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Journal ArticleDOI

Who supported the early Muslim Brotherhood

21 Oct 2021-Politics and Religion (Cambridge University Press (CUP))-pp 1-29

AbstractScholarship on political Islam suggests that support for early Islamist movements came from literate merchants, government officials, and professionals who lacked political representation. We test these claims with a unique tranche of microlevel data drawn from a Muslim Brotherhood petition campaign in interwar Egypt. Matching the occupations of over 2,500 Brotherhood supporters to contemporaneous census data, we show that Egyptians employed in commerce, public administration, and the professions were more likely to sign the movement’s petitions. The movement’s supporters were also overwhelmingly literate. Contrary to expectations, the early Brotherhood also attracted support from Egyptians employed in agriculture, albeit less than we would expect given the prevalence of agrarian workers in the population. A case study tracing Muslim Brotherhood branch formation and petition activism in a Nile Delta village illustrates how literate, socially mobile agrarian families were key to the propagation of the movement in rural areas

Topics: Agrarian society (53%), Population (52%), Politics (50%)

Summary (3 min read)

1 Introduction

  • Since their emergence in the early twentieth century, mass participation Islamist movements have gone on to become key actors in the politics of the Middle East and beyond (Ayoob, 2009; Hafez, 2003; Moaddel, 2005; Wickham, 2002; Wiktorowicz, 2004).
  • While these arguments are widespread in the literature on political Islam, they are primarily derived from small samples of prominent activists and leaders.
  • Uniquely, these petitions record the names and occupations, as well as the literacy status, of over 2,500 individuals.
  • Most importantly, after accounting for their prevalence in the population, Egyptians employed in commerce, public administration, and the professions were significantly overrepresented among the signatories.

2 Social sources of early political Islam

  • One of the most consequential movements to be established during this period was the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, who would go on to claim several hundred thousand members and establish an organizational presence in most Muslim-majority countries (Wickham, 2013).
  • A key topic for scholarship has been to explain the sudden growth of the Muslim Brotherhood, and in particular, its initial social sources of support (Masoud, 2014).
  • In what follows, the authors review that literature, identifying the empirical state of the art, as well as considering why one or another social group was more or less likely to support the Brotherhood.

2.1 Who supported the early Muslim Brotherhood?

  • Much of what the authors know about the social backgrounds of early Muslim Brotherhood supporters is derived from biographies of prominent members and the movement’s leadership.
  • Munson (2001, 492) who draws on U.S. State Department reports of 179 Muslim Brothers arrested in 1954, also finds that government bureaucrats, professionals, and small business owners were especially prevalent amongst the movement’s membership.
  • As Harnett and Saleh (2021) document, in the decades leading up to the emergence of the Brotherhood, professionals, bureaucrats, and those employed in commerce were almost completely absent from Egypt’s parliament and political institutions.
  • This, in turn, produced novel forms of political imagination and activism that mobilized in opposition to established hierarchies and European colonial encroachment.
  • Insofar as studies on the rise of political Islam link the appeal of Islamist activism to particular occupations and individual-level characteristics (and not others), this is a notable shortcoming of the literature.

3 Muslim Brotherhood petitions

  • In 1928, Hasan al-Banna, a public school teacher and recent graduate, founded the Muslim Brotherhood in the Suez Canal town of Ismailiyya.
  • In May 1941, this conflict broke into the open.
  • Following a pro-Axis coup in Britishcontrolled Iraq, and amid rumors of similar plottings in Cairo, the Ministry of Education ordered that al-Banna be transferred from the capital to the Upper Egyptian governorate of Qena, nearly 500 kilometers away.
  • The arrest of the Brotherhood’s national leadership prompted an unprecedented show of solidarity by the movement’s membership and supporters.

4 Empirical strategy

  • These petitions provide an unprecedented, micro-level insight into the social sources of early Muslim Brotherhood support.
  • Uniquely, a portion of the petitions sent in response to the arrests of the Brotherhood’s leadership in 1941 also record signatories’ names and occupations.
  • Compared across these four variables, subdistricts containing branches for which the authors have a petition do not significantly differ from subdistricts containing branches without a petition.
  • Islamic feelings and the aggression against the carriers of the banner of Islamic preaching.

5 Descriptive analysis

  • Figure 6 assigns signatories to their occupational sector using the categories recorded in the 1937 census.
  • The 45° red diagonal line marks equal representation.
  • Interestingly, the percentage of Muslim Brotherhood supporters employed in manufacturing was 2.7 percent (95% CI [1, 4]), compared to six percent (95% CI [3, 9]) of adults in the districts for which the authors have petitions.
  • Teachers were the most frequently recurring type of professional employment (50 percent).
  • Such was the demand for petitions from illiterates that there was a guild of petition writers who would compose the text of the petition, and then the petitioners would either sign or stamp the petition depending on their literacy status.

6 Multivariate analysis

  • To have confidence that certain occupations were under- or over-represented, multivariate methods are required.
  • The intraclass correlation from an empty model suggests that around 16 percent of the variation in the signing rate across occupations comes from differences between signatories’ districts.
  • Petitions exist for 15 Muslim Brotherhood branches located in eight districts.
  • 12To estimate the intraclass correlation for a hierarchical negative binomial model, the authors use the Stata code provided by Leckie et al (2019).
  • Following the literature and the descriptive analysis above, the number of signatories in an occupation relative to the economically active population in a district is explained by a vector of dummy variables, Xk, capturing sectors related to agriculture, manufacturing, commerce, public administration, and professional employment.

6.1 Results

  • Table 1 are the results with coefficients expressed as incidence-rate ratios (the exponent of the β coefficient).
  • In line with the descriptive analysis, the agrarian economy produced on average 77 percent fewer signatures than the authors would expect given the number of adults employed in that sector, while manufacturing saw 72 percent fewer signatories.
  • Table 2 tests several alternative specifications, including a mixed effects negative binomial model with random intercepts at the district level, a fixed effects OLS model, and a fixed effects Poisson model.
  • For the OLS model, the dependent variable is thus transformed to the inverse hyperbolic sine as log zero is undefined.
  • 13 Across all models, the commerce, professional and public administration sectors produced more signatories — and these associations are again statistically significant.

8 Conclusions and discussion

  • A unique set of petitions from interwar Egypt allows us to systematically assess the social sources of support for early political Islam.
  • This represents a more nuanced picture than the authors get from the case literature.
  • This point aside, their petition data on rank-and-file supporters otherwise aligns with earlier samples of the Brotherhood’s more prominent members, suggesting that there was no real sociological distance between the leadership and the base of the movement.
  • The authors cannot definitively establish whether the factors that drew these men into the movement were systematically different than their literate counterparts — but they suspect that their presence may be a consequence of the Muslim Brotherhood’s development in this period.
  • As with other elements of the Brotherhood’s mode of mobilizing — such as the formation of scout units, adoption of uniforms, public marches and demonstrations, formal membership and branch structures — the Brotherhood’s use of petitions formed part of a pattern whereby early Islamists drew on preexisting repertoires of contentious politics that were extra-Islamic in origin (Lia, 1998).

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Who Supported the Early Muslim Brotherhood?
Neil Ketchley, Steven Brooke and Brynjar Lia
September 28, 2021
Abstract
Scholarship on political Islam suggests that support for early Islamist movements
came from literate merchants, government officials, and professionals who lacked
political representation. We test these claims with a unique tranche of
microlevel data drawn from a Muslim Brotherhood petition campaign in interwar
Egypt. Matching the occupations of over 2,500 Brotherhood supporters to
contemporaneous census data, we show that Egyptians employed in commerce,
public administration, and the professions were more likely to sign the movements
petitions. The movements supporters were also overwhelmingly literate. Contrary
to expectations, the early Brotherhood also attracted support from Egyptians
employed in agriculture, albeit less than we would expect given the prevalence of
agrarian workers in the population. A case study tracing Muslim Brotherhood
branch formation and petition activism in a Nile Delta village illustrates how
literate, socially mobile agrarian families were key to the propagation of the
movement in rural areas.
Keywords Political Islam; Muslim Brotherhood; Egypt
Neil Ketchley (neil.ketchley@politics.ox.ac.uk) is Associate Professor in Politics in the
Department of Politics and International Relations and Fellow of St Antony’s College, University of
Oxford. Steven Brooke (sbrooke@wisc.edu) is Assistant Professor in Political Science in the Department
of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Brynjar Lia (brynjar.lia@ikos.uio.no)
is Professor of Middle East Studies in the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages,
University of Oslo. We are grateful for feedback from Nathan Brown, Ken Cuno, Mohamed Saleh,
and John Sidel, for constructive comments from two anonymous reviewers and the editors, to Gabriel
Koehler-Derrick for sharing data, and to Ahmad Atif for research assistance. This research was funded
by the University of Oslo and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education at
the University of Wisconsin-Madison with funding from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation.

1 Introduction
Since their emergence in the early twentieth century, mass participation Islamist
movements have gone on to become key actors in the politics of the Middle East and
beyond (Ayoob, 2009; Hafez, 2003; Moaddel, 2005; Wickham, 2002; Wiktorowicz, 2004).
In this paper, we return to the first instances of Islamist mobilization to examine the
social backgrounds of thousands of early supporters of political Islam. In doing so, we
build on a rich case literature that keys support for the first Islamist movements to
socially mobile, literate Muslims employed in commerce, public administration, and the
professions (see e.g. Ayubi 1991; Davis 1984; Lia 1998; Mitchell 1993; Munson 2001;
Masoud 2014). According to these studies, Islamist activism served as a vehicle for
political aspirations and social advancement. A corollary of this claim is that early
Islamist movements attracted little support from the nascent working class and those
employed in the agrarian economy. While these arguments are widespread in the literature
on political Islam, they are primarily derived from small samples of prominent activists
and leaders. This naturally raises questions about how well these claims generalize to
rank-and-file members and ordinary supporters.
To conduct our study, we use novel, micro-level data that captures the social
backgrounds of thousands of supporters of the early Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
Following its founding in 1928, the Brotherhood would go on to become one of the
largest and most influential Islamist movements in the world (Lia, 1998; Mitchell, 1993).
We focus on a pivotal moment in the movement’s early growth: in 1941, Muslim
Brotherhood branches from across Egypt sent petitions to the Egyptian government
protesting the arrest of the movement’s leadership by the wartime authorities. Uniquely,
these petitions record the names and occupations, as well as the literacy status, of over
2,500 individuals. Matching this source material to newly digitized, contemporaneous
census records presents the first opportunity to systematically compare a large sample
of early supporters of political Islam to the underlying population from which they are
drawn.
As we show, the rate at which Muslim Brotherhood supporters signed their names
1

to these petitions, as opposed to illiterate supporters who used stamps, greatly exceeds
the literacy rate in the districts that signers came from. This lends weight to the claim
that the early Brotherhood was more likely to attract support from literate Muslims.
Most importantly, after accounting for their prevalence in the population, Egyptians
employed in commerce, public administration, and the professions were significantly over-
represented among the signatories. Egyptians working in agriculture and manufacturing
were statistically less likely to sign the Brotherhood’s petitions; however, in terms of raw
numbers, the Brotherhood did manage to attract more support from agrarian workers
than we might expect given claims made in the case literature. To expand on the
statistical findings, we conduct a case study of local families in Gamgara al-Gadida,
a rural village in Qalyubiyya governorate in the Nile Delta that furnished one of the
petitions. By triangulating lists of founding officers of the Gamgara al-Gadida branch
reported in Brotherhood periodicals, high-resolution maps detailing local landholdings,
and other archival sources, we are able to reconstruct the social backgrounds of those early
Muslim Brotherhood members who signed this village’s petition. As the qualitative case
details show, the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have been especially adept at channeling
the aspirations of Egypt’s literate yet politically underrepresented rural middle class
including small farmers and the relatives of agricultural workers into consequential
social movement activism.
2 Social sources of early political Islam
The decades following the First World War saw mass participation Islamist movements
emerge in the Indonesian Archipelago (Noer, 1973; Shiraishi, 1990), Central Asia (Khalid,
1999), the Indian subcontinent (Minault, 1982; Reetz, 2006), and the Middle East and
North Africa (Lia, 1998; Brooke and Ketchley, 2018; Masoud, 2014). One of the most
consequential movements to be established during this period was the Egyptian Muslim
Brotherhood, who would go on to claim several hundred thousand members and establish
an organizational presence in most Muslim-majority countries (Wickham, 2013). A key
2

topic for scholarship has been to explain the sudden growth of the Muslim Brotherhood,
and in particular, its initial social sources of support (Masoud, 2014). In what follows,
we review that literature, identifying the empirical state of the art, as well as considering
why one or another social group was more or less likely to support the Brotherhood.
2.1 Who supported the early Muslim Brotherhood?
Much of what we know about the social backgrounds of early Muslim Brotherhood
supporters is derived from biographies of prominent members and the movement’s
leadership. Mitchell (1993) begins the genre by analyzing the appellations of 112 delegates
to a Muslim Brotherhood conference held in 1935. As he notes (1993, 329), most of the
delegates were “effendis” members of Egypt’s literate, lower middle classes. Mitchell’s
book-length account of the Brotherhood is also noteworthy for being the first to leverage
repression to generate samples of movement supporters. In an analysis of several dozen
Muslim Brothers arrested in the 1950s, Mitchell discerns an “urban middle class effendi
predominance among the activist membership. We obtain a more precise description
from Ayubi (1980, 493), who analyzes trial data and “wanted” lists of several hundred
Brothers published by the Egyptian government in the 1950s. As he observes, “the
Muslim Brothers who were brought to trial were mainly civil servants, teachers, white-
collar workers, small merchants, businessmen, and students. Davis (1984, 142-143)
reports a similar pattern in his analysis of 11 Muslim Brotherhood leaders active in the
1930s and trial data of 701 Muslim Brothers arrested in 1954 and 1965. Munson (2001,
492) who draws on U.S. State Department reports of 179 Muslim Brothers arrested in
1954, also finds that government bureaucrats, professionals, and small business owners
were especially prevalent amongst the movement’s membership.
When explaining the prominence of these occupational groups, a recurring claim is
that support for early political Islam traces back to a “revolt of the petite bourgeoisie”
(Fischer, 1982). In this telling, the first Islamists “the petty clerks and functionaries
of the overswollen bureaucracy ... and the small businessman” (Wendell, 1978, 5) were
increasingly politically conscious, but otherwise overlooked by a political elite dominated
3

by aristocratic notables and large landowners.
1
As Harnett and Saleh (2021) document, in
the decades leading up to the emergence of the Brotherhood, professionals, bureaucrats,
and those employed in commerce were almost completely absent from Egypt’s parliament
and political institutions. Figure 1 shows the occupations of MPs elected to the Lower
House of the Egyptian Parliament in 1936, shortly after the founding of the Brotherhood
(cited in Subhi, 1939, 175-190). The trend is clear: notables, former ministers, and
landowners dominate, while merchants and government employees are vanishingly rare.
Lawyers are well-represented; however, teachers, doctors and other professionals barely
feature. Egypt’s largest parliamentary movement at this time, the Wafd, embodied this
tendency, showing little appetite for expanding its membership beyond a small group
of notables. In consequence, the Wafd often appeared to be little more than a “broad
banner hovering over a crowd which it had no interest in organizing” (Issa cited in Abdalla,
2008, 21). This, at a time of increasing mobilization and associational activities that saw
the emergence of new extra-parliamentary movements and religious societies that were
increasingly critical of the Wafd’s political leadership and their failure to end British
colonial rule (see especially Jankowski, 1975; Gershoni and Jankowski, 2009). Against this
backdrop, it is argued, new social movements in the interwar period looked to mobilize
those “disenchanted elements of the middle classes” (Abdalla, 2008, 21) who sought a
political voice at a time of profound socio-economic transformation and national political
consciousness (see Lia 1998; Tripp 1984).
A corollary argument is that early supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were also
disproportionately literate (Ayoob, 2009; Moaddel, 2005; Kalmbach, 2020). Brooke and
Ketchley (2018) provide systematic evidence for this tendency, showing that the Muslim
Brotherhood was initially more likely to establish branches in areas with higher literacy
rates (see also Masoud, 2014). In making sense of this association, scholars often invoke
1
As Ayubi (1994, 70) catalogs, Egyptian notables were a landowning-bureaucratic elite, many of whom
owed their status to being military officers and tax farmers in the period prior to the British occupation.
Under that occupation, these notables became key intermediaries between the colonial government and
Egypts provincial authorities, while also expanding their economic power through new initiatives tied
to agro-capitalism and nascent industrialization.
4

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