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The reason for the Brotherhood's current crisis is the Egyptian authorities’ change to a more confrontational approach.
The current split in the Muslim Brotherhood is unprecedented. The Brotherhood, which was built mainly on the foundations of loyalty and obedience to its guide, is experiencing the most significant division in its history. Its leaders fight among themselves over authority within the Brotherhood, in particular since the passing of Ibrahim Munir, who was the acting guide in London.
The Brotherhood’s members consistently boast of their ability to overcome successive crises. Since its establishment in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has managed to overcome 12 internal crises. However, the Brotherhood has split into three rival fronts, one of which is located in London, while the other two are based in Ankara. This is the greatest challenge to ever face the Brotherhood, which has never had two guides at the same time.
The Brotherhood’s members have been forced to perform their work from exile since the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi. Soon after, they found themselves trapped in Sisi’s prisons as the result of an official and popular campaign against the Brotherhood in Egypt. The reason for the Brotherhood’s current crisis is the Egyptian authorities’ change from a compromise and containment policy to a more confrontational approach.
More than one guide
In a brief statement, the Muslim Brotherhood confirmed that Dr Mohieldin al-Zait would assume management of the Brotherhood’s affairs until the necessary arrangements are completed to name a successor to the late leader Ibrahim Mounir. Al-Zait, who represents the Muslim Brotherhood London front, sought to provide reassurance to the group’s members in his weekly message. He said, “that the steps taken will be announced soon, and the resulting measures will increase the stability and durability of the Brotherhood.”
At the same time, the Istanbul front consolidated the division within the Brotherhood. The front’s official representative, Mostafa Tolba, announced that it had been decided to appoint Mahmoud Hussein as an acting guide after reinstating Article 5 of the Brotherhood’s general regulations.
On the other hand, Dr Ashraf Abdelghaffar, who is affiliated with the Kamal front, spoke of a coup through which Mahmoud Hussein’s group took control of the Brotherhood’s funds and investments. The Kamal front is ascribed to Mohamed Kamal, an advocate for dealing with the Egyptian authorities through violence. In 2018, the Egyptian Ministry of Interior announced that he was killed during an attempted arrest.
Ali Hamad, the official spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood, defended the appointment of Mahmoud Hussein as an acting guide. He said, “Regulations govern the Brotherhood. Considering that Hussein is the most senior and the only available member of the guidance office, the Brotherhood’s Shura Council decided to appoint him to the position of Chargé d’Affairs.” The Istanbul front had dismissed Ibrahim Mounir from his post as an acting guide and announced the selection of an interim committee to carry out his duties. In recent months, the administrative clashes between the two fronts escalated after Mounir referred Hussein and others to be investigated and formed a committee to manage the Brotherhood’s affairs.
On the other hand, Hussein’s autobiography suggests that he is the son of one of the Brotherhood’s former leaders, which means that the Brotherhood’s old guard still thrives, even if divided.
Talk about the Brotherhood’s breakdown and its division began early. The first signs of the split appeared through a disagreement between Brotherhood members and leaders over their approach to the Egyptian authorities. The efforts made to mend the rift are unlikely to succeed, as it is linked to a profound conflict within the entire organisation and its deteriorated state across all levels.
The fragmentation of the Brotherhood into various factions has become a possible scenario. The possibility of bridging the gap between the opposing fronts has become more complicated due to the organisation’s rigid nature and its prioritisation of this rigidity over ideological development. According to this scenario, the Brotherhood’s sub-factions will likely lead to more divisions.
Kamal al-Helbawi, a former leader in the Brotherhood, believes that the division, conflict and pluralism will continue since there no longer are safe havens. He believes that the Brotherhood’s image in the Arab world has changed and the USA has already abandoned the organisation.
The Muslim Brotherhood lost its primary incubators in Qatar and Turkey after Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad renounced his relationship with the group. He said, “There are no such links. We deal with states and their legitimate governments, not with political organisations.”
At the same time, the Brotherhood did not object to the recent rapprochement between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Egypt. It is unclear if the Brotherhood has realised the consequences of this rapprochement, which might halt all of the Brotherhood’s activities against the Egyptian regime on Turkish soil.
The Brotherhood has yet to grasp that Erdoğan, who used them as leverage against Arab regimes, would now use them to mend his relationships with these same regimes. This, perhaps, is the reason the Brotherhood has sought to politically blackmail Erdoğan by threatening to open channels of communication with Turkey’s internal opposition. Some expect that Turkish pragmatism would begin to gradually abandon the Brotherhood.
The future of Turkish-Egyptian relations may depend on Erdoğan’s willingness to sacrifice the Brotherhood rather than only freezing its media activities. Erdoğan once said he refused to talk to “a person like” al-Sisi, but the situation has changed. The handshake and smile between Erdoğan and al-Sisi at the opening of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar was the first direct bilateral contact between the two presidents.
The Effect Recedes
The London front has a solid institutional and media presence in the UK. According to British official reports, the Muslim Brotherhood used London as a base for secret activities targeting other locations. These reports considered that some aspects of the Brotherhood’s ideology and tactics ” contradict Britain’s values and national interests.”
On the other hand, the Istanbul Front has to reconsider its future after many of its people obtained Turkish citizenship and settled in Turkey, where they established institutions, schools, companies and networks in Turkey.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s recent calls for a protest on 11 November 2022 during COP27 in Sharm el-Shiekh failed across the country. This failure showed the group’s lack of influence on the ground. The Brotherhood does, however, maintain some ability to mobilise public opinion on social media.
It seems that al-Sisi and many Egyptians prefer a decrease in democracy and freedom of speech over the return of Islamists to power. This trend was apparent in the Brotherhood’s exclusion from the National Dialogue for being “a terrorist group with bloodied hands.”
One of al-Sisi’s views is that the Muslim Brotherhood will not have a role in the Egyptian sphere while he is in power. He also recently refused to reconcile with the Brotherhood, saying, “The matter is not just disagreement, but destruction and ruin. You have neither religion nor conscience nor humanity.”
Dr Ahmed Mousa Badawi put forward a possible scenario for the Brotherhood’s future. It suggests that, even if there were a regime change and the Brotherhood rejoined Egyptian society temporarily, the organisation will remain a time bomb bound to explode any moment.
Yet, the matter remains directly linked to the Brotherhood’s institutional structure, as it centres on individuality in managing the organisation’s affairs. As such, the guide and senior leaders dominate decision-making within the group.
According to an analyst, this institutional structure has become a burden on the group, manifested in slow decision-making and a failure to adapt to changing circumstances.
Thus, the organisation has become a “limp body” controlled by a small group of leaders who have restructured it. According to a specialist in Islamist groups, the old leadership has “a genuine crisis in communicating with the Brotherhood’s youth in terms of discourse and thoughts.” The organisation is showing symptoms of organisational aging, and its theoretical intellectual capacity has diminished compared to its dynamic performance.
Mohamed Shoman traces this downfall to the Brotherhood’s organisational and intellectual inaction, which led to conflicts and rifts within the group. According to Shoman, these conflicts became more complicated when the conflicting as the different Brotherhood fronts found themselves dependent on Turkey, Qatar and other extremist groups. Shoman believes that “any return of the Brotherhood to the Egyptian public sphere in the third decade of the twenty-first century would be a farce.” Dr Ali Mabrouk, a professor of philosophy at Cairo University, agrees with Shoman. He states there will be no future for Egypt other than on the side opposite to the Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood’s attempts to promote the notion that Egypt’s destiny will be determined by a confrontation between the regime and the Islamists have failed. The Brotherhood based this conviction on the vast costs of its continued suppression and persecution, in addition to the fact that the immaterial costs of the Brotherhood’s persecution weighed heavily on the Egyptian government.
The Muslim Brotherhood always believed it was unbeatable, even if some of its leaders were executed. They also assumed that the regime’s violence would cause unrest or even start a civil war with severe consequences for Egypt and negative repercussions for Europe.
However, these bets proved to be misplaced after al-Sisi’s administration exposed the Brotherhood’s founding myths. Al-Sisi succeeded in eradicating the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt’s social and political life by liquidating all the charitable institutions, hospitals and educational centres the Brotherhood had established since the 1970s to present itself as an alternative to the state.
The Brotherhood is no longer an influential party in the Egyptian landscape. After losing so much of its financial and operational capacity and the disintegration of its local and foreign networks, the Brotherhood seems to wait for a coup de grâce to end its misery or a miracle to save it from its historical decay.