“A coup inside the Muslim Brotherhood” screamed the headline of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood-sympathetic Masr Al Arabia website on May 28, 2015.1 In a few minutes the Brotherhood’s world was turned upside down as members and supporters struggled to cope with the news. With no leadership to comfort the anguished, members turned to social media to search for news and guidance. Denial was the true believers’ first reaction, but soon their worst fears were born out by Mahmoud Hussein, the secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood, who took to his Facebook page to confirm that Mahmoud Ezzat had taken over the group.2
The fact that the powerful secretary general of the Brotherhood could not post his statement on any of the Brotherhood’s media outlets clearly indicated that something was amiss. With the struggle now in the open, it was only hours before the other side responded. Mohamed Montaser, the alias of the official Brotherhood spokesperson, published his own statement, only this time on the Brotherhood’s official website: “We affirm that the group’s institutions, which was elected by its base last February, manages its affairs and that only the official spokesman of the group and its official outlets represent the group and its opinion.”3 His written statement was followed by an audio appearance on al-Jazeera, where he declared, “if you see the Muslim Brotherhood deviating from the revolutionary path do not follow us and do not follow the Muslim Brotherhood.”4 What had been simmering for months burst into the open: no longer was the Brotherhood’s struggle limited to the regime, but it now included an internal dimension. The Brotherhood’s house was divided.
For those not following the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood closely over the past two years, and to those accustomed to a tight-knight Brotherhood that allows no open dissent, the sight of such open infighting must have seemed astonishing. After all, the Brotherhood, which has long prided itself for being a strong Gama’a, had maintained an organizational structure that extended from the Usra (family) unit to the six levels of membership. In fact, this carefully maintained structure had allowed it to survive decades of repression and dominate post-revolutionary Egyptian elections. Though the mighty had fallen from power, surely two years were not enough to bring down what had taken eighty-five years to build.
In reality, the Brotherhood’s collapse is hardly surprising. In order to understand the current turmoil and dividing lines, as well as the Brotherhood’s potential future, one need not go far into the Brotherhood’s past. Instead, we only need to follow the Brotherhood’s footsteps on its downhill path from Mohamed Morsi’s presidential palace on the night of July 3, 2013, first to the trenches in Cairo’s Rab’a square, past its demonstrations inside Egypt, past its satellite channels and outreach outside, and into the abyss.
The Coup is Reeling
Until his last hours as president, Mohamed Morsi was confident the military would never move against him. After all, he had personally selected the army commander and done everything he could to placate the army in the new constitution. Even after the military issued its 48 hours ultimatum, the Brotherhood twitter account was assuring supporters on July 1, 2013: “Opposition would like to interpret military statement as a coup against president, it’s not. Military is patriotic institution.”5 As June 30 was approaching, and in preparation of opposition demonstrations, the Brotherhood had gathered its supporters into two squares, al-Nahda and Rab’a, in greater Cairo. Confident of its command of the masses, expecting a low turnout of opposition demonstrators, and imagining a repetition of what had transpired six months earlier when Morsi issued his controversial decree immunizing his orders from judicial oversight, the Brotherhood had prepared the sit-ins just in case the opposition attempted to attack the presidential palace. Otherwise, the Brotherhood had no plans should its supporters be confronted by tanks instead of demonstrators.
But if Morsi could do little but scream “Et tu Brute,” the Brotherhood was not about to follow with “then fall, Caesar.” As arrests were being carried out by the military, the Brotherhood’s world suddenly shrunk to Nahda and Rab’a squares as it scrambled to plan ahead. During the previous year the Brotherhood had gone out of its way to ally itself with other Islamists. By and large, its efforts had paid off. The 2012 constitutional battle and the Syria rally were a precursor of what was to come. Now, in Nahda and Rab’a, Islamists of all stripes rallied to the Brotherhood’s cause. In camp tents, Brotherhood members, Gama’a Islamiya, Cairo’s Activist Salafists, and Revolutionary Salafists mingled. Differences between various currents of Islamists seemed not to matter. The month was Ramadan and the camp was the closest thing to an Islamist utopia.
The mixing of Islamists had an effect on the speeches. Speakers, in English, portrayed the struggle as one of democracy against a coup while others, in Arabic, cast the struggle in the language of jihad. This was not merely the Brotherhood’s famous two discourses in two languages, but the result of genuine confusion and disorientation. Two attempts to widen the camp were met by military force, but beyond that the Brotherhood did not move. For forty-one days following President Morsi’s removal, the believers awaited their salvation. As some proclaimed sightings of the Archangel Gabriel, rumors, especially happy ones, spread faster than lightning: the commander of the second army is against the coup and will move soon and there are major defections from the army. There was no end to the rumor mill. One slogan captured the hope of the protestors—the coup is reeling. The devout waited.
Take off your shoes when entering Rab’a for its ground is soaked with the blood of Martyrs
Salvation was not meant to be. Instead, for those waiting, darkness covered the face of the earth on August 14, 2013. Security forces attacked the Rab’a camp, turning the scene into the bloodiest massacre of Egyptians by the state since Mohamed Ali’s massacre of Mamluks in 1811. The real numbers may never be known, but close to a thousand likely died in Rab’a. The Brotherhood would speak of a larger human toll: numbers are for historians, emotions for the living.
For the Brotherhood’s supporters abroad, Rab’a became a four finger symbol, popularized by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but for those who lived through the event, Rab’a became something else. A video of the first Islamist demonstration that managed to break the security barricades and reach Rab’a on October 5 shows men falling to the ground and weeping and kneeling while others dance hysterically.6 If the Shi’a look to Karbala, the Brotherhood have Rab’a, a moment in which time stops and the world stops turning. Rab’a became a place of mourning, but also a place of rebirth. Those who shared the square and the blood with Brotherhood supporters were brothers, those who did not traitors. In the tents and in the blood, Rab’a became a melting pot, where ideas flowed freely and bonds were created. Given the Brotherhood’s lack of a deep ideological foundation, it is no surprise that ideas flowed only in one direction: from Salafists to Brotherhood.
“Our peacefulness is stronger than bullets”
Those words were uttered by the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide, Mohamed Badei, in Rab’a. Still disoriented by the coup and the subsequent raid on Rab’a, what remained of the Brotherhood’s leadership soon turned the slogan into a strategy. The January 25, 2011 Revolution would be replicated, they assumed, as large scale protests across the country would force the military regime to its knees. The how was never clear, though. Was it international pressure that would force the removal of the new president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a split in the military, or would it be the collapse of the security forces? These were questions for which the Brotherhood had no answers.
Ultimately, a slogan cannot replace a strategy. In reality of course, the January 25 Revolution was neither peaceful nor could it have succeeded had it not been for the weakness of the Mubarak regime. Moreover, Sisi is anything but Mubarak. The massive protests soon began to draw fewer numbers as the crackdown intensified. Most of the population hardly noticed the protests as they resumed their lives unperturbed by the ongoing confrontation. The Brotherhood’s social isolation was growing. The regime’s propaganda certainly helped, but the Brotherhood had doomed itself through its discourse during its own short rule. Ali al-Haggar’s song, “We are a peoples and you are a peoples,” captured the growing feelings at the time on both sides.7
For a moment universities seemed to hold the most promise for the Brotherhood. A generation had opened its eyes to the world of post-revolutionary Egypt, where politics was synonymous with street fighting. But the moment was brief: restless youth were met with deadly force as the regime pacified the campuses. Things might have been a bit different had the Brotherhood been able to transcend the Islamist and non-Islamist divide, but memories of the Brotherhood’s rule were still fresh. The believers were still committed, but the rest of the country had soured on the Brotherhood. Facing the regime juggernaut, the Brotherhood could count only on Islamists to stand by its side.
Developing a strategy to bring down the regime would have been a monumental task in normal circumstances, but the times were anything but normal. Tens of thousands of Brothers were imprisoned, but the real crisis was its leadership structure. For decades the Brotherhood had prided itself on its leadership structure and ability to absorb and continue after each crackdown by the Mubarak regime. This time, however, was different. The crackdown was not limited to a few leaders that could be replaced; it took out entire levels of the Brotherhood organization. Those not in prison were on the run, moving from house to house as the regime searched them out. The immediate task, therefore, was not to replace arrested leaders, but to assist those still free in their attempts to escape. Many low ranking members were able to leave through Cairo airport, but for leaders the path would have to run through Libya or Sudan.
As time passed, and as members made their way to Qatar and Turkey while others absorbed the shock of the coup and Rab’a, internal pressures began to mount. The spirit of rallying around the leadership was replaced with questions. How will the regime be brought down? Many could still not abandon the parallel, often conspiratorial world in which they lived.8 But for a growing number of Brothers, tangible questions pertaining to the future could not be postponed. In December 2013, the regime had declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, ending any illusions that some still harbored of a possible reconciliation. The United Kingdom opened an inquiry into the Muslim Brotherhood and its activities; making matters worse, Qatar asked some Brotherhood leaders to leave the country in September 2014 due to pressure from the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia. While Qatar would continue backing the group, the screws were tightening on the Brotherhood.
In June 2014, the Islamic State took over Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, sending shockwaves around the world. For the first time an Islamist group had managed to achieve what all others had failed to do: control and govern sizeable territory, and not in some remote outpost called Afghanistan, or in a backward long forgotten land called Somalia, but in the heart of the Arab Muslim world. The impact was immediate. Success is always the best recruitment tool. Before Mosul, jihadism may have been an appealing theological concept, but for the first time it had achieved success. For the first time it was possible to think of an Islamic State, which could not have picked a better moment to ideologically challenge the Brotherhood. Demoralized, facing regime decapitation of their leaders and organization, Brotherhood members began to wonder.
The Muslim Youth Uprising
The first step on the road to violence was taken early. Every protest was met by force from the security forces; demonstrating was fast becoming a dangerous activity. Soon, protesters started demanding protection. As men faced arrest, women became disproportionally represented in the protests and sending them out became an act of madness. The leadership relented and protest protection units were formed.9 If the regime used civilian thugs to attack Brotherhood marches, they would be met by units armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails. The units would alert protesters to the presence of police. Who could possibly disagree with self-defense?
Events on the ground, however, moved faster than the leadership. The mixing of Islamists that had begun in Rab’a was beginning to show results. The Brotherhood had always been first and foremost an organization. Its founder, Hassan al-Banna, had left few works that could fill the ideological void and since the passing of its leading member, Sayed Qutb, the group had not produced an intellectual. As a result, the Brotherhood placed great emphasis on discipline and organizational cohesion, forcing any independent minds outside of its ranks. In order to broaden the tent, Banna had intentionally left many key theological and political questions unanswered.
None of his successors had the intellectual ability to fill the void even if they had wanted to do so. In normal circumstances, Brotherhood cohesion was maintained through the family structure and leadership command, but neither was functioning due to the crackdown. What began as the sharing of tents in Rab’a soon morphed into a mixing of ideas. Some would abandon the Brotherhood altogether and join jihadist groups, but these were few in numbers. The greatest impact on young Brotherhood members would come from Revolutionary Salafism.
Rifa’i Sorour had been an early member of the first Egyptian jihadi cell in 1966.10 Influenced by the street protests that took place following the defeat of 1967, he broke with jihadis to argue that working with the masses was the most suitable methodology.11 He later refused the nomination to become the leader of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and instead devoted his life to creating a theoretical framework for the jihadi movement following the assassination of Anwar Sadat.12 His life work, spanning three decades of active writing, successfully merged Salafist tenets, jihadi discourse, and revolutionary methodology. Sorour soon acquired a devoted following. Among his students were Khaled Harbi and Hossam Abu al-Bukhari, both of whom would emerge as key Islamic activists during the revolution. The revolutionary moment had given his ideas a movement in the form of the large following that gathered around Hazem Salah Abu Ismail’s presidential bid. Now, at the Brotherhood’s moment of crisis, with tens of thousands of its members lost and shopping for a new idea, his theories found a large audience.
It was not a coincidence that Matariyah district in Cairo remained the only Cairo neighborhood where Islamist protests continued and where clashes with police were a weekly phenomenon. Sorour’s residence had been in Matariyah for decades; it is where his followers exerted the most influence on Brotherhood members. Each week, following Friday prayers, a number of protestors were killed in violent confrontations. Dividing lines were being eroded by the shared struggle and bloodshed.
In November 2014, the Salafi Front, a small hardcore Salafi group founded in the aftermath of the revolution by Salafis frustrated with their leaders, called for a day of protests that it dubbed the Muslim Youth Uprising. The protests would be unabashedly Islamist, motivated by pure Islamist slogans that called for upholding Egypt’s Islamic identity against secularism. Before long, the call was echoed across social media by young Islamists, Brotherhood and non-Brotherhood alike. The Brotherhood leadership was cornered. Should they come out against an Islamist demonstration, and on what grounds? On the other hand, the demonstration risked undoing all of the Brotherhood’s efforts at labeling anti-coup activities as non-Islamist in nature. The Brotherhood vacillated until it finally came out against Islamizing the protests. Its statement declared that protesters were only to “raise the flag of Egypt and the usual revolutionary slogans.”13 The uprising failed to gather steam and the day passed with clashes limited to the usual areas, but the Brotherhood’s respite was brief. One week earlier, protesters in Matariyah had chanted for ISIS as one of them raised the black flag.14 The lid was about to blow.
Putting the House in Order
For a hierarchal organization that puts great emphasis on structure, the prospect of operating without leadership is a nightmare. As occupied as the remaining Brotherhood leadership was with finding a strategy to defeat the regime, the sustainability of the struggle and the very existence of the Brotherhood depended on their ability to replace those arrested with new leaders. Both for those who managed to escape and those still on the run inside Egypt, the task of putting the Brotherhood house in order could not be delayed.
In February 2014, the Egyptian Brotherhood held major elections in order to replace those arrested on the local and national levels. How the group managed to conduct these elections in such circumstances remains a mystery and testifies to its resilience. Unable to gather voters in one location, the elections were likely conducted by passing the vote from one person to the next. In the event, Mohamed Badei remained supreme guide despite languishing in jail, though effective control of the group passed to Mohamed Taha Wahdan.15 The fifty-four year old Wahdan, an agriculture professor, was previously responsible for the important Upbringing Division inside the group and had been elected in January 2012 to the Guidance Council. Other elected leaders include Guidance Council member Mohamed Kamal, parliamentarian Hussein Ibrahim, October 6 city Brotherhood leader Aly Batikh, and the Giza Brotherhood leader, Saad Eliwa (elected to the Guidance Council in January 2013). What was the fate of the previous Guidance Council members who remained outside of prison, such as Secretary General Mahmoud Hussein, Deputy Supreme Guide Mahmoud Ezzat, Deputy Supreme Guide Mahmoud Ghozlan, and Brotherhood religious authority Abdel Rahman al-Barr? No clear answer was provided. In December 2014, rumors began circulating that Mahmoud Hussein had been removed or sidelined as secretary general. The reason given was his statement against the Muslim Youth Uprising.16
Following the coup, the Brotherhood formed the National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy as an umbrella group for parties opposed to the new regime. In addition to the Brotherhood, the alliance included al-Wasat Party, the Salafi al-Watan Party, Gama’a Islamiya’s Building and Development Party, the Salafi Fadila and Asala parties, and other smaller groups. As months passed, the alliance began to crumble with most parties leaving it. In need of a new umbrella and eager to shed the Islamist label by positioning anti-coup activities as pan-Egyptian (Islamist and non-Islamists alike), the Brotherhood in August 2014 initiated the Egyptian Revolutionary Council.17 The council included a few non-Islamist faces that would be beneficial for the Brotherhood’s image in the West. Similarly, in December 2014, the Brotherhood gathered those parliamentarians who had managed to escape to Turkey and announced the reestablishment of the Egyptian parliament in exile.18 Neither move had much of an impact on developments in Egypt nor did many take either seriously, though the Egyptian Revolutionary Council proved useful to the Brotherhood in its attempts to secure meetings in Washington in January 2015. Putting pressure on the regime abroad remains a top Brotherhood priority.
Simultaneously, the Brotherhood devoted considerable energy to building a media infrastructure capable of carrying its message both to Egyptians and the West. Realizing that it cannot be totally dependent on al-Jazeera, despite the continued support the channel has shown them, Egyptian Islamists began forming satellite channels from Turkey. In 2013, Mekameleen TV (“We Continue”) began broadcasting.19 It was followed in December 2013 by Rab’a TV20 and in April 2014 by al-Sharq TV (“The East”).21 While all of these channels are pro-Brotherhood, the group desired a TV channel completely under its own control. Thus, in August 2014 it launched Misr Alaan TV (“Egypt Now”).22
These satellite channels target Egyptian audiences. Therefore, the Brotherhood focused on building an English language media arm, one that would not appear to be controlled by it directly. The task was carried by the London office. In July 2009, Brotherhood affiliates established Middle East Monitor to focus mainly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.23 Following the coup, the website shifted to focusing on Egypt, thereby providing Western readers the Brotherhood’s point of view. To supplement the message, Brotherhood affiliates launched Middle East Eye in February 2014.24
With thousands of its members leaving Egypt, the Brotherhood was also in desperate need of organizing its expatriates. Initially, the Brotherhood focused on providing them housing and jobs. As conditions stabilized abroad, the focus shifted to creating the necessary structures to organize all international efforts. In January 2015, elections were held for Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members no longer living in Egypt.25 The new body, called the Administrative Office for Egyptians Abroad, comprised three members from Turkey, two from Qatar, one from Malaysia, and one from Sudan, thereby representing the countries to where members had escaped and settled down.1 In April 2015, the office headed by Ahmed Abdel Rahman, formerly the secretary general in Faiyum governorate of the Freedom and Justice Party, was announced to the world.27 In his first interview on al-Jazeera on April 22, Abdel Rahman declared that the new office would be solely responsible for managing the current crisis facing the Brotherhood in Egypt.28 Lastly, in January 2015, the Brotherhood announced that it now had only one designated official spokesman, Mohamed Montaser. The name was an alias,29 with an insider suggesting that in reality several people had access to the Montaser social media accounts.
Many questions remained unanswered. Many potential conflicts were looming on the horizon. What roles did the previous Guidance Council members now have in the Brotherhood? Was Mahmoud Hussein still the secretary general of the group? And what exactly was the role of the new office abroad? Up to that point, and in similar historical crises that the Brotherhood had faced in various countries, members residing abroad were overseen by the International Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, currently run by its secretary general, Ibrahim Mounir. Based in London, the seventy-eight year old Mounir had left Egypt and managed the Brotherhood in Europe for decades. What role would he have now? The seeds were planted for conflict.
All that is below bullets is peacefulness
As important as it was for the Brotherhood to put its house in order, the group could not ignore developments in Egypt and the growing pressure from its youth for a strategy to defeat the regime. In the absence of a strategy, Brotherhood members were growing restless. Their leadership had led them into a dark tunnel with no end in sight. The regime’s crackdown had certainly contributed to growing radicalization, but the problem went beyond that. The comradeship young Brothers shared with other Islamists during the previous year was beginning to bear fruit. Keen on portraying the struggle as one between Islam and the regime, the Brotherhood had courted Salafis and pushed them forward on its media platforms. Could a young Brother be blamed if he took the words of sheikhs like Mohamed Abdel Maksoud seriously if the group was hosting him on its channels? Could a young brother ignore the ranting of Revolutionary Salafist Mahmoud Fathy if the Brotherhood included him in its Anti-Coup Alliance?
The revolutionary upheaval that Egypt had undergone for the past few years had removed old constraints. Throughout the previous years, revolutionary forces had employed violence when it suited them, from torturing so-called “thugs” in Tahrir square to attacking police stations. Molotov cocktails had become the typical accessory for a day of protesting. While the Brotherhood had rejected violence against the regime in the past, its nonviolence was an act of expediency, as Ibrahim al-Hodeiby argues.30 When circumstances necessitated the use of violence, as in the case of the Itihadiya clashes during Morsi’s rule, the Brotherhood did not shy away from it.
The coup and the Rab’a massacre answered the question for many. As one Brotherhood member proclaimed: “We don’t need law; we need revolutionary courts. We don’t need diplomacy; we need clarity.”31 The sentiment was not limited to young members. Fifty-six year old Amr Darrag, often described in the Western press as a Brotherhood moderate, declared that “the main lesson I learned is that gradual change would no longer work.”32 If Morsi was to be faulted, it was not because he and the Brotherhood ruled in a non-inclusive manner and alienated everyone else, but because he was not revolutionary enough and had not crushed the state institutions that had overthrown him. In his first media appearance, the new head of the Brotherhood’s office abroad apologized to the Egyptian people for adopting a reformist
As time passed, the pressure mounted. The protection units formed to protect Brotherhood demonstrators soon engaged in non-defensive acts. Why limit oneself to hurling a Molotov cocktail at officers who are disrupting a march when one can just throw it at a police station instead? It was the same police that was being targeted after all. And if the police were a permissible target, surely attacking infrastructure could be easier to rationalize given that it did not involve attacking individuals. Low-scale violent attacks became more frequent. A police station here, a police car there, it could all be theoretically justified. Egypt’s electricity grid became a favorite target with small bombs destroying electricity towers. Groups sprung up out of thin air: “Popular Resistance,” “Anonymous,” and “Revolutionary Punishment.”34
Whether early attacks were planned or spontaneous remains an open question, but there is little doubt that as the pace of attacks accelerated and grew in sophistication, the Brotherhood’s new leadership signaled a green light. In his analysis of the Brotherhood’s strategy, Abdelrahman Ayyash writes, “the Muslim Brotherhood leadership appears wary of losing ground to its youth wing by outright opposing the use of violence.”35 Given the regime pressure, the Brotherhood leadership reasoned that a complete rejection of such tactics would result in either a major split within the group or in the loss of a significant portion of its membership.36 In the internal elections, many youth were elevated into leadership positions as a means of alleviating pressure from the leadership. In all cases, they were the ones leading the action on the ground. The regime crackdown had necessitated a decentralization of local operations, and communications between leadership and members were constrained. The leadership could do little besides push these members into leadership positions.37
Besides, the leadership could have it both ways. Officially, the Brotherhood would not claim violent acts and maintain its pledge to nonviolence; in reality, the special units would bleed the regime to death. The new slogan, “All that is below bullets is peacefulness,” replaced the old slogan, “Our peacefulness is stronger than bullets.” After all, as a Brotherhood member lamented, “our peacefulness is not stronger than bullets.”38 Allowing the special units to conduct these attacks would hurt the regime without committing the whole group to the path of violence. 39 The calculation would prove mistaken as violence spiraled out of control.
It is at this critical moment that Shahid Bolsen would emerge on the Egyptian scene. As ideologues go, he was certainly odd. An American convert to Islam, he had been imprisoned in the U.A.E. for murdering a German citizen after luring him with the promise of sex with his maid. Following his October 2013 release, he made his way to Turkey. Through his friendship with U.A.E. Umma Party leader Hassan al-Dokki he was introduced to Fadila Party leader Mahmoud Fathy. Sharing a flat together, the two men clicked. Fadila had always adopted a heavier social justice component than other Islamist parties, and Bolsen’s odd mixture of Islamism and anti-capitalism and anti-globalization fell on welcome ears. Through Fathy, Bolsen would be introduced to other Egyptian Islamists; and through social media, his discourse would find a new audience. Bolsen’s rants proved appealing. Instead of attacking police stations, he instructed new groups to attack multinationals, KFCs, banks, and mobile operating companies. In Bolsen’s vision, the response to the coup should be “a campaign of targeted system disruption against multinational corporations that will slash profits and increase the cost of doing business, thus forcing them to withdraw their support to Sisi.”40 If Bolsen was insane, the times were certainly equally insane for the Brotherhood.
The Genie’s out of the bottle
On May 19, 2015, Abdel Rahman al-Barr published two articles after months of complete silence. The first followed the expected lines: Morsi is the legitimate president, retribution is necessary, the coup leaders will be put on trial, the army has to withdraw from politics, and the police force needs to be reformed. The regime, he continued, was the one who wanted violence and was in fact behind the terrorist attacks which it planned in order to blame the revolutionaries.41 The article was a prelude for his second piece, in which he argued that the regime wanted to drag revolutionaries to violence in order to convince its international sponsors that it is fighting terrorism. Barr argued that this would allow the regime to legitimize its own violence and maintain loyalty amongst the troops. The Brotherhood had warned that some who suffer from the regime’s injustices would fail to understand the need for non-violence. This is precisely what the regime wants and revolutionaries should be aware of the violence trap.42
If anyone doubted that there was a message being sent, those doubts were put to rest three days later when Deputy Supreme Guide Mahmoud Ghozlan similarly published an article following months of silence. Ghozlan went straight to the point: the Brotherhood is for peacefulness and rejects violence. It is for collective work, Shura, and rejects tyranny and individualism, as well as takfir. We will not abandon nonviolence, he proclaimed, and killing is strictly forbidden.43 A message was clearly being sent, but the article’s comment section filled with disgruntled Brothers cursing its contents. Two days later, two articles were published in the same venue in response. Nonviolence cannot be adopted in the face of violence, these authors argued. That would not be peacefulness, but servility, humiliation and an abandonment of the path of jihad. No religion would accept that. Adopting such pacifism would make the Brotherhood no different than the Nour Party, which supported the coup. The coup had demonstrated that peaceful democratic change was a trick and change cannot take place through demonstrations or denunciations of the coup. Rights are not given but taken by force and jihad, a force that terrorizes the enemies of God. Ask Algerian Islamists, Morsi, Yemen’s Islamists, and Hamas if democracy worked for them, these writers argued. One author summarized the argument by stating that when he gave his allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood he gave it to its slogan, “jihad is our way.”44
The Muslim Brotherhood coup was announced four days later, with reports of seven members of the pre-coup Guidance Council meeting inside Egypt, including two deputy supreme guides, Mahmoud Ezzat and Mahmoud Ghozlan, as well as the group’s mufti, Abdel Rahman al-Barr. The very fact that Ezzat was inside Egypt shocked members and observers alike. He had disappeared completely as the coup took place and most observers assumed that he was in Gaza. Other decisions quickly followed. Besides Mahmoud Hussein referring to himself as the secretary general of the Brotherhood, it was announced that the office abroad would fall under the command of the International Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood.45 Framing all that was a clear message that the Brotherhood’s usurpers lacked legitimacy and had diverted from the right path.
If the old guard expected the new leadership to toe the line, they were in for a huge surprise. This was not your father’s Muslim Brotherhood where members would salute and obey. Social media was abuzz with curses as Brotherhood members tweeted under the hashtag, “We will not turn backwards.” Mohamed Montaser has echoed these sentiments. Adopting the revolutionary path was a strategic decision and there would be no turning back.46 The unbreakable Muslim Brotherhood was about to be broken.
What had driven Ezzat and his colleagues to make their move knowing that even their meeting would pose a security risk? (That risk was made real a few days later when security forces finally apprehended Ghozlan and Barr). In the immediate aftermath of the crisis, some attributed the dispute to an alleged secret visit by Mahmoud Hussein and Ibrahim Mounir to Iran.47 Hussein quickly denied the rumor.48 In reality no visit to Iran was necessary; the storm had been gathering for months.
At the heart of the struggle were two issues: organization and strategy. On the organizational front, the old guard contended that no new elections for the Guidance Council had taken place. Instead, facing the regime crackdown, what remained of the Guidance Council had added six new figures to a crisis management committee but not to its membership. These crisis managers then overstepped their roles and crossed the line.49
But if that was the case, why had they been silent since February 2014 when the elections were held? Moreover, Ibrahim Mounir had himself touted these elections in one September 2014 interview.50 In truth, the organizational problem for the old guard was not the election in Egypt, but the one that took place abroad and resulted in the creation of the Administrative Office for Egyptians Abroad. The clash between Ibrahim Mounir and the new body had spun the old guard into action. Mahmoud Hussein had similarly been marginalized by the new office, which in April had attempted to wrestle control of the Brotherhood’s financial portfolio from him.51
But the organizational struggle was the less important factor in pushing the old guard to go public. It was developments in Egypt pertaining to the strategy to confront the regime that drove these men to break their silence.
One day prior to the coup announcement, a statement titled Nidaa al-Kinana (Egypt Call) signed by 159 religious scholars from across the Muslim world was released.52 Signatories included a who’s who of international Brotherhood religious scholars, as well as Egyptian Salafis who had sided with the Brotherhood since the coup. These included Cairo Activist Salafi Sheikh Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, Salafi Call’s former leader Sa’id Abdel ‘Azeem, and Sorouri Atiya ‘Adlan. The statement opened by declaring its intent to explain the religious position to the Egyptian regime. The ruling regime in Egypt was declared criminal and murderous, as it had committed sins and breached forbidden things. It was the religious duty of the whole Muslim Umma to resist the regime. The religious verdict extended not only to the rulers, but to judges, officers, soldiers, select religious leaders, the media, and politicians. All of them were deemed murderers and the religious edict on murderers (death) was applied to them. To call it a declaration of war is an understatement. Brotherhood spokesman Mohamed Montaser endorsed it, calling it “one of the main bases determining the correctness of the Brotherhood’s path.”53 The website hosting the statement invited anyone agreeing with it to add their endorsement. To date, over 626,400 people have done so.
The old guard’s attempt to regain control was not simply an act driven by a paternal sense of ownership and belief that they alone knew the Brotherhood line, as some have argued. 54 Instead, it was driven by a real fear that violence on the ground was growing out of control and risked dragging the whole group into the abyss. Celebrating six months of attacks, the Revolutionary Punishment movement boasted of killing or wounding 157 and 452 security personal, respectively, while destroying 162 cars and 53 buildings of “Camp David’s military.”55
While younger members look to Syria with admiration, the old guard remains afraid of the Syria of the 1980s. At the time, the Brotherhood had taken up arms against the Assad regime; the result was its complete annihilation across the country.56 The old guard had learned that a clash with the state was a losing proposition with profound ramifications for the whole organization. Keeping the group intact until circumstances in Egypt change remains a top priority.57
At the heart of the Brotherhood crisis sit two competing visions. Neither side can claim a coherent strategy. The old guard believes that the Egyptian regime should be given a chance to implode on its own. In this view, a combination of economic decline, security failure, and growing discontent will lead either to self-destruction, an internal coup, or Western intervention by pressuring for reconciliation.58 To maintain momentum, demonstrations need to continue even if they do not produce immediate results. Simultaneously, the Brotherhood needs to keep the pressure on the West by warning that the fate of Iraq and Syria awaits Egypt if they don’t move. By maintaining a semblance of non-violence, the Brotherhood can continue to claim that it is the moderate alternative to the Islamic State. It is betting on time and changing regional dynamics, especially a rapprochement between Turkey and Saudi Arabia under King Salman.59 It is this perspective that informed Yusuf Nada when he penned an open letter to Egyptian officers warning them that Egypt is on the road to failed state status, like Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. Nada called on the army to revolt in return for the Brotherhood abandoning Morsi’s legitimacy.60
On the opposite side, the new leadership, and behind it the Brotherhood’s rank and file, believes that only by bleeding the regime can it be brought to its knees. If the old guard warned of repeating the crisis of 1954 when Nasser crushed the group, it is precisely their leadership and actions that led the Brotherhood to a situation today that is worse than 1954.61 A regional deal is precisely what they fear as it would mean that all their sacrifices would have been in vain and their tormentors would not be punished. Their war with the regime is no longer about Morsi and the coup; in fact, Sisi’s removal would solve nothing for them. Instead, the struggle is an ideological one between Islam and apostasy, between right and wrong, between them and the “Army of Camp David” and its “Zionist masters.” Such a struggle stems from a worldview that allows no compromise.
In the days following the Brotherhood implosion, the Egyptian regime not only arrested Ghozlan and Barr from the old guard, but also managed to arrest Saad Eleiwa from the new leadership on June 18. This followed the arrest of the new effective Supreme Guide Wahdan on May 27. With leaders from both sides taken out of the scene, the media war went silent. But behind the scenes the infighting continued. The fight raged between Brother and Brother, between father and son; “the clash of ideas was splitting the Brotherhood into two.”62
The Brotherhood may still hope to have it both ways. Before the clash, the Brotherhood’s statement endorsing jihad in Arabic on January 27 was removed from its website; and the group issued a statement three days later, in English, denouncing violence.63 On May 17, Mohamed Montaser called for a revolution to cut heads. Following his statement committing to the revolutionary path on May 28, he seemed to backtrack on June 25 by calling on the Brotherhood youth to be careful not to slip into a cycle of violence.64 His shift was in response to the horror of the Revolutionary Punishment’s assassination of a civilian which it accused of cooperating with the regime,65 and a realization that such acts would tie the Brotherhood to violence and end any prospect of the Brotherhood regaining public support. The shift was short-lived, however. Following the regime’s liquidation of nine Brotherhood leaders on July 1, Montaser released a statement that declared “the Muslim Brotherhood affirms that the assassination of its leaders is a turning point that has ramifications and by which the criminal, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, founded a new phase in which there cannot be control on the anger of the oppressed segments that will not accept to die in their homes and between their families.”66
Can any of the competing leadership camps stop the cycle of violence and maintain the group’s cohesion? What will become of the Muslim Brotherhood? Will the old guard win or will the youth take over the group? Can balance be maintained or will the Brotherhood finally breakup? One thing is certain: the current balancing act is impossible to sustain over the long run. On July 2, one Brotherhood leader, Ashraf Abdel Gaffar, was adamant that the Brotherhood did not endorse complete peacefulness and that peacefulness was not absolute. Instead, it allowed for tactical operations such as bombing power stations.67 The next day he doubled down, arguing that peacefulness as adopted by the Brotherhood comes in degrees that includes anything but murder and that blocking roads or burning police cars was acceptable. After all, the army, he argued, was working for Israel.68 The radicalization of the Brotherhood rank and file is now beyond the ability of any leadership to control. As Abdelrahman Ayyash argues, the Salafist-Jihadist discourse has insinuated itself among Brotherhood members.69 Following the Brotherhood’s open clash, its nemesis, Salafi Call leader Abdel Monem al-Shahat, lamented the slow rise of violence and takfiri discourse within the group. Young members were now being led by satellite channels and takfiri sheikhs who appeared on their screens. These included Salama Abdl Qawy and Wagdi Ghonim.70
In the aftermath of the Brotherhood clash, an article by Mohamed Abbas went viral on social media. In his article, he called for a fourth founding of the Muslim Brotherhood, noting that the group had seen three previous foundings at the hands of Hassan al-Banna, Sayed Qutb, and Omar al-Tilmisani. This time the founding would not take place at the hands of an exceptional leader as the base was now driving and leading the group together with Islamists from outside the Brotherhood. Tilmisani’s methodology of operating within the system and competing in elections was finished. The Brotherhood now realizes it has been deceived with concepts like democracy, inclusiveness, and serving people. These concepts have been replaced with “jihad is our way,” struggle over control and not simply ruling, and politics as a way to implement Sharia instead of serving the people. He ended on a dramatic note. One day a man will come and ask the fourth founding leaders to step aside in order to declare the fifth founding: the Islamic Caliphate.71
Sooner or later one side will win or the group will disintegrate. On one side, the old guard enjoys historical prestige and remains in control of the Brotherhood’s finances as well as its international arm. On the other side are the radicalized members paying the heaviest price in blood. These men are no longer committed to operating within the concept of the nation state. Their legitimacy stems from their sacrifices and they alone are in control of the Brotherhood Street. They also dominate the media.72 The Brotherhood pyramid is today inverted with the base dragging the leadership forward. The struggle is no longer as it was portrayed before the revolution between Qutbists and Reformers.73 The Qutbists of old are the current doves.
This is not the first time the Brotherhood has faced a leadership struggle. From Shabab Mohamed’s fight with Banna over his willingness to operate within a system governed by man-made laws in 1940, Ahmed al-Sokary’s fight with Banna over leadership in 1947, and the special apparatus and its challenge to Hassan al-Hodeiby in the 1950s, to the Sayed Qutb prison challenge in 1965, the Wasat Party split in 1995, and Abdel Monem Aboul Fetouh in 2011, the Brotherhood had had its share of internal crisis.74 Despite these splits, the optimists argue, the group has survived. In truth, the Brotherhood did not survive Nasser’s crackdown. Had the Islamist revival not been taking place on university campuses when the Brotherhood’s leaders emerged from twenty years of imprisonment in the 1970s, it is doubtful the Brotherhood would exist today.
The future has not been written yet, but one thing is certain. As journalist Abdel Rahman Youssef put it, “The question is not whether the Muslim Brotherhood will change, but how it will change and what is the extent of that change.”75