The bloody dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya and Nahda Square sit-ins two years ago marked a decisive ending to the Muslim Brotherhood’s political ascendancy.
Since more than 1,000 people were killed at the protest camps on August 14, 2013, the Islamist group has become the subject of a state-sponsored crackdown. Labeled a terrorist group by the government, the Brotherhood has become public enemy number one, singled out for mass arrests, death sentencing en masse, lethal security raids and media scrutiny.
Over the past several months, public and private media outlets have predicted the implosion of the more than 85-year-old organization. Many pundits say that since former President Mohamed Morsi’s military-backed ouster, the group has suffered from debilitating splits in ideology.
More sympathetic media outlets, such as the privately owned dailies Al-Arabi Al-Jadeed and Masr al-Arabiya, have reported that the group’s old guard has perpetrated a “coup” against the new leadership.
Turkey’s Anadolu news agency joined the reporting by publishing a lengthy piece entitled “Peacefulness and violence spark a legitimacy crisis among the two leaderships of the Egyptian Brotherhood.”
In turn, Egyptian newspapers seized upon this news as a basis for claims that the organization is in ruins. They accused detained group members of providing information about fugitives, leading to their arrest by security forces.
While the conflict is nothing new, the public nature of the disagreement has raised many questions. The conflict drew the media’s attention in May 2015, when a leader of the old guard, Mahmoud Ghozlan, published an article calling for peaceful and no-violent protest. The Brotherhood’s spokesperson, known by the pseudonym Mohamed Montasar, responded to Ghozlan’s article and similar statements by other members of the old guard with a sharp retort: only elected members of the organization could speak on its behalf.
Meanwhile, inside sources have pointed to the election of new leaders to manage the crisis.
Though the Brotherhood’s inner workings remain shrouded in secrecy, the crisis faced by the group in the past two years has led to the espousal of conflicting stances. According to social movement researcher Ahmed Abdel-Hameed Hussein, the prevailing discourse among the Brotherhood’s rank and file suddenly changed, as many kicked back against what they saw as failed and ineffectual tactics — especially non-violent resistance.
The overriding belief, according to Abdel-Hameed Hussein, was: “We tried it, and we got nothing but bloodshed and a coup against legitimacy.”
This conviction, he continues, was strengthened as the upper tiers of the organization’s leadership either escaped or were arrested. Youth members became increasingly disgruntled, blaming those leaders for the group’s current plight.
Abdel-Hameed Hussein holds that a clear split has formed between the old guard, which controls all the vital points of the organization — international relations and funding — and the new leadership, which was elected by a membership that has lost faith in leaders who seem less invested in seeking retribution.
Three hardliners named Mahmoud — Ezzat, Ghozlan and Hussein, respectively — have recently become prominent, in addition to Abdel-Azim el-Sharqawi and Mohamed Wahdan, both of whom were recently arrested along with Ghozlan.
Ezzat, Ghozlan and Hussein have all served as Brotherhood secretary general. Ghozlan also served as the official spokesperson, while Hussein took over several responsibilities, most notably communications with the Muslim Brotherhood abroad. Hussein was the subject of a recent controversy due to allegations that he travelled to Iran, which he categorically denied. Press sources went on to claim that the visit was the reason for Hussein’s removal from the guidance bureau.
Ezzat seems to be the most prominent of them all, as he recently published an article signed as the acting supreme guide.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Brotherhood youth member who is active in one of the Delta provinces says that while things are not clear on the ground, that does not necessarily mean that there is disagreement among the leadership.
“The Muslim Brotherhood is a large organization with diverse factions. But it is also a durable organization that security crackdowns haven’t been able to destroy until now,” he says. “What I can say for sure is that no one in the leadership disagrees with our belief that we need to continue to fight the coup and the police in every way possible, at any time, in any place.”
A researcher on Islamic movements, who also wishes to remain anonymous, disagrees with the idea that there are two factions (an old guard committed to peace, and a new generation pushing for militant action).
“First, in the new chain of command, no more than 30 percent are under the age of 40,” the researcher points out. “Second, all of the elected leadership were already present in the organizational hierarchy, and sooner or later, they would have risen to the first rank anyway — it’s just that the vast campaign of arrests accelerated this. Third, the depiction of the struggle as occurring between those who want jihad and those who see peace as the only solution is false.”
According to the researcher, this is not the Brotherhood’s first such crisis. In February 2014, the Guidance Bureau held an emergency meeting in Egypt and abroad, and the only item on the agenda was the dismissal of Mahmoud Hussein.
The deadlock originated in a disagreement between prominent leaders in the group’s upper echelons. One faction, headed by Wahdan and Gamal Heshamat, believed that they could compromise a bit on Morsi’s legitimacy, while the other side, led by Mahmoud Hussein, disagreed. The pragmatists seem to have won out, becoming members of the crisis management group.
“Add to this the fact that the rest of the crisis management group is definitely not keen on violence — we’re talking about a group of businessmen not accustomed to pushing the conflict to zero-sum stakes,” says the researcher.
“So, we’re talking about two different paths. The first sees the completion of a protest track, but in a less bloody framework than the one imposed by the current regime, and at the same time not opposing, or at least remaining silent about, a truce.”
The second track, according to the source, moves beyond the legitimacy of Morsi and engages in a broader framework that plans to “save the state from what the Brotherhood expects will be a collapse of the economy and basic services, followed by a collapse of the idea of the state itself as a result of internal conflicts within its institutions.”
Abdel-Hameed Hussein believes that it is difficult to understand the group’s current dynamics without considering the two main factions that have vied for primacy throughout the group’s history.
While the contemporaries and followers of founder Hassan al-Banna have held more pragmatic political evangelical agendas, another faction — which Hussein says at different points has been referred to as “the Qutbis,” “the inner circle,” “the militant Brotherhood” or “Khairat al-Shater’s men” — took the path of political assassinations and security operations.
Mahmoud Ezzat — the group’s temporary leader following Mohamed Badie’s arrest —and Mahmoud Hussein — the group’s secretary general — are both considered members of the “inner circle,” and adherents of Islamic scholar and jihad-proponent Sayyid Qutb. On the other end of the spectrum were individuals like Abdel-Moneim Abol-Fotouh and Essam al-Erian.
Abdel-Hameed Hussein explains that Shater was a key player in establishing the “the militant Brotherhood” as the dominant faction. He was assisted by then-secretary general Ezzat, who presided over the promotion of members and the group’s political mobilization. The most prominent of these were former Morsi, Saad al-Katatny and other municipal leaders.
This group would remain in control until the months preceding the January 25 uprising, strengthened by the promotion of Badie — who belonged to the faction — to the position of supreme guide.
But another source close to the Brotherhood asserts that “the issue isn’t a difference between peacefulness and violence. The faction of the ‘three Mahmouds’ has no problem with violent means. There are many reasons that could be pushing this faction toward considering peacefulness. The push could be viewed in the context of Turkish-Saudi attempt to find a political solution out of the crisis, or the faction could be trying to distance itself from the ‘Call of Egypt’ statement, or maybe only to deliver the message that ‘we’ve returned after being on the run.’ Perhaps all of the above.”
The “Call of Egypt” statement was issued in late May by several representatives of various Islamic institutions. It stated that “judges, officers, soldiers, muftis, journalists, politicians and all of those who’ve been proven beyond certainty to have participated — even through incitement — in the shedding of innocent blood and unjustified loss of life … they are killers according to Sharia, and they are subject to the punishment of a killer in accordance with Sharia.”
This statement has been widely read as a call to target such officials.
Accounts of what is currently happening in the Brotherhood may vary, but the group is clearly faced with a choice between supporting the political game and eradicating internal inclinations toward violent confrontation, or taking the conflict to the extreme and eliminating any hope of political reconciliation. The state’s current and future policies will have an important role in influencing which of these factions will triumph.
This is an edited and updated translation of an article that first appeared in Arabic.