Gamal al-Banna’s vision for Egypt would have set him at odds with his elder brother Hassan, the teacher who founded the Muslim Brotherhood as an Islamist movement in 1928 and was assassinated in 1949.
Gamal, Hassan’s last surviving sibling argues that Egypt today would be best served by a secular leader, and believes that the current mix of politics and religion will eventually fail.
Sitting in his Cairo office surrounded by shelves bulging with books from floor to ceiling, the 91-year-old Islamic scholar said Hassan would hardly recognize the Brotherhood as it is now, poised to enter government.
“There is a very big difference between the Muslim Brotherhood of the 1940s, the time of Hassan al-Banna, and now,” he told Reuters in an interview. “(Hassan) had aspirations but they were not political. (He espoused) Islam as a way of life.”
Banned under ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the Brotherhood today holds more than 43 percent of the seats in the Egyptian parliament, having won more than any other party in the country’s most democratic election in six decades.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is calling for a new coalition government that it would lead, bringing it closer to a position of executive power that would have been unthinkable under Mubarak’s rule.
Its success has created concern about its conservative social agenda. Though the Brotherhood, whose public focus has so far been on the economy and political reform, says it has no plans to impose sharia, Islamic law, Egyptians worried about personal freedoms remain unconvinced.
The electoral success of more hardline Salafi groups, which came second to the Brotherhood, has exacerbated those concerns.
“There are genuine fears because the heads of the Brotherhood now and the Salafis who got into parliament, none of them -- neither their organizations nor their ideas -- reflect that they are people who live in this day and age and understand how a nation can progress,” said Gamal al-Banna.
Gamal, noted for his liberal Islamic views including opposition to the veil for women and to mixing religion with politics, never joined the Muslim Brotherhood, and cut off contact with the group altogether after his brother’s killing.
Over the years, the Brotherhood has become more extreme on the question of women’s rights because of the spread of hardline Wahhabi thought from Saudi Arabia, he said.
Many of Gamal al-Banna’s publications, which number in the hundreds, have focused on women’s issues. He has argued that wearing the headscarf is not an Islamic, but a Gulf tradition.
Clean shaven, wearing glasses and casual clothes, he said he was opposed to the merging of politics and religion espoused by the Brotherhood, whose slogan has long been “Islam is the Solution.”
“Any nation founded on religion must fail. This has been true in the Islamic and Christian experience,” he said.
Reflecting on the Brotherhood’s performance in the recent parliamentary elections, Banna said its FJP party had ridden to success on the back of discontent with decades of autocracy rather than public support for its program.
“Many people who voted for the Brotherhood said: ‘We tried Socialism, we tried Nasserism, we tried pan-Arabism, so why not try the Brotherhood?’” he said.
Banna believes Egypt would be best served by a liberal president. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, had been the best candidate until he decided to withdraw from the race, he said.
“In the long run, someone like ElBaradei will succeed in Egypt. He was the fittest candidate if not the only one,” the kind of figure around whom the youth protest movement could and should coalesce, Banna said.
The military council that has been governing Egypt since Mubarak was toppled by a mass uprising last year has said it will hand power to the new president at the end of June. An election date has yet to be set.
The reform movement has a long way to go, Banna said, adding “This was a popular uprising that succeeded in destroying a system, but not in building a new one.”
Banna fondly recalled a happy childhood with his two brothers and two sisters in the city of Mahmoudeya near Alexandria.
Their father was a watch mender who spent years penning interpretations of the sayings of Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal, the originator of the strict, conservative Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence.
Banna recalled how, as children, Hassan and his friends had played out battles between Muslim and infidel armies. Both he and Hassan had been strongly influenced by their “deep-rooted Islamic heritage,” he said.
Hassan formed the Brotherhood while working as a teacher in the northeastern city of Ismailia in the 1920s, spreading his ideas in cafes and creating branches of the movement across northern Egypt before expanding it into a national organization.