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The Muslim Brotherhood’s (and Egypt’s) Qutb conundrum

Last week, the leading Arabic daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat dramatically reported on what it called "a grave and unprecedented escalation" by leading members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, showing that some of its parliamentary deputies "will not know red lines." Since the regime was blocking their participation in upcoming elections to the parliament’s upper house, the Brotherhood ...


Last week, the leading Arabic daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat dramatically reported on what it called "a grave and unprecedented escalation" by leading members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, showing that some of its parliamentary deputies "will not know red lines." Since the regime was blocking their participation in upcoming elections to the parliament’s upper house, the Brotherhood would "light a fire under the feet of Egypt’s corrupt regime." And how? By calling for revolution? Rallying its supporters in the streets? Inciting riots?  

No, the Brotherhood claims its dalliance with revolutionary activity has definitively ended. The movement’s ideologist for a more combative path, Sayyid Qutb, was executed in 1966. When the Brotherhood climbed back to viability in the 1970s and 1980s after years of harsh repression, it left violent ideas behind in the grave with him. Or so it says. Is it telling the truth? Largely, yes. The Brotherhood has renounced violence. But it cannot bring itself to bury Qutb with it. The respectful treatment of Qutb is a worrying sign, but in a far more subtle way than is usually understood.

This year, if not allowed to run in a few districts, the Brotherhood hinted that it would break every unwritten rule of Egyptian politics by … trying to run in every district. Not only is this threat startling for its timidity; it is also not credible. The Brotherhood is being daring enough by running candidates in a race in which the regime does not want it at all, but it is hardly likely to try to win more than a smattering of seats. Even when it reaches for fiery terms, today’s Brotherhood sounds more like a drugstore cowboy than a Qutbist revolutionary vanguard. 

For decades, the Brotherhood has consistently and insistently distanced itself from any call for revolution, violence, and "changing with the hand"; its leaders describe such steps as "not how we do things" and a violation of the peaceful, patient, persuasive, and gradualist method that inspires the group’s actions. To be sure, violent resistance is viewed as a legitimate tool for societies under foreign occupation (and the Brotherhood regards both Palestine and Iraq as falling in this category). The Brotherhood regards Egypt’s current political system as stultifying, corrupt, and oppressive, but hardly on the level of foreign occupation. Reform, rather than revolution, is the antidote. If a hothead within the ranks suggests otherwise, movement leaders say they gently correct him and if that fails, remove the offending member from the organization.

Yet their claims have not silenced those suspicious of the Brotherhood. Some doubts stem from the movement’s actions over half a century ago when its founder formed a "special apparatus" — essentially a paramilitary wing. The Brotherhood responds by simultaneously downplaying the violent nature of the "special apparatus" (its former general guide, Muhammad Mahdi Akif, tried to explain his youthful membership in the group in benign terms) and insisting that the formation of the group was a mistake not to be repeated.

The Brotherhood cannot change its distant history. But not all the doubts are strictly historical in nature; some stem from the Brotherhood’s current discourse. First and foremost in this regard is the way the Brotherhood handles Qutb himself. The movement disavows violence and revolution but insists on retaining Sayyid Qutb within its pantheon and on the reading lists for its members. What is Qutb doing there? He was hardly one to restrict his efforts to running in crooked elections. Instead, Qutb denounced all existing societies and regimes as non-Islamic. Egypt’s secular (in Qutb’s eyes), socialist, and nationalist regime therefore did fall in the same category as Israel. Qutb sought to build a small cadre of Muslims who would serve as a vanguard for building a new, truly Islamic society. Just as the first generation of Muslims fled Mecca to build a fully Islamic society in Medina, Qutb’s vanguard should isolate itself — but ultimately prepare itself for the inevitable conflict with the un-Islamic societies prevailing in the world today.

Precisely how do Brotherhood leaders explain their failure to repudiate Qutb? How do they square their position on his legacy with their claimed commitment to peaceful change? In fact, a minority Brotherhood members do openly express their distaste for Qutb’s ideas and embarrassment that their colleagues seem to cling to his memory. But what of the movement as a whole? Does the Brotherhood’s continued respect for Qutb indicate that its claimed adoption of nonviolence is insincere? Is the Brotherhood dishonestly claiming not to be a jihadi group?

I do not think charges of insincerity and dishonesty make much sense. If the Brotherhood is lying about rejecting violence, why would it not extend the lie to pretend to repudiate Qutb’s legacy? If there is a secret revolutionary agenda, why let the cat out of the bag by clinging to Qutb?  

Qutb loyalists within the Brotherhood have a collection of stock arguments designed to square the circle. First, they claim that critics should take note of the broad array of Qutb’s writings and not focus on a few revolutionary pages. Second, they work to explain away those revolutionary ideas by claiming that they were produced after Qutb had been arrested and tortured; they are the product of dire conditions rather than carefully reasoned thought. Third, Qutb’s defenders claim that Qutb stated, "I never declared anybody an apostate"; he was denouncing social and political practices and not targeting individuals. The book Preachers Not Judges, attributed to Gen. Guide Hasan al-Hudaybi, is generally taken to be the Brotherhood’s systematic refutation of Qutb’s radical arguments. Not so, say Qutb’s defenders: Hudaybi was merely trying to correct some of the erroneous conclusions that a few zealots had drawn from Qutb’s writings after the latter’s execution.

This collection of arguments does strike me as a rationalization; my own reading of Qutb is that he was more inclined to the radical ideas than the cuddlier interpretation propounded by some Brotherhood leaders. One might fairly criticize Brotherhood leaders sympathetic to Qutb as being unwilling to come fully to terms with his work and insensitive to the intolerant and violent implications of his ideas.

But I think there is something more significant and perhaps more worrying at work here. I do not doubt that those who cling to Qutb are serious in their disassociation from political violence. But I think they are still attracted to his idea of a vanguard, and this should cause a different set of concerns.

Since its re-emergence in the 1970s and 1980s, the Brotherhood has gradually stepped up its social and political engagement, working not to create a tiny countersociety but to persuade all of Egypt to follow its path; the goal has been reform of the entire society along Islamic lines. That strategy has led to a very uneven but still quite real political maturation; it has also led to a mix of successes and frustrations. Qutb speaks to the frustrations. Those who find the society too distant from Islam are less likely to prioritize engagement in the short term. They will seek instead to focus on the faithful and perhaps to reform the society not through broad social and political work but through a more elitist approach.

To such a view, cultivating the strength of the organization and perhaps persuading (or placing) a few senior officials in the religious, educational, or cultural establishments can be more promising than running candidates and working with the broad public that has been led so far astray. It is not an accident that those described as "Qutbists" tend to be a bit more bashful and less politically active than their more gregarious and energetic colleagues. They are simply less at home in the realm of politics and mass society and more comfortable preaching to the choir.

It should be stressed that nobody in the Brotherhood repudiates political work. The interest in building a vanguard, on Islamizing through an elite rather than through mass work and engagement, is a matter of emphasis rather than an absolute. But a Brotherhood that is a bit less engaged and that retreats into itself is not a healthy development for the development of a more participatory and pluralist political system.

Nathan Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and a 2009 Carnegie scholar for the Carnegie Corporation of New York. 

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