Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2010

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: Islamist Participation in a Closing Political Environment

Amr Hamzawy, Nathan J. Brown

March 2010

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


The Muslim Brotherhood, the dynamic Islamist movement that has tried to navigate Egypt’s semi-authoritarian system for over six decades, is facing a shrinking political space. For most of the past decade, the Brotherhood has expanded its political role, increasing from 17 to 88 members of Egypt’s 620-member People’s Assembly. Its success has brought increasing repression from the government. A range of measures have limited the Brotherhood’s effectiveness in the People’s Assembly, preventing it from forming a political party. This environment has led the movement to prioritize internal solidarity over parliamentary activities and refocus efforts on its traditional educational, religious, and social agenda. While the Brotherhood is unlikely to renounce politics altogether, the movement’s center of gravity is shifting toward those who regard it as distracting, divisive, and even self-defeating. This paper examines the Brotherhood’s experience as a political force in Egypt: its relationship with the government; attempts to maneuver the shifting “red lines” of a closed political system; the changing relationship between the Brotherhood and other opposition actors; the Brotherhood’s evolving political positions; and the activities and legislative performance of its members in a parliament crippled by the powerful, government-run National Democratic Party. These challenges have sparked debate within the movement on the extent of its political participation. It is this debate—rather than the oft-cited one between hard-liners and soft-liners—that dominates the Brotherhood’s internal deliberations. In the eyes of a growing number of its members and leaders, the Brotherhood has little to show for its efforts to prompt political reform in Egypt. Instead it has incurred the wrath of the regime and diminished its effectiveness as a grassroots movement. Even if the Brotherhood does not withdraw completely from politics, its ongoing debilitation has bleak implications for the future of Egyptian political reform.