Abdelrahman Ayyash, Amr ElAfifi, and Noha Ezzat, Broken Bonds: The Existential Crisis of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, 2013–22 (The Century Foundation Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Abdelrahman Ayyash, Amr ElAfifi, and Noha Ezzat (AA, AE & NE): We wrote this book because we believe there is another story to be told about the Muslim Brotherhood. Rather than viewing it as an organization through the lens of religious extremism, we believe that if we focus on the lived experience of membership in the organization, it presents itself as more of a group contending with a series of overlapping crises. We also believe that the story of the Brotherhood, both historically and in the time period we study (2013-2022), sheds light on how successive waves of authoritarianism in Egypt morphed the organization and forced it to adapt its ideas in the shadow of the security state. The intersection of individual stories and the wider analyses of politics and economics in Egypt throughout the past decades creates a fresh and new take on a complicated organization as the Brotherhood, where relying solely on one theoretical perspective or another usually excludes crucial dimensions. The Brotherhood is not just an organization in the technical sense but also happens to be at the heart of a larger social movement, as well as a platform for oppositionist negotiation with the regime since its inception.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AA, AE & NE: The book fits in a larger discussion on the aftermath of the Arab Spring and how to understand the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, one of the largest non-state actors in the Middle East. The book looks at how the organization managed as tiers of its senior leadership were detained, killed, or exiled. It had to deal with the fact that its membership was (and continues to be) traumatized, and that the organizational mechanisms that once held the Brotherhood together were being put to the test. In many ways, shedding light on story of the Brotherhood gives us insight into how counter-revolutionary forces rose after 2013. The ancien régime tested out repressive tools on them, and then cast the net more widely on other leftist and liberal groups and actors. The story of the Brotherhood is also emblematic of what diaspora politics looks like in the post-Arab Spring era. As much of dissident politics moves abroad in the midst of the ongoing wave of autocratization, their stories offer much to learn from.
The book hugely benefited from the work of many Arab researchers and journalists who have worked on the Muslim Brotherhood over the last decades. Here, we chose to shed light on many of these established and emerging scholars hoping that they will be read more widely by Western scholars. Among these are Hesham Gaafar, Mohamed Affan, Ahmed Mohsen, Mahmoud Hadhoud, Yasser Fathy, Ammar Fayed, and Mohamed Naeem.
We also benefited from the literature on the history of Egypt by leftist and nationalist historians alike, like Ahmed Hamroush and Tarek al-Bishri. The work of the Muslim Brotherhood historians and the former members who wrote memoirs about their experience in the early stages of the Brotherhood’s inception and their ordeals was important to understand the origins of the current crises of the Brotherhood, such as that of Ahmed Adel Kamal, Fareed Abdelkhaleq, Salah Shadi, Mahmoud Abdelhalim, Hassan al-Ashmawy, Yousuf al-Qaradwi, and many others.
As far as larger academic and policy discussions go, Broken Bonds offers some insights on the moderation-inclusion hypothesis, pushes back on the vocabulary used to describe Islamists, and presents a counter-narrative to the post-2013 radicalization of Brotherhood members.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AA: As a regular commentator on the organization and the region writ large, this book represents my largest contribution to the Muslim Brotherhood so far. My analysis in the book is preceded by a brief prologue on my former membership in the organization and how this has informed my current analysis. As a journalist who lived in Turkey for several years between 2012 and 2019, I was able to conduct interviews for the book with a large network of Muslim Brotherhood members in exile.
AE: The book complements some of my ongoing dissertation research on the relationship between trauma and political participation. Many of the members and ex-members we interviewed for the book had undergone different experiences of victimization including protest violence, imprisonment, torture, and exile. This also fits with larger projects I am working on transnational repression and diaspora politics.
NE: As a writer and researcher working on historical and political sociology, the book is my first work on a religious social movement, and it fits within my larger effort to understand and re-interpret the politics of modernization in the region, especially Egypt. Having previously focused on themes such as foreign policy and military organization in the region, the book came as a step in moving me closer to micro-sociological analysis and connecting large-scale institutional perspectives with ethnographic individual stories lived on the ground.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AA, AE & NE: For Western policymakers, we hope that Broken Bonds settles the question of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. It is not one. We also hope that it helps to move us to a world in which the Brotherhood is engaged much more productively. To Egyptian policymakers, we hope they take away that the organization cannot be erased by simply imprisoning its members or sending them into exile. The only way to get rid of the Brotherhood is to enshrine an open political process in Egypt, allowing more effective ideas to emerge and more meaningful mobilization to take place. The reasons the Brotherhood exists go beyond their instrumentalization of religious sentiments or the reach of their networks. Throughout successive oppressive regimes, they continued to resemble an opposition and actually provided space for some notion of oppositional political subjectivity to exist.
We also hope that senior Brotherhood leaders read the book. Their decision-making processes have not only contributed to deep cracks within their own ranks but have also led to the failure of politics in Egypt. The organization and its members continue to endure levels of inhumane and unjust treatment. It is also the case that to many members, the leadership is inept, unrepresentative, and disappointing. Their poor performance is not a factor of the crackdown alone; rather, it emanates from poor strategic vision, petty disagreements, and—as we argue in the book—a natural consequence of crises of identity, legitimacy, and membership within the organization. Unless the Brotherhood has its own reckoning with the lessons learnt from the last decade, it will undoubtedly repeat the same mistakes. While all of the actors in Egypt, to one extent or another, ought to have the same reckoning, it is much more urgent that the Brotherhood do so, given the size of their membership and the deep impact of their politics.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AA, AE & NE: We are working on a number of projects separately. Ayyash is currently exploring new areas and looking forward to joining the public policy program at Jackson School of Global Affairs at Yale University next year. Amr is working on his dissertation alongside a number of reports for the Freedom Initiative, where he is the research manager. Currently, he is working on a report on transnational repression and another on the state seizure of assets in Egypt. Noha is working on a documentary on the 1980s in the Arab world, on a translation project focusing on the Iranian Revolution, and on a few initiatives that aim to re-write modern Egyptian history.
J: Where does the Muslim Brotherhood go from here?
AA, AE & NE: This depends on a lot of factors. Right before he passed in 2022, the acting General Guide of the Brotherhood, Ibrahim Mounir, said that the organization would no longer compete for political office in Egypt. The organization is in the process of finding a new leader. Factional politics is still at play, however. Mahmoud Hussein’s faction already claimed their Guide, and Mounir’s faction is still in a transitional phase. While the larger implication of this on Egyptian politics is yet to be seen, the type of leader the organization chooses is indicative of how they see their own crises, and, more importantly, how they will choose to address them in the coming decades. Several sources have hinted that the new leader is likely to be a person whose name has not been tarnished by the current public crises. To us, this reads that the Brotherhood is hoping to choose a consensus-building and lower-profile figure. The most likely candidate is a current senior member who was detained under Nasser and enjoys a lot of respect in Egypt and abroad. The organization is also looking for a safer and more stable place to establish its leadership as Turkey is no longer as safe a place as it once was for dissidents. If successful, this could lead to the third emergence/foundation of the Brotherhood in its history.
This presents an opportunity for international stakeholders, different factions of Egyptian politics, and the Brotherhood members themselves to hit the reset button on their relationships with one another. Each one of these actors are primed for better positioning and there is no better place than exile and no better time than now to do so.
Excerpt from the book (from “An Introduction to the Muslim Brotherhood,” pp. 19-25)
This book does not revisit or question everything we know about the Brotherhood. However, the intervention it makes stems from a critical analysis of some of the ways in which the organization has been discussed and studied, particularly in the aftermath of the War on Terror. Many researchers start their analysis with the moment of the Brotherhood’s foundation in March 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, a charismatic twenty-two-year-old teacher in the city of Ismailia on the Suez Canal. Scholars also tend to attribute the movement’s foundation to the fall of the Ottoman Empire (or caliphate) only four years earlier. This narrative usually makes it difficult for many, including seasoned readers of Egyptian history, to understand the intellectual and historical roots of the Muslim Brotherhood.
This popular narrative severs the Muslim Brotherhood—whether deliberately or not—as a religious, social, or even military organization, from the political and socioeconomic contexts of the time of its inception. In doing so, the account not only lacks accuracy, but also negatively affects the quality of the research of the movement’s current actions and decisions. To really understand the founding moment of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is one of the most influential schools of thought in the world, one should attempt to comprehend not only the religious and political discourses of the 1920s and the previous decades, but also the major questions of that time, namely those around British colonization and national independence.
It is important to note that the Brotherhood is moved by competing motivations. While some members prioritize self-interest, others mediate their preferences through perceptions of religious commitment and obligations. To be a Brotherhood member in Egypt, under successive repressive governments, is to make yourself vulnerable to job insecurity (as state security intervenes to fire you or halt promotions), surveillance, arrest, torture, and death. Members who join and commit do so for a wide array of reasons, including deep-rooted belief in Islam as something that belongs within the public sphere.
Many policy-oriented researchers who have addressed the issue of Islamists or Islamic movements in Europe and the United States view Islam as an independent factor of radicalization. For them, the more Islamic a movement is, the more violent and fanatic its followers tend to be. This discourse gained momentum after 9/11 among both policy analysts and policymakers. The claim that “Islam is not a religion, but a political movement” spread from right-wing mouthpieces, think tanks, and research institutions to inform U.S. policy. One of the most absurd outcomes of this view was Donald Trump’s infamous “Muslim ban,” which blocked travel from a variety of Muslim-majority countries while giving preferential treatment to non-Muslim refugees from those countries. This understanding of Islam is inaccurate and counterproductive when it comes to dealing with a religion that has more than 1.8 billion followers around the world. By extension, the approach of studying Islamic movements based on these presumptions is not only an ignorant, discriminatory, and racist one, but also lacks the basic tools to deal with such complex phenomena.
Needless to say, many studies on the behavior of Islamists often tackle the issue of the Brotherhood by posing questions about Islam itself. As the Egyptian writer Hesham Gaafar puts it, “the obsession with Islamism as a phenomenon created a mindset that led to posing questions about ‘Islam and democracy, Islam and human rights, etc.’” The framing that Gaafar describes reflects a faulty understanding of Islam and Islamism, which assumes that the Islamists’ interpretation of Islam defines Islam. It also neglects the fact that any religious phenomenon does not only constitute a religion, but also its interpretations, its followers, and their social, economic, and historical contexts, as well as the institutions and organizations that turn religious ideas into discourses for public consumption. Much research has mistaken the forest for the trees. Nothing is inherently Islamic despite organizational rhetoric. More importantly, people are not solely motivated by ideology, which is itself a product of societal dynamics that are larger than the sum of their parts. In the case of the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, many right-wing politicians and lobbyists in the United States have been tirelessly advocating for the designation of the movement as a terrorist organization. It has been widely known that most of these efforts are supported and paid for by regional powers, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which see an existential threat in the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force. Undoubtedly, some of these efforts stem from a genuine fear of the group’s ideology and actions. However, a proper understanding of Islam as a religion should right-size these fears: Islam comprises the beliefs of its followers, the different interpretations of its texts, and the contradictions between the many schools of thought that rely on its scripture for guidance and inspiration.
Still, one does not need to be an expert on Islam to criticize the Muslim Brotherhood or study the group. On one hand, there are a plethora of non-Muslim experts on the movement whose studies and work have guided us through this research, some of whom have produced the most important work on Islamic movements. On the other hand, being Muslim does not mean that the research produced is of the objectiveness or quality that allows for a better understanding of Islamic movements. Arab and Muslim researchers often rely on the same simplistic mindset, core values, and policy concerns that are popular in the West when discussing Islamic movements. This is emblematic in the wide use of the term “political Islam,” which became a definitive term for a wide spectrum of ideologies and schools of thought that have nothing in common but their reliance on the main Islamic texts for guidance. The term could not have been coined by someone who is familiar with Islam as a religion, the history of Islamic thought, and the concepts that inform the Islamic movements’ ideologies and texts. Although we have used “political Islam” in very few places in this book for the lack of a better term, we are aware that it does not hold explanatory power on its own and could mislead the analysis of serious researchers and policymakers. It is safe to say that the use of the term “Islamism” has become more of a tell about an author’s orientation toward a group than an accurate description with a specific referent. Our own study shows the many ways that the Muslim Brotherhood transformed over a decade during which its religiosity (or “Islamism”) remained constant, making clear that Islamism offers no explanatory power for the organization’s trajectory.
Scholarship and research on the Muslim Brotherhood suffer from gaps and, in some cases, ideological distortion. Academic research has thoroughly covered some key periods of the Brotherhood, although there have not been many adequate studies of the Brotherhood’s interaction with its context and membership. A great deal of contemporary research into the Brotherhood has been produced by think tanks and government-supported research institutes; much of this work lacks rigor and often takes the form of an advocacy brief against the organization, rather than a serious effort to understand it. Other work, typically financed and sponsored by governmental entities, has used simplistic tools to analyze the Brotherhood in very binary terms in relation to its positions on violence, democracy, women’s rights, jihad, and other hot-button issues. One strain of literature has seen the complexity of the Brotherhood experience falling into reductionist traps of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs—a framework that never gained traction with scholars and which is increasingly being set aside by the government agencies that popularized it. These writers amass “data” in the form of interviews or screenshots of Facebook posts, and proceed to analyze these tools with the eyes and tools of security and risk analysts. This includes work done by Eric Trager, Samuel Tadros, Lorenzo Vidino, Mokhtar Awad, Ed Husain, Maajid Nawaz, and Gilles Kepel. This work not only often lacks depth and insight but has been used in policy circles to dehumanize millions of people and pursue antidemocratic outcomes. If the past twelve years are any indicator, their thoughts about the Muslim Brotherhood were at best misplaced, or gravely mistaken at worst.
More productive and thoughtful work on the Brotherhood has been carried out by scholars including Nathan Brown, Peter Mandaville, Marc Lynch, Khalil al-Anani, Elizabeth Nugent, Steven Brooke, Marie Vannetzel, Ioana Emy Matesan, Victor Willi, and Mohammad Affan. This work is characterized by an exploration of the movement as one situated within a larger sociopolitical context that shapes and reshapes both the organization and its members. Although it often includes harsh criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood’s policies and ideology, it does not consider Brotherhood members to be ticking time bombs.
It should be noted that we rely on literature about the Brotherhood in its original Arabic that is unfortunately not yet translated. This includes brilliant work by Hossam Tammam, Abdullah al-Nafisi, Hesham Gaafar, Yasser Fathy, Ammar Fayed, Mohammed Naeem, and many others.
This research effort, which rests on the understanding that the Muslim Brotherhood continues to be relevant for making sense of and predicting the evolution of politics in contemporary Egypt, aims to assess how the organization stands today under its current leadership.