The Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's Failed Democratic Transition
In January of 2011, massive protests emerged against Hosni Mubarak, the autocratic leader of Egypt since 1981. After Mubarak stepped down, there was a period of relative freedom for Egyptians, which unfortunately came crashing down roughly two years later, when the military forced the democratically elected president, Muhammad Morsi, to resign. The subsequent regime headed by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has gone further in its authoritarian practices compared to the former Mubarak regime. After this turn of events, many wonder why this transition to democracy was such a failure. Many have placed blame on the Muslim Brotherhood because of actions that were seen as them being more interested in gaining power instead of ruling.1 I argue that the Muslim Brotherhood’s membership, organization, and post-revolutionary actions greatly contributed to the failure of democracy. That being said, the power of the military, the economy, secular opposition, and the actions taken by previous rulers also helped contribute to this failure. Thus, while it is fair to find the Brotherhood at fault for some of the failures of achieving democracy, it would be unfair to place all blame on the Brotherhood.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928, aiming to cultivate pious Muslims.2 Its founder, Hassan Al-Banna, criticized Egypt’s materialism, decadence, and western domination, claiming that Islam was the solution to these issues.3 The Brotherhood were the subject of crackdowns by the Nasser and Sadat regimes, but were briefly accommodated via the relaxation of restrictions against Islamists in the 1980s by Mubarak. In the wake of the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, Hosni Mubarak wished to achieve stability in Egypt, meaning he needed to accommodate more moderate Islamist groups.4
Additionally, because of the recent peace with Israel, Mubarak had to build relations with the West because he alienated the other Arab States and the Soviet Union, and he chose to build relations by limited democratization.5 Mubarak allowed for Brotherhood members to return from exile, loosened laws regarding professional syndicates, and allowed the Brotherhood to ally themselves with the secular Wafd party in order to run for parliament.6 Additionally, the state often supported the Brotherhood’s religious values, but only if it remained outside the political arena.7 Once the Brotherhood was allowed to run for seats in parliament and professional syndicates in the 1980s, they were interested in order to create a “pulpit” of sorts, where they could demonstrate their views to all of Egypt.8 The so-called “Middle Generation” of the Brotherhood, who were neither members of the conservative Old Guard or new members, took the lead in joining these organizations.9
These experiences proved to be influential to these Brotherhood members, who cooperated with members of other political movements, which exposed them to differing political views, especially in professional syndicates.10 These views encouraged them to continue their involvement in elections, but also caused them to call for democracy and respect for human rights in both the government and the internal structure of the Brotherhood.11 This led to the creation of the reformist faction of the Brotherhood, which will be discussed later. Additionally, the Muslim Brotherhood gained a positive reputation for providing health services and education to the poor12.
However, the Brotherhood was quite divided on what the role of the Brotherhood should be. In the Brotherhood, there was the da’wa faction, the pragmatic conservatives, and the reformists. The da’wa faction is ideologically conservative, with much of its support coming from control over bureaucratic operations and allocation of resources in the Brotherhood13. The members of the da’wa faction were the ones interested in democracy as a means to gain influence and most conservative in their Islamist ideology. The pragmatic conservatives, or the mainstream faction of the Brotherhood, still had a conservative outlook, but with an emphasis on engagement and participation14.
Lastly, there are the reformists, many of whom left to join a more moderate faction, Hizb al-Wasat. Before this, many of them advocated for an emphasis on party pluralism and women’s rights in the Brotherhood’s platform. The reformists in the Brotherhood became involved in movements such as the Kefaya movement as individuals15, and these reformists in the Brotherhood were also involved in the 2011 Revolution in Egypt16. However, once the Muslim Brotherhood was elected in Egypt, there were great problems. In November of 2012, Morsi began acting in ways that many saw as an overreach of power. He claimed that he was above judicial review because courts threatened to dissolve the Islamist dominated Constitutional Council17.
Later, he later pushed for state control over registration and funding of civil society groups18. This was coupled with the greater issue of rising food prices, a gas shortage, and currency devaluation led to unhappiness with Morsi’s rule19. This culminated in a petition by the Tamarod movement demanding Morsi’s resignation that collected millions of signatures20. The military demanded that Morsi step down in the next 48 hours, and once he refused, the military suspended the constitution, took control of the government, and announced early presidential elections21. The Brotherhood was very divided in its beliefs, but it was the conservatives who held the most power in the party22. While reformists who were involved in the Egyptian Revolution preached democratic reforms, most of the party did not have the same beliefs, which may have led to misconceptions about the Brotherhood among members of the public. This, coupled with the vast economic issues facing Egypt at the time, led to the ultimate downfall of the Brotherhood in Egypt.
The Brotherhood also often misled Egyptians in regards to statements versus action. During the 2011 revolution, the Brotherhood was readily at odds with the Mubarak regime. Before the revolution, the Brotherhood was usually in a state of flux, where they were at some times tolerated but technically illegal, and at other times cracked down upon23. During the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood was constantly blamed for the protests by the government24. The Brotherhood fired back, with former Supreme Guide Muhammad Akef claiming that those who collaborated with the Mubarak regime would have to answer to their crimes25. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood claimed that they wanted police officers and officials to be held accountable for their actions during the violence of the revolution26. Brothers also called for reforms such as term limits, limiting the security establishment, eliminating torture, and providing judicial independence, and a general support for all groups and liberal democracy27.
However, once the Brotherhood was elected into power, they were far from interested in dismantling the system itself. The majority of those responsible for the attacks on protestors were acquitted, which greatly angered revolutionaries28. There was almost no change when it came to the elite in power, with the majority of change taking place on the parliamentary level29. The Brotherhood also would bring in supporters to fight dissidents and made criticizing the president a crime, thus marginalizing many groups in Egypt30. That being said, the Brotherhood was willing to challenge the system if it contradicted their goals. In regards to the judiciary, Morsi actively worked to limit the power of the judiciary, first by attempting to pack the court with Brotherhood members and then by claiming that he was above judicial review31.
Their political platforms were also kept intentionally vague in order to gain a wide variety of support. Before the revolution, the Brotherhood would insist that Islam is the answer to country’s problems, but failed to mention how and according to whose interpretation32. When advocating for the reforms previously mentioned, they would claim that all of this would need to be done in an Islamic frame of reference, a phrase purposefully left vague in order to maintain broad support for the Brotherhood33. After the revolution, the Brotherhood continued to foster support.
For example, they claimed that they wanted to improve the lives of both workers and farmers, and they supported a minimum wage34. But, they failed to specify what they would exactly do in these regards. However, once the Brotherhood took power, their economic reforms failed to improve the lives of workers, whose living standards actually declined during the Brotherhood’s rule35. Once Morsi took office, he claimed that he would begin a one hundred day plan that would resolve security issues, public transportation, and the availability of bread and gas36. Morsi failed to address any of this throughout his one-year tenure of office37. In regards to the security crisis, the Brotherhood exploited the authoritarian framework of the military and secret police of Egypt to keep order as a result of Emergency Powers enacted by them, which directly contradicts their rhetoric for limits of the security establishment38.
Additionally, solving the crises of public transportation and shortage of bread and gas implies that greater government expenditures would be needed to increase public transportation and the availability of bread and gas. That being said, the Brotherhood actually decreased public expenditures from the Mubarak era39. Thus, because of these factors, the Brotherhood had much to do with their own failure as a ruling party. But, these are not the only reasons why Egypt’s transition to democracy was a failure.
First, the military had much to do with the failure of Egypt’s transition to democracy. The military in Egypt had a vast amount of power and influence in the country. Although the military was not entirely subordinated in the Mubarak regime, it was used as the means to enforce Mubarak’s policies40. According to Stephen Grand of the Brookings Institute, “a military’s ability to employ lethal force often gives it significant political influence at home”41. In fact, scholars argue that the military was the institution that truly held power in Egypt42. The military proved to be an important route for gaining power in Egypt, as joining the military was the common route to joining Egyptian bureaucracy43 and had great influence over civilian courts44.
It was also the military themselves who led to the ousting of Mubarak and headed the transition process towards what many hoped would become a democracy. But, according to researcher Anne Alexander, the military never gave up power when Mubarak stepped down; they instead sacrificed Mubarak in order to maintain power45. Once the Brotherhood took power, they felt they had to side with the military in order to prevent a coup46. They did so by presuming the economic and political privileges of the military47. However, the military had larger plans. Alexander continues to explain that the military’s goal has always been the restoration of the old order and revenge against the revolutionaries48. This was seen when Anti-Morsi groups sided with the military in order to remove him49. This proved to be a grave mistake, as the military was interested in providing stability to the country or advancing military power in government instead of fostering democracy50.
The economy of Egypt also proved to cause issues for their transition to democracy. Egypt is one of the largest non-OPEC oil producer in Africa and the government receives 10% of total revenues from oil51. This is important because of the effect of oil dependence on democracy. Oil dependent states rely on rentier economies, meaning that they do not need high levels of productivity but will still make massive profits52. Egypt is often considered to be a rentier economy53. This greatly hinders democracy because it provides Middle Eastern states great autonomy from society, meaning they do not have to react to demands to society because they can rely on oil revenues instead of taxes54. Thus, because of these factors, Egypt’s possibility for democratic success was lowered.
Another important factor is the existence of a sizeable middle class. Egypt had a sizeable middle class, but it decline when the government moved from socialist policies to more free market policies, which made the economy more stratified5556. To put this into perspective, 40% of the entire population lives on less than two dollars a day, even though GDP growth has been around or over 5% each year in the early 21st century57. This is meaningful because according to political scientist Mehran Kamrava, in order for democracy to occur, there must be a sizeable middle class that is autonomous of the state58.
This is important because of the need of the middle class’s large support of civil society, and support of civil society greatly helps a fledgling democratic movement59. Kamrava likewise claims that there must be a private sector that is independent of the state60. In Egypt, there is a private sector, but government run industries dominate these sectors61. When the Brotherhood came to power, they did not do much to ensure that there would be a sizeable middle class. The Brotherhood did not change the relationship between the state and the market62, thus maintaining the government run dominance of the private sector.
Lastly, the actions taken by the previous rulers of Egypt helped to end Egypt’s flirtation with democracy. Mainly, the prevention of the creation of civil society in Egypt greatly hurt their prospects for democracy. Under Egypt’s second president, Gamal Nasser, the government was authoritarian in nature and refused to allow the development of competitive political parties or independent civil society organizations63. Specifically, all civil society organizations and the press were under complete control of the government, giving Egyptians no way to influence government through these channels64. This was done in order to subordinate all opposition groups that may challenge Nasser for power65.
Egypt’s next ruler, Anwar Sadat, made little changes to this. Sadat did little to foster civil society, as he jailed opposition party leaders, censored opposition press, and passed laws that limited opposition activities66. Additionally the emergency powers used by Sadat greatly limited civil society privileges. After Sadat’s assassination, Hosni Mubarak took power. While Mubarak first released opposition leaders and provided more freedoms for opposition parties, this did little to change political participation for most groups, as Mubarak returned to repressing civil society in the 1990s and 2000s67. Overall, the rule of Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak provided Egyptians with very little experience in political participation, civil society, and in other important democratic fields. This is important because civil society organizations working together helps create trust and helps them to become more confident in negotiations in the future. Additionally, the individuals in these organizations learned to understand those of different ideologies, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in professional syndicates. Countries that do not have independent civil society organizations will suffer from mistrust because of the lack of collaboration on issues. Furthermore, civil society organizations teach citizens how to assume an active role in public life and how to work together for common goals, which is fundamental for a democratic society68.
The failure of Egypt to transition to democracy has many causes. While many blame the Muslim Brotherhood for this failure, it is unfair to give them complete blame. While their organization, membership, and post-revolutionary actions had much to do with the failure of Egypt’s transition to democracy, other factors must be taken into account, such as the power of the military and the Egyptian economy. However, given these factors, will the protestor’s demands for “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice” be achieved in the near future? I find this to be highly unlikely. First, the preparation for a democratic country can take hundreds of years of subconscious development rooted in broad institutional and cultural changes at the level of state, society, and culture.
There must be several generations of citizens who have gained experience in political participation and civil society in order to establish trust in these forms of political expression, along with a strong, government independent and not highly stratified economy. Additionally, the current Sisi government has no intentions to attempt to foster democracy, as it may undermine the current government. Thus, while Egypt’s brief entanglement with democracy gave many people hope for a democratic future, I find the continuation of this in the near future to be highly unlikely.
1.) Laiq, N. (n.d.). (2013) “Talking to Arab Youth:
2.) Wickham, C. (2011, ). The Muslim Brotherhood After Mubarak. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved November 14, 2015,
3.) Al-Banna, H. "Five Tracts of Hassan Al-Banna." Majmu at Rasȧ'il Al-Imȧm Al-Shahi̇d Ḥasan Al-Banna. (91)
4.) ʻAwaḍīAwHishām (2004). In Pursuit of Legitimacy: The Muslim Brothers and Mubarak, 1982-2000. London:
5.) Ibid. 51.
6.) Ibid. 55-8, 78.
7.) Ranko, A. The Muslim Brotherhood and Its Quest for Hegemony in Egypt: State-discourse and Islamist Counter-discourse. 93
8.) Wickham, C. R. (2013) The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement. 49
9.) Ibid. 56.
10.) Ibid. 63.
11.) Wickham, C. (2011). The Muslim Brotherhood After Mubarak. Foreign Affairs.. Retrieved May 21, 2016,
12.) Wickham, C. (2015). The Muslim Brotherhood After Morsi. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved May 21, 2016,
13.) Wickham, C. (2011). The Muslim Brotherhood After Mubarak. Foreign Affairs.. Retrieved May 21, 2016,
15.) Wickham, C. R. (2013) The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement. 110.
16.) Wickham, C. (2011). The Muslim Brotherhood After Mubarak. Foreign Affairs.. Retrieved May 21, 2016,
17.) Kirkpatrick, David. (2012) "Pressure Grows on Egyptian Leader After Judicial Decree." The New York Times. The New York Times. 19 May 2016.
18.) Wickham, C. (2015). The Muslim Brotherhood After Morsi. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved May 21, 2016,
19.) Kingsley, Patrick. (2013). "Egypt 'suffering Worst Economic Crisis since 1930s'" The Guardian. 19 May 2016.
20.) Wickham, C. (2015). The Muslim Brotherhood After Morsi. Foreign Affairs. Retrieved May 21, 2016,
23.) Masoud, Tarek. (2014)Counting Islam: Religion, Class, and Elections in Egypt. Cambridge UP,. 74.
24.) Hassan, Abdalla (2015) Media, Revolution and Politics in Egypt the Story of an Uprising. London: I.B. Print. 45
25.) Ibid. 58.
26.) Khalifa, Sherif. Egypt's Lost Spring: Causes and Consequences. Print. 85.
27.) Wickham, Carrie Rosefsky. (2013) The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement. Print. 105.
28.) Khalifa, Sherif. Egypt's Lost Spring: Causes and Consequences. Print 140.
29.) Alexander, Anne, and Mostafa Bassiouny. (2014) Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers and the Egyptian Revolution. Print. 205.
30.) Hassan, Abdalla (2015) Media, Revolution and Politics in Egypt the Story of an Uprising. London: I.B. Tauris, 149, 165.
31.) Alexander, Anne, and Mostafa Bassiouny. Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers and the Egyptian Revolution. Print. 305.
32.) Masoud, Tarek. (2014)Counting Islam: Religion, Class, and Elections in Egypt. Cambridge UP. Print. 20.
33.) Wickham, Carrie Rosefsky. (2013). The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement. Print. 106.
34.) Khalifa, Sherif. Egypt's Lost Spring: Causes and Consequences. Print.
35.) Alexander, Anne, and Mostafa Bassiouny. (20144) Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers and the Egyptian Revolution. Print. 219.
36.) Khalifa, Sherif. Egypt's Lost Spring: Causes and Consequences. Print. 132.
37.) Kingsley, Patrick. (2013) "Egypt 'suffering Worst Economic Crisis since 1930s'" The Guardian. 19 May 2016.
38.) Rougier, Bernard, Stéphane Lacroix, Cynthia Schoch, and John Angell. (2016) Egypt's Revolutions: Politics, Religion, and Social Movements. Print. 30.
39.) Ibid. 63.
40.) Black, I. (n.d.). All Eyes on Egypt's Military as Hosni Mubarak Fortifies Position. The Guardian. Retrieved May 21, 2016,
41.) Grand, Stephen R. (2013). Understanding Tahrir Square: What Transitions Elsewhere Can Teach Us about the Prospects for Arab Democracy. Print. 197.
42.) Wickham, C. (2016) “Egypt: Culture, Politics, and Society” Emory University
43.) Alexander, Anne, and Mostafa Bassiouny. (2014) Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers and the Egyptian Revolution. Print. 287.
44.) Ibid. 288.
45.) Ibid. 192.
46.) Rougier, Bernard, Stéphane Lacroix, Cynthia Schoch, and John Angell. (2016) Egypt's Revolutions: Politics, Religion, and Social Movements. Print. 31.
47.) Alexander, Anne, and Mostafa Bassiouny. (2014) Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers and the Egyptian Revolution. Print. 206.
48.) Ibid. 207.
49.) Ibid. 206.
50.) Grand, Stephen R. Understanding Tahrir Square: What Transitions Elsewhere Can Teach Us about the Prospects for Arab Democracy. Print. 186.
51.) "Egypt." Resource Governance Organization
52.) Kamrava, M. (2007). "The Middle East Democracy Deficit in Comparative Perspective." Perspectives on Global Development and Technology 6(1): 189-213. 203.
55.) (2014) "The Rise and Fall of Egypt's Middle Class - Al-Monitor: The Pulse of the Middle East." Al-Monitor. 06 Dec. 2015.
56.) McElroy, Damien. (2009). "Middle Class Libyans Turning against Gaddafi's Foreign Spending." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group. 06 Dec. 2015.
57.) Wickham, C. (2016) “Egypt: Culture, Politics, and Society” Emory University
58.) Kamrava, M. (2007). "The Middle East Democracy Deficit in Comparative Perspective." Perspectives on Global Development and Technology 6(1): 189-213. 197.
59.) Kamrava, M. (2007). "The Middle East Democracy Deficit in Comparative Perspective." Perspectives on Global Development and Technology 6(1): 189-213. 200.
60.) Kamrava, M. (2007). "The Middle East Democracy Deficit in Comparative Perspective." Perspectives on Global Development and Technology 6(1): 189-213. 197.
61.) Nelson, Harold D. (1986) Egypt: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: For Sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. G.P.O., 1986. Print. 34.
62.) Rougier, Bernard, Stéphane Lacroix, Cynthia Schoch, and John Angell. (2016) Egypt's Revolutions: Politics, Religion, and Social Movements. Print. 63.
63.) Berman, Sheri. (2013) "The Promise of the Arab Spring." Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations,. 14 Nov. 2015.
64.) Ismael, Tareq Y., Jacqueline S. Ismael, and Kamel Abu Jaber. (1991) Politics and Government in the Middle East and North Africa. Miami: Florida International UP, 328.
65.) Wickham, Carrie Rosefsky. (2002) Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt. New York: Columbia UP. 21.
66.) Ibid. 344-345
67.) Ismael, Tareq Y., Jacqueline S. Ismael, and Kamel Abu Jaber. (1991) Politics and Government in the Middle East and North Africa. Miami: Florida International UP. 349
68.) Wickham, C. (2015) “Egypt: Culture, Politics, and Society” Emory University