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  • Book Title:
 Inside The Brotherhood
  • Book Author:
Hazem Kandil
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  • Title page Copyright page Dedication Epigraph Introduction
  • Notes
  • 1: Cultivating the Brother The Pedagogy of Praxis
  • Smothering the Flames of Discord Snubbing Argumentative Sciences Making Sense of Constructive Ambiguity Notes
  • 2: Building the Brotherhood A Brotherhood in God
  • A State of War
  • A Saintly Leadership The Social Network Notes
  • 3: Forging the Ideology Theological History The Power of Dreams
  • The Art of Producing Men Inverting Sharia
  • Notes
  • 4: The Slow Rise and Rapid Fall from Power On the Shoulders of Primary Schoolteachers The Great Ordeal
  • Learning to Live with Authoritarianism
  • Endgame: Divine Empowerment and its Discontents Notes
  • 5: Islamism in Egypt and Beyond
  • Egyptian Dissidents: Reformers and Militants Brothers on the Run: Palestine, Syria, Libya Brothers under Monarchy: Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco Brothers in Power: the Sudan
  • Islamists Sharing Power: Tunisia
  • Islamists at the Heart of the Fallen Caliphate Shi’a Islamism
  • Notes
  • Conclusion: The End of Islamism? Appendix: A Note on Theory and Method
  • Notes Acknowledgements Bibliography
  • Islamist Memoirs
  • Published Writings and Interviews Unpublished Documents
  • Online and Audio/Video Materials
  •  Personal Interviews Secondary Sources


A reputation established over eight decades collapsed in less than eight months. Islamism, an ideology that carved its name from Islam, had always been synonymous with it in the minds of many. And the Egyptian Muslim Brothers, who have invented and embodied this ideology since 1928, had been merely perceived as fervent believers who went beyond practicing religion to propagating and defending it.

But a gathering rebellion against the country’s first Brotherhood president changed all that. On the eve of the 2013 popular uprising against Muhammad Morsi, Brothers organized preemptive sit-ins in several locations around the country.

The biggest crowd camped around Cairo’s Rab’a al-‘Adawiya mosque. For 40 days, unsuspecting Egyptians tuned in (some even strolled in) to witness for themselves what Brothers said and did.i It was a rare opportunity to eavesdrop on this exceptionally discreet group.

And what the people saw and heard was somewhat different from what they were used to from the normally polished Brothers: political competitors were religiously condemned; images of Prophet Muhammad’s epic battles were conjured; biblical stories, from David and Moses to Armageddon, were invoked; claims that Archangel Gabriel prayed at the Islamist campsite were flaunted; and sacred visions were relayed on stage night after night. This was not the vocabulary Brothers typically employed in their public interactions. Almost overnight, many Egyptians panicked. Who were these strangers, they wondered?

Little did they know that many Brothers were equally confused. Popular hostility was certainly frustrating after decades of successful promotion of the Islamist image. But there was more: Brothers were visibly shaken by the absence of divine intervention. In their mind, everything was set in place for their divine empowerment (tamkin); and God would never desert His soldiers.

The fact that the sit-in coincided with the holy month of Ramadan, which featured Islam’s early victories, was quite suggestive. Brothers held constant vigils, fasting during daytime, and praying from dusk till dawn to make themselves worthy of divine favor.

 As the political showdown approached, the daughter of the Brotherhood’s effective leader was caught screaming on television: “God will part the sea for us! Just wait and see!”1 She was echoing one of many prophecies circulated during the sit-in: that the soldiers of Pharaoh had trapped the Brothers just as they had done with the ancient Hebrews, and if the Brothers kept faith with Morsi, as their predecessors did with Moses, a miracle was shortly at hand.

Brotherhood preachers even determined the date (some random Friday) for the metaphorical drowning of the soldiers.2 But the sea remained as calm as ever, and the cornered believers were mercilessly slain. Those who saw their campsite laid to waste muttered in shock and denial: why would Heaven forsake us?

This book attempts to answer these two questions: Who are the Muslim Brothers? And what sort of relationship do they believe they have with the divine? My search for an answer began in 2006 with a handful of interviews with leading Islamist figures. Responses were typically longwinded, insubstantial, and ultimately unsatisfactory.

Resisting the temptation to abandon the project, I decided to revisit the Islamist literature I had ploughed through years before. This was supplemented by six years of regular attendance at a Brotherhood mosque in California, and hours of audio/video indoctrination materials. But immersing myself in Islamist rhetoric raised more questions than answers.

Then something unexpected happened. A mutual friend asked me to lecture informally to a group of Muslim Brothers on secular ideologies. This was the summer of 2008, and Islamists were concerned that their poor grasp of secular platforms hampered their strategy to unite opposition under their banner. Weekly lectures were organized at a Brother’s house (during the months I spent in Cairo) with 30 male attendants on average, from a variety of age groups and backgrounds.

 We bonded over discussions on the origins of Western ideologies and their history in the Muslim world, and I was allowed over the next five years to observe group members closely in their ‘natural habitat,’ amongst themselves and their families, rather than ‘in action’ (teaching, providing welfare, campaigning), as other researchers had done before.

Our relationship was dramatically enhanced by the truly singular experience of revolution. As the 2011 revolt unfolded, I saw different members of my study group resign from the Brotherhood in disillusionment; rise to fame as independent activists; assume posts in the Brotherhood’s first political party and presidential team; and sacrifice their lives in horrific street battles.

 This trying episode encouraged them to open up and inspect their beliefs and actions more than they would have normally done. It was also during this time that a series of tell-all memoirs and published testimonies began to trickle out. Months into Morsi’s presidency, it became obvious that the Brotherhood’s days in power were numbered. So, in March 2013,

 I returned to Egypt to conduct interviews and focus group sessions – some with members of my original crowd, and others with Brothers and Sisters they knew. I was also granted access to crucial movement documents from their personal archives, such as training manuals for group prefects, the all-important cultivation curriculum, questionnaire samples, internal memos, resignation and prison letters, and daily correspondence. Equally important was the opportunity to witness Brotherhood exchanges first-hand on the street, through social media, and in private meetings during the turbulent summer of 2013. These observations, complemented with dozens of memoirs and unpublished writings, allowed me to define the three-sided process that goes to the heart of any attempt to understand the Brotherhood: how individuals are recruited and socialized; how their social networks are constructed and sustained; and how their governing ideas are formulated and imbued.

This is an entirely new approach to studying Islamism. Past accounts have often been fettered by partial access – which mostly involved interviewing spokesmen and handpicked members. Research, therefore, remained limited to interactions between Islamists and their environment, rather than extending to the relationship between movements and their own members.

Intellectual historians and discourse analysts pored over published texts and other public utterances. Social movement theorists examined how Islamists served their communities, garnered votes, framed and disseminated ideas. The politically inclined evaluated Islamist strategies regarding the state and the economy. Even anthropological accounts centered on the constituencies of Islamism rather than Islamists themselves. This book shifts focus from what Islamists say and do to who they really are – not in terms of social background, but as ideological subjects.

Applying this new paradigm to Egypt, the book provides the first in-depth study of the Brotherhood from the inside: how Brothers are cultivated; how they interact; and what goes on inside their heads. These three interrelated processes are discussed in the first three chapters. The following two chapters then apply this new knowledge to reinterpret the history of the movement, before and after assuming power, and compare it to other Islamists (including Brotherhood affiliates) around the Muslim world.

Two notes are in order, however, before we proceed. First, this book does not attempt to reduce the Brotherhood to what it is from the inside – implying somehow that its exterior is a façade. Like any other organization (and, indeed, like any individual), the Brotherhood is the sum total of its interior and exterior facets. Brothers are both the public activists we have long recognized, and the closed ideological subjects that we will encounter in this work.

Second, although this research partly draws on ethnographic fieldwork, the aim is not to understand the Brotherhood on its own terms, as a conventional ethnography would do. This is a political sociological study of how the movement’s ideology contributed to its downfall.

The chief focus, in other words, is on how ideas both empowered and restricted Brothers in their political power struggle. Needless to say, my purpose is not to judge the Muslim Brotherhood. This research was inspired, above all, by personal curiosity. It is simply an attempt at understanding.

Cultivating the Brother

One cannot choose to join the Muslim Brotherhood; one has to be chosen. Fayez, a lawyer who was recruited in his village mosque when he was only 11, said he did not remember embracing the Brotherhood like one would embrace an intellectual faction or a political party. It was the movement that decided (2013: 12).

 Mahmoud (2013), a hot-blooded Alexandrian journalist who had dwelt in Brotherhood circles since he was five, remarked with some amusement: “I was actually born to find myself a Brother.” And even though Rida (2013), a shopkeeper and lifelong Cairo resident, made it to the ranks a bit later (at elementary school), he did not remember making a conscious decision to join: “You simply slid in.”

Brothers constantly vet relatives, neighbors, colleagues, and – the most yielding pool – mosque attendees1 for potential recruits. Candidates pass through an average three-year probation period, typically without their knowledge, before being invited to join. They are encouraged to pray regularly at the mosque and participate in its activities, especially Qur’an-reading groups (maqari’). They are also advised to limit their interaction to pious individuals of their own age and gender. After this exceptionally long screening period, nominees are finally informed that they are being considered for Brotherhood membership. Only a tiny fraction refuses to play along after this extended courtship. And in that case, they are asked to support the cause without official membership.

 As for the willing majority, the recruitment process concludes with invitations to Brotherhood day-trips and informal gatherings for inspection by more experienced eyes.

 Those who receive the stamp of approval are designated as devotees (muhibin) and assigned to apprentice groups to test their diligence and familiarize them with the organization. Successful devotees are next enrolled on a grueling three- month induction course (dawrat tas’id), which provides a brief introduction to the founding history of Islam and Islamism, followed by qualifying exams (mostly in the form of questionnaires).

If all goes well, devotees are asked to swear an oath of allegiance (bai’a) to the general guide (al-Murshid al-‘Am) – an oath historically reserved for caliphs, but temporarily appropriated by Brothers as the provisional leaders of the community of the faithful until a new caliphate is established. This intensely ritualized oath transforms a devotee into a Brother.

Still, elevation to entry-level membership is only the first step in another long journey through the five ranks of membership.2 Promotion from novice to full member is subject to a complicated set of monitoring mechanisms centered on the process referred to as cultivation (tarbiya). When ‘Umar al-Telmesani, the third general guide (1974–86), was invited to join the organization in 1933, his recruiters were curious to know how he spent his spare time.

“I breed chicks,” he replied. His recruiters smiled knowingly and retorted: “There are creatures more in need of breeding than chicks … There are Muslims who have turned away from their religion” (Telmesani 2008: 56). One of the first lessons imprinted on the mind of Muhammad Habib, who joined in 1969 and rose to become the general guide’s first deputy (until 2009), was that cultivating the right type of Muslim is what will eventually bring Brothers to power (2012: 115).

It is no coincidence that the Brotherhood’s first and second founders, Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, were educated at the Cairo Teachers’ College and graduated as primary schoolteachers. In their writings, cultivation is treated more meticulously than anything else.

For while this process might strike the casual observer as simple indoctrination with a religious flavor, it is actually an elaborate activity that borrows from at least four different schools: it instills a transformative worldview in the minds of members, as communists do; it claims that converting into this worldview is contingent upon a spiritual conversion, as in mystic orders; it presents this worldview as simple, uncorrupted religion, as in puritan movements; and it insists that this worldview cannot be readily communicated to society because it is not yet ready to handle the truth of the human condition, as in Masonic lodges.

The ultimate aim, therefore, is not to win over more believers, but to produce a new kind of person: the Muslim Brother. This is a person striving for a new world through a spiritual struggle that reproduces the experience of early Muslims.

Practically speaking, cultivating requires frequent group meetings in which an experienced prefect (naqib) guides members through a detailed cultivation curriculum (manhaj tarbiya) under the careful gaze of the cultivation committee, and with regular intervention from higher administrative circles. Initially, Brothers attended a cultivating school, which opened its doors in 1928 with 70 students. As members multiplied, Banna organized them into small study groups.

 Brothers were now expected to meet on a weekly, monthly, quarterly, and biannual basis – though security restrictions sometimes disrupted this ambitious schedule. The nuclear group, the family (usra),i is composed of five to ten Brothers who meet every week (usually on Tuesdays) in the house of one of the members. With the prefect acting as moderator, Brothers share personal and professional concerns, worship and dine together, recite and comment on devotional readings from Qur’an and Prophetic pronouncements (hadith), and discuss the writings of the movement’s founders, and, less frequently, other Islamist authors. At the end of the meeting, leadership instructions are circulated and organizational tasks allotted.

Every few meetings, the prefect administers a questionnaire designed to measure the spiritual condition and religious performance of family members, with questions varying from how many times a Brother missed dawn prayers at the mosque, to how he negotiated his way through various moral dilemmas.

The family is considered the Brotherhood’s “cultivation uterus” and canonized by members as “the brilliant method that God has guided Banna towards” (Habib 2012: 117). In the “Order of Families” (“Nizam al-Usar”), the founder has in fact steps needed for Brothers to become familiar with one another (ta’aruf); come to understand each other (tafahum); and support one another (takaful).

For example, he ordered Brothers to confess their sins to one another, so they could encourage each other to repent – an interesting combination of Catholicism and psychoanalytic therapy – and decreed that those who persist in their sinful ways for a whole month must be reported to the prefect (Banna [1949] 1993: 324).

That being said, intimate family bonds are prevented from solidifying into narrow, clique-like attachments by the annual redistribution of members. So, while families remain essentially divided according to residence or occupation, members are reshuffled, making sure that a Brother does not report to the same prefect for more than four years in his organizational career (‘Eid 2013: 48).

At the same time, family members are incorporated into broader organizational networks. A cluster of families (varying in number according to region) forms a branch (shu’ba).3 Once a month (preferably on a Thursday), branch members (40 on average) participate in a ‘battalion training’ (katiba), which involves fasting until sunset; breaking fast over a communal banquet; attending inspirational lectures by movement doctrinaires throughout the evening; praying together until daybreak, before heading home. Banna described these larger meetings as the Brotherhood’s “spiritual cultivation academies,” which synergize group energy to enhance each Brother’s inner strength ([1949] 1993: 189).

Every quarter, several branches come together in a weeklong camp (mu’askar) in some isolated location, where they add martial arts and athletic training to lectures and worship. Camps can take place anywhere from Brotherhood-owned apartment buildings to deserted public beaches.

The important thing is that they must allow Brothers to simulate the harsh experience of military barracks. Brothers are instructed to refrain from joking or idle chat, and try to recreate the spirit of jihad.

Finally, there is a biannual fieldtrip (rihla) for recreation, to which Brothers are asked to bring along their wives and children to socialize (“Turuq” 2002: vol. I, 472; vol. II, 336). Rida (2013), a seasoned Brotherhood cultivator, summarized the value of these multilayered meetings as follows: the family deepens personal relations; the battalion elevates spirituality; the camp fosters teamwork and a martial attitude; and the fieldtrip creates a sense of community.

In addition, these overlapping activities enable senior leaders to interact with members from all levels, rather than relying exclusively on prefect reports (‘Eid 2013: 35).

Female members are enrolled in a parallel structure, the Muslim Sisterhood, often described as ‘an order not an organization’ (nizam la tanzim), to keep them out of harm’s way, since membership in an illegal organization warrants arrest.

 They do not perform the oath of allegiance or participate in battalion trainings and camps, but they do meet on the level of family and fieldtrips, and devote the rest of their time to mosque activities (recruiting women and indoctrinating children) and charity work. And a similar hierarchy, grounded in weekly family meetings, characterizes Brotherhood affiliates around the world.4

The guiding light for all these meetings emanates from the cultivation curriculum, which is composed of several edited volumes, running from basic to advanced levels. Each volume contains lessons tailored to weekly family meetings.

A typical lesson comprises carefully selected extracts from the Qur’an, hadith, and the life of the Prophet and his Companions, followed by excerpts from the writings of Banna, and sometimes Qutb. This deliberate pairing of revelation and movement literature conflates the divine and the temporal, presenting the Brotherhood as a faithful application of Islamic teachings and history.

To aid prefects, each lesson begins with pedagogical goals and concludes with a short exercise to ensure their accomplishment. Prefects also undergo a special training course (dawrit nuqaba) to learn, among other things, how to iron out differences in understanding and keep Brothers on the same page.

More importantly, prefects cultivate the talent of matching the fixed curriculum lessons to the movement’s varying policy positions. The best prefects are those who can conjure the suitable verse or sacred story to justify whichever policy the movement adopts.

The masters of this art, of course, are the heads of the cultivation committee. Among all the Brotherhood’s specialized committees, those selected for this sensitive role must have specific qualities: they must be staunch loyalists; they must be able to tame spirited Brothers with a paternalistic attitude; and they must not have a busy working schedule.

Because cultivating is almost a full-time job, senior cultivators are often retired professionals, absentee landowners, shop owners, or rent collectors. A central cultivation committee receives regular reports from branch-level committees, and en mission veteran cultivators roam through family and battalion meetings to offer advice and mete out reprimands. Constant vigilance is justified by the fact that cultivation mistakes are quite taxing.

For example, Brothers claim that former President Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser, the 1952 coup leader, was their recruiting lieutenant in the army in the 1940s, and when he complained that the moral criteria for cultivating members were unattractive to officers, who were not very observant by nature, the Guidance Bureau succumbed and relaxed the requirements. Hassan al-‘Ashmawi, his Brotherhood contact, blamed this flexibility for the Free Officers’ subsequent betrayal of Brothers (‘Ashmawi 1985: 26).

Along similar lines, morally questionable actions by today’s senior Brothers are attributed to the lenience of the third general guide, ‘Umar al-Telmesani, who incorporated “un-cultivated” Islamist activists en masse in the 1970s to reinvigorate the decaying Brotherhood (Farghali 2013).

But if cultivation – which is defined in article 3(b) of the Brotherhood’s General Order (al-Nizam al-‘Am) as endowing an entire generation with a “unified Islamic view” – is to succeed, the question that immediately arises is: how could hundreds of thousands of members from different backgrounds subscribe to the same version of something as complicated and personal as religion?

Similarly, how could a movement as large as the Muslim Brotherhood suffer no major dissent in its eight-and-a-half-decade existence? The answer must be sought in the general spirit that drives the whole cultivation process – what I refer to as the Brotherhood’s ‘anti-intellectualism.’

 This pervasive attitude towards those who, in Collini’s (2006: 37) description, relish “complicating the simple and obscuring the obvious,” manifests

 itself, firstly, in privileging sentiments and practice over enquiry; secondly, in the methodical censuring of arguments; and finally, in an aversion towards those with a background in the social sciences. These three strategies work together to curb members likely to foster disagreements among Brothers. Let us consider each separately.

The Pedagogy of Praxis

Those nominated to join the Brotherhood are typically young men and women with a kindling passion and a humble knowledge of history, politics, and religion. It helps that many are either born into Brotherhood families, or recruited as children. Their modest knowledge is considered an asset. As Mikkawi (2013) explained, “It is better to come with an empty glass. You learn faster.

This is why Banna frequented coffee houses and popular neighborhoods not mosques and intellectual salons.”5 ‘Abd al-Mon’iem Abu al-Fotouh, the leader of the 1970s Islamist students who later formed the backbone of the Brotherhood, confessed that he and his colleagues had “little [religious] heritage or political tradition to draw on.

 We did not know much about the logic and philosophy of the state, and made do with very primitive ideas” (2010: 70). Even more striking is the fact that those invited to join are not terribly familiar with the Brotherhood literature itself. Shatla (2013) and Tariq (2013) recalled their surprise at discovering during their induction course that none of their educated, middle-class comrades was acquainted with the writings of Banna or Qutb. What drew them in, mainly, was a crude passion to support Islam.

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