Yasser El-Shimy looks into the thinking and behaviour of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the transition period. He explains how within the space of a year the Islamist organisation went from dominating Egypt to being banned and falling into disarray.

The Muslim Brotherhood has undergone a series of dizzying gyrations over the past three years that have offered it a historic opportunity to rule Egypt and posed a threat to its very existence. In a matter of months, it was transformed from a socio-religious group with a political wing into a political organisation with a socio-religious character. The movement jettisoned its long history of risk aversion, diving from one confrontation to another against an array of political adversaries, including the Egyptian military. The Brotherhood abandoned promises not to seek an electoral majority or to contest the presidency, and made the bet that winning elections was the only mandate it needed to be comfortably in charge. It shed allies, even within Islamist ranks, and made enemies. The movement cut deals with the old state, but sought to subvert it. The Brotherhood marginalised, and indeed antagonised, non-Islamist politicians and activists, but called on them to join its struggle once it had lost power. In doing so, the Brotherhood won it all and lost it all.

At the same time as the movement won and lost legislative and executive powers, the fortunes of Egypt’s political transition itself oscillated violently back and forth. A pro-democracy revolt that began on 25 January 2011 culminated in an anti-democratic coup on 3 July 2013. What is more, large segments of the population, including those who had participated in the revolt, cheered on as the then-defence minister Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi declared an end to Muhammad Morsi’s presidency, and embarked on a brutal crackdown against Islamists. That the Brotherhood’s fate was tied to that of democratisation in Egypt is a reflection of the group’s societal and political weight, and an outcome of the all-or-nothing approach adopted by political actors as they contested power in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Yasser El-Shimy is a doctoral candidate at Boston University’s Department of Political Science. He worked as the International Crisis Group’s Egypt analyst (2011–2013), and as a Middle East research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative (2014–2015).

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