Commentary Magazine


How the Muslim Brotherhood Built Its Empire

“Many Brothers are clean-shaven, wear suits and ties, and are physically indistinguishable from other Egyptians of the same class,” writes Jonathan Wright, a longtime Reuters correspondent based in Cairo. In 1987, the Brotherhood won control of the Engineers’ Syndicate, an enormous body with 200,000 members, and by the early 1990s the Islamist group had taken over nearly all the prominent associations, many of which had been viewed as strongholds of liberal-secular nationalism.

The current Islamist leaders are the children of this successful strategy. The new Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, wears elegant pinstripes and is one of the most respected veterinarians in Egypt. The general-secretary, Mahmoud Hussein, is a professor of civil engineering, and the No. 2 of the organization, Rashad El Bayoumi, is a geologist. The Brotherhood promotes the same cure-all for today’s ills as it did when it was founded in 1928: “Islam is the solution.”

They have built a mini Egyptian empire. About a quarter of the funds of the Brotherhood comes from the contributions required of each member. Tycoons with Islamist sympathies began to support the movement in the 70s, and a new Islamic middle class took root in Cairo, investing in real estate, medical supplies, school supplies, automobiles, and food production. The Brotherhood tried its hand at tourism, especially organizing pilgrimages to Mecca (700,000 Egyptians make this pilgrimage every year).

The Brotherhood has spread to all Arab countries and now constitutes a powerful financial network, which has gradually acquired huge significance in Europe. The group calls Europe “dar al shaadi,” the land of mission. After the September 11 attacks, investigators searched the homes of many leaders of al-Taqwa (in Arabic it means “Fear of God”), an Islamic Swiss bank based in Lugano, hoping to trace the channels of al-Qaeda’s finances. Instead they discovered a document describing the financial strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their European operations started in 1977 with the founding of the Islamic Bank in Luxembourg, and six years later the network had seven financial firms across Denmark, London, the Cayman Islands, and the United States. Today the Brotherhood has big investments in the cultural industry and luxury hotels. The Brothers are largely funded by Saudi Arabia and Gulf states. In a country increasingly Islamized, such as Egypt, the “zakat,” the personal offering, one of the Five Pillars of Islam, serves to strengthen the movement.

The Brotherhood has also attracted teachers in both the suburbs and rural areas. A nostalgic, utopian, and well-ordered traditionalism is the future heralded by the Brotherhood. Fifty years ago, the Muslim Brotherhood recruited mainly among the children of urban employees, the so-called “white collars.” Today it turns to the countryside, filling it with Islam and opportunities. These areas are inhabited by workers who in the 70s went to seek jobs in Saudi Arabia, returning home with the Wahhabi version of Islam.

The Brotherhood today also controls a network of 22 hospitals. Of the 5,000 non-governmental organizations in Egypt, 20 percent are Islamist. Perhaps the best illustration of the Brotherhood’s capability was its remarkably efficient and politically opportune response to the 1992 Cairo earthquake. The Brotherhood’s engineering and medical branches built shelters and medical tents that served thousands of victims. The group’s growing financial resources provided an influx of food, clothing, and blankets, and the Brotherhood even donated US$1,000 to every newly homeless family in the city. University dormitories and lecture halls were, and still are, overcrowded, and the costs of textbooks, lecture notes, food, and transportation constituted a serious economic hardship for students. Again, these are the circumstances in which the Brotherhood traditionally has been most successful.

The Muslim Brotherhood has always launched its electoral campaigns on an anti-corruption platform. Its slogan in the Doctors Syndicate council elections, for instance, has been “Vote for the Cleansed Hands.” The Islamists running these unions offered medical insurance for tens of thousands of members, loans to buy houses and cars, as well as short-term funds for getting married.

The same process took place in Gaza with Hamas, the Palestinian offspring of the Brotherhood.

And so the question now is: Will Egypt will become the next Islamic utopia? A Brotherhood victory there would mean a very sad day for the West.