In the wake of the January 25th revolution, the octogenarian Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (the MB or Ikhwan) had their first opportunity in their history to access the heart of the Egyptian political body. They successfully gained a majority in both chambers, and managed to put the head of their political arm (the Freedom and Justice Party) on the throne of Egypt as the first civilian president in Egypt’s history. A few months later, after a short-lived rule, history rapidly turned against them. In the aftermath of the military coup of 3 July 2013, the MB has been falling into the abyss. The likes of which it has never experienced since the foundation of the organization in 1928. On personal observations through two visits to the Rab’a square on the 2nd and 3rd of July 2013, what happened transcended its devastating immediate impact to prove consequential for the movement’s future.
The current conditions of official annihilation and social hostility towards the Ikhwan are pushing internal dynamics inside the movement towards an unknown destination. It is unclear yet what will be the final shape of the Ikhwan after it passes these hard times, if at all, but certainly it will not remain as it used to be. As the movement engages with the current events, a new organizational contract is slowly replacing the old one as an outcome of two dynamics: 1) the collapse of the movement’s theory of action after the coup, as the MB, in 2 years of the coup, couldn’t effectively oppose the current military-backed government and 2) the debates on the legitimacy of using violence against the State. Observers may monitor radical revisions among members of what used to be the foundations of the movement, such as the separation of politics and Da’wa (social action and religious preaching); the pacifism as the only way of opposing the regimes, the willing to work under the umbrella of the nation-state, while advocating for gradualism (tadarroj) as means to establish the desired Caliphate.
New organizational contract
Throughout the history of the MB, Controversial ideas were popping up from the group, but the leadership was always able to control those ideas and contain them within Hassan Al Banna’s well-established framework of the Ikhwan, which adopts the notion of opposition from within the State using the State’s tools. Al-Banna himself tried to run for the parliament in 1942. But the recursive brutal massacres committed by the security forces against MB supporters forged a different organizational contract between the members and the leadership. Previously MB leaders had obtained legitimacy through two different mechanisms. The first is “legitimacy of ordeal” (Mihna) claimed by MB leaders who were subjected to severe repression in the 50s and 60s and who revived the group years later. Secondly is the ‘legitimacy of institution’, drawn from the fact that the MB conducted relatively fair internal elections.
A new kind of legitimacy came out of the revolution. The youth who took part of the first wave of January 25th revolution could have used their own legitimacy as revolutionaries to influence the group, but the MB old guards moved fast, a few weeks after Mubarak’s ousting, to expel such youth from the group. Thus the unwritten organizational contract between the leadership and grass roots of the movement remained based on the two historical legitimacies aforementioned. However, what happened during and after the military coup changed both these legitimacy mechanisms: the current ‘ordeal’ (mihna), which is much more intense and extreme than that of Nasser’s time, is giving the young activists and the operators on the field a whole new legitimacy. The “old and wise” leadership of the MB is no longer the one leading the group for two main reasons: the nature of the battle with the regime which require more active actors and the absence of the historical leaders who are either in prison or in exile.
The Ikhwan managed to maintain control over the indoctrination of their members up until the massacre of Rab’a, only to find that it proved it’s neither deep enough to stand strong against the more radical ideologies adopted by the “comrades in the field” nor effective in the face of unprecedented attacks on its existence. Given the Brotherhood’s lack of a deep ideological foundation as the group’s leadership was focusing on building a strong hierarchal apparatus with as many devout “Soldiers of the Da’wah” as it can recruit, it is no surprise that ideas flowed only in one direction: from Salafists to Brotherhood, as Samuel Tadros puts it. The blind trust, which is one of the main pillars of allegiance in the MB, is demanding the member not to be critical or ideologically deep enough to question the leadership.
As things went awry in a direction that was never addressed by the leadership, the youth felt lost and tended to be uncontrollable. On social media, numbers of MB youth started to publicly apologize to the ultraconservative Islamists whom MB members stood against after the revolution. The supporters of Hazem Salah Abu Ismael which known by “Hazemoon” used a very strong tone in opposing the state whom the MB didn’t swallow during the short-lived year in power.
The restless youth are debating the foundations
The new organizational contract is being molded / influenced by radical discussions and debates over the foundations that the brotherhood used to keep untouched. One specific issue dominating internal debates inside the movement is the use of violence against State repression. The violent discourse that MB members used in the first days of the coup was spontaneous and far beyond the ideology that the group has adopted for a long time. However, the Rab’a massacre that cost the brotherhood at least 817 of their members and the ascending levels of violence that the movement was subjected to brought to the fore the question of the legitimacy of using violence against the State.
For the most part of its history, MB didn’t face the question of the nation state in deep way. While advocating for the establishment of a political body that gathers the whole Umma under unified leadership, the MB wasn’t able to escape the notion of the nation state. But from the failures of MB and the rise of the new Jihadi model in Syria and Iraq, discussions inside MB led to an idea of abandoning the nation-state model, whose legitimacy was being questioned as well, to adopt a more Jihadi-like understanding of the Umma, which transcends national borders.
What is interesting in observing the nuances of the argumentation over the use of violence is that it is driven by tactical needs to react to day to day police violence rather than strategic stands on the topic. The current leadership does not seem to be able nor willing to find political alternatives to what is being proposed by the young members: ‘Smart Violence’. The MB activists are not supporting Al Qaeda-style violence, instead, they are talking about a specific kind of violence targeting certain elements of the regime. This reflects how far violence is from the core Ikhwan doctrine, but also how it is gaining support among the ranks of the Brotherhood.
Notably, it seems that the old leadership is weary of losing ground to the youth by opposing this emerging discourse promoting violence. What they’ve done so far is issuing a number of statements asserting the pacific nature of MB political action. Consequently, the discourse used by certain MB leaders has changed dramatically during the past few months from distancing themselves from violence to proposing justifications for using it. However, such justifications are not as present in the recent MB discourse as to represent a strategic shift rather than a mere tactical one.
This was most evident through MB reception of the “Nida Al-Kinana” (the call of Egypt) document posted by 159 Muslim scholars on May, 27th 2015. The document stresses that anyone (including politicians, judges, officers, soldiers, scholars and media men) proved to be involved in killing innocent people is guilty of murder and must be subjected to the Qisas “Retribution”. The official statement issued one day after the document release responding to the document welcomed and appreciated the move of the Ummah’s Ulama’s (scholars of the Muslim world). MB statement also agreed with the clerics’ call to resist the coup with all means.
On July 1, for example, security forces killed thirteen MB leaders shortly after being detained, searched, and fingerprinted. These Brotherhood members were reportedly meeting to discuss supporting the families of jailed MB members when police stormed the building. Responding to the incident, the Brotherhood attacked Sisi for moving Egypt toward a new and dangerous phase where “no one can control the rage of the oppressed people.”
The long-lasted vision of gradual change was questioned also by prominent MB leader: Amr Darrag, the former minister of International cooperation. “The main lesson I learned is that gradual change would no longer work”, he said. Official statements also reflected the same trend. In late January, the movement released a statement that many saw as a sharp turn away from pacifism. “We are at the beginning of a new phase where we summon our strength and evoke the meaning of jihad,” it read. “[We] prepare ourselves, our wives, our sons and daughters and whoever follows our path for relentless jihad where we ask for martyrdom.” Several commentators argued that this is not an official statement from the MB. But the statement appearing on the official website of the group is either indicating fundamental disputes within the MB or reflecting the domination of the discourse of violence at the highest levels of the organization.
Many leaders’ comments along with the official statements may represent an evident manifestation of the new ideas that are being adopted by the group. In April, the official spokesman of the MB stated that the group had had its internal elections which resulted in a new 7-member executive bureau outside Egypt. In Istanbul, the members of the new bureau started to convene meetings with political activists and academics to explore their views on the MB’s situation and to improve the movement’s political vision and discourse.
But the new bureau is not in control over the group. During July and August the MB appeared divided more than ever. The disagreements inside the group revolves around two main issues: first is the question of legitimacy and who has the right to run the movement. Secondly comes the problem of the revolutionary approach, whether it’s a permanent status or a temporary one for the movement, and what comes first, the apparatus or the revolution?
This debate is extremely important in determining the future of the group. For many Muslim Brotherhood young members, the overthrow of the oppressive regimes through the revolution is the goal that the organization should be dedicated to achieve, but this is not the case for other leaders and members who see the revolution as a means to serve the organization’s goals of establishing the caliphate which can be ultimately achieved through a long process of gradual change.
It’s interesting how the old guards, which were known to be the radical wing within the group is the ones who try to curb the violence, by prioritizing the interest of the movement over this of the revolution. With the experience of South Africa in mind, the base of the movement and most of its newly elected leaders, on the other hand, believe that smart violence can be more effective tool in opposing the current military regime of Egypt, regardless the immediate interest of the MB. For many members and observers, the division of MB is the only viable scenario for the current dilemma.
The intellectual divisions are crystal clear within the group, considering the heated debates over the ideological foundations of the group. However, the organizational one is still in the making. It’s not very easy to determine which side the grassroots of MB will take.
For a keen observer to the dynamics of the Ikhwan, one can see radical changes that are shaking the organization to its core. Deep distrust in the foundations of the MB is also questioning historical and founding concepts like gradualism and pacifism, values that are at the heart of the organization’s doctrine. It is hard to measure the scope and the scale of the changes, but they will be colossal. It might prove unhelpful to wait for clear indicators before carving out a new policy aimed at impeding the radicalization of the brotherhood youth since the existence of indicators may mean that measures to de-radicalization are too late to implement.
Regional players in Persian gulf and Turkey have to take part in the civic reconciliation in Egypt. UAE and Saudi Arabia should stop the unconditional support of President Sisi and the aid should be linked to political reforms and social reconciliation. Turkey can play greater role in supporting the democratic wing within the Muslim Brotherhood, but this role will prove ineffective as long as there is no guarantee that Cairo stop its unprecedented crackdown on the MB.
The Western governments in Europe and the U.S. may disagree with Ikhwan leaders, but they must take necessary steps to prevent the hundreds of thousands of MB sympathizers from moving into ISIS-like organizations. The Brotherhood’s youth feel betrayed by the International community that stood silent before the military coup against the first democratically elected president in Egypt’s history and need to regain trust. Three measures could prove effective in containing Ikhwan youth locally and internationally. First, put pressure on Cairo’s regime and its allies to start real process of transitional justice. Second, show solidarity with revolutionaries’ sacrifices to restore democracy and preserve freedoms. Third, show openness to MB political participation as long as they are peaceful and democratic.
1 In discussing this issue, I am fully cognizant of the anecdotal nature of my analysis; however, I hope more systematic research will be conducted to corroborate, modify or refute my observations.
2 Until 2014, The Egyptian parliament was bicameral one consisting of People’s Assembly (the lower chamber) which was made up of 454 deputies and the Consultative Council (the upper chamber) which was composed of 264 members of which 174 members are directly elected and the 88 are appointed by the President of the Republic for six-year terms. . But according to the present-day constitution, the Parliament comprises The House of Representatives, a 588-member lower house.
3 Following the 2011 Revolution the MB was legalized, and in April 2011 it launched a civic political party called the Freedom and Justice Party to contest elections. For the 83 years prior to the revolution, MB had one body, led by the Supreme Guide, Guidance Bureau and Shura Council to control both the group’s political action and social services.
4 Samuel Tadros, The Brotherhood Divided, Hudson Institute, August 20th, 2015 http://www.hudson.org/research/11530-the-brotherhood-divided
5 Egyptian lawyer and Salafi politician. He has been described by The Economist as a “populist Salafist. He applied to be a candidate for the Egyptian presidential election of May 2012. As of early April 2012, he was considered one of the front-runners, and enjoyed notable displays of popular support. He was later disqualified to run. (Wikipedia)
6 Human Rights Watch Report: Egypt: Rab’a Killings Likely Crimes against Humanity, August 12, 2014 https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/08/12/egypt-raba-killings-likely-crimes-against-humanity
7 Abdelrahman Ayyash,The Brotherhood’s Post-Pacifist Approach, Sada, July 9, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/?fa=60665
11 Arwa Ibrahim, ‘Our peacefulness is not stronger than bullets’: Muslim Brotherhood divisions, February 6th 2015, http://www.middleeasteye.net/in-depth/features/muslim-brotherhoods-internal-divide-760686837
12 Abdullah Ezzat, An Explosion inside the Muslim Brotherhood (Arabic), August 21, 2015, Alkhaleej Online, http://alkhaleejonline.net/#!/articles/1440149146155479500/