A State Without a State: The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Social Welfare Institutions

By Abdullah Al-Arian, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar

* This memo was prepared for the “Islamist Social Services” workshop, September, 23, 2014. 

Although social welfare institutions have been an integral part of modern Islamic movements from their earliest days, Western scholarship has addressed this phenomenon only recently. As an extension of the broader literature on modernization of Arab societies, traditional studies of organizations like the Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt tended to focus on its ideological foundations and political ambitions. By the 1980s, scholars had begun to tackle the question of militant violence and the revolutionary potential of these same movements in the wake of the so-called “Islamic resurgence.” However, as the Muslim Brotherhood’s presence in society became “normalized” by a regime that turned a blind eye toward the group’s development of a robust social welfare sector, a new wave of scholarly studies focused on the role that these institutions play in the promotion of Islamic activism.[1]

Many of these works have been instrumental in expanding our understanding of how Islamic movements maintain their base of support within society and mobilize their resources in the course of their contention against the state. In the wake of the Arab uprisings, there appeared to be more urgency to this question, especially as many popular analyses applied the knowledge of Islamic social welfare institutions as a measure of how Islamist parties would fare in a nascent democratic political order. In fact, as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood succeeded in election after election following Hosni Mubarak’s removal from power, there was no shortage of analyses that argued that the proliferation of social welfare projects, from clinics and schools to bread lines and charities, played a direct role in mobilizing millions of impoverished Egyptians to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidates.[2]

These recent analyses are problematic in that they limit our understanding of these institutions solely to their relevance in the political sphere, rather than the broader social function that they provide. In fact, the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that emerged after the coup of July 3, 2013 has operated largely by the same logic. During his presidential campaign, Sisi audaciously pledged that “there will be nothing called the Muslim Brotherhood during my tenure.”[3] His strategy to fulfill that promise has centered on breaking the perceived base of Muslim Brotherhood support across Egyptian society. Over the course of the past year, the government has taken unprecedented measures to dismantle the network of social services institutions run by the Muslim Brotherhood and its sympathizers, irrespective of what this means for many Egyptians who depend on them for their basic welfare needs.[4]

Due to the serious consequences that this strategy carries for the future of Egypt, it is worth interrogating the assumptions that form the basis for claims made by analysts and regime proponents alike. To do so requires that we examine some of the key findings by specialists in this field, as well as to trace the historical development of the phenomenon in question.

In her 2004 study of Islamic medical clinics, Janine Clark challenged the prevailing notion among some scholars who suggest that “the mere successful provision of services by the middle class to the poor is generally assumed to result in a growing number of adherents to the Islamist movement in the streets and/or at the ballot box.”[5] As Clark demonstrates, not only is there no basis to draw a direct correlation between the provision of services and political mass mobilization, but in fact the Islamic medical clinics in Egypt were run largely “by and for the middle class.”[6]

The rise of a new middle class during the second half of the twentieth century, what Carrie Wickham has termed the “lumpen intelligentsia,” provided the Muslim Brotherhood with a fresh base of support. Resulting from a shift in state policy that began under Gamal Abdel Nasser, this classification is defined by recently urbanized, educated, professionals, many of whom specialize in fields such as medicine and engineering. There is an important distinction to be made between the role that social welfare institutions play in establishing networks for Islamic activists and their ability to actively mobilize large swaths of the Egyptian public.

One can trace the development of the former through the historical re-emergence of the Islamic movement during the early 1970s. This decade is noted for the rise of a vibrant Islamic youth movement based in Egypt’s colleges and universities. Many of the leaders of this movement were students at Cairo University’s College of Medicine where, as part of their medical training, they treated patients in a wing of Qasr al-Aini Hospital that housed prisoners seeking medical care. It was during the course of those interactions that young leaders like Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, Essam el-Errian, and Helmi al-Gazzar would come to meet veterans of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood for the very first time.[7]

Those interactions increased over the course of the decade. With their gradual release from prison, veteran leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood committed themselves to reestablishing the group’s internal structure, while at the same time continuing to form linkages with the broader youth movement. Student leaders demonstrated a strong commitment to popular activism as well as political engagement. They swept student union elections and developed programs that offered students subsidized textbooks, free medical care, safe modes of transportation, and even religious pilgrimage trips. On occasion, they also confronted the regime of Anwar al-Sadat on policies ranging from the lifting of food subsidies to Egypt’s hosting the overthrown shah of Iran.

In short, the development of these expressions of Islamic activism was part of an organic process in which newly urbanized middle class students were cultured into broader communal engagement that encompassed social welfare programs as well as political activism. By the early 1980s, that same spirit was internalized into the rejuvenated Muslim Brotherhood with the admission of thousands of young Egyptians into its ranks under the leadership of General Guide Umar al-Tilmisani. Those efforts continued into the subsequent decades with the Muslim Brotherhood’s entry into professional associations, its development of social welfare institutions, and its increasing political engagement with the state.

In the course of this enhanced visibility within Egyptian society, major tensions emerged between some Muslim Brotherhood leaders who promoted broader engagement with society and others who eschewed it in favor of a more inward focus devoted to establishing discipline across the ranks and organizational durability in the face of the inevitable next wave of state repression. The tendency by some observers to conflate the emergence of these distinct trends lends credence to the notion that the Muslim Brotherhood represents a “state within a state.” The rise of social welfare institutions demonstrates that the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as a direct competitor to the state in the provision of services that are a direct extension of the state’s domain. Coupled with that, the continued existence of an insular organizational structure on the order of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau gives the appearance of a non-state entity that seeks to displace the regime and impose its vision of a decidedly Islamic state.

In the post-Mubarak transition, those impressions were put to the test, resulting in the widespread belief that the Muslim Brotherhood’s decades of work in the social services sector would translate directly into success at the polls. However, the group’s leading political operators, figures like Khairat al-Shater and Mohamed Morsi, represented the insular tanzim or organizational school of thought within the Muslim Brotherhood and had a limited history of civic engagement. Whatever attempts they made to mobilize longstanding networks of social services toward immediate political objectives were a recent, makeshift development resulting from Egypt’s rapidly shifting political environment. Meanwhile, Aboul Fotouh, who had dedicated the bulk of his career to public service, abandoned the Muslim Brotherhood name altogether in deciding to resign from the organization and run as an independent candidate for the Egyptian presidency.

Preliminary studies of the demographic breakdown of the Egyptian electorate appear to substantiate the claim that Islamists did not fare better among the poorest Egyptians who went to the polls. While support for Islamist parliamentary lists in the 2011-2012 elections ranged from 64 percent to 71 percent among the categories marked poor and very poor, respectively, they ranged from 65 percent to 70 percent among the upper and lower middle classes, respectively.[8]

Despite the fact that Islamists account for nearly half of Egypt’s social welfare institutions, scholars have long maintained that these institutions “were not places for Islamist political mobilization; they simply acted as service organizations.”[9] As contemporary political analysts begin to contemplate an increasingly authoritarian Egypt devoid of social welfare institutions run by Islamists, it is instructive to consider whether their existence was ever truly a threat to the dominant political order.

Abdullah Al-Arian is an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar and a visiting scholar at the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He is the author of Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt (Oxford University Press, 2014).


[1] Some prominent examples of these studies include: Janine Clark. Islam, Charity, and Activism: Middle-Class Networks and Social Welfare in Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004. And Carrie Rosefsky Wickham. Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

[2] See for instance Frederick Kunkle, “In Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood’s charitable works may drive political support,” Washington Post, April 8, 2011.
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[3] Louisa Loveluck. “Sisi says Muslim Brotherhood will not exist under his reign,” Guardian, May 5, 2014.

[4] Louisa Loveluck, “Egypt court bans Muslim Brotherhood, eliminating its critical social services,” Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 2013.

[5] Clark, p. 3.

[6] Ibid. p. 33.

[7] Abdullah Al-Arian. Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 156.

[8] www.ducoht.org

[9] Asef Bayat. Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007, p. 44.

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