After the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi by the Egyptian Army, many of his followers and high-ranking members of the influential Muslim Brotherhood have been detained or put under house arrest. Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party is strongly affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the most significant Islamist organisations in the Arab world.
The Brotherhood has for most of its existence been prohibited from direct political participation in Egypt, with its members having to associate themselves with accepted political parties or campaign as independents. The prime reason for their exclusion from Egyptian political life is because of the Army’s deep mistrust of the organisation.
After originating in Cairo in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood participated in campaigns against British influence in Egypt. Whilst nominally an independent monarchy after 1922, Egyptian domestic and foreign policy remained heavily guided by British “advisers” which impinged on Egyptian sovereignty. The Brotherhood subsequently engaged in acts of violence against British officials and their Egyptian supporters, helped by other nationalist factions. After WWII, Britain retained influence over its Egyptian protectorate which, under King Farouk I, lost the First Arab-Israeli War in 1948. With growing discontent came social agitation and, eventually, Army support for the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.
The Muslim Brotherhood supported the revolution, despite its methods and Islamist predominance being anathema to many Army generals. After the British were removed and the monarchy overthrown, Muhammad Naguib became the first President of Egypt, only to be displaced by General Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954.
Nasser had been subject to an assassination attempt by the Brotherhood in 1954, in protest at land reforms and other domestic policies he was helping institute. A severe crackdown on the organisation by the Egyptian Army followed and remained in place, with prominent members barred from public office and kept under supervision by the security forces. It was only during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution which ousted Hosni Mubarak that the organisation returned to the mainstream in force.
Having renounced violence several decades ago the Brotherhood remain, nevertheless, mistrusted by the Army and many other members of Egyptian society. The hardline Islamist stance of its followers is one issue, particularly for an increasingly “democratised” society. Another issue is the size of its organisation. The Brotherhood has been popular with a large strand of the Middle East’s Arab population since its inception, not only for its religious convictions but its charitable works amongst the Islamic poor. It stands as the only body with a realistic chance of displacing the commanding presence of the military in Egyptian life.
Mohamed Morsi was democratically elected and had the support of the Brotherhood. The potential political and social mobilisation of the Brotherhood could potentially enable it to wrest control of the military high command. As such it has always been subject to strict prohibitions and censures.
Morsi’s overthrow may have reflected a growing anger amongst the Egyptian people at his lack of consideration for democratic change. Yet, the Army has its own motives, shown by the subsequent detention of members of the Muslim Brotherhood. It must remain the power behind the throne and, as such, the ability to divide and rule remains a paramount tool in its weaponry. True democracy remains a long way off.