More than eight decades have elapsed since the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has used that time to establish political influence in the Arab world. Founded in Egypt in 1929 by Hassan al-Banna, the Brotherhood achieved popularity six decades later with the emergence of the Hamas movement. This movement emanated from the Brotherhood’s branch in Palestine in 1987 during the first Palestinian intifada. After the defeat in the 1967 war [against Israel], the Brotherhood avoided joining the Palestinian National Movement, adopted a negative attitude toward“ Fedayeen [jihadist]” actions and took a great interest in forming Muslim individuals and communities. The Brotherhood waited for 20 years to begin resisting the occupation, driven — alongside other resistance organizations — by popular momentum.
Even though the Islamic movement was semi-partisan and had a political presence, it never exerted heavy influence on the Arab street. Despite the Brotherhood’s persecution after 1952 in Egypt and 40 years later in Algeria and the execution of their prominent leader Sayyid Qutb, they were not shown much sympathy. This is due to the overwhelming influence of the late president [Gamal] Abdel Nasser in Egypt and the Arab world, and because the Brotherhood did not demonstrate a rejection of violence when it was charged with targeting the late president.
In Palestine, Hamas took advantage of the obstruction of the settlement project and the Oslo Agreement by winning the elections. Hamas also benefited from the departure of Yasser Arafat to gain an armed control over the Gaza Strip. These developments, combined with their alliance with Damascus and their close ties to Tehran, have given the Brotherhood great importance not just in the Palestinian scene, but in the Arab one as well.
In Egypt, the multiple arrests and harassment they endured over almost three decades under Mubarak generated domestic sympathy for the Brotherhood, but only after they took a strong position against Egypt's ties to Tel Aviv.
In Jordan, the Brotherhood was able to lead the opposition and in 1989 it emerged as the largest bloc in parliament (with 17 seats). However, they boycotted the elections once in protest of the peace treaty that was signed between Amman and Tel Aviv, and another time in rejection of the one-man one-vote system (where one candidate is selected no matter how many seats there are in the constituency).
Supported by the momentum of popularity and led by the youth, the Arab Spring opened the way for fair elections. In the Egyptian parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood came in first, and the Ennahdha party (an offshoot party of the Brotherhood) was victorious in Tunisia. However, Islamist forces are still fighting for power in Libya, where elections have not yet been held. Although the Islamists experienced a setback during the previous Algerian elections last May, they gained a substantial share in the parliaments of Kuwait and Morocco.
The following is a summary of the features behind their rise in power:
- The Brotherhood and the organizations that it inspired have adopted a pragmatic approach, which is oriented toward seeking legislative and executive power. They have also showed a commitment to calm their political rhetoric. The changes have not been too drastic, aside from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood who are clearly calling for establishing a civil state.
- The Brotherhood established close ties to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, but did not adopt its model of synthesizing a secular state with a religious society.
- The Brotherhood in Jordan and other Arab countries have a harder stance regarding Tel Aviv and the peace treaties with Israel. However, the Egyptian Brotherhood, which is the largest and most influential Brotherhood organization, shows significant flexibility regarding this fundamental issue.
With the exception of the Egyptian Brotherhood’s flexible rhetoric regarding women’s rights and non-Muslim minorities, the remaining branches talk about a Muslim society and rights that are given by men to women, rather being natural and inherent.
In general, the Brotherhood has gone a long way toward recognizing pluralism in societies, with some variations among the different branches. There is no doubt that the Islamists in Morocco are more open than their counterparts in Jordan and Kuwait. So far, the changes have been for pragmatic purposes, and they have paved the way for the Brotherhood’s rise in power. They took advantage of the vacuum that was created by the suppression of democratic life. They quickly filled this void by targeting the disadvantaged social strata and raising their basic political awareness. However, the challenge now is to avoid slipping toward a new totalitarian regime. The Arab Spring erupted in the first place to end such autocracies.