By Phil Marfleet
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Briefing: The main currents of Egypt’s Islamists

This article is over 10 years, 9 months old
Issue 361


Salafis have been concerned mainly with details of ritual, dress and personal morality. They are often referred to in Egypt as “Sunnis”, with the implication that they are concerned overwhelmingly with the Sunna (“the way”/”the path”) associated with key traditions of Islam and with the practice of the Prophet Muhammad. They are followers of the salaf (predecessors or forefathers) – the Prophet and the founding community of Muslims of the 7th century AD.

Salafiyya (emulating the forefathers) has been an important influence at many points in Islamic history. In the 18th century it grew fast in Arabia in the form of the Wahhabi movement, a puritanical reformist current. When Saudi Arabia became an independent state in the early 1930s its absolutist monarchy enforced Wahhabism as the official religion. Saudi rulers have since exported Wahhabi doctrines by supporting mosques, Islamic foundations and political parties with salafi agendas, including in Egypt.

Egypt has it’s own more recent salafi traditions. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, founder of the pan-Islam movement of the 1880s, was based in Cairo. He urged Muslims to revitalise the umma – the community of believers – by reference to the model of the forefathers. Afghani opposed colonialism and the divisive practices of nationalism, arguing for reassertion of the founding principles of Islam. He is often viewed as the father of Islamism and the inspiration for key figures of the early 20th century such as Muhammad Abduh, a legal reformer who also argued for emulation of the first Muslim communities.

The Muslim Brotherhood

The movement initiated by al-Afghani in the late 19th century did not advance in Egypt however, it was soon overtaken by secular nationalism in the form of the Wafd (“Delegation”) Party, becoming a marginal current until revived by Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Established in 1928, the Brotherhood took salafiyya in a new direction. Banna argued for active engagement with the political structures of the modern world, building a mass membership organisation which combined piety with public mobilisation, with the result that the Brotherhood became a key participant in the anti-colonial movement of the 1930s and 1940s.

Led mainly by merchants and professionals, the Brotherhood attracted many peasants and urban poor, and recruited some workers. The leadership opposed British occupation but also sought deals with the puppet Egypt government and the monarchy, lurching between mass mobilisation and efforts to control its own members. In the late 1940s and early 1950s it was presented with repeated opportunities to take power. Paralysed by uncertainty it failed to act and was eventually crushed by the incoming military regime of the radical nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Following the assassination of Sadat by members of Islamic Jihad (see below), the leaders of the Brotherhood fled to Saudi Arabia, where they came under strong Wahhabi influence. So when they eventually returned to Egypt in the 1970s their agendas were even more conservative. In the 1980s the Brotherhood nevertheless grew quickly: as the neoliberal agenda of the Mubarak regime took hold, and in the absence of effective organisation on the left and among the Jihadis, it again became a mass organisation.

By the 1990s the Brotherhood was the main national focus of opposition to the regime. It was plagued by the same historic problems, however. Rank and file members and supporters who wanted decisive action on economic, social and political issues were contained by a timorous leadership which refused to mobilise openly against the dictatorship. Even when its key figures were arrested those who took their place refused to challenge Mubarak – to the fury of Brotherhood activists, especially the organisation’s youth.


The Jihadi movement emerged out of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s and 1970s. The key figure was Sayyid Qutb, who argued in the 1960s that the Muslim Brotherhood had failed to tackle the colonial state or the Nasser regime. The latter was part of a barbaric anti-Muslim offensive, he argued, and should be removed. Leadership was to come from a dedicated “vanguard” of Muslim activists. In the 1970s Qutb’s followers formed a series of underground organisations, notably the Gama’at Islamiyya (Islamic Associations) and Islamic Jihad. In 1981 Islamic Jihad assassinated Sadat and attempted an uprising against the Egyptian state. Incoming president Hosni Mubarak ordered a campaign of savage repression against the Jihadi groups.

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