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Fawaz A Gerges: This Brotherhood has a real sense of purpose

Analysis: Since the 1970s, the Brotherhood has tried to position itself as a centrist religious mainstream political movement

An examination of the Muslim Brotherhood suggests yesterday's events in Cairo are a logical extension of its history. It was founded in the 1920s by school teacher Hassan al-Banna. By the end of the 1940s, its numbers had swollen to more than 500,000 on the back of its three major causes: battling British colonialism, resistance to a new Jewish state and fighting corruption in Egypt. Now it is Egypt's most powerful opposition movement and has inspired Islamist movements worldwide.

Even though it was supposed to be apolitical and religious, in the 1930s al-Banna established a paramilitary wing. It carried out multiple operations against prominent Jews and targeted political leaders and judges in Egypt. In 1948, one of the Brothers assassinated the prime minister. As a result, the security services killed al-Banna, creating in the Muslim Brotherhood a chasm between the political and paramilitary wings.

The target for the Brotherhood remained the British-backed monarchy and it backed the three army officers, including Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led the Egyptian revolution.

The tactical alliance did not last more than a few months. They had divergent political goals: the Muslim Brotherhood believed in the establishment of a Koranic state and the officers a nationalist, secularist one. An attempted assassination of Nasser himself led to the brutal suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and the imprisonment of Sayyid Qutb, one of its leading ideologues. When Nasser sent Qutb to the gallows in 1966, it led to the jihadist movement. A year after Qutb's death, Ayman al-Zawahiri, aged 16, set up a jihadist cell at his school and invited a few friends to join. He became, and remains, one of al-Qa'ida's most prominent leaders.

The birth of the jihadist movement cannot be understood without reference to this great clash between the Muslim Brotherhood and Nasser's forces. Mubarak's regime is an extension of this.

Since the 1970s, the Brotherhood has tried to position itself as a centrist religious mainstream political movement. It entered the last election against the wishes of other members of the opposition and now has also entered talks with the regime. This is all part of a goal to enter mainstream politics, as the ban remains in place. It is seen by many other members of the opposition as opportunistic and capable of back-door deals. Even with the hated Mubarak regime.

The author is director of the London School of Economics' Middle East centre