Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—On the one-year anniversary of the ouster of Egypt’s first, and likely last, Islamist president Mohamed Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood finds itself in an increasingly difficult situation both at home and abroad. The Brotherhood has been designated a terrorist organization by both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and members are finding themselves pressured and pursued across the world. How will the decline of the Brotherhood in its traditional stronghold of Egypt affect the group abroad? Will the Brotherhood abroad be a help or a hindrance to the group’s flagging presence in Egypt?
The Muslim Brotherhood experienced an extreme reversal of fortunes following the Arab Spring. The long-outlawed group was suddenly and unexpectedly legitimized, and so it established political parties in a number of Arab states, not least Tunisia and Egypt. The Brotherhood, as the most organized grassroots political party in Egypt, did not just secure a strong presence on the scene: they found themselves at the center of power, with Mursi being sworn in as president on June 30, 2012. A year later, the group experienced another reversal of fortunes as Egyptians took to the street across the country calling for Mursi’s ouster and the Brotherhood’s downfall. Today, the Brotherhood’s senior leadership—including the former president—are behind bars, and the fate of the group is increasingly uncertain.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with current and former members of the outlawed organization and Egyptian officials about what lies ahead for both the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its international branches. While nobody can deny that the group has been significantly affected by the events of the last year, opinions diverge regarding whether we are looking at the end of the organization or just a temporary setback.
The Brotherhood has hit a wall
Dr. Mohamed Habib, a former Deputy General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the group has now “hit a wall,” both domestically and internationally, because of the group’s failures in Egypt.
“We assumed that the Brotherhood would change its leadership, but the persistence of the current leaders has led to further failure. I do not expect the group to see any success so long as the organization is dominated by their failed strategic mindset,” Habib said.
Habib resigned from the Brotherhood in 2009, citing a lack of reform. He—along with other ex-Brotherhood members—went on to found the Renaissance Party, a Salafist political organization. Although the Muslim Brotherhood has been outlawed, Egypt’s Salafist political parties—which technically promote a stronger brand of Islam than the Brotherhood—remain present on the scene, having sided with the interim authorities.
“The Brotherhood were the recipients of public sympathy during previous political crises, but this time they are at odds not just with state institutions but also the Egyptian people at large,” Habib told Asharq Al-Awsat. But he added: “Sympathy has been replaced with dissatisfaction and hatred.”
Newly elected President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi said he intends to continue Cairo’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood during his presidency, a move that has been popular across the country. During his election campaign, Sisi pledged to completely dismantle the group, saying: “There will be nothing called the Muslim Brotherhood during my tenure.”
Cairo designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization in December 2013, holding the group responsible for a spate of attacks on government security forces and infrastructure, although the Brotherhood has denied those accusations.
“The Muslim Brotherhood leadership have hurt themselves, their supporters, their Islamic heritage and the entire country. The future of the Muslim Brotherhood is looking very bleak. At a time when they should be trying to improve their image before the Egyptian people, their actions are making things worse. I do not expect them to regain the ground they have lost anytime in the next 15 years,” Habib told Asharq Al-Awsat.
As for the international Muslim Brotherhood and how it is faring, Habib said they have been similarly hurt by the events in Egypt. “The Brotherhood was not internationally organized before January 25 —there was loose coordination across various offices and secretariats. After the Brotherhood ascended to power, they began setting up a more coordinated and effective international power structure.”
Another former Brotherhood member, Tharwat El-Kherbawy, agreed with that assessment. “There can be no doubt that the measures faced by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and abroad have caused the greatest crisis in the group’s history,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Kherbawy is a well-known Egyptian lawyer who left the Brotherhood in acrimonious circumstances in 2002. He has subsequently published a number of books exposing the internal workings of the Brotherhood, and was a vocal critic of Mursi.
He said the Brotherhood does not have as strong an international presence as some people believe, or as the group itself likes to project. “Outside of Egypt, the Brotherhood is associated with small communities scattered across the world, including in the US and UK. The large Turkish minority in Germany is seeing an increasing number of Muslim Brotherhood supporters as well. There are also small pockets of Brotherhood members in the Gulf,” he said.
“The total number of Muslim Brotherhood members outside of Egypt is less than half a million,” Kherbawy said, affirming that the Brotherhood’s real strength does not lie in its membership rolls, but in its financial clout.
“Despite this, the financial strength of the Brotherhood will not protect them from the consequences of this crisis. The international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood has expired, because the ideas upon which the organization was founded have collapsed,” he added.
Refusing to roll over
Despite all the claims that the Brotherhood’s days have ended, the organization is refusing to roll over either at home or abroad. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood continues to hold protests and rallies in the run-up to the anniversary of Mursi’s ouster. The Anti-Coup Alliance, which largely supports the Brotherhood even though its stated aim is to protest the ouster of a democratically elected president, has called for a nation-wide “intifada” against the new government, while the Muslim Brotherhood organization itself has declared Sisi’s election “null and void.”
Senior Muslim Brotherhood figure Saif Al-Islam Al-Banna, grandson of the organization’s founder, Hassan Al-Banna, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the crackdown against the group would not deter the Brotherhood.
“I do not feel that the future of the organization is in danger, because it is tied to Islam and the entire heritage of Islamic thought. There is no need to abandon our history and ideals for the sake of a political struggle,” he said.
Banna denied that the Brotherhood had a traditional “international organization,” saying that this would prevent the group’s international presence from becoming a target. He said that the organization was being used as a scapegoat by the Cairo regime, but acknowledged that some members or former members may be involved in violence.
“The writings of Hassan Al-Banna condemn violence. Of course, some individual members developed extreme views in the past, but this was merely a response to the heinous torture suffered by the Brotherhood. Western and Arab countries should look to the reality of the Brotherhood’s stances,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.
British Prime Minister David Cameron ordered an investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood earlier this year, amid allegations that the group was promoting extremist ideology and coordinating its activities from London. The Brotherhood has denied accusations that it is behind the recent terrorist attacks in Egypt—crimes that have been claimed by the Sinai-based Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis group. Cairo maintains that Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis and the Muslim Brotherhood are different facets of the same organization.
Despite this international crackdown, a number of Egyptian officials agree that the Muslim Brotherhood may not be as dead as some would like to think. Former Egyptian Ambassador to Washington Abdul Raouf El-Reedy told Asharq Al-Awsat that the future of the Muslim Brotherhood was in their own hands, and would depend on their actions in the coming period.
“If they continue to engage in violence, then the general public will hate them even more. In order for the Muslim Brotherhood to retain any political clout, they must strengthen their position in Egypt. But right now they have lost a lot in Egypt due to their violent tendencies,” he said.
Reedy said the measures taken against the Brotherhood in several Arab states had strongly affected the group, but thatthe group was relying on non-Arab states such as the US and UK not declaring it a terrorist organization.
“I believe it is possible for the American viewpoint to change gradually, but this change will not fundamentally alter the dynamic between America and the Brotherhood. I mean to say that America will not label the Brotherhood a terrorist group,” he said.
“The greatest blow for the Brotherhood was their ascension to power in Egypt. During their brief reign they made many mistakes and suffered many scandals. And now, just like someone who has fallen into quicksand will panic and unwittingly hasten their own demise, the violence being perpetrated by the Muslim Brotherhood has achieved the opposite of its intended goal. Thus, even if the Brotherhood has a strong presence abroad, this will not benefit them in Egypt,” he added.
Still a threat
The Egyptian state appears no less committed to clamping down on the group, and does not appear to be willing to discount the Brotherhood as a threat. The courts continue to bring Brotherhood members to trial crimson a variety of charges, not least incitement of violence during the period following Mursi’s ouster. More than a thousand Muslim Brotherhood members have been sentenced to death by the Cairo Criminal Court, although the majority of these sentences were subsequently downgraded to life imprisonment. Egypt’s security forces also continue to ramp up their operations against militants in the restive Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere in the country.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to a senior Egyptian army officer and military analyst, Maj. Gen. Talat Muslim, about the military’s plan to deal with the Brotherhood. He acknowledged that Brotherhood membership would decline as a result of the international crackdown, but said the group would not disappear as a result: “The Brotherhood are capable of gaining followers by deception, exploiting religion to dupe both the uneducated and degree holders alike,” he said.
As for the relationship between the international Muslim Brotherhood and the domestic variety, he said: “The Muslim Brotherhood are not an international organization in the conventional sense, but they have implemented a system on the ground to boost their international presence. The Brotherhood has successfully secured a legal presence for themselves in a number of foreign countries. They are taking advantage of the greater freedom of expression present in these countries, but are focusing their efforts on states where their presence would be less welcome.”
He added: “The situation inside Egypt will be felt elsewhere, but I do not expect that the effect will be very large. If Egypt is unable to clamp down on the Brotherhood, we cannot expect other countries to do so. But we must at least stop the Brotherhood in Egypt receiving assistance from outside.”