstory of the organization. Its main objective is to challenge widespread generalizations about the Brotherhood and its evolution. Wickham argues that the group is far from monolithic and that, contrary to scholarly claims that political inclusion leads groups to promote more mainstream political positions, the Brotherhood has not been on an obvious trajectory toward greater political and social moderation. Rather, Wickham makes the case for a complex political space where strategic and ideational changes have taken place simultaneously and not always in the direction of liberal politics. Although the book went to print during the one-year window of President Mohamed Morsi’s rule, before he was forced from office, Wickham’s analysis offers hints as to why the Brotherhood ultimately failed to rule effectively.

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Until the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, Egypt’s was one of the most long-lived authoritarian regimes on earth. It was a “triple threat” dictatorship, combining single-party rule, military control, and personalism—a personality cult and scheme of patronage centered on the presidency. Ever since Gamal Abdel Nasser and his clique came to power in 1952, the leadership had sought to establish a dominant party that would mobilize the public and attract new elites. The most recent incarnation of the regime’s hegemonic aspirations, the National Democratic Party, eventually proved to be as much a liability for the regime as a source of political strength. At the same time, Egypt exhibited many of the characteristics of a military regime. Founded by military officers, the army had long been considered the final guarantor of political power. Finally, major political, social, and economic actors depended on a ruler who used charisma and patronage to cultivate loyalty.

The Muslim Brotherhood evolved in the shadow of this system—in opposition to it, Wickham argues. The Brotherhood’s anti-system identity only intensified as the years and repression wore on. Under the oppressive state apparatus of Presidents Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Mubarak, the Brotherhood became less flexible and more paranoid. Members often viewed outsiders and other civil and political groups with suspicion and hostility. According to Wickham, the result was that the Brotherhood came to be characterized by ideological rigidity and a tendency for social isolation.

But Wickham also makes the case that there has existed a meaningful reformist tendency within the Brotherhood itself. Indeed, the book’s most compelling analysis draws on interviews Wickham conducted with what she calls the “middle” generation of Brotherhood and former Brotherhood activists. The group’s reformist faction is closely associated with this middle generation, who rose to prominence as Islamist student leaders in the 1970s and ’80s. She highlights important generational differences between the Brotherhood’s old guard—who continued to struggle with a “victim complex” following years of repression—and younger, reform-minded activists.

Brotherhood reformers neglected to cultivate new members and found themselves isolated.

Perhaps the most important manifestation of this schism within the Brotherhood came in 1996 when dozens of Brotherhood members split off and attempted to establish the Wasat Party. These activists wanted to create a liberal Islamic political alternative that would reflect Egyptian pluralism while simultaneously affirming the importance of Islamic values. Sixty-two of the seventy-four founding members of the nascent Wasat Party were former Muslim Brothers, drawn heavily from the middle generation whose push for change within the Brotherhood had fallen on deaf ears.

Wickham believes that reformers failed because, while they invested heavily in networking across different intellectual and political streams in Egypt, they neglected the more mundane activities associated with recruiting and cultivating new Brotherhood members. By leaving those tasks to the old guard, reformers lost the opportunity to shape the preferences of new members. As a result reformers found themselves without a constituency within the organization.

It is impossible to know how the post-Mubarak political transition in Egypt might have played out if Brotherhood reformers had been successful. At this point it is clear that, once in power, the Brotherhood was unable to form effective political coalitions with secular and liberal groups in post-revolutionary Egypt and, instead, attempted to consolidate power by co-opting elements within the military. Of course, forging a broader coalition may not have mattered, given the strength of bureaucratic and military resistance to Brotherhood rule, but doing so may have been their best hope.

The public re-assertion of political control by Egypt’s military in the summer of 2013 is perhaps not surprising given the country’s political history. Egypt’s modern military rule began in the 19th century under the leadership of Mohamed Ali, who developed a professionalized officer corps and introduced a conscript army organized on the European model. The so-called Free Officers who came to power in 1952 were a cabal of military men from middle-class backgrounds who succeeded in mounting a coup against the monarchy. The current military regime has its roots in that event.

In Egypt, as elsewhere, there are obvious costs to empowering a military elite. Once military influence expands, there are few safeguards capable of limiting it. As a result, militaries represent the most credible threat to autocratic leaders who succeed them. At the same time, however, military dictatorships transition to democracy at higher rates than either personalist or party dictatorships, in part because there continues to be a future for the military even after democratic transition. While authoritarian hegemonic parties are often disbanded and personalist dictators prosecuted for their crimes (or killed in fits of mob vigilantism), militaries continue to provide a critical national function even after transition to more pluralist forms of governance. Prosecutions for human rights violations after transitions from military rule are rare. As a result, military rule is both a challenge to and possibly a foundation for peaceful democratization in Egypt.

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El-Erian, one of the last holdouts of the Morsi leadership, was captured by security forces in late October, accused of inciting violence during confrontations between the Brotherhood and the regime. In September, at the start of the academic year, he had called upon Egyptian students to lead a new movement to confront the military’s seizure of power and promote political reform. And although the Brotherhood has long favored a nonviolent approach to social change, the latest wave of repression limits the menu of political opportunities available to Brotherhood elite. Government repression has the capacity to radicalize in ways that could empower conservative elements within the organization, hindering peaceful reintegration into Egyptian politics.

Yet, it is also possible that repression could have a very different effect. As the human and political costs of repression increase, hardliners within the organization may be seen as impeding the group’s ability to forge a new compromise with the regime. Group members seeking normalization of relations may be empowered to agitate for a leadership with the ability to communicate and negotiate across political boundaries. Grassroots demand for détente may lead to the cultivation of a more liberal leadership within the Muslim Brotherhood itself; there certainly exists a rich tradition of Islamic liberalism among religious scholars tasked with interpretation of Muslim scripture. And while the ascent of a reformist trend within the Brotherhood may empower the existing military regime in the short run, it could make the Brotherhood a more appealing alternative to the military over the long term.

Photograph: Jonathan Rashad