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The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna. Shortly afterwards, al-Banna and his supporters developed a notion of ‘Islamic internationalism’, extending the Muslim Brotherhood project beyond Egypt’s borders to include Arab and Muslim countries in general. The first manifestations of this Islamic internationalism were the publication of literature addressing Muslims and the promulgation of an Islamic caliphate. In the 1930s, branches of the Muslim Brotherhood were established in Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. The movement has continued to expand and now has a presence in more than 80 countries. The concept of ‘pan-Islamic’ unity and the spirit of transnationalism culminated in a global coordinating body, the International Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood or al-Tanzim al-Dawli, which was established in 1982 and encompasses all national branches. This article examines the rise and decline of both the movement and the concepts upon which it was founded.
Within this context, it is important to address a number of elements in order to understand the dynamics of the international organization.
However, the Muslim Brotherhood has failed to provide clear intellectual theories about Islamic unity, one of the key elements of its ideology. This is in contrast to groups like the Islamic Hizb al-Tahrir, which has explicitly embraced the notion of establishing an Islamic caliphate since it was founded in Jordan in 1953 by former Muslim Brotherhood member Taqiyy al-Din al-Nabhani.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s activities and movements in Egypt and other countries where it has a presence also indicate that increasing attention is being paid to local issues, causing interest in attaining Islamic unity to fade and become little more than a slogan.
This leads us to the second element, namely the dynamics of the local Muslim Brotherhood groups in their respective countries. Despite claims of universal Islamism, each Muslim Brotherhood group acts within the boundaries of the state or nation in which it was established. In some countries, the group has engaged in the political process, as in Syria and Jordan, and later Algeria, Yemen, Kuwait and Morocco, whether through elections or participation in government. In each case, however, the group’s political programmes have reflected purely local agendas and emphasized non-interference in the affairs of other countries. In other words, the Muslim Brotherhood recognizes national sovereignty and does not aim to achieve Islamic unity in reality, although it continues to cite it as a goal.
The third element can be viewed against the backdrop of the establishment of the International Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood or groups that followed the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology. The broad geographical distribution of the Muslim Brotherhood and its transnational presence inspired the idea of a global coordinating body. Put another way, the establishment of the international organization was, in fact, the formalization of a practical movement that had already been active on the ground.
The fourth element, or perhaps the real motor driving the idea of Islamic internationalism through an international organization, was the release in the early 1970s of hundreds of prominent Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt, including Mustafa Mashhur, by President Anwar Sadat, following their imprisonment in the 1950s and 1960s by President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The original goal behind their release was to stem the rise of the political left, especially at universities. The Muslim Brotherhood reorganized and quickly gained control of Egyptian universities, thereby achieving Sadat’s goal. The group then set about reestablishing links with other Muslim Brotherhood groups worldwide. It was Mashhur who came up with the idea of founding an international organization in 1982. He would go on to serve as the group’s general guide, the top position, from 1996 to 2002.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s regulations tried to strike a balance between controlling the decisions and approaches of the different national groups and giving them the freedom to act independently, depending on their individual circumstances. Despite these attempts, there has been great ambiguity surrounding the role of the international organization in national affairs. Muslim Brotherhood leaders outside Egypt have acknowledged the Egyptians’ entitlement to lead the international organization. Although the group’s regulations do not refer explicitly to this entitlement, they do specify that the majority of the members of the General Guidance Office, which represents the true leadership of the organization, should be from the same country as the general guide, who is from Egypt. This has raised objections from a number of non-Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders, to little effect.
In practical terms, the international organization has failed to mobilize or achieve any new goals for the Muslim Brotherhood. On the contrary, it has added a huge burden to the mother organization in Egypt as well as similar Islamic groups elsewhere. Furthermore, it has caused tensions between the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand and several other branches on the other hand due to the Egyptians’ control over and interference in local decision-making. Hasan al-Turabi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan until the mid-1980s, was the first to express his dissatisfaction with this control, even before the international organization was established. He eventually broke away from the movement and in 1976 founded the National Islamic Front, which was free of any influence from Cairo.
Less than a decade after it was established, the international organization faced its first major test. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. While the Muslim Brotherhood in Kuwait and the Gulf opposed Saddam Hussein, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the rest of the branches were split on the issue, although they largely rejected Western military interference in Iraq. As a result, the Kuwaiti Muslim Brotherhood, said to have been the leading source of funds for the international organization, also broke away.
This inability to present a unified front regarding the political issues facing the different national branches had wider repercussions. In Algeria, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood’s controller general nominated himself for the post of Algerian president during the elections in 1995. In Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood participated in the Provisional Coalition Authority that was established by the United States after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, raising objections from many Muslim Brotherhood groups as well as the international organization.
More importantly, the international organization became something of a liability following the 9/11 attacks in the United States and President George W. Bush’s declaration of a war on terror and the pursuit of Islamic organizations. Concerned that it would be affected, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood took several steps, including distancing itself from Hamas, which the United States had designated a terrorist organization. Hamas subsequently reciprocated this ‘distancing’, cutting its ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and restoring political relations with Egypt, apparently in a bid to act alone as it sought to self-legitimize itself.
When Hamas leader Ahmad Yassin was assassinated in Gaza in 2004, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood mourned his death as ‘the general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine’. The use of the term ‘general guide’, which had previously been used exclusively for the general guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, was intended to send the message that the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood is separate from the Egyptian one, and that the two do not have any organizational relations. At the same time, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood became more inward-looking and focused on its political programme at home.
In the post-Arab Spring era, and since the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the Egyptian group has become even more fractured. In addition, the Syrian and Yemeni uprisings have failed; Libya is divided, which has affected the Muslim Brotherhood groups there; and the Gulf countries, especially the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Oman, have cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood. Consequently, the different branches have either been weakened or dissolved.
In February 2016, the international organization, or what is left of it, received two further blows. The first was the announcement by the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood that it was leaving the mother organization in Egypt, and by extension the international organization. The second was the announcement by Tunisia’s Ennahda movement that it had become a political party and was also cutting ties with the international organization. One could argue that, effectively, the al-Tanzim al-Dawli is clinically, if not officially, dead. Official pronouncements made by the Muslim Brotherhood itself support this argument in one way or another.