‘Isām al-‘Irīyān

cIsām al-cIrīyān (*1954)


cIsām al-cIrīyān is the Head of the political office of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and  Assistant Secretary-General of the Egyptian Doctors’ Syndicate. He has played a major role in turning the Muslim Brotherhood into a political organization with a focus on civil rights, pluralism, democracy and tolerance of other communities.


Education and Medical Career Hampered by Imprisonment

Al-cIrīyān was born in 1954 in Giza, Cairo. He graduated from Cairo University with a degree in Medicine and Surgery and finished his MSc in Clinical Pathology in 1986. In the early 1990s he was registered for a PhD at Cairo University focusing on the topic: The effects of the Ramadan fast on diabetes patients.


However, his research was hampered when he was imprisoned in 1995. During this imprisonment (1995-2000) he enrolled for three other undergraduate degrees. Thus, in 2000 he obtained a degree in Law and a degree in Literature from Cairo University, followed by a degree in Islamic Sharīcah from al-Azhar and a diploma in General Law from Cairo University. He also holds a license in Qur'ānic recitation.


The Beginnings of his Involvement in the Muslim Brotherhood

Al-cIrīyān is a member of the “middle generation" of Brotherhood leaders, who developed their political stance in students’ politics in the early 1970s.(1) They did not experience the fierce state-persecution and torture of President Nāsir’s tenure in the 1950s and 60s, but were influenced by a more accepting position of the state toward the Islamists during the early period of President Sādāt’s rule. It is argued that this might have led them to prefer a political approach of working within the system to operating as a clandestine opposition group.


Al-cIrīyān first got involved in Islamic political activities through student politics in the early 1970’s. He became the ‘Emir’ of the Jamacah al-Islāmīyah and then the organizer of the Shūrá council in Egyptian universities of the same organization.(2) From 1972 to 1977, he was a trustee of the cultural committee of the Union of Medical Students in Cairo. He was elected a member of the committee of the Doctors’ Syndicate in 1986, at a time when the Muslim Brotherhood was making a coordinated effort to gain influence in professional unions and syndicates in Egypt. Later, he was elected as a Member of Parliament - the youngest at the time - in 1984 and 1987 in the working class constituency of Imbaba, Cairo.


Series of Arrests and Imprisonments

cIsām al-cIrīyān has been arrested numerous times for his political involvement and for being a member of an illegal organization.(3) His first arrest was in the beginning of 1981 when he was held for a few months. He was arrested again in 1995 along with 27 other Muslim Brothers and convicted by a military court to 5 years of hard labor for membership of an illegal organization. This prevented him from running in the 1999 parliamentary elections. In May 2006, he was arrested again and kept in prison until December 2006.

cIsām al-cIrīyān has participated in numerous cultural and political seminars and conferences in Egypt and internationally in Europe, USA and other Arab and Islamic countries, despite the Egyptian authorities banning him from traveling on multiple occasions. He regularly publishes articles on the Muslim Brotherhood’s Arabic-language website and in Egyptian, Arabic and international newspapers and magazines. He has also made numerous appearances on Arab satellite channels and is well known in many parts of the Middle East.

Generation gap in the Muslim Brotherhood?

Al-cIrīyān belongs to the middle generation of the Muslim Brotherhood, who started their political career in the 1970’s. This generation has been described by observers as leading a reformist camp against the old guards, whose political views were influenced by the clandestine nature of the Brotherhood in its early days and later the repression under Nāsir.(4) Members of the middle and younger generations of the Brotherhood, while maintaining a staunch critique of the authoritarian government, have been more inclined to promote their call for change from within the official, political system. Some have even attempted to found a political party independently from the hierarchy of the Brotherhood. This party, the Wasat (middle) Party, was never approved by the state. There has been a lot of speculation in the press about a perceived schism within the Brotherhood; however, al-cIrīyān has continuously denied such claims(5):  


‘The recent parliamentary elections [in 2000] have shown that there is no such thing as generation wars. The representatives who succeeded are between their thirties and seventies. What happens within the group is respect for the elders. However, it does not prevent continuous debates aiming to achieve the benefit of our mission, and solving the problems it faces. It does also not prevent disagreements in opinions. Shura is the basis of decision making.’(6)


In 2004, he was bypassed in an appointment round for the Guidance Office, which some observers saw as a sign of his disagreements with the Supreme Guide.(7)

In 2005, he allegedly opposed the Supreme Guide’s support for President Mubārak’s candidacy in the presidential election, and said that he would run himself.(8) However, this has not been confirmed by other sources.  

According to al-Ahram newspaper cIsām al-cIrīyān was described as a pragmatic figure who bridges the internal differences in the Brotherhood:


’Essam El-Erian, 47, is possibly the most prominent representative of the new generation of Brotherhood leaders, viewed as dynamic, pragmatic and more open to new ideas and interaction with other political and ideological trends. He is responsible for analyzing and responding to press reports, prepares Brotherhood statements and acts as a bridge between the group's old guard and the younger cadre.’(9)


Al-cIrīyān Perspective on Democracy and Islam

Al-cIrīyān sees no contradiction between Islamic Sharīcah and modern democracy. He explained the political aim of the Brotherhood this way:


‘We seek a democratic, parliamentary republic that respects the rights of all citizens.’(10)


For him, democracy is a system of rule, whereas Sharīcah constitutes a moral and ideological inspiration for the policies to be propagated within this system:


‘Democracy is a way of managing political affairs. It doesn’t deal with the culture of society or its moral judgments… We believe in democratic institutions like a written constitution, political parties, the separation of powers, and popular sovereignty. The main difference [with the democratic systems of the West] is the frame of reference (marjacīyah). The West advocates liberalism with no limits.’(11)


Furthermore, he stated that Islam is in itself a force of pluralism:


‘We believe in a multi-polar Islamic project. It is our right in Egypt, the biggest Arab country, with all its Islamic history, [...] to offer our own Islamic form of government. Egypt has believing people, good scholars, a wide historical experience and excellent international relations, all capable of producing a good Islamic project. We have also learned the lessons of previous Islamic countries.’(12)


cIsām al-cIrīyān denounces extremely repressive forms of Islamic rule like the Taliban movement to which all Islamic governments object, and believes that:


‘some forms of government can be discussed, like Iran and Sudan, although they are facing many problems. Still, they do not serve as a model satisfying different Islamic currents.’(13)


Al-cIrīyān has more than once expressed that founding a Muslim Brotherhood party is the only way to end the stagnation in the Egyptian political arena.(14)


Use of Violence

The Muslim Brotherhood has often been accused of supporting violence or at least not strongly condemning other Islamist groups’ use of violence during the 1990’s.(15) In response to this, Al-cIrīyān has continuously stressed the non-violent nature of the organization.


‘The Brotherhood issued statements condemning the violence from the first day it erupted. What more were we supposed to do? And before the condemnation, the Brotherhood was never involved in any act of violence.’(16)


He also does not believe that there is a need for the Brotherhood revise its stance, since this revision goes on continuously, whether publicly or internally.(17)


Sacd al-Dīn Ibrāhīm, a well-respected secular Egyptian human rights activist, supports the view of al-cIrīyān as peaceful, saying that:


‘in the last 25 years, I never heard al-cIrīyān call for violence against, or hatred of, non-Muslims.’(18)


Jihād as Self-Defence

In an article from 2001, al-cIrīyān described the Afghani Talibān and Egypt’s al-Jamācah al-Islāmiyah as groups that unlawfully used violence to achieve their political goals. He continued to say that:


‘[this] does not apply to Al-Jihād, Hamas and the Palestinians in general because they use violence to resist occupation which is a legitimate action.’(19)


Others have criticized him for framing the Palestinian resistance in religious terms, claiming that it is fundamentally a nationalist struggle, so that framing it in Islamic terms causes divide between the Christian and Muslim parts of the population who should be cooperating.(20)

On this issue, al-cIrīyān said, the Muslim Brotherhood is in accordance with al-Azhar, which also says that Jihād can only be applied as self-defense.(21)


Reformist Approach

It was the moderate, educational and gradual approach of the Brotherhood which made Al-cIrīyān choose this organization as his political base. He stated his reason for joining the Brotherhood as follows:


‘[...] the Brotherhood has a long history as an Islamic group. Their way is that of Islam, with its simplicity and lenience. They also use a pragmatic and gradual process, the same one that the Prophet adopted: change from the bottom upwards, by changing souls and ideas. In addition, their method is the Islamic method of the middle course and moderation.’(22)


When confronted with claims that the Brotherhood’s efforts in Parliament were futile, he stressed the educational role of their work:


‘Every issue we address in the Assembly enlightens the public and creates a debate. This is enough for the time being.’(23)


He rejects the claim presented by some Western scholars that the Muslim Brotherhood is aiming to take over power in order to abolish democratic institutions. Instead, he argued that the Brotherhood is seeking political power through legitimate, legal means and that this should be encouraged:


‘The aim of these groups is to change the policies of the regime. Some view this as a conspiracy [against the governing regime] and an attempt to stage a coup [against it] as if no one has the right to think about attaining [political] power. There should be more democratic methods that allow all people to practice their political rights. Otherwise anyone who seeks to make a change will be accused of attempting to stage a coup. If we want to prove to all people that Islam rejects violence, we should support Islamic groups that are willing to engage in cooperation and dialogue.’(24)


Relations with the West

cIsām al-cIrīyān has been willing to talk to Western politicians and officials, even though this has traditionally been seen as a taboo within Islamist circles. In 2003, he took part in a conference set up by the Ibn Khaldūn Center in Cairo, to create understanding between Islamist activists and European officials25 and in 2004 he represented the Muslim Brotherhood in a conference conducted by the Carnegie Endowments in Jordan.(26)


In April 2007, he pointed out that:


‘the Muslim Brotherhood does not refuse to hold dialogue with the U.S. administration in particular, but there are several reservations toward the stance of the current U.S. administration after its clear retreat from reform in Egypt and its implicit support for the regime in repressing its people.’(27)


Al-cIrīyān Perception of Sharīcah

cIsām al-cIrīyān maintains a fundamentally Islamic world view and as such propagates the application of the Islamic Sharīcah. However, this still leaves plenty of room for political maneuvering, since the Sharīcah is not a single, codified law complex.


The vision of the Sharīcah that al-cIrīyān espouses does not exclude Christians. He believes that Christians and Muslims in Egypt share the same Islamic culture through centuries of common history.


Thus he sees the Brotherhood’s slogan “Islam is the solution" as a slogan that does not divide people or inspire sectarian strife. Indeed, in an interview from 2000, he stated that:


‘in Islam and the Shari'ah, all citizens have the right to a decent life. I assure you that there were Christians who ran for office under the slogan "Islam is the solution". It means that it is a slogan for all Egyptians, Muslims and Christians.’(28)


Al-cIrīyān has further reiterated that he would be willing to have direct negotiations with Coptic representatives, as:


‘the moderate Islamic stance gives equal rights to people of different religions and stresses the necessity of democratic reform to consolidate freedom and equality.’(29)


He linked this to a need to abolish the emergency laws and implement political freedoms, and called for the foundation of a supreme committee of national unity to settle such issues.



1 Diyā’ Rashwān: “Islamists in Transition", AWR, 1999, 11, art 2.

2 Al-Jamacah al-Islāmīyah was supported by President Sādāt in an attempt to counter socialist influences from supporters of the former president, Jamāl cAbd al-Nāsir. At this time the Jamacah was mostly a social student movement propagating conservative values. Later the organization developed more political aims and a violent strategy that was not revised until the late 1990’s after a decade of fierce confrontation with the Egyptian state. See more in the biography of al-Jamacah al-Islāmīyah’s spiritual leader, cUmar cAbd al-Rahman.

3 The Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed in Egypt since its assassination attempt against President Nāsir in 1954.

4 AWR, 2006, 7 art 40.

5 AWR 2004, 19, art 4.

6 AWR 2002, 52, art 3.

7 Ibid.

8 http://arabist.net/archives/2005/11/

9 http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2000/502/el2.htm

10 http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0209/p09s02-coop.html

11 Wickham, Carrie: “The Problem with Coercive Democratization: The Islamist Response to the U.S. Democracy Reform Initiative", Muslim World Journal of Human Rights, 2004, v.1, n.1, p. 4.

12 AWR 2000, 52, art 3.

13 Ibid.

14 AWR 2001, 23, art 1.

15 The Muslim Brotherhood has not been directly involved in any violent acts since an attempted assassination in October 1954 on then Prime Minister Jamāl cAbd al-Nāsir. However, the fact that the authorities refuse to acknowledge the organization makes it difficult to trace the clandestine links between the Brotherhood and other more radical organizations whose members may also be or have been members of the Brotherhood. This had led to much discussion about the perceived existence of a secret apparatus of the Brotherhood dedicated to violent resistance to the regime. 17 http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2000/502/el2.htm

16 AWR 2002, 41, art 5.

17 http://diplomatictraffic.com/opinions_archives.asp?ID=113

AWR 2001, 50, art 21.

19 AWR 2003, 16, art 8.

20 AWR 2001, 45, art 26.

21 AWR 2000, 36, art 3.

22 http://www.carnegieendowment.org/files/Abdel-Latif1.pdf

23 AWR, 2001, 50, art 21.

24 AWR 2003, 18, art 9.

25 This conference resulted in an analysis of the challenges of including Islamists in democracy in the Middle East: http://www.carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=18095&prog=zgp&proj=zdrl,zme



28 AWR 2000, 36, art 3. It is not clear from the quote who al-cIrīyān is referring to. The only Christian known to the editing staff of Arab-West Report to have supported the slogan is Makram Ebeid. His comments have been widely criticized in Coptic circles.

29 AWR 2005, 5, art 19.