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Phoenix Rising from the Ashes? The Internal State of Affairs of the Muslim Brotherhood at the Start of 2016

[Raba‘a al-‘Adawiyya sit-in, 30 June 2013. Photo from author's private archives] [Raba‘a al-‘Adawiyya sit-in, 30 June 2013. Photo from author's private archives]

Today, Egyptians are commemorating the fifth anniversary of the revolution of 2011. It is not yet clear what the outcome of these events will be, but the high level of repression against civil society indicates that the regime is nervous. And this is with good reason: after all, its old rival, the Muslim Brotherhood, while severely reduced in terms of its mobilizing and organizing capacity, is still in business. In anticipation of 25 January 2016 it is worth taking stock of the current state of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The ouster of Morsi on July 3, 2013 came as a profound shock to the members of this eighty-eight year old Islamist movement, shattering its organizational architecture and leaving its rank-and-file membership in a state of disarray. The subsequent crackdown further fragmented an organization that had already been fractured along generational, organizational and ideological lines, and led to the emergence of three centers of power that define the current state of the Brotherhood’s internal organization.

For one, there is the historic leadership – senior members of the former Guidance Office who had managed to escape the crackdown in Egypt. The key figures in this group are Mahmoud ‘Izzat, the Secretary General of the Brotherhood until December 2009 and a powerful organizational insider; Mahmoud Hussein, the Secretary General following ‘Izzat; and Mahmoud Ghozlan, the Brotherhood’s official spokesperson. It further comprises the London-based operations headed by Ibrahim Munir, who has acted as the Brotherhood’s “official spokesperson in the West” since 2010. Another high-ranking Brotherhood leader, Gum‘a Amin, died in early 2015.

Before Morsi’s removal, this group was known in the Egyptian media as the “Qutbists”. The label is derived from Sayyid Qutb, the illustrious Islamist intellectual who established the notion of takfir (the act of condoning fellow Muslims to be apostates and therefore legitimizing their killing) as a legal concept in modern Islamic political thought. In his political manifesto Milestones, Qutb delivered the doctrinal and judicial arguments for the use of political violence as a legitimate means in the struggle of Muslims against the forces of secularism and “ignorance”. His followers were people who had been brought up in accordance to the educational curriculum of the Special Apparatus, a paramilitary unit that was responsible for a number of armed attacks inside Egypt during the late 1940s. In the mid-1960s, under Qutb’s spiritual leadership, a group Brothers attempted to reconstitute itself. Younger members of the clandestine “Organization ‘65” (Tanzim Khamsa wa Sittin), such as ‘Izzat and the current General Guide Mohammed Badie, at one point had been involved in planning an armed attack on Gamal Abdel Nasser’s motorcade.

After the Brotherhood’s formal reconstitution in 1982, the quasi-militaristic spirit of the Special Apparatus that became embodied in the activities of the Organization ‘65, lived on as a sub-culture within the formal ranks of the Brotherhood. The members of the secretive inner circle conceived of themselves as a vanguard of faithful and highly committed believers. The concept of the vanguard, with its strong resemblance to Leninist political theory, had been similarly elaborated by Sayyid Qutb. In order to implement the “Islamic project, the Brotherhood should be an organization characterized by a high degree of internal unity, effectiveness and top-down decision-making. The rank-and-file was condoned to follow the orders of the leaders according to the principle of “listening and obedience”.

A second center of power consisted of senior former high-ranking Brotherhood cadres and FJP politicians who had managed to escape to Turkey via Libya and the Sudan. Many of these people adhered to the organizational vision of ‘Omar al-Tilmisani, the Society’s charismatic third General Guide under whose leadership the Brotherhood experienced its “second foundation” in the 1970s. The core of al-Tilmisani’s disciples consisted of former organizers of the Jama‘at Islamiyya – a student movement that had emerged on Egyptian university campuses in the early seventies in the aftermath of the “setback” (naksa) of 1967. They were attracted by al-Tilmisani’s vision of establishing an open organization, with a meritocratic culture and that welcomed everybody who was willing and able to work towards the implementation of the “Islamic project”. These politically active religious student union leaders found in al-Tilmisani’s reformist approach a means to fulfill their political ambitions.

Following the crackdown in 2013, many of these Brotherhood functionaries reassembled in Istanbul, where they were granted a safe haven by the government of Recep Tayip Erdogan. There, they coordinated efforts of various individuals and entities opposed to al-Sisi’s regime. In April 2015, the Istanbul-based Brothers-in-exile announced the formation of a Crisis Management Office for Egyptians Abroad (maktab idarat al-azma li’l-Masriyyin fi’l-kharij). It was headed by Dr. Ahmed ‘Abd al-Rahman, a 55-year old former graduate of Cairo University’s Medical College. Some of its prominent members included Gamal Heshmat, a former Shura Council member and FJP politician; ‘Amr Darrag, a former minister of planning; and Yahia Hamid, a former marketing manager for Vodafone Egypt who in 2012 became the youngest minster of investment of Egypt. The purpose of the new office was to unite the efforts of various Brotherhood individuals and entities that were opposed to the “government of the coup”.

The new office in Istanbul constituted a novelty in the Brotherhood’s history. It stood in obvious competition to the Brotherhood’s “International Organization” (al-tanzim al-dawli), which has been the object of much speculation in the media for years. Established by the fifth General Guide Mustafa Mashhur in 1982 in Munich, the International Organization became the central coordination body of the Brotherhood’s international efforts in London. Since 2010, the London office, known internally as al-Rabita, had been headed by Ibrahim Munir. The latter did not have much credibility due to his absence form Egypt for several decades. It is rumored that the only reason that Munir was able to assume the post in London was because of pressure exerted by Mahmoud ‘Izzat and his right-hand man, Khairat al-Shatir. It was only natural that Munir and the senior leaders of the Guidance Office felt threatened by the emerging leadership based in Istanbul.

The third and most important center of power consists of those who had remained in Egypt after the coup, and who started to effectively manage operations on the ground. By early 2014, the Brotherhood resumed weekly meetings within the families (usar), its smallest educational unit. In February 2014, partial elections were held whose purpose was to replace the imprisoned and exiled Guidance Office with new effective cadres. These elections resulted in the formation of a Crisis Management Committee (lajna idara al-azma), which was tasked with managing events in Egypt. While the Guidance Office formally remained the Brotherhood’s highest executive body, effective control passed to the 54-year old agriculturalist Mohammed Wahdan. Wahdan, seen here in a lecture in 2013, had previously been in charge of the Committee of Upbringing, which controls internal promotion and the educational curriculum of the rank-and-file members. He had been elected to the Guidance Office in January 2012.

Hand in hand with the reconstitution of local operations in Egypt, a new discourse started to emerge on social media platforms. It was decisively more aggressive than the usual assertions of peacefulness and contemptuous of the democratic process. In January 2014 the Brotherhood’s Arabic website Ikhwanonline issued a statement whose choice of words indicated an abandonment of the path of non-violence: “We are at the beginning of a new phase where we summon our strength and evoke the meaning of jihad,” the statement read. “[We] prepare ourselves, our wives, our sons and daughters, and whoever follows our path for relentless jihad where we ask for martyrdom”. (The website has recently been removed, but the statement is captured here).

The members of the new committee controlled the relationship to the base of rank-and-file foot soldiers on the ground. While some sympathized with acts of violence against regime installations and personnel, this did not mean that they would simply join radical takfiri groups, such as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which later became the ISIS affiliate Wilaya Sina’. After all, the two groups rationalized their jihad by referring to a very different doctrinal and juridical logic. For the majority of the Brotherhood, the appeal to “revolutionary means” was not primarily caused by their inclination towards the doctrine of takfir. The Brotherhood rather justified jihad as a revolutionary struggle against a government considered illegitimate. The elections of January 2014 provided the new leadership in Egypt with added legitimacy that positioned itself in opposition to the authority of the historic leadership.

Before too long, the interests of the different political centres of power clashed publicly. One day before the fourth anniversary of the revolution – one year ago – a Facebook account of a previously unknown individual called Mohammed Montasser went live. Montasser claimed to be the new official spokesperson of the Brotherhood. Little information can be found on his person, and his name is likely to be an alias. In fiery statements, that also appeared on the Brotherhood’s new website, Montasser announced a decisively more “revolutionary” stance than the official narrative of the old guard Guidance Office members. In this, he was supported by the Crisis Management Office for Egyptians Abroad, many of whose members agreed to the idea that the Brotherhood should follow the revolutionary path.

The Brotherhood’s revolutionary rhetoric flared up after May 16, when a criminal court in Cairo announced that it would uphold the death sentence for Morsi and over one hundred other senior Brotherhood leaders, including General Guide Mohammed Badie. With the rank and file in Egypt calling for revenge, several key members from the Istanbul-based Office for Egyptians Abroad supported the call. Mahmoud ‘Izzat weighed in on the debate, declaring that the Office of Egyptians Abroad represented the main component to lead the crisis at home. A few days later, Mahmoud Ghozlan published an article where he stated that the Brotherhood would not abandon non-violence and that killing was strictly forbidden.

But the crisis was deeper and could not be washed away simply by a few online statements. Later that month, to the surprise of many, ‘Izzat and Ghozlan appeared in Egypt in a last-ditch attempt to wretch control over the restless Brotherhood base. Mahmoud Hussein declared on Facebook that the Guidance Office “works through its bodies and institutions” and that it was the only body that could “manage the work of the Society, according to its by-laws”. It was further announced that the Office for Egyptians Abroad in Istanbul would now pass under the command of the International Organization, a move that was opposed by the revolutionary-leaning Brothers in both Egypt and Istanbul. Montasser’s Facebook account declared that the group would continue its revolutionary path and highlighted “developments in its administrative structure” to uphold its work. Many rank-and-file members on social media dismissed the claims of the older leaders, arguing that a commitment to non-violence in the face of the relentless onslaughts of the army dictatorship amounted to treason. At the beginning of June, Mahmoud Ghozlan was arrested in Cairo.

Tensions rose again when on July 1 thirteen Brotherhood members were killed in a police raid on an apartment in Sixth of October City. The Brotherhood claimed that this was a premeditated massacre against the representatives of a committee that had met to support martyrs’ families. Meanwhile, state security affirmed that the Brothers had planned terrorist attacks, that they had been heavily armed, and that the police had acted as a matter of self-defense. Mohammed Montasser stressed that this latest aggression constituted a turning point that would initiate a new phase of confrontation. The Brotherhood’s local leaders would no longer be able to “control the anger of the base”.

It may be that the July 1 events initiated a temporary rapprochement between the old guard Qutbist leaders and the cadres based locally in Egypt. When Mohammed Wahdan and ‘Abd al-Azim al-Sharqawi were apprehended a few days later, the Crisis Management Office in Egypt was robbed of two of its most important functionaries. Efforts were made to work towards the formation of a new body to succeed the Crisis Management Committee, leading to the establishment of the High Administrative Committee (lajna idariyya ‘uliya) in October. The new body was probably a compromise between the competing factions, as it included both people who stood closer to Mahmoud ‘Izzat, such as Mohammed ‘Abd al-Rahman (not to be confused with the Istanbul-based Ahmed ‘Abd al-Rahman), as well as those who were sympathetic to the revolutionary trend, such as Mohammed Kamal.

But the compromise could not be maintained for long and erupted, once again, on December 13. Through Mohammed ‘Abd al-Rahman, the London office sent letters to different Egypt-based leaders, suspending their membership in the Guidance Office and relieving them from the administrative positions. Among the affected were Mohammed Montasser, the spokesperson of the media committee, and Mohamed Kamal, the head of the students committee. The extent of the internal disarray became clear during an interview, aired on December 16 on Al Jazeera Arabic with Mahmoud Hussein. Hussein’s answers made it clear that the top leadership was eager to project an image of unity towards the outside world, portraying the Brotherhood as a globally functioning organization that was run from London and Istanbul, and which oversaw the Brotherhood’s local operations in Egypt. Mahmoud ‘Izzat would continue to be the Brotherhood’s caretaker and Ibrahim Munir would be one of its Vice-Guides. It was a classic example of denial and wavering that was a hallmark of the Brotherhood.

The reactions on social media networks were immediate and furious. In response to London’s directives, the Brotherhood’s official Facebook page issued a counter-statement to the effect that the Society continued to be run by the “High Administrative Committee” and that Montasser was still the official spokesperson. Another statement reiterated that the Brotherhood would continue the “revolutionary path”, and that, by no means would it take directives from abroad. Simultaneously, different geographical sectors pledged allegiance to the respective power centers: Alexandia and Fayyum sided with Istanbul while the Delta-sectors Monofeyya and Mansoura stood with the Guidance Office.

At the eve of the fifth anniversary of the revolution of 2011, a picture emerges of an organization that is marked by deep internal divisions, where different political coalitions vie for control over the Brotherhood’s roughly 300,000 members. Throughout its history, this pattern of internal political competition had been a prime characteristic of this movement. At different times, organisational stakeholders engaged in a competition for authority by advancing specific ideas how the Brotherhood should be run, and what its purpose of its organizational apparatus should be. For some, it was a mechanism for spreading the Islamic call through preaching and education, where a dedicated rank-and-file could protect them from the onslaughts of a hostile regime. For others, the Brotherhood was a means towards an end –to achieve political power through an electoral process. During the Guidance Office elections of early 2010, these two different organizational visions clashed in a public dispute. It led to the ousting of high-level reformist figures, such as ‘Abd al-Mon‘im Abu al-Futuh and Mohammed Habib, and the isolation of ‘Issam al-‘Arian. Having lost the most talented politicians who may have had the necessary know-how, skills and experience to govern a state as old and complex as Egypt, the Brotherhood on the eve of the 25 January 2011 revolution was left with a clannish group of devotees at its top – people who were captured in a parochial and schizophrenic state of mind, deeply distrustful of outsiders as well as of other Brotherhood members who were not part of their inner circle.

It was this inward-focused mindset of the Qutbists, reflected in corresponding administrative procedures and a distinct organizational culture, which explains the political incompetence of the Brotherhood leadership during Morsi’s period of governance. The internal turf wars and the culture of secretive politicking continues to define the internal organizational life of the Brotherhood until today. It remains to be seen if and how the new Brotherhood leadership in Egypt will be able to leverage local dynamics to advance its revolutionary project of Islam’s “guidance of the world”. Faced with the risks of radicalization, an ongoing insurgency in the Sinai, increasing threats to the capital by ISIS, unemployment figures among the 15 to 24 year olds at 42% (and a staggering 65% among women), a lack of fantasy on the economic front, and growing splits within the regime, this poses an additional threat to the position of the current regime. The Brotherhood’s inclination towards “revolutionary” tactics, coupled with the fact that the country is awash with weapons, could risk further destabilizing a country that is still recovering from the events of 2011. This country being Egypt, it is always worth to factor in the unexpected.

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