The Cairo Interviews: Penned by Nazry Bahrawi, this monthly Insight series is based on interviews with members of the Egyptian intelligentsia conducted in Cairo in December 2011.
In the study of political Islam after the Arab uprisings, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, or al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun, appears as an enigma. Its rhetoric is at once conservative and liberal, traditional yet modern, secularist but religious. On numerous occasions following the nation’s revolution of January 2011, its top brass, such as would-be presidential candidate Khairat al-Shater, has spewed what has become an oft-repeated mantra for the post-uprising Ikhwan: “Islam is a reference.” This can be read as a subtle departure from the Ikhwan’s long-held dictum of “Islam is the solution,” an improvisation that downplays the idea that the organization is determined to implement the shariʿa, or Islamic legal code.
How does one make sense of such seeming contradictions of the post-uprising Ikhwan?
The answer perhaps lies in revisiting the personage of its founder, Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949). Only then can these contradictions be seen as nuances and not at all surprising. A strong case can be made that the Ikhwan has inherited the politics of pragmatism practiced to perfection by Hassan during his reign.
One must first acknowledge the presence of a strong discursive tradition depicting the founder of the Ikhwan as a destructive Islamist, or even a terrorist. As one analyst puts it, “Hassan’s legacy was that he left a directionless, bickering body of conflicting factions with little in common but their nihilistic quest to replace prevailing religious and political institutions with a politicized and therefore limited interpretation of the shariʿa.” 
Such a view is derived from the fact that Hassan had sanctioned the establishment of Nizam al-Khass (Special Unit), a clandestine military wing that carried out guerilla attacks on the Egyptian government. This was to be Hassan’s undoing. It was the Unit’s militant maneuvers, culminating in the assassination of then-Prime Minister Mahmoud an-Nuqrashi Pasha in December 1948, that led to the execution of Hassan himself two months later.
Yet Hassan’s brother Gamal al-Banna, a prominent liberal Islamic thinker, painted a different picture of Hassan in an interview with the writer in Cairo last December. “The tragedy of Hassan al-Banna was that he was not allowed to complete his work,” Gamal declared when asked why the two siblings subscribed to vastly different interpretations of Islam. He continued: “If [Hassan] had the time, if he had lived another 20 years, he could have changed many things.” When prompted if he meant that Hassan could also have been a liberal thinker, Gamal replied with two firm yeses.
To Gamal, there were two primary reasons for Hassan’s arrested development. The first, lesser reason is that Hassan was a product of his context. Unlike Gamal, who was exposed to an eclectic mix of non-religious subjects that ranged from the principles of education to gender studies, Hassan had been fed a strict diet of theology. “From when he was a small boy until he became the founder of the Ikhwan, his studies were only about Islam,” explained the 92-year-old. “And there was a great difference between an Islamic and a civilian education.”
This gulf, however, did not make Hassan a true conservative. He was, according to Gamal, also influenced by the progressive and reformist ideas of nineteenth-century Egyptian thinkers such as Rashid Rida and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. As such, his schooling affected him but did not mold him completely.
Then there were the discussions between the brothers al-Banna. Despite a gap of fourteen years, the two conversed regularly. These sessions would see Gamal relating his unorthodox views to his brother, who would listen intently. It was during one such discussion that Gamal discovered the bigger reason for Hassan’s stunted becoming—his brother was a pragmatist par excellence.
“Hassan once said to me: ‘You, Gamal al-Banna, can speak as you wish. You are only one, and you are not responsible for anyone else. But I am the leader of half a million people, and I have to look at their interests and not differ too much from them.’”
Thus while he may have seemed an unyielding and conservative ideologue, Hassan, in straddling tradition and reform, had to assume a chameleon-like stature, lest he lose his base. This is the thrust of Alison Pargeter’s treatise in her 2010 book, The Muslim Brotherhood: The Burden of Tradition. As she surmises: “In spite of his best efforts to impose rigid obedience on his followers, al-Banna struggled for many years to appease the various competing factions within his support base, setting in motion […] contradiction within the political reality of the day and traditional Islamic principles.” 
Pargeter outlines several contradictions that can be seen as instances of expediency. She argues, for example, that Hassan allowed for the existence of Nizam al-Khass in order to contain the dissent from Ikhwan members who found him passive. This was a necessary move that served to fortify his leadership status after members of Mohamed’s Youth, formed by a faction that had seceded from the Ikhwan in the late 1930s, accused Hassan of deviating from Islam and collaborating with Egypt’s oppressive rulers.
Pargeter points to another occasion—seemingly contradictory—when Hassan went against the advice of the Ikhwan’s Guidance Office and cut a deal with the government to signal his support to them and the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, a legal document that justified Britain’s presence in Egypt. That deal also included the withdrawal of Ikhwan candidates from the parliamentary elections of 1942. Again, Hassan did this as a matter of practicality. In return, the government vowed not to crack down on his movement and to take action against the sale of alcohol and prostitution.
Herein lies the parallel between Hassan and the contemporary Ikhwan.
When the leaders of the post-uprising Ikhwan decided not to partner with the Wahabbi-inclined An-Nour, they too were being pragmatic. At first glance, it might have been sensible for the two Islamist parties that had garnered huge support in the 2011 parliamentary elections to form a coalition government. But a closer inspection reveals that it made better sense for the Ikhwan to align itself with parties that were not Islamist in order to convince their secular detractors within and Western superpowers without of their legitimacy to run Egypt.
Seen in this light, Hassan al-Banna’s greatest legacy is not that he left behind a divided organization whose endgame was conservative Islamism, but he rather seeded an adaptable political force that Egyptians, and the world at large, has to reckon with. Today, most Muslim-majority nations, including far-off places like Indonesia, have some kind of Ikhwan-affiliated organization.
The malleability of Hassan al-Banna permeated every aspect of his personality to the point that his Ikhwan peer Farid Abdel Khaliq noticed that even his attire—a suit, a djellaba, or a fez—was a “calculated decision designed to achieve maximum impact.”  Judging from the rhetoric of the post-uprising Ikhwan, Hassan’s ideological children too are well on their way to mastering the art of dressing right for the occasion.
Nazry Bahrawi is a cultural critic pursuing his doctoral degree at the University of Warwick. He was formerly a research associate with the Middle East Institute.
Trevor Stanley, “Hassan al-Banna: Founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ikhwan al-Muslimun,” Perspectives on World History and Current Events, 2005. Available at http://www.pwhce.org/banna.html.
 Alison Pargeter, The Muslim Brotherhood: The Burden of Tradition (London: Saqi Books, 2010), 22.
 Ibid., 23.