The Arab Spring affected the Middle East in a very profound way and its impact is still being felt today — as evident in ongoing regional disputes. Various aspects of the Arab Spring have been tackled in academic research and many books have been dedicated to analyzing the evolution of the Muslim Brotherhood in different Arab countries.
The majority of these books focus on individual case studies, painting the group in countries like Tunisia, Egypt and others in either a positive or negative light. Some Western analysts have tackled the MB’s activities in Western societies. Lorenzo Vidino’s book “The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West” and Martyn Frampton’s book “The Muslim Brotherhood and the West: A History of Enmity and Engagement” are examples.
It is rare, however, to find a book that analyzes both the evolution and future trajectory of the MB in various Arab countries and its role in Western societies. In his book “The Failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab World”, author Nawaf Obaid takes on this ambitious task.
In his book, Obaid sheds light on the origins of the MB in Egypt and its subsequent spread throughout the Arab world. His primary focus, however, was the resurgence of the MB in the aftermath of the Arab Spring — largely made possible by Qatar’s political and financial support and their elevated role in Western societies. The author, then, addresses the group’s failure after eight years of the Arab Spring.
The Quest for Absolute Power in Egypt
Obaid highlights a CIA report in 1986 which points to the MB’s links to terrorist organizations like Al Jihad and the Islamic Liberation Army, as well as to the writings of Sayyid Qutb — a leading MB member who was executed in 1966 after a failed attempt to assassinate Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The CIA believed the MB continued to have military capabilities at the time the report was published.
After a popular uprising led to the ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the MB quickly tried to seize control of the political scene and was able to win nearly half of the parliamentary seats in elections. However, the author points to several mistakes the group made during this time which led to its eventual failure.
The first mistake was the failure of leading MB member Khairat El-Shater to endorse Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh for the candidacy of president. Aboul Fotouh was a former member of the MB who was running as an independent, but El-Shater believed he was not “radical or obedient enough” to secure his backing. El-Shater’s dictator-like behavior during this period prompted many members to leave the group.
The MB went on to select Mohamed Morsi as their candidate and he won the election. His presidency, however, was short-lived. Morsi began acting like a pharaoh — issuing decrees and obstructing judicial review. Five months later, it was clear to many Egyptians that the MB was not at all interested in democracy and was grasping for absolute power. In March 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Morsi in Cairo. After the meeting, he concluded that “these guys aren’t doing anything productive and ultimately they are going to be anti-democratic.”
Thousands of Egyptians began taking to the streets demanding the downfall of the autocratic Morsi government. The country quickly became polarized with MB supporters rallying behind Morsi and cracking down on those who stood against him. Instead of trying to bridge the gap, Morsi became more entrenched in his positions. On June 26, 2013, he delivered a speech blaming Egypt’s problems on those who stood against the MB. He went on to nominate a member of a political party linked to an Islamist military group as governor of Luxor. A wing of this group had massacred more than 60 people at a tourist site in 1997. The nomination outraged Egyptians who took to streets demanding snap elections. Morsi refused and instead used force against the protesters. A week later, he was ousted from power by the Egyptian army.
The decision to oust him was not only based on Morsi’s internal policies, but on his foreign policies which were viewed as detrimental to Egypt’s security. For example, Morsi had promised to hand over the disputed territories of Halayeb and Shalateen to Sudan. He also backed Ethiopia’s plan to build the Millennial Dam which would greatly impact Egypt’s access to vital Nile waters. Morsi also promised Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri to rule Sinai and the naturalization of Hamas members there. He also agreed to a $200 billion deal, where Qatar would be allowed to utilize the Suez Canal and also have control over the Pyramids and Sphinx for 99 years.
Fearing their imminent overthrow, the MB devised a plan — backed by Qatar and Turkey — utilizing terrorist groups in Sinai to attack Cairo. Prominent MB leader Mahmoud Izzat went to Al-Arish to oversee the plan and directed members of the group to disrupt public transportation in Cairo and Giza. The MB-affiliated Izz ad-Din Al-Qassam military brigade in Gaza was tasked with targeting the Egyptian military leadership. Meanwhile, MB leaders El-Shater and Issam Al-Iryan contacted the American and British embassies in a bid to explain their viewpoint and secure their support.
Learning about this plot, the Egyptian military decided to swiftly move to thwart the MB’s plan — which culminated in the ouster of Morsi from power on July 3, 2013. In response to Morsi’s ouster, the MB mobilized its masses, initiating a large sit-in at Cairo’s Raba’a Square. Obaid claimed that the aim of the sit-in was to prevent every possibility of a peaceful dispersion of protesters and to provoke violence. He added, that some of the protesters were armed and shot at security forces. Eventually security forces violently dispersed the sit-in resulting in hundreds of protester deaths.
The crackdown led to a shift in the MB — especially with the younger generation — towards Qutbist ideas. A new MB-affiliated terrorist group, Hasm, was created and started carrying out attacks.
Outpowered in Syria
In 1976, the MB in Syria waged a full rebellion against President Hafez Al-Assad. In June 1980, the group attempted to assassinate Al-Assad and Syrian authorities began a crackdown on the group, executing many of its members. On February 2, 1982, the MB managed to gain control over the city of Hama. Syrian forces recaptured the city 27 days later, ending the influence of the MB inside Syria as its members fled into exile.
However, the group resurged in 2011 during the Arab Spring and was able to reestablish itself in several areas of the country. A grueling civil war ensued and it wasn’t until mid-2019 that the tide of the war tilted in the regime’s favor and the group’s popularity declined. Still, Turkey and Qatar tried — through their influence over the armed Syrian opposition — to secure a role for the group in any future Syrian government. However, this prospect is unlikely to be realized as Al-Assad is in control of nearly 90 percent of the country.
Fragmentation in Jordan
In Jordan, King Hussein — upon his assumption of power in 1952 — decided to coopt the MB. In an attempt to boost the legitimacy of his rule, he began a cooperative relationship that lasted for decades. By 1989, the MB was a significant player in Jordan’s political system. However, the rising influence of Hamas over the Jordanian MB and their objection to king’s changing of the electoral rules in 1993 led to a rift between the king’s supporters and MB members who sought the creation of an Islamic state.
By the time King Abdullah II assumed power in 1999, tensions between the two sides were high. In his first year as king, Abdullah ordered the closure of Hamas offices in Jordan. Relations between the two sides were particularly soured after the November 2005 hotel bombings in Amman — claimed by Al-Qaeda — killed dozens of people.
While Jordan was largely spared from Arab Spring-inspired rebellion, it did see significant protests in 2012 which called for reform — with the MB specifically demanding a constitutional monarchy. King Abdullah responded by implementing modest reforms. Later, he adopted a new strategy aimed at fragmenting the group: on the one hand, he banned one branch — citing its close relationship with the MB in Egypt — and on the other hand, he cultivated good relations with another branch of the group. As a result, the MB splintered into four different groups, which diminished their ability to influence Jordanian politics.
Trump Gives Hamas A Boost in Palestine
By 2017 — when Donald Trump became U.S. President — Hamas had lost a lot of influence in Palestine. However, Trump’s decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Occupied Jerusalem enabled the group to retain its popularity because many Palestinians believed the move marked the end of the peace process and armed resistance was the only option left.
Unpopular Stances in Iraq
The Iraqi Islamic Party in Iraq — affiliated to the MB — opposed armed resistance to American occupation and participated in the US-imposed Iraqi governing council which was actively cooperating with Iran. That is why many Iraqi Sunnis considered it as a puppet of the occupying forces. Additionally, Qatar’s financially backing of the group was largely cut after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed ties with Qatar in June 2017 because of its support for extremist groups. This shrunk the group’s finances and severely eroded its popularity, as evident in its poor performance in the May 2018 elections.
Failure to Launch in Lebanon
The MB was never successful in taking root in Lebanese society, which can be attributed to the country’s demographics and sectarian politics. While Lebanon’s opposition to the Al-Assad regime put it on a collision course with Hezbollah, this did not translate into support for the MB, which fared very badly in the 2018 elections.
A Conservative Buffer in the Gulf
Obaid pointed out that while the MB still has a presence in Arab Gulf countries, it will never be able to gain power and influence as it has done in other countries. He attributed this to the fact that the vast majority of Gulf citizens already identify with conservative Islamic beliefs and live in an Islamic environment, which acts as a buffer against MB attempts to infiltrate Gulf monarchies.
Deep Mistrust in Europe
The MB officially renounced violence in the 1970’s, but their decree had many loopholes. For example, the group allowed Muslims to use violence to defend themselves if they feel that they are under attack. This is why European intelligence institutions do not trust the MB. The German governmental agency BfV released a report in 2005 which said the group could form the breeding group for further radicalization in Germany. In Belgium, intelligence agencies believe the group has a clandestine structure and agencies in the Netherlands believe the group will pave the way for ultra-Orthodox Islam.
Despite substantial financial backing — particularly from Qatar — the MB failed to garner support in Western Muslim societies. Their failure can also be attributed to refusal to integrate into Western society and their continuous support for terrorist activities — both in their host countries or in Muslim countries abroad.
Obaid concludes his book by stating that “the Brotherhood’s chances of gaining and holding power in the Middle East have been reduced to near zero”. His prediction was further bolstered by the Trump administration’s announcement in April 2018 that it was considering designating the MB as a foreign terrorist organization. Such a label would curtail the group’s ability to present itself as a democratic force in Arab and Western societies.
Obaid is one of the most credible sources on the MB. He gives a neutral account of the rise of the group in different Arab countries, their relations with other extremist groups, how they cooperate with and utilize them and how they used their foreign backing — especially from Qatar and Turkey — to spread their influence.
The author cites western intelligence sources to prove MB’s links to other terrorist groups — whether tactically or operationally. Obaid also presents an important conclusion that deviates from many books that tackled the MB. Rather than attributing the failure of the MB in some Arab countries to governmental suppression, Obaid makes it clear that the main reason for its failure is its diminishing popularity among the Arab masses.