The organisation started as a response to British imperialism in Egypt but is today a loosely-knit and pragmatic network of Islamic organisations that advocate reforming societies and governments to be in line with Islamic values.
The White House is working on measures to proscribe the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation, according to a report by the New York Times.
US President Donald Trump decided on the move after meeting Egyptian autocrat, Abdel Fattah el Sisi, in Washington last month.
In Egypt, as in several Gulf states, the Brotherhood is banned as a terrorist organisation. That’s despite the Egyptian branch of the group rejecting violence more than four decades ago.
The Egyptian president’s animosity towards the group has more to do with its popularity than it does with terrorism and violence.
During Egypt’s brief experiment with democracy following the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won both parliamentary and presidential elections.
One of its members, Mohamed Morsi, ruled Egypt for a year as its first and only freely elected president, until he was overthrown by a military coup led by Sisi in 2013.
Founded by a school teacher, Hasan al-Banna, as the Society of Muslim Brothers in 1928, the early Brotherhood sought to oppose the British presence in Egypt by reforming society along traditional Islamic values.
The organisation grew rapidly on the back of anti-British sentiment in the thirties and forties, developing chapters across the Middle East, and eventually turning into one of the main anti-imperialist political forces in Egypt.
During this time, the organisation started to develop armed branches in response to increasing domestic and regional instability.
A member of the group assassinated Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Mahir Pasha in 1945, but the killing was condemned by Banna.
In Palestine, the organisation sent volunteers to help Palestinian Arabs against the Zionist movement, which would later succeed in founding the state of Israel.
The chaos culminated in the assassination of Banna in 1948, possibly at the hands of the government. By the time of his death, the group had become a political force larger than its founder could ever have envisioned.
Despite the Brotherhood’s support for the 1952 Egyptian Revolution, the man behind it, Gamal Abdel Nasser, eventually turned on the group.
That crackdown intensified after an assassination attempt on Nasser, with the Egyptian leader executing and imprisoning the group’s leaders, and imprisoning and torturing its rank and file members.
The group’s members took more hardline views on political violence during this period of extreme repression.
After Nasser’s death in 1970, his successor Anwar Sadat loosened repressive policies against the group and freed thousands of prisoners.
It was during this period that the Egyptian branch categorically renounced violence and instead focused on political participation. However, some members split from the organisation and formed hardline groups, such as Gemaa Islamiya, that were just as opposed to the Brotherhood as they were the Egyptian state.
Accepting the democratic process
Today’s Brotherhood is deeply critical of groups like Daesh and Al Qaeda, and is often targeted by the terrorist organisations in areas where they operate.
Despite that, every Egyptian regime has seen the group as a threat, and an effective ban was placed on the group’s participation in elections due to their religious origins.
However, though officially banned, the Brotherhood contested parliamentary elections under Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak. The group also took advantage of periods of toleration by the government to invest heavily in welfare services, such as schools, clinics, and orphanages for Egypt’s poor.
When the 2011 revolution began, the Brotherhood gave its support despite early hesitancy, tipping the scales further against Mubarak.
Though support for the group among the Egyptian people is far from universal, its adeptness at grassroots organisation, and strong support base, made it the country’s leading political force.
When Sisi took power after the 2013 coup, he made sure that the group would never pose a threat to his rule.
Besides lobbying Trump to ban the group, the Egyptian dictator has jailed tens of thousands of the group’s supporters and killed hundreds in mass killings, such as the Rabaa and Presidential Guards massacres.
US move to proscribe the Brotherhood
Trump’s move to ban the group is the meeting point of two political trends; the first is the lobbying of Middle Eastern dictatorships, which see the group as a threat to their grip on power, and second, the spread of Islamophobic conspiracies among the conservative right.
In the latter, the Muslim Brotherhood fills the role of a secret organisation planning world domination. In this paranoid vision of the world, agents of the Muslim Brotherhood include the former US President Barack Obama and his CIA chief, Paul Brennan.
For Gulf regimes, such as the UAE and Saudi, as well as Egypt’s Sisi, the Brotherhood represents the most viable threat to their hold on power. The group has sympathisers across the Middle East, including among the region’s most influential families.
The group’s ability to mobilise people using religion, and provide a source of authority rooted in Islam rather than familial loyalty is seen as a threat by leaders who derive authority based on a mixture of brute authoritarianism and fears of chaos should their systems of rule break down.
But the group’s pariah status is not accepted across the board. Local affiliates or groups influenced by the organisation send legislators to parliament in Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Bahrain - all US allies.
A US move to ban the organisation will create obstacles in its dealing with those countries and will also have repercussions for Muslim organisations domestically.
Groups like the Council on American Islamic Relations have long been accused of having ties to the Brotherhood, charges they reject.
They fear that any move to crack down on the group will have an eventual effect on them.