Who are the Muslim Brotherhood, and what do they represent? Having thousands of members means that many people are able to speak as representatives, whether they are qualified or designated to do so or not. Yet if one relies only on an official spokesman, it is difficult to know if the comments are sanitized for public consumption, especially if directed towards a Western audience. A useful remedy can come through personal interviews, though one must still be wary of a politician’s skill in PR.
Cornelis Hulsman, editor-in-chief of Arab West Report, secured such an interview in June 2011 with Osama Farid, the son of Dr. Farid (94), secretary-general of the Muslim Brotherhood, several decades ago and until today highly revered in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Based on his notes I prepared this report.
Osama Farid echoed the caution needed in applying any and every statement a Muslim Brother makes as the heartbeat of the group, saying care should distinguish between the organization and the community. As an example he spoke of Subhi Saleh, who in the past several months has made outspoken comments on how the Muslim Brotherhood will apply Sharia law if elected, and that Muslim sisters should take care to only marry within the group. Salah had been a high profile Muslim Brother in the aftermath of the revolution, having served on the legal committee to propose constitutional amendments submitted for the March 19 referendum. Osama Farid, however, states categorically that he does not represent Muslim Brotherhood thinking, though he gets frequent attention in the press.
The press has been equally misleading, states Osama Farid, by characterizing the Muslim Brotherhood as beset by internal splits. Yes, he says, there is a difference of opinion on several issues, and there are different attitudes in how to deal with change. This is normal in an organization of its size, but reflects only the biased press the Brotherhood has dealt with for years.
Is, then, Osama Farid a capable source of information for the group? As a the son of a Guidance Bureau member he speaks from authority, and in this interview provides insightful comments on his personal history with the Brotherhood, the current relationship between the Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, the relationship with Hamas and attitudes toward Israel, as well as other comments on Salafis and other Islamists in the contemporary arena. Osama Farid is an accomplished businessman; his investments once included a fleet of private airplanes for charter.
Osama Farid described several periods of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the 1970s many members of the al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya joined the group. Osama Farid states that al-Gama’a was internally divided, however, over the question of violence. The members opposing violence broke away and enrolled into the more established Muslim Brotherhood, which had committed itself to a nonviolent methodology. The large influx represented a sort of second founding for the historic organization, which began in 1928 founded by Hasan al-Banna.
Osama Farid expresses admiration for the thought of Sayyid Qutb, a Muslim Brotherhood ideologue executed in 1966. Osama Farid described his execution as a tragedy, and celebrated him as a great thinker whose philosophy was on par with Georg Friedrich Hegel. Though many believe Qutb was a primary factor in the radicalization of the Muslim Brotherhood, Osama Farid countered that Qutb’s view of hakimiyya (God’s sovereignty) has been mistranslated and misunderstood by the majority of media and critics.
The Brotherhood, Osama Farid says, looks to select members who enjoy a good reputation in society, and who demonstrate leadership in morals, athletics, and intellect. If agreeable, candidates are given a syllabus to progress through. Yet regardless of entry, many Muslim Brothers have wound up imprisoned for their association and/or activities – over 30,000 in the group’s history, according to Osama Farid. His own uncle, Saleh, spent twenty-five years in prison.
Relationship with the Freedom and Justice Party and current politics
As an organization, the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to engage Egyptians to build a good culture of citizenship. Historically, though always having a political component, this has meant the provision of social services, engagement in society, helping the jobless (with priority to members but including all). They have also supported the families of imprisoned members, and provided legal services to those run afoul of the government. Only following the revolution, however, has the Muslim Brotherhood been able to channel their social gains into a legal political party.
The Muslim Brotherhood believes the primary purpose of government is to cultivate the good life for the people, so they can be happy. Yes, the government should be concerned with matters of Sharia, but it also needs to promote a culture of tolerance. The Freedom and Justice Party, Osama Farid believes, is working towards this end.
For example, the Muslim Brotherhood, through their party, will seek neither the majority of seats in parliament nor the presidency. Yet he also believes that the ruling military council should fulfill its vow to the people and turn over soon the matter of governance to the people. The military council made agreement to do so in six months, providing elections first for the parliament, then the Shura Council (upper house), then the presidency, and culminate in the drafting of a new constitution. They should not deviate from this, though some decry liberal parties and others have not yet had time to develop their constituencies. Farid, though, believes this to be their own problem, and of more serious concern is the return to civilian rule.
The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has faced criticism within Egypt on several fronts, and Osama Farid provided perspective on certain issues pertaining. Political parties must be independent, and in the case of the FJP not be based on the organization of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Freedom and Justice Party is believed by many to simply be an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood. Osama Farid said the current leadership of the party was proposed by the broad Shura Council of the Brotherhood, and chosen by the Guidance Bureau. Yet he confirmed that this was only for the creation of the party, and that after their initial term expired all positions would be determined by internal party elections.
Yet Osama Farid also provided some statistics that suggest an ongoing strong linkage between the party and the Brotherhood. 40% of the party membership originated in active, working members of the Muslim Brotherhood, all of whom had 10-15 years of experience in the group. Though not a majority, there is the potential for significant overlap between the agendas of the two entities.
In another controversial accusation, some believe there to be a secret pact between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military council. Osama Farid finds it normal that there is a direct line of communication between the two since the Brotherhood has a large following, but the military council also has established links with other political forces.
Osama Farid also gave historical perspective to suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood has not been averse to making such deals. In 2005 many Muslim Brotherhood members ran as independents for parliament, as the group at that time was banned from official participation. Eight-five of these members won a seat, and Osama Farid believed it could have been much more had the elections not been rigged. Yet he stated that within the context of political corruption, the Muslim Brotherhood cooperated with the authorities to determine which Brotherhood candidate would be victorious in which district. That was politics at the time, and the Muslim Brotherhood played along.
Relationship with Hamas and Israel
Another fear expressed about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt concerns their relationships with Hamas and their Israel policy in general. Osama Farid stated that Hamas are our brothers, but that while there is coordination between the two groups, the level of coordination is low. Personally, Osama Farid hopes this coordination will increase, but he recognizes the sensitivity of the issue keeping the groups largely separate.
Osama Farid also stated that each group secures its own financing. While there is no money that moves from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to Hamas (though there has been sharing of medical supplies during Israeli operations), the Brotherhood does provide consultative services if needed, though Hamas takes its own decisions. As an example Osama Farid revealed that the Brotherhood intervened to secure the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, but their advice was not heeded.
Concerning Israel, Osama Farid stated the Muslim Brotherhood believes that all international resolutions directed at Israel (such as UN #242) should be implemented. While he does not want normal relations with Israel, he also stated the Muslim Brotherhood does not want war. He stated they know the line between the ideal and the possible, and that the Brotherhood is realistic. Any war with Israel would be suicide. In this matter and in political matters of all sorts, he believes the Brotherhood to be a wise and moderate organization, aiming for stability both domestically and internationally.
Salafis and Other Islamists
In presenting the Brotherhood as a moderate organization, he contrasted it starkly with another Islamist group emerging in Egyptian politics, the Salafis. Having never been in political life previously, Osama Farid explained, the Salafis were taken advantage of by Mubarak since many opposed participation in politics. For many Salafis, the God-appointed leader should be obeyed without question. These believe democracy to be akin to kufr (unbelief), and though they may enter into upcoming democratic elections, they are not democratic. Osama Farid believed they needed to be monitored due to the danger they posed; it is quite possible they could win a large percentage of parliament.
The Salafi role in society, by contrast, is quite positive, Osama Farid explained. They help families and widows, provide finances for the poor to go on pilgrimage to Mecca, as well as for needed school supplies and fees. Yet they have an aggressive social agenda, focusing on gaining control of the larger and more influential mosques where they are strong in number. Small mosques, Osama Farid elaborated, are not as influential, and will often follow the ideological trend of the largest mosque of the area.
Osama Farid also provided a description of Salafi organization in Alexandria, considered a stronghold of the movement. There are three main Salafi trends, the largest of which is led by Sheikh Hasan Yaqub, drawing support from the slum areas of the city. These three trends have organized a Shura Council for each of Alexandria’s fifteen districts, and each trend supplies five members so that each council has fifteen members. As such they have established themselves in the city, and their influence is strong.
Osama Farid recommended contacting Salafi sheikh Safwat Hejazi for more information. Though he is not their official coordinator he unofficially links between the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Osama Farid made briefly a few closing comments about al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya. These also are participating in politics since the revolution, and the group has sought to make revisions to its former methodology, especially in forswearing the use of violence. Mitwali al-Sharawi is in the lead of the revision group, but not all members accept the changes. Without placing him in either category, Osama Farid commented on al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya leading figure Abbud al-Zumur, who is unapologetic over his involvement in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. Osama Farid believed al-Zumur to be deficient in Islamic jurisprudence.
The essential question posed concerning the Muslim Brotherhood remains: Do their public statements reflect internal policy, or, especially when speaking to the West do they put on a moderate face? It is never possible to know a man’s heart or to discern fully his true intentions. Yet the information provided by Osama Farid displays a level of openness suggesting his words to be both transparent and authoritative. Certainly he has commented on matters often not addressed in Brotherhood public discourse.
As such, this interview is offered for public consumption, so that interested parties might hear from the Muslim Brotherhood through an Egyptian who knows them well. In the controversial and confusing public square of Egypt, it is necessary to filter the news from the din. Much more is necessary, but it is hoped this contribution may help shape English language readership in their understanding and opinion of the Muslim Brotherhood.
- Who are We and What do We Want? The Muslim Brotherhood – November 15, 2011
- Who are We and What do We Want? Evaluation – November 16, 2011
- Gamal Nassar on the Muslim Brotherhood – December 11, 2011
- Interview with a Presidential Candidate, Summarized – February 13, 2012