February 4, 2008
Nineteen-seventy-one was a watershed year in the history of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist movement at large. The Egyptian ruler Gamal Abdel Nasser had died the year before, and his successor, Anwar Sadat, adopted an altogether more conciliatory approach toward the Muslim Brotherhood. This effectively brought the era of the Nasserist repression of the Islamist movement in the 1950s and ’60sto a formal close. Although the Brotherhood had been almost entirely destroyed during Nasser’s reign, the era produced several important outcomes that helped to shape the Brotherhood’s rebound and the future development of the Islamist movement as a whole.
First of all, Nasser’s brutal policies helped to elevate those Brotherhood leaders whom Nasser had imprisoned and hanged to the status of Muslim martyrs. These Brothers became widely revered as the first martyrs of the post-colonial Muslim world,and after 1971, this helped to improve the Brotherhood movement’s political prospects as a whole. Said Qutb, who is still often referred to as “the martyr Sayid Qutb,” is especially significant in this regard. His martyrdom automatically con- ferred upon him enormous respect, and this in turn helped the Brotherhood tremendously in their efforts to reach out to ordinary Muslims and to build political legitimacy.
Another important outcome of the Nasserite era was that it sent many Egyptian Brothers into exile. The Egyptians fled to a number of countries—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and others on the Arabian Peninsula; Pakistan and Afghanistan in Southwest Asia; and countries in North Africa and Europe. This Brotherhood Diaspora facilitated not only the spread of the movement’s ideology, but also the establishment of its very strong international networks. In addition to dawaormissionary networks, the Brothers built financial, educational and university networks as well. In this way, theera ofNasserite repression actually fostered the growth of the Brotherhood’s “world web.”
And yet, despite these improvements in the Brotherhood’s overall political prospects after Nasser, the Brotherhood also had new challengers to contend with after 1971—including Islamists themselves. From its founding in the late 1920s to the early days of Nasser’s regime, the Muslim Brotherhood was thesingle most prominent Islamist organization. With virtually no organized competition or alternatives, the Brotherhood was seen as the quintessential point of reference among Islamist sympathizers. But as the Brotherhood was being crushed in Egypt, itcame under increasing criticism from within its own ranks and from Islamists outside, and was held accountable for its failures. Why had the Brotherhood been unable to resist Nasser’s oppression when they were such a strong mass movement in the early 1950s? What kind of mistakes had they made? Wasn’t it time for the Islamist movement to find and adopt a new course in order to overcome its shortcomings?
These questions created deep disputes and, ultimately, a schism within the Brotherhood movement itself that came increasingly to the fore after 1971. On the one hand were those who supported the more radical ideas of Said Qutb, and on the other, those who supported the more traditional, politically-oriented views of Hasan Hudaybi, the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide in the 1960s. That ideological schism, combined with the general autonomy that the Brotherhood’s international branches gained after its central leadership in Egypt was crushed by Nasser, created even more rifts within the Islamist movement, and led to the formation of a diverse new range of organizations.