CAIRO (Reuters) - The Muslim Brotherhood has quietly spread its influence far beyond Egypt in its 84-year history, but Arab revolts have opened broad new political horizons the group hopes will reflect its founder’s vision for the Arab and Islamic world.
“There is no doubt that Hassan al-Banna believed in Islamic unity and not just Arab unity. But with such a vision we must consider reality and what is possible,” said Mahmoud Ghozlan, a member of the Brotherhood’s executive bureau.
Interviewed at the group’s new headquarters in Cairo, he called such unity a “long-term objective”, but seemed alive to the possibilities thrown up by a ferment in which Islamists are driving mainstream politics across North Africa and beyond.
“This region is in a period of deep-rooted change,” the 64-year-old said. “Starting from Tunisia and ending with Syria, the nature of the region and alliances will change.”
The Brotherhood, banned and repressed under President Hosni Mubarak, did not instigate the uprising against him, but like Islamist parties elsewhere it has been the main beneficiary, using free elections to sweep to the brink of power.
Its success, along with election wins by Islamists in Tunisia and Morocco, and the emergence of powerful Islamist players in Libya and inside Syria’s opposition, is forcing the world to rethink how it deals with political Islam.
The Brotherhood, the oldest and most established contemporary Islamist movement, could find itself at the center of a Sunni arc of influence from the Atlantic to the eastern Mediterranean.
“We can start to talk of an emerging Sunni Islamist bloc from North Africa all the way potentially to Syria. I think the Brotherhood is the most important part of that,” said Shadi Hamid, research director at the Doha Brookings Center in Qatar.
“They are part of a broader movement, and it is that movement that is going to reshape the regional architecture.”
The extent of the transformation may yet depend on how Islamists perform in office as they grapple with dysfunctional economies and exaggerated expectations, but change is afoot.
The rise of Egypt’s Brotherhood, the inspiration for Islamist groups throughout the region, is helping to redraw political alliances across the Middle East in a historic shift that is eroding the influence of Shi‘ite Iran in the Arab world.
Spurred on by an uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Brotherhood’s emergence has helped draw Sunni Palestinian group Hamas out of the orbit of Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, splintering an axis that has been a defining feature of regional politics and conflicts for more than a decade.
“The stronger the Sunni Islamists are, the worse it is for the Iran-Hezbollah axis,” said Hamid.
Western states with long-held suspicions about Islamist influence are nevertheless meeting the new players. Conservative Gulf monarchies, some of them wary that regional unrest may be contagious, are cautiously assessing their new interlocutors.
Turkey, outside the Arab fold but part of the Muslim world, may engage more directly. Turkey’s AK Party, with its Islamist roots, has delivered stellar economic growth that Arab states faced with sky-high popular aspirations are keen to emulate.
“Turkey will have more soft power than in the past and Turkey will exercise that power in a positive way,” said Turkish Ambassador Husseyin Avni Botsali in Cairo, adding that Egypt and Turkey could become an “axis of moderation and dialogue”.
At the heart of the flux is Egypt’s Brotherhood, which grew Libyan, Syrian, Palestinian and other offshoots over which it has no formal control. However, Ghozlan said they do see Egypt as “the mother state, where the (Islamic) call first sprang up”.
The Brotherhood has shunned some of its more radical outgrowths, such as the Egyptian militants who turned to global jihad after Mubarak crushed their armed uprising in the 1980s.
And it faces new challenges from hard-line Salafis impatient to install Islamic sharia law and eradicate Western influence.
Nevertheless, the Brotherhood is headed for power in Egypt, with likeminded parties also dominant in some of its neighbors.
It has been a long haul for the group founded by Banna in 1928. Born in 1906, he fumed at colonial interference in Egypt and particularly Ismailia, a city where he taught, next to the Suez Canal that was then under British control.
Starting in mosques and coffee houses, his message spread to the rest of Egypt and, by the time he was assassinated in 1949, the group had followers beyond its borders. By then Egypt’s authorities also began seeing the group as a threat and a cycle of crackdowns began. It was a similar story in other countries.
One group the Brotherhood inspired was Palestinian Hamas, which emerged in the 1980s and now controls Gaza on Egypt’s border. Isolated by Egypt under Mubarak, as well as by other Gulf and Arab states and the West, Hamas was embraced by Iran, Hezbollah and Syria in an alliance built on hostility to Israel.
Yet Hamas was the Sunni odd man out in a Shi‘ite-dominated axis. The Palestinian group had its headquarters in Damascus, where the ruling Assad family, members of a minority Alawite sect, had long repressed Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood.
A year after an anti-Assad revolt erupted, Hamas publicly turned against its Syrian hosts, perhaps encouraged by the Brotherhood’s political gains now shifting Egypt’s outlook.
In a mark of the change from the Mubarak era, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh was allowed to endorse the Syrian revolt in a speech in February at Cairo’s prestigious al-Azhar mosque.
Hamas and the Brotherhood want Egypt to fully open its border with Gaza to alleviate a blockade imposed by Israel with Egyptian cooperation, but Mahmoud Al-Zahar, a senior Hamas official, told Reuters it was too soon to talk of new allies.
The Brotherhood’s focus for now, as it plans for government, is local. It needs to stabilize Egypt’s shattered economy and stave off a currency crisis. And for that it needs outside help.
Gulf states have promised Egypt $10 billion to $15 billion in aid and investment. Yet just $1 billion has arrived.
“The Brotherhood understands that better relationships with the Gulf countries are absolutely necessary now because they are going to be among Egypt’s major donors,” said Brookings’ Hamid.
But the Brotherhood’s attempts to woo Gulf states have got off to a rocky start, as Ghozlan recounts.
“We told them ‘Come and get to know us ... If you have concerns, we will eliminate them. If you don’t come to us, send an invitation and we’ll come to you’ ... But they haven’t taken that step,” he said, adding that only Bahrain’s envoy to Egypt had met the group so far.
The Brotherhood even delayed a meeting requested by Iran’s envoy for fear of upsetting Gulf states, who see Tehran as a rival that meddles in their affairs. “If he (the Iranian) comes before them, it will increase their fears,” Ghozlan said.
Some Gulf states, who counted Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine Abdedine Ben Ali as close allies, fret that regional turmoil will unsettle their own realms. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are notably wary of the Brotherhood.
“The Brotherhood have a different approach to politics and this is what causes concern, mixing politics with religion when they are two separate issues,” said one Saudi source.
In the religiously conservative kingdom, clerics of the strict Wahhabi school of Islam have always backed the ruling Al-Saud family, an arrangement that some Saudi officials fear the Brotherhood’s brand of political Islam could upset.
Saudi analyst Jamal Khashoggi said some of the Saudi elite are worried that “the Brotherhood will be intoxicated by the victory of their fellow movements in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia and they might be hoping to do the same thing in Saudi Arabia”.
But he dismissed such fears, saying the Brotherhood’s pragmatism had less appeal to Saudi society than Salafis, whose yearning for a return to early Islamic teachings lies at the heart of the kingdom’s Wahhabist creed.
Nevertheless, Hamid of the Brookings Center said the Brotherhood had affiliates in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which “are seen to be a threat to the regime”.
The Brotherhood has already had a spat with the UAE over the expulsion of a group of Syrians who staged a protest there. The Dubai police chief accused the Brotherhood of fomenting unrest.
“There have been restrictions placed on Egyptians coming to the UAE to work and this happened after the Brotherhood took power (in Egypt’s parliament). There is a fear that they might stir trouble in the region,” said one UAE official.
Qatar, a tiny Gulf nation with huge gas reserves, engaged with Islamists in Libya, but a Foreign Ministry official said there had been no “official” talks with Egypt’s Brotherhood yet.
Ghozlan said the Gulf had no reason to fear the Brotherhood.
“We want to see the Gulf stable given that it is in a very sensitive region,” he said, predicting that tensions would dissipate once the Brotherhood forms a coalition government.
“I think these obstacles will disappear and the rulers of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states will work with it and this crisis will end, God willing.”
Hassan al-Banna may have dreamed of Arab and Islamic unity, but his movement has, in Egypt at least, long been a cautious practitioner of the politically possible. Nevertheless, like other Islamists in an Arab world where uprisings have toppled four autocrats so far, it senses it has the wind in its sails.
Additional reporting by Amena Bakr in Dubai, Regan Doherty in Doha and Laila Bassam in Beirut; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Alistair Lyon