“It is a Salafi dawah, a Sunni tariqa, a Sufi reality, a political establishment, a sports group, a scientific and cultural association, a corporation and a social concept.” These were the words of Hassan al-Banna during the fifth conference of the Muslim Brotherhood some 80 years ago, describing the group as he imagined it. Today, in most cases, the Brotherhood is labeled a “terrorist organization.”
In the aftermath of the June 30 protests calling for an end to Brotherhood rule, the organization is undoubtedly questioning its future as well as that of the wider Islamist movement.
There is a divergence in perspectives, with some who maintain the Islamist current in this new phase needs a genuine revision of its ideology, while others see the solution to the current crisis in a tactical response. In this struggle of ideas, various scenarios for the future of the Islamist movement are possible, and with them, the relations it forges with the state and wider society.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is a large institution. In times of crisis, such institutions don’t change their form. All structures within the Muslim Brotherhood function in the same way,” says Ahmed Gamal, a member of the Brotherhood and its affiliated political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.
“The Guidance Bureau convenes on a weekly basis in the presence of Mahmoud Ezzat and six of its members who are still in Egypt. All committees are working as usual and there won’t be any change to its structures until the current crisis is over,” he adds.
Gamal says that the youth of the Brotherhood accepted the democratic path that the organization chose when it took part in elections, up until it won the presidency, but that there are added conditions to accepting this path today, including fair trials, the return of legitimacy and free and fair elections. However, some among the Brotherhood youth are in disagreement with him.
Ammar Motawei, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, explains to Mada Masr how the priorities of the group have changed in the wake of the current crisis. He says that political committees have completely collapsed. This is mainly because of society’s current repulsion to any Islamist political work, he suggests, and also because the youth themselves have lost their belief in democracy. Work has also been impacted by the ongoing arrests of both the leadership and the rank and file.
“The youth have had it with democracy to the point that one of the activists, Ahmed al-Mogheer, someone who vehemently called for electoral participation, is now talking about armed jihad against the army,” Motawei adds.
The Rassd News Network, which is said to be affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, published a piece about Islamist activists Abdel Rahman Ezz and Mogheer, calling on the youth to take up arms against the current regime. However, such calls were rejected by the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and many of its members.
“Piety and social work committees will also collapse in the upcoming period, mainly because of the social rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood on the streets, and also because there is no money left for this work. Most of the money is being spent on detainees and the bribes we have to give to soldiers to let food in for our relatives,” Motawei says. “However, individual dawah committees will be active again. We won’t be able to organize conferences right now, but at least we can talk to our friends.”
Ahmed Abu Khalil, Islamist activist and author of the book The day I was an Islamist, says that the best solution for the Islamist movement now is for the Muslim Brotherhood to dissolve itself, adding that it should have done so years ago with dignity after it had fulfilled its role.
“If the Muslim Brotherhood continues to play the role of the beast within the ranks of Islamists, it will always be the most visible target and its fall will always be easy,” says Khalil. “The group has to transform itself into diverse elements within what’s possible. For example, separate groups for parties, charity associations, scientific institutions, learning and media. They can then form a lobby group or social movement.”
Many among the Brotherhood youth agree that the current period is one more for revision than tactics. For Motawei, such revisions will last for a few years, the results of which he says cannot be predicted. “There are red lines which we didn’t think about at all, such as confronting the regime using arms.”
“The intellectual debate is a phenomenon that exists and that is shaping up. Years ago, we used to suffer from a lack of debate and passion for knowledge among the youth. But now, this has started to spread. We don’t know if the debate will produce a deformed offspring, and the discovery that we didn’t have a real cultural movement, or if it will be otherwise,” says Khalil.
While the youth of the Islamist movement disagree on describing the current situation and the best strategy to move forward, they also differ on the objectives for the future. More precisely, the persistent question of whether the objective is obtaining power to Islamize society, or Islamizing society through obtaining power, remains divisive.
For Gamal, the main goal for the group’s actions now is to return to legitimacy and democracy, and then political participation through democratic means.
Motawei sees that the objective of the Islamist movement has to be a call for God and evangelization through Islam. According to him, political work shouldn’t be at the detriment of this.
Khalil sees that the objective is to build an Islamic society by confronting and putting an end to nationalism and by building a transnational network of economic interests among Islamic countries, putting pressure on decision makers in order to “open them up,” he says, using a term that dates back to the early days of Islam when cities were conquered (or “liberated”) by Islamic fighters. “The objective is to form a network of economic interests built on a shared social and cultural consciousness,” he says.
For Sherif Younis, a professor of history at Helwan University and a political analyst, the main issue is for the Islamist movement to ask itself about its vision regarding being in power.
“No matter how much the Muslim Brotherhood tries to interpret the resounding fall of [former President Mohamed] Morsi in one year as the result of conspiracies, one reality remains, which is that a huge number of people positively responded to the call for protests against the Brotherhood and the rejection of their project,” Younis says. “There are core issues in the ideology of political Islam.”
Younis sees that the Islamist movement needs a series of contemplations regarding all of its beliefs, particularly in regards to the difference between its evangelizing work (dawah), its social work, its political work and its very political vision.
“The notion that the solution lies in tactics, such as carrying arms and fighting the regime, working without a big organization, waiting for the leadership to come out of prisons to give guidance on what to do, creating an alternative leadership; all of these are useless tactics,” Younis adds.
“In a situation in which real questions are not addressed, the best that can happen is a reproduction of the same catastrophe after dozens of years,” he says.
For Younis, one of the clearest visions for the Islamist movement is that of Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, who said in the late 1990s that society had been Islamized to the maximum, and that this was the time to dissolve the organization and build a political party. Indeed, Abouel Fotouh reached a level of friction with the Muslim Brotherhood, of which he was a member for years, after which he dropped out in 2011 and formed his own Strong Egypt Party, considered to be moderately Islamist.
Abouel Fotouh’s proposition, however, didn’t have wide support within the Islamist movement, with the majority believing that the time for an Islamic state hasn’t yet come and that the path first has to be paved with an “Islamic opening” — in other words, preparing a sufficient base to hold power.
“The concept of opening has to be revisited,” Younis contends.
Ashraf al-Sherif, professor of political science at the American University in Cairo who specializes in Islamist movements, agrees. “One of the scenarios on the table for the Islamist movement is that of positive adaptation. New Islamist entities have to emerge and try to adapt along with the political context, dealing with it and offering solutions, such as the Strong Egypt Party. But this is the least likely of all of the possible situations.”
With a lack of a clear vision for what the role of the Brotherhood should be, Sherif contends that there are two possible scenarios.
The first is for the Brotherhood to bear all of these shocks and reproduce itself, but in a different form with the same core, as and when the political context permits it. “Here we can refer to older experiences in Egypt, such as the 1970s,” adds Sherif.
Deceased scholar Hossam Tammam described the 1970s for Islamists in the introduction of his book, A Witness to the History of the Islamist Movement, as “a new and different foundation,” in reference to Abouel Fotouh’s role in the so-called second institution of the Islamist movement following Banna’s in 1928 — which is believed to have lapsed with the persecution of Islamists during the rule of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Many analysts believe that former President Anwar al-Sadat released Islamists from prisons to balance the Communist influence at the time. “Sadat released them back then to work for him, but they worked for themselves,” says Younis.
The notion of a third institution remains distant for Moatwei and Gamal. Ideas for strategy proposed by both of them emanate from the notion that the foundation hasn’t collapsed yet. “The Islamist movement hasn’t perished. It’s still here. It has gone through similar phases before in Egypt, and in other countries. To talk about the Islamist movement being undermined is incorrect,” says Motawei.
The second scenario, according to Sherif, is the disintegration of the group, its scattering and confusion of thoughts and methods, with some opting for violence, others for expiation, and still others for the rejection of political work completely and focusing on dawah. “These transformations can take place, but their direction is unclear right now,” Sherif says.
“The disintegration scenario could come from the youth’s rejection to engage in field work, because the idea of reconciliation may be the leadership’s idea of a political solution. But Islamist youths have become more radical and I don’t think it is a temporary situation,” Sherif explains. “There can be a major political resolution that somehow satisfies the youth, such as sacrificing people like [current Minister of Interior] Mohamed Ibrahim and [former military commander and presidential hopeful Abdel Fattah al-] Sisi, and other individuals who are implicated in confrontation [with the Brotherhood] as a way to respond to the demand for retribution. But this hasn’t happened until now.”
While Gamal and Motawei dismiss the idea of the group’s disintegration, they don’t deny the depth of the internal crisis of the organization, which could get worse with proposed reconciliation.
“The next regime will definitely seek reconciliation, it will return to sanity,” says Gamal. “But when there is an opportunity for reconciliation, there will be a big problem because it has to be accepted politically, while it will be rejected popularly as the uncontrolled hundreds of thousands who do not belong to the organization will oppose it,” he adds.
But for Motawei, the disintegration scenario translates into a more internal condition aided by the presence of more powerful youth and a change in culture, and hence a possible positive outcome. He thinks that the core change happening now is the second rank of new and younger leadership within the Islamist movement, who are pushing to the fore. “There is no power left from the older leadership, because they all went to prison and made sacrifices. When a leader in the Brotherhood used to tell us, ‘I was imprisoned for six years,’ we used to kiss his hand. Now, we find youth that are only 20-years-old imprisoned and tortured — and the same goes for girls,” he says.
Motawei predicts a certain fissure in the system of obedience to the leadership, which he says is prevalent among the youth of the group.
Similarly, Khalil thinks that the disintegration of the organization today has a function for the Islamist movement, as it needs to be decentralized and emanate from its integration within civil society organizations. “The state’s ability to confront this kind of mobility becomes much weaker, because the movement becomes decentralized and hence can’t be targeted, like Fethullah Gülen in Turkey,” he says.
But other analysts think that it is difficult to compare the Islamist movement in Turkey to that of Egypt, mainly because of the type of organizations that Turkish Islamists founded. In the Forum for Religion and Freedoms at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in early April, George Fahmy, a scholar on Islamist movements in Egypt and Turkey, said, “In Turkey there is a state that respects the law. When Fethullah Gülen founded his institutions in the 1970s in a legal fashion, it functioned normally even when he personally fought with the regime and fled Turkey.” Fahmy added that the institutions weren’t hurt because they were legal.
Many analysts regard Fethullah Gülen as the godfather of social Islam and Necmettin Erbakan as the godfather of political Islam in Turkey. Gülen launched an Islamist movement called the “Gülen movement,” under which hundreds of schools were founded both inside and outside Turkey.
Legality aside, there is also an actual lack in a social base.
“I don’t foresee a bloc splitting off from the Brotherhood to form a party like what happened in Turkey, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan split off from Necmettin Erbakan and formed the Justice and Development Party, because there has to be a social base supporting this move,” says Sherif. “The problem with the Brotherhood is that the social base of the movement is the group itself, unlike in Turkey, where we find Sufi movements forming the social base for the Islamist party. If the organization disintegrates, we will end up with nothing but dispersed Islamist groups with no strong organization at the heart of the Islamist movement.”
“The state will try to completely undermine the movement, but we hope it will fail,” says Motawei. In contrast, Gamal thinks there is an inevitability to an Islamist inclusion in the state.
But Younis thinks that the continuation of the stand off between the Brotherhood and the regime only deepens the crisis. The state cannot be asked to recognize anything before a legal review of the standing of the Islamist current, he maintains. “There is a catastrophe, namely that the Muslim Brotherhood continued in power for a year without legalizing their status. They don’t have a legal vision for their status. They are beyond the state and hence have no place in the state, in any state,” Younis says.
“If we imagine that the Freedom and Justice Party still exists today, it won’t be anything but the direct political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, as it was before, and the indirect political arm of terrorist groups,” Younis adds.
But just as the problem for the state is inherent in the undefined status of the Brotherhood, Sherif explains that the current regime also has no strategic vision in regards to its relation with the Islamist movement. “Part of the crisis of the current regime in general is that it doesn’t have strategic visions for the situation as a whole. They only have certain tactics and they operate on this basis,” he says.
By a strategic vision, Sherif means a position for Islamists in the political sphere, in the social sphere, in the relationship between the state and religion and the relationship between religion and politics.
The tactic now seems to be to crackdown staunchly on the Brotherhood to impose conditions of acquiescence, as opposed to exterminating them, while resorting to parallel Islamist forces such as the Salafi Nour Party and Al-Azhar, according to Sherif.
As such, the struggle between the state and the Brotherhood seems to be one over tactics, with questions of wider strategies being indefinitely delayed.