Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Driven underground once again by the Egyptian government after the ousting of former president Mohamed Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood now faces a number of internal divisions that threaten to permanently fracture the organization.
These new fractures are most clearly seen in new political parties and movements which have splintered from the organization, including the Brotherhood Without Violence movement, which was formed after the events of June 30, and the Egyptian Current Party, which although founded by a group of young Brothers following the 2011 revolution is increasingly seeking to differentiate itself from the mother organization and its leadership.
But these are not the first groups to split from the organization. Having long been a banned organization forced to work underground, many of the Brotherhood’s prominent members have left the group over the decades since it was founded. And in recent years, two of the Brotherhood’s rising stars, Abou Elela Mady and Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, both expressed their dissent in dramatic fashion when they left the group and formed the Al-Wasat (Center) and Strong Egypt parties, respectively.
But some Brotherhood leaders who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat say the new divisions are much more serious in terms of the restlessness, frustration and anger they have caused within the Brotherhood, pointing to a growing rebellion within its ranks. This is especially true among younger members, whose desire for independence from the organization and rebellion against its ideas have prevailed. Observers consider this development a major blow to the principle of hierarchical obedience on which the group was founded.
The recent internecine strife within the group raises the question of how much of a threat these internal and external opposition movements really represent to the Muslim Brotherhood.
If past splits were influential to the Brotherhood’s history, then the period of organizational decline following Mursi’s ouster has been transformational. Caught between its failed attempt to get involved in politics and the violence that surrounded its fall from power, it seems that the Muslim Brotherhood—and more importantly the ideology behind the group—is at a turning point.
With the support of former leaders, angry and disaffected voices in the group have challenged the Brotherhood’s performance in power—tantamount to a hidden rebellion.
At a time when most of the old guard have been imprisoned or have gone into exile, the Brotherhood’s youth are needed to step up and take leadership roles in the organization. Instead, they are distancing themselves from the group in droves, particularly after the Brotherhood was classed as a terrorist organization in December 2013.
Opinions appear to be divided between those who supported the Brotherhood’s political aspirations but were dissatisfied with their approach and the results on the ground, and those who opposed the Brotherhood’s political ambitions from the start. The Muslim Brotherhood, of course, famously said that it would not field a presidential candidate in the days after former president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, only to go back on this promise and nominate the, until then, relatively unheard of Mursi.
Ahmed Nazili, son of a Muslim Brotherhood Shura Council leader and prominent activist during the January 25 revolution, explains that many younger members were dissatisfied with the way the Muslim Brotherhood sought to wield power after the overthrow of Mubarak.
Contrary to the goals of the Brotherhood leadership in establishing its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), “it was our belief that the role of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party should be limited to religious advocacy only,” Nazili told Asharq Al-Awsat. “That was the first point of difference between us, in addition to the group’s social and economic biases and their capitalist platform, which even America abandoned after [former US president Ronald] Reagan,” he added.
This is not to say that Nazili opposes political participation, rather that the Muslim Brotherhood is seeking to dominate and Islamize the political arena. Nazili and many other Brotherhood youth founded the Egyptian Current Party, which describes itself as a moderate Islamist party that supports democracy and the civil state, eschewing joining the “political wing” of what they view as primarily a religious advocacy group.
Media spokesman for the breakaway Brotherhood Without Violence organization, Hussein Abdel Rahman, echoed the opinion that the Brotherhood should primarily be a religious organization. In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat Hussein said that prior to the Brotherhood’s designation as a terrorist organization, this group called for “nonviolence, based on the fact that the role of the Muslim Brotherhood is, at its core, religious advocacy.”
Beyond the debate about the central purpose of the Brotherhood lay concerns about the management of the FJP and its role in the violence at Rabaa Al-Adawiya and elsewhere last summer.
Evocatively, Nazili described the Brotherhood’s old guard as “steeped in vitriol and self-pity” and difficult to work with.
“The younger members of the Brotherhood had voiced our opposition to Mursi’s performance during his first 100 days in office,” said Nazili. He added that the young Brothers did not want Mursi to issue his famous pledge to fix a number of Egypt’s most pressing problems in his first 100 days in power, saying the president’s inevitable failure would open him and his party to criticism.
There were also outcries against the leadership following Mursi’s fall from power, especially after thousands of people were killed during the dispersal of pro-Mursi sit-ins at Cairo’s Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda squares last summer.
“We repeatedly tried to convince them [the Muslim Brotherhood] of the necessity of ending the bloodshed following July 3, and of the importance of dealing with the state as a state and not as an enemy in battle,” said Nazili.
For his part, Rahman explained that the Brotherhood Without Violence group had formed a fact-finding committee to investigate the Rabaa Al-Adawiya incident from its inception to December 30, 2013, assessing the role of Brotherhood leaders in inciting violence.
Perhaps more indicative of the future of the group, however, is that both Nazili and Rahman spoke about the level of nepotism within the organization’s upper echelons. Of the leaders of division and administrative offices, “more than 70 percent” were the sons of Brotherhood leaders, said Rahman.
So, instead of replacing now-imprisoned Brotherhood leaders, youth members are leaving to form other groups. The Egyptian Current Party remains present on the political scene today, long after the FJP was outlawed, while it has also expanded far beyond its Islamist scope to include former members of the April 6 Movement and others. Mady and Aboul-Fotouh’s Al-Wasat and Strong Egypt parties are also still going.
Rahman, for example, says that Brotherhood Without Violence was formed because its members “did not want to protest the group by leaving it altogether. We wanted to reform it from the inside.” The group describes itself as a “national reformative youth movement that has renounced violence and aims to correct the image of Islam,” and famously called for the withdrawal of confidence from Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie, who along with other senior leaders remains in prison.
The third type of Brotherhood youth that has split from the organization is represented by Ahmed Ban, who held a mid-level leadership position as a member of the Brotherhood’s Political Office and participated in the formation of the FJP, and who has chosen to stay away from political work altogether. There is a large coterie of young Brothers—although perhaps not all of them remain in this category today—who, dissatisfied with Egyptian politics, whether under Mubarak or Mursi, have chosen to wash their hands of the entire scene.
Ban took the decision to leave politics in the wake of the January 25 revolution. He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “I left my old life with the Muslim Brotherhood for good and decided to take up scholarly research on ideological revisions based on my political experience and my experience with the Brotherhood. I have never had problems with the organization; I never had any bad experiences nor was I marginalized. However, I decided to resign, and afterwards made sure to also keep a distance from the others who left the group.”
He added: “There are those who leave the group for personal reasons related to their individual ambitions or for reasons related to their differences with the leadership and its management style; I consider myself to be one of those.”
In recent comments to local media, Ban dismissed Brothers Without Violence as a “fringe group that does not have a deep relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood organization.”
As for the Brotherhood’s situation now, Ban said the composition of the group was unstable. Around 50 percent of its members did not welcome the Muslim Brotherhood’s throwing its hat into the ring during the 2012 presidential race, nor did they support trying to win a majority in parliament. As soon as the events of June 30 unfolded, this 50 percent sat in their homes, feeling that the organization to which they had given their lives and their youth had fallen. Depression, seclusion and retreat were immanent. They withdrew from the scene completely and blended in with the masses on the street.
The old guard
With their organization in shambles, the Brotherhood’s leadership has increasingly tried to link dissident youth to the government’s intelligence and security services as a way to discredit them.
But the problem with this tactic is that a number of increasingly high-profile longstanding members have also broken ranks—often for reasons similar to those of the youth. “I objected to the conflation of religious advocacy and political work,” was the explanation Ibrahim El-Zafarani gave for severing ties with the group. A longtime Brotherhood member, he left in 2011, just as the political operation was getting going.
There is no former Brotherhood member more prominent than Kamal El-Helbawy, who abruptly and unexpectedly announced his resignation on live TV. Helbawy had been the first representative of the Brotherhood in Britain for decades, returning to Egypt following Mursi’s presidency. However Helbawy was ultimately unable to stomach just one year of Mursi being in power, hence his dramatic resignation from the organization. After that he became a semi-permanent feature on Arab talk shows where he specializes in criticizing the Brotherhood’s performance.
In a sign that the old-guard dissidents are actively aligning themselves to the youth, Helbawy confirmed to Asharq Al-Awsat his ongoing contact with the young Brotherhood “rebels,” saying: “I am in communication with Brotherhood youth of all stripes and colors, including those who choose not to reveal themselves. If they are sincere in what they’re telling me, then there are going to be some big surprises related to these young people’s desire to form a new group completely different to the Muslim Brotherhood. However, it takes time and patience to accomplish something of this magnitude.”
Helbawy is not worried about potential repercussions from the old guard, either. “The group isn’t what it used to be, and it won’t ever go back,” he said. “Its imprisoned or exiled leaders must know that the Brotherhood youth are divided into three sections: the first stands with the organization—they are the ones who lead the demonstrations and do what they’re told. The second section has stopped participating until the truth is investigated. The third has already splintered off and is getting ready for internal trials of the Brotherhood leaders—a catastrophe for the entire group.”
But perhaps no former member has been quite so scathing in his criticism as Tharwat El-Kharabawi, one of the most famous Brotherhood leaders to break with the group. Kharabawi, a lawyer, left the group in 2002 and has since published indignant statements and opinion pieces attacking the organization’s political performance, drawing particular ire from the Brotherhood establishment with the publication of two bestselling exposés, The Heart of the Brotherhood and Secrets of the Temple: The Hidden World of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In comments to Asharq Al-Awsat before Mursi was removed from office, Kharabawi predicted the eventual end of the Muslim Brotherhood: “The Brotherhood is eating itself from the inside, because it is based on obedience. It is not fit to operate a state. By its very nature it is destined to decay and end.” Kharabawi, like Ban, has also eschewed political work, focusing on his legal practice and writing.
Mostly, however, it appears that the old guard of the Brotherhood, who have grown dissatisfied with its policies, are looking to the younger members to reform the organization. Zafarani said: “I hope that their [the youths’] ideas are given the chance to bloom and that they play a prominent role in Egypt, because there is a large number of Brothers who work honestly in the service of God and are loyal to the country.” As for those who were not dissatisfied with the Mursi-era policies, they can mostly be found in Cairo’s infamous Tora and Abo Za’abal prisons.
What with the Muslim Brotherhood, and its political wing, the FJP, being outlawed, as well as Egypt’s new constitution explicitly banning political parties based on a religious basis, the political—and indeed actual—future of the group and its ideology remain in question, regardless of how the divisions within the group play out. Will the Brotherhood be able to reinvent itself and secure a place in Egypt’s political scene, whether under a new guise or as independents?
Saif Al-Islam Hassan Al-Banna, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader and the son of the organization’s founder, Hassan Al-Banna, refused to comment on the internal conflicts. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that he had heard about these efforts, but refused to comment on such matters or on the organization’s media silence.
However one commentator doesn’t believe the internal conflicts will ultimately have much bearing, particularly given the Brotherhood’s history of division. Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, Dr. Ammar Ali Hassan, a researcher in political sociology, said: “The Muslim Brotherhood is made up of concentric circles. The original nucleus is the smallest and most empowered, comprising the active members. The other circles are made up of associate members—they are the most numerous but the least represented. The cracking and splintering is happening on the outer rungs but the narrow circles remain just as they always have been.”
As the “nucleus” of the Brotherhood remain behind bars Brotherhood figures who had previously been on the sidelines could find themselves playing a more central role, whether within the group itself or as part of new political parties.
Hassan concurs that the majority of those who left the group did so in protest against the leadership only. In terms of complete ideological severance from the Brotherhood, however, he sees this only happening in rare cases such as those of Ban, Sameh Eid and Kharabawy.
The Brotherhood will likely continue to play an important role in Egyptian society and politics, whether young Brothers who seek to fill the void and develop the group from within, or older heads that previously left the group but to one extent or another still hold firm to its central tenets.
Regarding Helbawi and Kharabawi as potential figureheads for younger Brotherhood dissidents, Hassan said: “It’s a good idea to form a magnet for leaders who do not subscribe to a polarized worldview so that successive generations of young people may join them. If they succeed, then we will be at the forefront of a historical schism in the Muslim Brotherhood. Regardless, the Brotherhood was doomed to disappear after its leaders remained convinced that it was indestructible given their perseverance through the generations.”
Hassan concludes: “The Brotherhood relied on being well-organized, but they were not smart. Today the organization has been hit at its core, and the leaders are nearing the end, especially with the demise of their spiritual leaders in prisons or exile abroad. If a true split does occur, and it carries with it the desire to reform, then it will succeed.”