Dr Muhammad Mursi's presidential election win on Sunday marks a watershed moment in the modern history of the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest Islamist organisation in the region which has been banned for most of its existence, now holds the presidency in the most populous and powerful of the Arab states. As a historian, I have to pause and ponder over that last sentence, because it is so incredible.
Since its foundation in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, the Muslim Brothers (Jama'at al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin) has been the archetypal opposition group in Egyptian politics. With its fierce anti-colonialist stance and resistance to the British-backed monarchy, it gained countrywide support through the 1930s and '40s. By the time of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the Muslim Brothers were powerful enough to send their own volunteers (mujahidin) to Palestine to fight on the Arab side. Soon branches spread to neighbouring Jordan, Syria and Palestine.
This is when the organisation first seriously tangled with the Egyptian state. Rumours of an imminent Brotherhood coup in December 1948 prompted the authorities to launch the first of many vicious crackdowns on the organisation, forcing it to dissolve. In retaliation, the Prime Minister who had ordered the arrests was assassinated by a member of the Brotherhood. A few months later, in February 1949, al-Banna was gunned down in a drive-by shooting on the streets of Cairo.
Following the violent takeover in a military coup by members of a secretive organisation within the Egyptian army - the so-called 'Free Officers' - and the subsequent establishment of a nationalist and fiercely secularist regime under Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Muslim Brotherhood's relations with the state deteriorated even further. Accused of plotting to assassinate Nasser, the Brothers yet again found themselves at the wrong end of a massive government clampdown, which saw thousands of their members thrown in prison.
Nasser's repressive style of government could not accept any opposition to his power; those who refused to toe the line and join the only officially sanctioned political organisation - the Arab Socialist Union - were politically and socially ostracised or simply thrown in jail. Until Nasser's death in 1970, the Muslim Brothers were severely restrained by the regime. Most of their senior leaders had been sentenced to indefinite prison terms, and their most influential theorist and political thinker, Sayyid Qutb, who inspired people like the current al-Qa'idah leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, was executed in 1966.
Yet, Anwar al-Sadat pursued a markedly different policy vis-à-vis the Muslim Brothers. As he opened up to the West and was keen to differentiate himself from his predecessor, he released many of the Muslim Brothers and gave them a comparatively free rein. As happened in many countries in the region during this period, Sadat utilised the politically conservative Brothers in his fight against the Left, who he regarded as a greater threat than the Islamists.
The opportunity for semi-legal work caused an existential crisis within the movement; the older generation who had been through decades of persecution favoured a non-violent road whereas a younger, more radical generation advocated the use of force to obtain political objectives. When Sadat signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1979, he aroused the ire of the radical young generation. In October 1981, Sadat was assassinated during a military parade by a group calling itself Tanzim al-Jihad.
Sadat was succeeded by Hosni Mubarak who, as a result of the new Islamist militancy, resumed Nasser's harsher stance towards the Brothers. Again, scores of their members were thrown into jail. Nevertheless, the old guard leadership was bent on pursuing a non-violent path and continued to press for political liberalisation. Meanwhile, several radical splinter groups went on to carry out terrorist attacks throughout the 1990s (the most spectacular of which was the assault on the Temple of Hatshepsut in November 1997 by al-Gama'ah al-Islamiyyah which saw 62 people killed).
Under the system set up by Mubarak, which gradually allowed more freedom of movement for the non-violent mainstream organisation, while clamping down on the radicals, the Muslim Brothers went from strength to strength. Despite facing a political ban, the organisation was able to expand its social, cultural and religious activities throughout the 1990s and 2000s. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, despite being banned from running as a political party, independent candidates linked to the Brothers gained more than 20% of the vote - an indication of their growing political importance and a taste of what was to come after Mubarak's fall.
Viewed in this historical light, the ascent of the Muslim Brothers to the top position in Egyptian politics is remarkable. Of course, no one knows whether the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) - the group of military men who have been running things behind the scenes since Mubarak's ousting - will allow the presidency under the Muslim Brothers to wield real power. Nevertheless, the sight of Dr Muhammad Mursi being presented as Ra'is al-Jumhuriyyah (President of the Republic) was something I never thought I would see, and regardless of the future course of Egyptian politics it marked a truly historic moment.
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