The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement, by Carrie Rosefsky Wickham

Christina Hellmich applauds the clear analysis that reveals a complex array of internal divisions, power struggles and conflicting ideological trends in the Brotherhood

October 10, 2013

The Muslim Brotherhood won a resounding victory in Egypt’s 2011-12 parliamentary election. Six months later, Mohamed Morsi, one of the group’s leaders, was sworn in as Egypt’s new president. An Islamist organisation that had been denied legal status for most of its existence was now in charge of the state apparatus once used to repress it, and it had reached those heights not by way of a coup, but through fair and free elections.

Silencing its doubters, at least temporarily, the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to have shed its radical, illiberal past as promises were made to protect minority rights and the constitutional assembly, recognise international treaties and work to make Egypt prosperous, leaving behind the Brotherhood’s long-held dream of installing a narrow form of sharia as the law of the land.

But the liberal trend did not last. The Brotherhood’s true agenda was quickly revealed as the new president forced through an unpopular sharia- inspired constitution, appointed fellow Muslim Brothers to key ministries, sacked generals and, crucially, demonstrated a complete lack of understanding of how to manage a modern economy.

A Muslim Brotherhood on the verge of achieving its political aims is shown to be a melting pot of profound inconsistencies

When Morsi was toppled in July amid protests even larger than those that ousted his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, the sceptics seemed vindicated: an Islamist political party had failed the simple test of finding its way into the modern world when given the opportunity to run a country. With the future of Egypt’s infant democracy uncertain, an important question hangs over the Middle East: can Islamist groups moderate and embrace democracy?

The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement addresses this timely and controversial issue through a nuanced examination of the Muslim Brotherhood that traces the party’s development from its humble beginnings in 1928 to the fall of Mubarak and the watershed elections of 2011-12, and compares the Brotherhood’s trajectory with those of Islamist groups in Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco.

Carrie Rosefsky Wickham’s analysis reveals a complex array of internal divisions, power struggles and conflicting ideological trends, in which newly embraced concepts of freedom and democracy are forced to coexist with illiberal traditions and cultural ideals from ages past. Thus a Muslim Brotherhood on the verge of achieving its political aims is shown to be a melting pot of profound inconsistencies and contradictions that defy simple generalisation.

Unlike so many contributors on the topic of Islamist politics, Wickham does not jump to conclusions. Hers is a careful analysis that is meticulous in questioning the data from a pos- ition of critical reflection, demonstrating many years of research and experience and a genuine understanding of the region and its complexities by not taking simple statements at face value. How do we know, for example, whether one Brotherhood leader who is making a reassuring statement is expressing a personal opinion, the view of a particular faction, a consensus within the group or, indeed, none of the above?

The extent to which analysis of this kind can derive valid causal inferences from observed data hinges on the contextual know- ledge of the researcher, and it is here that this work truly excels. In an age of unprecedented budget cuts across academia and a research climate marked by the demand for immediate and obvious effect and quick answers and the rise of large-N quanti-tative studies, Wickham’s work is an important reminder not only of the immense value of detailed, qualitative case studies, but also of the time and effort required to do such research well.

The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement is not just a timely new book on a topic of public interest but a fine example of academic research.

The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement

By Carrie Rosefsky Wickham
Princeton University Press
384pp, £19.95
ISBN 9780691149400 and 9781400846665 (e-book)
Published 7 August 2013

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