Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood: Internal Divisions and External Challenges in the Post-Mubarak Era

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 29

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States government was in discussions with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood on June 30. That the U.S. was willing to reach out to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) – an 83-year old Islamist organization often criticized for providing entrée to jihadism for young Egyptians – marked a significant policy shift for the Obama administration and may signify a new era for the Brotherhood. For the MB, this new era is coming to be defined by the toppling of the Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt and the replacement of Osama bin Laden as al-Qaeda’s amir by Egyptian national Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. Within Egypt, this rapprochement has come at a time of significant upheaval within the MB, as the organization struggles to maintain unity and hegemony within Egyptian Islamism and simultaneously compete for political influence in the rapidly democratizing post-Mubarak era. Complicating matters is the significant change in the rivalry between al-Qaeda and the MB, as defined by the emergence of al-Zawahiri and the apparent success of non-violent protests in Egypt and Tunisia.

Though its methods have changed at times, the MB’s long-term goals have remained consistent – namely the reformation of society in keeping with the Qur’an and Sunnah. Jihad remains a central tenet in the MB ideology, although it is now defined along the lines of the “inner struggle,” conducive to the Brotherhood’s emphasis on non-violent change, grass-roots activism and da’wa (proselytization). These views have put the MB in stark contrast with Salafi-Jihadis like those of al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (Egyptian Islamic Jihad – EIJ) and al-Qaeda, a rivalry that will be explored in greater detail below.

The Bothers in Egypt: Losing Unity?

Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin (the Muslim Brotherhood), known in the Arabic world simply as the Ikhwan, was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt as a largely non-violent Salafist organization. In the eight decades since its founding, the MB has had very positive relations with the Egyptian government at certain times, while at other times the Brotherhood has been the target of state oppression. Far from being a truly homogenous organization, the MB has traditionally attempted to seek a balance among a number of internal streams, from moderate to extreme, in its effort to establish primacy within Egyptian Islamism. The MB has throughout been a driving force for Islamism in Egypt, presenting its constituency with outlets for political expression and access to social services such as the Brotherhood’s famed educational, religious, and medical resources. It has been through this holistic approach, anchored in the provision of social programs, that the Brotherhood has successfully woven itself into the fabric of Egyptian society.

Within the Egyptian polity, the MB maintains an avowed doctrine of wasatiya (centrism). This concept has been a defining point in the Brotherhood’s political activities, and has helped the Brotherhood to develop relationships with interest groups across ideological lines. The group’s pragmatism and rationalism became more entrenched with the assumption to leadership positions of the middle generation, a collection of more progressive Brothers who came of age in the university-based Islamist movements in the 1970s and the political pluralism of the 1980s.

The Ikhwan & the Egyptian Revolution

In the wake of the popular revolutionary movement in Tunisia, Egyptian youth took to the streets, bringing with them progressive ideas about governance and using new media to spread their ideals of solidarity and transparency across ideological and religious lines. This dynamic proved challenging for organizations like the Brotherhood, which developed under an Egyptian political establishment defined by strong anti-democratic leadership enforced by a strong state security apparatus. As the revolution was in full swing, the MB struggled to find its voice within this competitive forum of ideas.

The MB’s involvement in the revolution was led by its younger generation, which represented the Brotherhood in the 25 January Youth Coalition alongside liberals and secularists. Progressive members of the Brotherhood sought to increase the organization’s visibility in the movement, creating photo opportunities for its leaders in Tahrir Square and generating new content on the group’s website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed. [1] Though these platforms appear to be maintained by the MB offices in London, they have nevertheless proved to be valuable sources of information on Ikhwan activities.

Whither the Unified Brotherhood?

In the months since the removal of Mubarak, the MB has been the assumed benefactor of the power vacuum in Cairo, able to use its organizational strength and political experience to dominate the new political order while new political parties scramble to form and register prior to the elections, now postponed to October or November. This has prompted complaints and warnings that the Ikhwan will use its advantage to install an Islamist government in Cairo. However, there is significant evidence from defectors and the Brotherhood’s own actions that show that the organization is struggling to maintain cohesiveness and balance between traditional and progressive streams.

As the military took power in Cairo and announced a hasty transition to democracy, the MB began building an Islamist political party. On June 6, the MB’s political wing, Hizb al-Horriya wa’l-Adala (Freedom & Justice Party – FJP), was officially recognized by the state. In establishing the FJP, the Brotherhood has attempted to show its populist and liberal credentials by giving voice to women and naming Dr. Rafiq Habib, a Coptic Christian, to be the vice president of the party.

While becoming more active politically, the Brotherhood has been forced to remain adaptable to daily events in Egypt while continuing to strike a balance between its progressive and traditional members. In developing its political strategy, the MB leadership claims to have learned the importance of moderation from recent history – namely the 2005 elections when the success of Brotherhood-endorsed candidates provoked a harsh crackdown by the state. To avoid contentiousness, the MB has announced that it will only be running for a minority position in the new parliament. The MB has stated unequivocally that no member will be permitted to compete in the presidential contest and that MB members are only permitted to join the FJP. The rationale for this, according to Khairat al-Shater, a Brotherhood leader and reputed strongman, is based on the experiences of the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria and HAMAS in the Palestinian Territories: “We cannot turn a blind eye to the Gazan and Algerian scenarios. When Islamists there reached power quickly, the military establishment turned against them” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], June 20). Moreover, as Mubarak was forced from power, the Brotherhood was rumored to have negotiated with the military the Brotherhood’s withdrawal from the revolution in return for formal recognition of its political party (al-Masry al-Youm, April 1).

Splinters Emerge in the Ikhwan

As seen in several recent defections of high profile Brothers, the MB’s actions are emblematic of how out of touch and bureaucratic the Ikhwan leadership has become after decades of struggle against the Egyptian state (Al-Ahram Weekly [Cairo], July 2). These defections reflect not only the increasing ability of dissenters to establish themselves outside of the MB, but also the internal struggle “between three different generations in the Brotherhood: the leadership, mid-management and the young people who were part of the revolution and gained media exposure” (Al-Ahram Weekly [Cairo], July 2). In nearly every case, these defectors have highlighted the MB’s difficult position, balancing the increasingly liberal views of a younger generation against an old guard whose conservatism is both an anchor for the organization and a source of criticism and fear from outsiders.

Prominent among the defectors are Ibrahim al-Za’farani and Abu al-Fotouh.  Al-Za’farani stepped away from the MB in March 2011 to establish al-Nahda (“Renaissance”), a political party based in Alexandria (al-Masry al-Youm, March 25). Abu al-Fotouh’s departure from the MB came after al-Fotouh publicly declared his candidacy for president, contravening the MB’s policy (al-Masry al-Youm, June 20; Egypt Daily News, June 20). In June, the MB publicly announced it was revoking al-Fotouh’s membership, forcing him to pursue his candidacy as an independent.  Leaders like al-Fotouh and Za’farani are considered part of the MB’s middle generation, which was largely responsible for reinvigorating the MB, and they likely possess the networks and message that would keep the Brotherhood linked with the revolutionary spirit. Other political parties being established by former MB members include al-Riyada (“Pioneer”) and al-Tayar al-Masri (“Egyptian Current”), a youth-led organization founded by the trio of Islam Lotfi, Muhammad al-Kasaas and Muhammad Abbas, who represented the MB in the 25 January Youth coalition. Their left-leaning party claims to promote secularism in government with an Islamic frame of reference (Ahram Online, June 22).

Thus the Egyptian MB finds itself at a crossroads. On the one hand, the Egyptian polity is increasingly shaped by the ideals of a younger and newly empowered generation who forged their place and populist credentials during the protests against Mubarak. Their deeds have brought political opportunity and reinvigorated constituencies in Egypt’s urban areas, precisely the space needed by the MB to establish a lasting political presence. On the other hand, the MB leadership is seeking to maintain its traditional mores, by following a political plan that is seemingly more in keeping with past iterations of the Egyptian political landscape. Though in the past the Brotherhood was positioned to prevent significant defections, the new political realities are such that disaffected members of the MB can now establish themselves and their agendas outside the Brotherhood’s sphere. Consequently, it appears the MB leadership has chosen a middle path of careful calibration and balance, attempting to seize a moderate amount of key political territory without provoking backlash. In doing so, the leadership has risked appearing disorganized and representative of old style Egyptian politics.

International Influence: The Ikhwan Versus al-Qaeda

As the overthrow of Mubarak has fundamentally changed the MB’s place in Egypt, so too will the death of Osama bin Laden change the ongoing ideological struggle between the Ikhwan and al-Qaeda, as well as other Salafi-Jihadi groups. [2] The confluence of these two factors—a leadership change in al-Qaeda and the success of non-violent political activism—have fundamentally altered the influence each organization has on the Arab street.

Though commonly conflated, al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood represent opposing interpretations of Islamism, and their differences have manifested in bitter and even hostile rivalry in Egypt and beyond. In 2006-2007, al-Qaeda and its affiliate in Iraq engaged in vitriolic and violent exchanges with the Brotherhood-linked al-Jaysh al-Islami fi’l-Iraq (Islamic Army of Iraq). The rivalry became so deep that al-Qaeda’s leadership in Iraq would pejoratively identify nearly any Muslim opponent as “Ikhwani.”  Core al-Qaeda leaders like al-Zawahiri have also feuded with Egypt’s Brotherhood and HAMAS (an MB offshoot) over their willingness to engage in political processes.

In an effort to prove its hostility toward al-Qaeda, the MB’s official website maintains a regularly updated page entitled “MB vs. Qaeda,” providing readers with ideological, strategic, and tactical insights into the rivalry. While al-Qaeda and the Brotherhood share a strategic objective, their interpretations of that objective and the means by which to achieve it place them at odds. [3] Where the Brotherhood sees change as a long term, bottom-up and largely peaceful endeavor, al-Qaeda pursues it through the violent activities of a faithful vanguard. Although Abdullah Azzam was a key member of the Brotherhood, his view of violent jihad as fard al-ayn (“an individual duty”) has not been adopted by the mainstream MB. [4] Al-Qaeda and other Salafi-Jihadis, however, rely on Azzam’s writings as foundational to their justification of jihad. While the Brotherhood supported elements of the Iraq insurgency and HAMAS’ attacks against Israel, the MB has largely sworn off of violent tactics in pursuit of political and social goals.

Politically, the differences are even more apparent. Where al-Qaeda positions itself as anti-system and in pursuit of a purist interpretation of the Quran, the Brotherhood takes a more pragmatic approach, permitting political activism within the governing establishment. Nevertheless, the relationship is more complicated, as both organizations are Salafist in nature and profess comparable ambitions. The Brotherhood, for example, supports the Palestinian opposition to Israel and Iraqi insurgents fighting against the U.S.-led coalition. Moreover, they each appeal to conservative Muslims and have propagated similar diagnoses of socio-political issues. [5]

Revived Animosity?

Al-Qaeda’s new amir, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, has presented himself as more vehement than his predecessor in his criticisms of the Brotherhood. The leadership transition has therefore likely altered the zero-sum competition between al-Qaeda and the MB in the following ways:

The significance of the al-Qaeda leadership change lies with al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian legacy, his prior leadership of the EIJ, and his vitriolic criticisms of the Ikhwan’s political and ideological “deviations.” Having grown up in a family with close ties to the Brotherhood and having spent his formative years in jihadi groups like the EIJ, al-Zawahiri became engrossed in Islamic activism against the Cairo government. However, in public statements and works like his book Bitter Harvest, al-Zawahiri has condemned the Brotherhood, viewing its long-term strategy as inappropriate and its participation in politics as a deviation. With his succession to the leadership of al-Qaeda and his continued focus on Egypt, it should be expected that al-Zawahiri will direct al-Qaeda to become more heavily involved in Egypt, perhaps rekindling the battle with the MB.

The successful overthrow of the Egyptian and Tunisian governments through non-violent means provides a clear counter-argument to al-Qaeda’s violent, anti-system view. As al-Qaeda’s terrorist strategy was weakened by each peaceful protest, the Brotherhood’s approach was seemingly validated and strengthened through the group’s presence and placement in the subsequent Egyptian polity. Attempting to capitalize on this, the Brotherhood’s official website carried a criticism of al-Zawahiri’s April 2011 statement, stating it was “a desperate attempt by al Qaeda to impose itself as a player for change amidst the huge popular and international support for non-violent revolutions across the Arab world” (Ikhwan Web, April 17).

Conclusion: Which MB will survive 2011?

Looking toward Egypt’s upcoming elections as a seminal event, the future of the Egyptian MB appears uncertain. Weakened by internal divisions but strengthened by the removal of Hosni Mubarak and the validation of its argument against the Salafi-Jihadi camp, the organization will be forced to confront myriad internal and external challenges. With the removal of Mubarak as a coalescing force for the Brotherhood and the creation of a rapidly inclusive political space in Egypt, the Brotherhood’s more progressive members will either seek to have their voices heard within the group or defect to establish their own platforms. Though the Brotherhood’s leadership will doubtless attempt to maintain unity – evidenced in statements made by the FJP during the July 8 “Day of Perseverance” protests – it is unlikely the older leadership will permit the Brotherhood to play a dominant role in the immediate post-revolution era, fearing the sort of backlash experienced in 2005. This will naturally lead to the loss of key members of the Egyptian MB’s progressive, middle generation, thus increasing the influence of the organization’s more conservative streams.

More concerning is the potential role for more extreme elements that have previously been moderated by membership in the Brotherhood and firewalled from participation in jihadism. [6] Should al-Qaeda’s increasingly Egyptian persona become attractive and its anti-system argument be validated by disruptions to the democratic process, such as in Palestine or Algeria, these extremist defectors may auger a new era in Egyptian jihadism. Thus for counter-terrorism planners, the Egyptian MB’s ability or failure to maintain unity in the Islamist movement may have severe consequences for the future of jihadism in Egypt.

Notes:

1. The Egyptian MB’s Twitter handles are @ikhwan for Arabic and @ikhwanwebcom for English.
2. An excellent exposition of the Ikhwan versus al-Qaeda can be found in Marc Lynch, “Islam Divided between Salafi-Jihad and the Ikhwan,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 33(6), May 3, 2010, pp. 467-487.
3. Wiktorowicz provides a useful typology of Salafism which elucidates the historical development of several key differences between “politicos” like the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadis like al-Qaeda. See Quintan Wiktorowicz, “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 29(3), 2006, p207-239.
4. The Muslim Brotherhood does support popular resistance and violent opposition to Israel and the U.S. occupation of Muslim countries.  Ikhwanweb.com features a biography of the late Shaykh Ahmad Yassin, former head of HAMAS, as an icon of the Palestinian resistance to Israel. See http://www.ikhwanweb.com/article.php?id=23862. For Abdullah Azzam’s ideology, see: Andrew McGregor, “’Jihad and the Rifle Alone’: ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam and the Islamist Revolution,” Journal of Conflict Studies 33(2), Fall 2003, pp.92-113.
5. Lynch, op cit, 2010.  See also Terrorism Monitor, March 23, 2006, http://www.lib.unb.ca/Texts/JCS/Fall03/mcgregor.pdf.