What You Need to Know About the Muslim Brotherhood
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"He used to come to Saudi Arabia for money"
From its early days, the Brotherhood was financed generously by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which appreciated its ultra-conservative politics and its virulent hatred of Arab communists. Hermann Eilts, who served as US ambassador to both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, told me that he once encountered Hassan al-Banna in the offices of the Saudi deputy minister of finance in 1948. "He used to come to Saudi Arabia for money," Eilts said.
The relationship between the Brotherhood and the House of Saud was always tense. Though the royal family bankrolled Ramadan and the Ikhwan, they never allowed the organization to set up a chapter in Saudi Arabia. For their part, the Muslim Brotherhood chafed under Saudi tutelage and probably harbored ideas about toppling the royals, but the Saudi intelligence service kept close watch on them. Martha Kessler, a former CIA officer who has studied the Brotherhood, told me: "The Egyptian Brothers in Saudi Arabia were [far] removed from any sense of loyalty to the House of Saud."
Does Egypt Have the Brotherhood to Thank for Mubarak?
Guided by Kamal Adham, the head of Saudi Arabia's intelligence service, Anwar Sadat—who'd been a member of the Brotherhood in the 1940s—reintroduced the Ikhwan to Egypt. At the time, Sadat had no political base, and he wanted to undermine the influence of the Nasserites and the communists. To that end, he calculatedly unleashed the power of right-wing political Islam. The Brotherhood's youth wing, often using physical force to intimidate its opponents, helped Sadat recapture ideological control of Egypt's universities. The Brotherhood also took the reins of Egypt's professional societies—doctors', engineers', and lawyers' groups. But because Sadat did not formally allow the Ikhwan to set up a political party, it fragmented into various components, some of which—inspired by Sayyid Qutb, a violent Salafi theoretician who was hanged by Nasser—turned to nihilist violence. One of these offshoots murdered Sadat in 1981, and then Vice President Mubarak took over.
For Mubarak, the Brotherhood served primarily one purpose: To justify Egypt's unending state of emergency. Like clockwork, Mubarak would tell his critics, foreign and domestic: It's me or the Brotherhood. Though formally banned in Egypt, the organization has been by turns tolerated and repressed—its members arrested, then released, then arrested again.
Where's the US Been in All of This?
Throughout the Mubarak era, the United States has had a contradictory, uncertain policy toward the Muslim Brotherhood. Robert Pelletreau, who served as ambassador to Egypt from 1991 to 1993, told me in an interview several years ago that he sought to open a dialogue with the group during his tenure in Cairo, and when Mubarak visited Washington, Pelletreau asked then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher to raise the issue with the Egyptian leader. "I'll never forget what happened next," he told me. "Mubarak sat up sharply, rigidly. 'These people killed my predecessor!' Then he raised this huge fist, and he slammed it down on the table hard, and everything on the table jumped and rattled. Bang! 'When they come out, we have to hit them.'" Edward Walker, who succeeded Pelletreau as US envoy in Cairo, was far more skeptical about dialogue with the Brotherhood, and for the most part, he supported Mubarak's efforts to suppress it. "I can't count the number of times Mubarak yelled at me about how the British were giving the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists safe haven," Walker told me in 2005.
Since then, there's been little or no official contact between the US and the Muslim Brotherhood (though a few years ago, the Bush administration convened a series of meetings to discuss whether or not to engage them). The Obama administration has walked a fine line, too, signaling a willingness to make sure that the Brotherhood is included in any negotiations with the Egyptian military, while declaring that there have been no direct contacts between US officials and the Brothers. Obama administration officials have also expressed concern about the possibility that the group could come out on top once the dust settles in Cairo.