Marie Vannetzel, The Muslim Brothers in Society: Everyday Politics, Social Action, and Islamism in Mubarak’s Egypt (The American University in Cairo Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Marie Vannetzel (MV): I first came to Egypt in the autumn of 2005. Mubarak had just been reelected in the first pluralist presidential elections, and the parliamentary elections were taking place within a context of political turmoil, amid nascent movements and social protests. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which was an illegal yet powerful organization, managed to win twenty percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly. I found it fascinating that members of an illegal group would be seated in parliament. How could such a paradox be possible? And what did it mean that the MB was a powerful organization? How could they mobilize people to vote for them if they were constrained by illegality? These are the questions that I had in mind while starting my research.

I also became aware, gradually, that the offices of MB members of parliament (MPs) were a unique and fantastic opportunity to “localize” their networks in Cairo neighborhoods, and for me to study them on the ground. I wish I could have researched the reach of the MB in rural communities as well, but this was not an easy task. Therefore, the book offers an ethnographic analysis of the Brotherhood’s everyday politics and social activities in three districts of Greater Cairo. How, in practice, did the Brothers relate to local populations? What social services did they provide and how did they do so? How did they adopt different forms of mobilization according to local contexts, and what were the political impacts of these on a micro and macro scale?

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MV: The book addresses the dynamics of the social embedding of the Brotherhood. In literature, the Gama‘a has been looked at in terms of a much larger Islamic social movement (Singerman 2003; Clark 2004; Bayat 2007) or as a “parallel Islamic sector” to the state (Wickham 2002). However, the organization’s connections with charities, mosques, clinics, schools, and state institutions had not been empirically explored. Much of this might be attributed to the absence of empirical data, and because such connections were not visible, since they very rarely took a formal organizational form. An exception is the work of Sarah Ben Néfissa (2003) and Mohamed Fahmy Menza (2012) on the relations between the Brotherhood and the prominent charity al-Gam‘iyya al-Shar‘iyya. After the 2011 revolution, new studies started to appear, such as the excellent book by Steven Brooke (2019), which scrutinizes the Islamic Medical Association, another important Brotherhood-linked charity.

The question of how the MB operates within social structures gained prominence after the revolution, as it partly—and only partly—explains why and how the Brotherhood achieved electoral success in 2011-2012, and then why it collapsed in 2013. Tarek Masoud has published an important book on this topic (Masoud 2014). He argues that the core of the Muslim Brothers’ electorate was made up of middle-class voters, and that they conjuncturally obtained the support of the lower classes in 2011 to 2012—whereas, before 2011, the poor used to vote for Mubarak’s party, the National Democratic Party (NDP). But the MB government did not provide a social policy benefiting the poor, which led the latter to withdraw their support in 2013. Brooke similarly insists that the MB’s main priority has always been to mobilize the middle classes, but he also finds that, paradoxically, the key to the political success of the Brotherhood’s social activities lay in their depoliticization (Brooke 2019). The apparent depoliticized character of welfare provision had positive reputational effects for the MB. This conclusion is consistent with mine. My book intends to show in more detail how these reputational effects were brought about, and some of the subtle forms of politicization that resulted from them. I use the concept of the “politics of goodness” to capture a specific feature of everyday political practices in Mubarak’s Egypt, which is that they were mostly non-politicized. They had to do with the provision of khadamat (social services) and khayr (goodness, charity), and they were implemented through tightly linked networks in which political divisions, like those between the MB and the NDP, were not largely apparent. There was no such thing as a parallel Islamist sector on the ground. It was much more fluid and intercutting, even though conflictual. This could only be shown through an ethnographic approach, as I tried to do, allowing me to mitigate the idea of a break between the lower and middle classes. In my view, poverty is so widespread in the country that much of the middle classes should be described as popular classes, and we cannot straightforwardly state that these popular classes were only conjunctural voters who became disappointed altogether.

My book also discusses the literature, which flourished after 2013, on the internal structure of the Brotherhood (Kandil 2015; al-Anani 2016). These studies argue that it was the indoctrination of members, and the fact that they were cut off from the rest of society, which best explains the Brotherhood’s failure to establish a solid social base outside the narrow circle of its own activists. The problem with this literature is that it focuses on the sectarian aspect of the Gama‘a, while almost completely ignoring its social dimension. On the contrary, I try to consider the public and the hidden facets of the Gama‘a as two sides of a single coin; the public facet being turned outward, toward social embedding, and the hidden one being turned inward, toward the inner world of the organization. I aim to show that neither facet can be fully understood without the other. Indoctrination shaped individual and collective forms of behavior that were the vehicle for the informal social embedding of the Brotherhood. The Brothers intended to act as virtuous neighbors without making their identity obvious, but at the same time behaving in such a way that that they could also potentially be identified as members of the organization. It was this behavior, subtle and implicit, that led to judgments being made about the overall “virtue” of the Brotherhood, and explains how affective and ethical bonds with constituencies were built. It also made the MB attractive to several groups of people that have received little attention until now in the literature: the sympathizers, whom I call associated personalities. By definition, these individuals were non-Brothers (some even belonged to the former ruling party, the NDP), or half-Brothers of some sort. I argue that while they were not members of the organization, they nevertheless constituted a stratum of the Gama‘a, were very active in the provision of its social services, and contributed to its daily existence on a local level.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

MV: The Muslim Brothers in Society is my first book and drew upon the work of my doctoral dissertation.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

MV: An original version of the book, in French, was published four years ago. I have updated it, rewritten many parts of it, and added two brand new chapters based on additional fieldwork that I conducted afterwards. I am so enthusiastic to be able at last to share my work with an English-speaking audience. My main hope is that the book might reach Egyptian colleagues and students. As a foreign academic, I often wonder about my legitimacy in studying a society that I was not born into—even if I have been getting to know it and have lived in it for many years. Engaging in discussion with and receiving feedback from Egyptian readers is important to me. Of course, I wish these discussions could be as peaceful as possible on such a sensitive and volatile topic, as I long for a more social science-oriented debate, and not a political one. As for the impact, I would like the book to show that ordinary sociological concepts and methods can prove relevant in the study of Islamist movements as well. We do not need to consider them as an extraordinary category, even if we need to study these movements’ specificities. I also intend to demonstrate the benefits of qualitative, micro, ethnographic research to address “big issues” in political science.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

MV: I am now exploring another aspect of welfare provision in Egypt, which is the reform of food and energy subsidies. I remember that, one day, my PhD director told me: “Actually, you are not working on the Muslim Brothers. It’s about the social construction of politics.” And this is true. So, my question remains quite the same: how are welfare provisions of varying kinds embedded in political representations and judgments? I analyze the ongoing shift to a new paradigm of social redistribution that involves multiple actors and stakeholders, from the international level to a very local scale, the latter being the popular receptions and perceptions of reform.

J: How did you manage to get the access you did during fieldwork? 

MV: As surprising as this might seem now, I found the telephone numbers of the Brotherhood MPs in the Directory of the Parliamentary Elite (Rabi‘ 2006) that used to be published by al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies! However, my introduction to the MP in Helwan was helped by a colleague of mine who had done an interview with him in the 1990s, when he was the head of a charity association. He remembered her and put his trust in me. He let me come and go to the local offices in his constituency to observe what was going on, and he introduced me to other MPs. I also benefited a lot from the help of MB bloggers who were trying to open up the Gama‘a and who, at the same time, worked in the MPs’ teams. This book owes a lot to them.


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 4, “The Politics of Goodness,” pp. 159-164)

When we first met at an English course that she had organized in one of ‘Isam Mukhtar’s offices in Madinat Nasr in summer 2009, ‘Madame’ Wafa’ introduced herself as a “donor” (mutabarri‘a). However, it turned out that her role lay less in giving money than in identifying people who needed help in her neighborhood and putting them in contact with organizations that could assist them. When I asked her whether she was a sort of popular leader (qiyada sha‘biyya), she burst out laughing. She probably thought that this term, usually only used for men, sounded comical when used by a European, but she may also have thought that her involvement in this type of action had been too recent to warrant so grand a title. It would thus be better to describe Wafa’ as a lesser notable in the making in her ‘Izbat, a tiny district of narrow streets and cul-de-sacs in the area behind the MP’s office building. This was a sha‘bi (popular) area in the full sense of the term, since it was a mixture of informal housing, old buildings, and shops belonging to carpenters, mechanics, makwagiyyin (ironers), barbers, locksmiths, and grocers.

Wafa’ still lived in the building belonging to her grandfather in which she had been born in the 1960s and where she had brought up her two children. Her husband, whom she described as an “automobile engineer” in order to lend him social prestige, was in fact a mechanic in a small garage on the building’s ground floor (the “garage” was actually just a tiny office, as all the work took place on the street). She had studied accounting at a vocational institute, but she did not have a job. The first time that she had come into contact with the Brotherhood, she said, had been during the 2005 parliamentary elections when “they appeared [zaharu] in the neighborhood.” It was only later, during a clothing sale, that she had first entered the Brotherhood MP’s office.

Wafa’: I had seen a clothing sale at MP ‘Isam Mukhtar’s office announced on a banner in the street. So I went and was warmly welcomed. . . . Then I registered my mother for the Exemplary Mother Day in 2007, and she won the ‘umra prize [the minor pilgrimage to Mecca that can take place at any time of the year]. My mother is sick and has heart problems. My father died when I was small. Last year, I registered my sister-in-law, my two uncles, and my aunt for the ta’shirat al-higg [pilgrimage] draw. My sister-in-law [who also lived in the ‘Izba] was one of the winners. . . . Then I saw that there was a medical caravan visiting the area from leaflets distributed in the street. I took my daughter and my husband for a medical examination, since it was free.

Me: But isn’t that only for very poor people?

Wafa’: No, everyone can go, but the poor don’t pay for medicine, as it is very expensive. I paid for the medicine. It was only the consultation that was free.

Me: But why didn’t you go to a doctor in his office?

Wafa’: Because they were not regular doctors [at the medical caravan]. They were specialists. My daughter had a problem with her eyes, and my husband and I had problems with our stomachs. Sometimes I go to see a doctor, but private doctors are very expensive.

The case of Wafa’ indicates the way in which the usual division between the middle classes and the poor did not in fact describe the many intermediary levels contained within these two categories. While she did not clearly identify herself as poor, she nevertheless experienced financial vulnerability that did not allow her to cover her family’s healthcare needs, for example. She was sufficiently well off economically to escape from precariousness and even achieve a certain relative well-being, but she was not able to meet unexpected or unusual expenses—she could afford to pay for a regular medical consultation, but she could not afford specialized treatment—and her social advancement had been fragile and had not allowed her to leave the ‘Izba in which she lived. (…) Wafa’ had first come to the MP’s office not only because she was looking for help to pay for big or small extras to everyday life (such as, in addition to medical costs, new clothes and her mother’s pilgrimage), but also because she aspired to a higher social status. The role she had found had allowed her to realize that ambition, and she had become an essential intermediary between the MP and her neighborhood as a result, all the more so as it was one where the Brotherhood did not enjoy a strong grassroots presence. She described her role as follows: “When I see someone among my neighbors who’s ill or needs help, I call Hagg ‘Isam and tell him the problem. He then decides what should be done. The other day, there was a young couple. The wife had given birth in the seventh month of pregnancy and so the baby needed to be put in an incubator. But in the hospital they were at, the incubator was very expensive, and as the baby had been very small when he was born, he was going to have to stay in hospital for several weeks at le2,500 a week. So Hagg ‘Isam got in touch with al-Gam‘iyya al-Shar‘iyya, as they have a clinic that specializes in babies like this. They sent an ambulance because the baby could not be taken out of the incubator, and they transferred him to their clinic for free.”(…) During the years that followed her first contact with Mukhtar’s team, she completely adopted this role of intermediary, so much so that she spent most of her time in the narrow streets of the ‘Izba or calling up people in search of individuals needing help. While the role of intermediary helped her to climb the social ladder, it should be emphasized that Wafa’ was never acting alone. Instead, she was part of a network of neighborhood social relations whose structure shows how tightly interrelated were the local networks of political actors who at the national level were considered to be in competition with each other, or were even outright opponents.

Wafa’ said that in some cases, for example when the MP was away, she would approach a neighborhood woman, Nur, who was “just below Mr. Husayn,” the manager of Mukhtar’s office in the area. She did not use the term ‘Muslim Sister’ to describe Nur, but that was what her words suggested. Nur was an enigmatic character who, according to Wafa’, “does not go out much” (matezharsh ketir). However, she organized charitable activities on Mukhtar’s behalf, and she also helped identify people in need. S., for example, a widow who needed an operation and whom I met with Wafa’, had been able to obtain the treatment she needed at the Gam‘iyya al-Shar‘iyya hospital thanks to Nur’s intervention. S. also received le100 a month from Nur that she said came from “the Brothers.” But was it really coming from the Brothers? Or did Nur give out part of the non-official zakat funds that she collected from donors who were not necessarily members of the Brotherhood? Whatever the answer to this question might have been, the important thing was that S. believed it to be the case.

Wafa’ said that Nur also organized a free meal for thirty or so people every Friday at one of the mosques in the ‘Izbat area. This detail was interesting, since the meals were provided by the charity managing the mosque in question and in particular by the woman in charge of its social services. However, they were paid for through Nur, who was also in charge of delivering meals to people not able to collect their meals from the mosque. Wafa’ said she thought the money came from the MP’s office, as the meals were served “in the name of Hagg ‘Isam.” Her role was again that of identifying people who were eligible to receive the free meals in collaboration with Nur and the woman in charge of the charity’s social services. Wafa’ was well informed about how the meals were provided behind the scenes because she also had close links with the charity running the mosque in question. Wafa’ was a relative of the former director of the charity, who was none other than Sayyid ‘Abd al-Ghani, a ‘son of the ‘Izba,’ a member of the NDP, and the predecessor of Mustafa al-Sallab as MP. After his death in 2002, the charity had remained closely linked to the NDP. It had at least two members of the NDP on its board who were also members of the Cairo Governorate Local Popular Council, in the persons of Sheikh Lashin and Gharib, the son of ‘Abd al-Ghani, who was determined to become an MP in his turn. During a brief conversation that I had with Wafa’ and Sheikh Lashin at the charity on “social work in the area,” the sheikh praised the work being carried out by Mustafa al-Sallab, while half admitting that “I’ve heard that ‘Isam Mukhtar does the same thing.” Wafa’ talked up al-Sallab’s generosity and added that “both are good men.” As we were leaving, she laughed and said: Sheikh Lashin is pretending not to know that the Brothers and Hagg ‘Isam pay for the Friday meals because he is a member of the NDP, and he doesn’t want to admit it in public. But of course he knows.