The former deputy general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Mohammed Habib, has asserted that the group, which led changes in Egypt, wants to see the creation of a new caliphate designed to exist in harmony with modern times, and in doing so create a “federal or confederate structure that would bind Islamic countries.”
Habib, who left the Muslim Brotherhood in the middle of last year due to differences of opinion, underscores that the real goal of the Muslim Brotherhood is to bring about either a structure that resembles that of the US government or one that is looser but nevertheless a confederation, with a constitution and a leader.
As for former steering committee member Kamal El Helbawy, who left the Muslim Brotherhood movement earlier this year in protest over the presidential candidacy of businessman Khairat El-Shater -- called by some a shadow leader of the movement -- he insists that it is wrong to say that the absolute goal of the Muslim Brotherhood is to bring about any sort of caliphate.
El Helbawy says the movement would like to see all members of the worldwide Muslim community united, noting that this is the only way to show the world what real Islam is. The International Muslim Brotherhood Movement was formed in the 1970s, and was meant to bring together the various Muslim Brotherhood movements and groups on the global level. This goal, however, was never fully realized.
El Helbawy explains that dictatorships throughout the region worked to prevent the International Muslim Brotherhood from acting. However, he says, democratic movements starting up in the region over the past year have now cleared its path. He states: “Now the parties and group representatives that are a part of the International Muslim Brotherhood can meet without fear of being arrested, and can discuss their problems all together. There is a good level of coordination between these members now.”
He further states that while the organization’s headquarters are currently located in London, they will soon be moving their base to Cairo.
And as dictatorial regimes throughout the Middle East are replaced by democracy, parties that are similar in spirit to the Muslim Brotherhood are either coming to power by landslides (as in Egypt and Tunisia) or are emerging as important figures in power balances (as in Libya and Yemen). The question triggered, particularly for the West, by this situation is: “Is this the Arab Spring, or the Spring of the Muslim Brotherhood?”
This movement, the dimensions of whose power, influence and financial resources is a subject of constant debate, has ties to more than 70 countries, including nearly every Arab country -- from Syria and Jordan to Somalia, and from Libya to Kuwait -- as well as in the US and throughout Europe. But does this political movement -- according to some, the strongest to emerge in the course of Islamic history -- really exercise control over all the religious-political movements around the world bearing its name, or related to it in other ways?
As El Helbawy sees it, the main movement in Egypt has ties which are really only spiritual in nature with the other parties and movements around the world. At the same time, however, there is a very strong coordination mechanism at work between these groups.
Habib asserts that the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is at the same time the leader of the larger International Muslim Brotherhood, but that ties between the movement in Egypt and similar movements in other countries are only spiritual, there being no financial, management-related or hierarchical ties between them.
Habib also notes that the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood does not have the final say in decisions. He explains: “Decisions are made by a general council. There may be a general guide, or top leader, but this is just a formal position.” When Rashid al-Ghannouchi, the leader of the Tunisian extension of the Muslim Brotherhood -- called the Ennahda Movement -- visited Cairo in June and met with Muslim Brotherhood figures there, it was clear that the Egyptian group did not have extensive influence over the Tunisian movement, with Ghannouchi calling for more dialogue with liberal and leftist groups to take place.
In the November 2011 edition of the Al-Ahram Weekly, author Amani Maged published an analysis of Ennahda’s relations with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Maged wrote that in fact Ghannouchi views the Egyptian party more as an ally than as a superior organization.
When Hassan al-Turabi in Sudan made statements about how “women can carry out the duties of an imam in religious communities with men” and that “Muslim women should be allowed to marry Christian or Jewish men,” he elicited strong and negative responses from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
In the same way, there are questions over just how much control Hamas has over the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps the group closest to it. According to Palestinian academic Samir Ghattas, known for his work on the Muslim Brotherhood, the future of Hamas lies definitively in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ghattas asserts that in the coming period, the Muslim Brotherhood will be making its ties with Hamas more and more clear and pointed.
At the same time, very deep differences in perspective do emerge within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood from time to time. Most recently, the candidacy of one of the organization’s most powerful figures, El-Shater, for the presidency of the Shura Council split the party down the middle, with 56 members for and 52 members against his candidacy.
As Habib sees it, general circumstances point to the Muslim Brotherhood being on its way not towards fragmentation but rather towards achieving a truly democratic structure. He states: “The important thing is that the goals are the same. But at the same time, of course, there are some differing views within the organization in terms of political stance and approach towards various events.”
Habib notes that members have, up until now, come together every three or six months, but that as democracy takes root more firmly in the region the frequency and nature of these meetings may well change.
Experts say that meetings of the International Muslim Brotherhood deal with topics ranging from Palestine to Islamophobia -- in other words, topics of interest to all Arab and Islamic nations -- and also cover matters such as the formation of Muslim Brotherhood branches in countries where it is not present; how to organize the group and its many extensions around similar goals and principles; how to explain Islam more successfully to the world and how to show it in a better light, as well as how to deal with problems facing members in local and regional extensions of the group.
Habib remarks that the real aim of the Muslim Brotherhood is not to be a central organization but to see a decentralized organizational structure. He elaborates: “The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt does not get mixed up in the business of the Muslim Brotherhood in any other country. Muslim Brotherhood organizations in other countries deal with their own problems. Every country definitely works on its own in this way.”
El Helbawy, who returned to Egypt last year after many years in exile abroad, says the Muslim Brotherhood has a global outlook, aiming to spread the name of God, and thoughts of finding a shared path and divinity.
El Helbawy also stresses that the Arab Spring has brought great strength to the Muslim Brotherhood, and that while the organization had ties previously in countries like Pakistan and Malaysia, it has also formed strong relations with the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in Turkey. He talks about the worldwide Muslim community project that the Muslim Brotherhood would like to see unfold, noting that it does not nurture hopes of bringing in one central leader who has to be from the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Any person who comes to the head of the worldwide community of Muslims would have to be selected in a democratic manner. But this is not a situation which in any way aims to see countries eliminated. Every country would still have its own laws,” El Helbawy emphasized.
Habib notes that all eyes are currently on Egypt, to see whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood project will be successful. He says that if in fact Mohammed Morsi turns out to be a successful leader, that this will mean parties in other countries close to the Muslim Brotherhood will be more active and receive more support from the people of those nations. He admits, however, that “it will take decades to understand whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood really is successful.”
Both Habib and El Helbawy agree that the leadership cadres of this organization include names which are reformist and moderate and some which are more extreme than others. Each states that nothing could be more natural than this mixture of perspectives. Both men also underscore the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood is in fact an Arab nationalist organization, and that it will neither fall apart nor weaken with the advent of democracy.