Ausgabe 27/2007

Dancing with the Devil Charting the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood

The recent putsch in the Gaza Strip by Hamas is shedding light on an organization exercising considerable influence on the entire Arab world -- the Muslim Brotherhood. As both a social movement and a militant Islamist political outfit, its power stretches from the Atlantic coast to the Indian Ocean.

A victorious Hamas fighter in Gaza Strip: "We want to spread this medicine throughout the world."

A victorious Hamas fighter in Gaza Strip: "We want to spread this medicine throughout the world."

Young men with fuzz on their chins not yet thick enough for full beards stand on busy streets directing traffic. There are more on each corner of the congested Omar Mukhtar Street in Gaza City. They wear yellow and green t-shirts that enable everyone to know who they’re working for long before they get close enough to read the Hamas logo emblazoned upon them.

It’s the most visible sign of the violent takeover by the militant Islamist group after it pushed out the secular Palestinian Fatah party from the Gaza Strip three weeks ago. But it also represents much more: It’s the irrefutable evidence that the Islamist international network of the Muslim Brotherhood has, for the first time, become the sovereign power over a piece of territory. One of the world’s most densely populated and troubled specks of land has suddenly become a laboratory for political Islam in the Middle East.

“We’ve freed the people from a corrupt regime,” says Khalil Abu Leila. The 55-year-old with the speckled gray beard sits in the courtyard of an apartment building wearing a plain gray suit and leather sandals. On the table in front of him is a copy of the Koran.

Like many Hamas leaders, Abu Leila studied in Egypt. And like many Islamists, he chose to become a pharmacist because he wished to heal mankind’s ills. While in Cairo he first came into contact with the Muslim Brotherhood. After returning to the Gaza Strip he opened a pharmacy in the Khan Yunis refugee camp and met Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, a doctor. Together they created their own Gaza branch of the Brotherhood in the late 1970s. According to Abu Leila, they founded Hamas in 1987 as the military wing of the Brotherhood. It was the beginning of the First Intifada.

Abu Leila does his best to play down the violent reputation of the Muslim Brotherhood. “We want to bring peace and justice to the entire world,” he says. Western society is sick, its families are falling apart and its children threatened by drugs. And most Arab countries are being destroyed by corruption. “We have the proper medicine against it all,” he says pointing to the Koran. “Islam. We want to spread this medicine throughout the whole world.”

For many Muslims, Hamas is the tip of the Brotherhood’s spear, the polished diamond of political Islam. The neighboring secular Arab regimes see it as a threat to their very existence -- or in Syria’s case -- as a means to an end in the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

Both Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah moved quickly to support moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last week. Mubarak said Hamas had undertaken a “putsch” in Gaza. He sent his diplomats stationed there to Ramallah in the West Bank, where Abbas’ Fatah party remains in control, and he closed the border crossing into Egypt at Rafah.

But Mubarak and Abdullah already seemed to be plagued by doubts at a summit at Sharm el-Sheik. The number two leader of the Islamist terrorist network al-Qaida, the Egyptian Ayman al Zawahiri, had called on all Muslims to support Hamas only a few hours earlier. Mubarak that evening quietly urged Fatah to negotiate with the new rulers in Gaza.

No other regime in the region is as concerned about the implications of the takeover by Hamas as Egypt is. The most populous Arab nation has good reasons to be so. The newspaper Al Ahram, which acts as an Egyptian government mouthpiece, commented that “the problem of Hamas isn’t limited to Gaza. Here in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood does not recognize the legitimacy of the government, the constitution and the law. Whoever ignores that takes us to the gates of Hell, which Gaza has opened.”

The Egyptian authorities have arrested over 600 members of the group since December. They are students, businessmen, doctors and engineers. They also confiscated large amounts of assets. The state-controlled press compares the Brotherhood to a “tumor in the populace” and a constitutional amendment in March was intended to finish off the organization politically.

It’s the toughest crackdown in some time and it seems as if it could spell the end of the fleeting historical flight of fancy that started five years ago under the moniker of the " democratization of the Middle East

Gaining Political Traction in the Region

The drama, however, is far from over. The United States government might have hoped to implement an “agenda of freedom” for the Arab world following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but other priorities have taken over in the meantime. Indeed, Washington hasn’t even bothered to comment on the latest mass arrests diplomatically. Further, political Islam -- with the Muslim Brotherhood at its vanguard -- has emerged stronger from the current episode of US policy in the Middle East. It is now a power in both its moderate and militant manifestations from the shores of the Atlantic all the way to the Indian Ocean.

  • In Morocco the Party for Justice and Development is on its way to becoming the largest opposition party in elections this September. And in Algeria the Movement for a Peaceful Society supports President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s ruling coalition.
  • The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt increased its number of independent parliamentarians from 15 to 88 in the 2005 election. The group even managed to quadruple its number of seats despite having candidates in only 160 from 444 districts in order to avoid an early confrontation with the ruling regime.
  • The Islamic Action Front in Jordan is the political wing of the Brotherhood, accounting for 17 out of 110 parliamentarians. The group has become part of Jordan's political establishment.
  • In Yemen, Bahrain and Kuwait the Muslim Brotherhood operates as part of the parliamentary opposition. They have learned to cope with political defeats -- such as women’s suffrage in Kuwait -- but their victories are growing.

What exactly is the Muslim Brotherhood? What do they want in Egypt and Jordan? What do their ideological counterparts in Morocco hope to accomplish?

Birth of a Movement

A ramshackle brick house in Mahmoudiya, a small town in the Nile Delta, is falling apart. The beams have collapsed, it stinks like trash and it is infested with rats. This is where Hassan al Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, was born 101 years ago. He started the organization in 1928 in Ismailiya, where the administration for the Suez Canal is located. “Allah is our highest truth, the Prophet our leader, the Koran our law, the struggle our path,” so begins the movement’s credo. From the outset, the Brotherhood has been dominated by two seemingly contradictory aspects: It has a charitable side that has acted as a reform-oriented social movement and the other is its undeniably authoritarian and dogmatic politics.

Its antagonistic attitude to Britain’s colonial power, the Egyptian monarchy and later to the totalitarian regime of Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser brought forth the group’s militant side early on. Banna, who always emphasized the educational aspect of the movement, never shied away from radical rhetoric. “Victory can only come from mastering the art of death,” he wrote. The joy of martyrdom and jihad as armed struggle -- both still some of the group’s central precepts today -- were developed early on.

In the early 1940s, Banna created a paramilitary “secret apparatus” that initiated its members in freemason-like ceremonies. Their assassinations of politicians, judges and British soldiers would soon come back to haunt Banna, however. As he got into a taxi in Cairo on Feb. 12, 1949, he was shot dead -- most likely by government agents. His grave in a cemetery in the poor district of Bassatin is distinguishable from the anonymous dead only by its epitaph: “This is the temple of the martyr Hassan al Banna.”

After a failed attempt to assassinate Nasser in 1954 by a member of the Brotherhood, the movement came under much greater pressure from the authorities. Still, it also began to flourish as many activists fled abroad to set up new networks. And just as Egypt was struggling to cope with a growing number of rural inhabitants moving to the cities and growing poverty, so too were many other Arab countries, helping the Brotherhood to quickly establish itself across the entire region as a reliable charity for the struggling millions.

At the Farouk Clinic in Cairo’s Maadi district men, children and veiled women sit under a corrugated tin roof on green plastic chairs. Nearby there’s a blood-smeared stretcher and a pharmacist hands a patient medicine through a window.

A list of prices hangs in the hallway: A simple checkup costs around €1.50, a birth €100. It’s less than one-tenth of what a private hospital charges, but the hygienic standards are still much better than those of a state clinic. “Some patients are treated for free,” says the doctor Abel Fatah Risk. The hospital is partially funded from fees and partially from donations.

The Islamists run a number of similar institutions throughout the Arab world -- be it in the slums of Casablanca, the overfilled streets of Gaza City or the Sunni-dominated western part of Baghdad. They are always there were the governments have most failed their people. They offer healthcare, education and when someone is in trouble and needs it, a loan or legal help.

The average member of the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t a rabble-rouser, either -- he’s a doctor, pharmacist, teacher or lawyer. He wears Western trousers and shirts, not the ankle-long dishdashah garment traditionally worn by Arab men. He’s middle class -- and he’s filled with rage. Rage over what he sees as the close cooperation between his government and the hopelessly corrupted West. Kept from pursuing his political aims, he is often a functionary amonst his contemporaries in Arab professional associations for doctors, engineers and attorneys.


© DER SPIEGEL 27/2007
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