The Withered Tree of the Muslim Brotherhood

Can Internal Conflicts, External Pressures Usher in the Weakened Islamists’ Demise?
The timeworn political and jihadi cores of the Muslim Brotherhood have already started decaying since the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood from the highest peak of political power in Egypt, eight years ago.

One century after its foundation in a small town, eastern Egypt, the fall of the withered tree of the Muslim Brotherhood has become inevitable. However, to be realistic, this fall does not necessarily mean the end of the Muslim Brotherhood as a group. It could only be a necessary step in the recreation of the oldest political Islamist organization in a new format and under a new leadership, which will be more adapt with the challenges of the new political reality of the Middle East and the world. The Muslim Brotherhood’s long history of concurrent survivals, via political and jihadi channels, supports this hypothesis. In that sense, what should the Arab countries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain) that have been relentlessly fighting against the Muslim Brotherhood expect? And, most importantly, what decision-makers in these countries do, at this unprecedented moment in the history of the Muslim Brotherhood?

Vertical Fractures in Leadership

The recent boss fights among the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are mainly scattered between Britain and Turkey, is only the tip of the slowly collapsing iceberg. The timeworn political and jihadi cores of the Muslim Brotherhood have already started decaying since the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood from the highest peak of political power in Egypt, eight years ago. Since then, the leaders of the group, who fled Egypt to Turkey and Qatar, in 2013, have been declining to submit to the authority of Ibrahim Munir, who leads the long-established London-based western wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

For seven years, the Turkey-based front managed to act like a thorn in the back of Ibrahim Munir and his supporters. They refused to accept the automatic installation of Munir in the position of the Supreme Guide, following the arrest of Mohamed Badie, the eighth Supreme Guide, by the Egyptian authorities, in 2013. Rather, they named Mahmoud Ezzat, a leading member at the Shura office, as the new Supreme Guide, to lead the group alongside his mate, Mahmoud Hussein, who kept his long-held position as the Secretary-General of the Muslim Brotherhood. Munir’s resistance to Ezzat-Hussein front was very limited, all these years, for several reasons. One of them is the strong support among the Muslim Brotherhood youth to Mahmoud Ezzat, and the generous financial support received by the factions of the group, based in Turkey, via Mahmoud Hussein.

Only in December 2020, after the Egyptian authorities arrested Mahmoud Ezzat, Ibrahim Munir was able to officially announce himself as the Acting Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. Then, Munir and his team dedicated their full time and energy to neutralize the remaining rivals at Ezzat-Hussein’s front. As soon as he was officially announced as the Acting Supreme Guide, Munir took a decision to re-arrange the governing hierarchy of the group by removing the position of the Secretary-General, occupied by Mahmoud Hussein. Then, he replaced it with a steering committee, wherein Hussein became one of six members, with limited scale of power. In response, Hussein refused to hand over the financial and administrative records of the Muslim Brotherhood to Munir, under the claim that only Mahmoud Ezzat, who got arrested earlier, can ask for such records, in his capacity as the elected Supreme Guide.

To keep the ball rolling against Hussein and his front, Munir called for internal elections on all the leading positions in the guidance office. However, Hussein’s front refused to participate in the elections because only the members under 45 years-old were allowed to run. Around that time, the restrictive pressures leveled by the Turkish authorities on the members of the Muslim Brotherhood living in Turkey, headed by Mahmoud Hussein, in adherence to Turkey’s reconciliation process with Egypt, offered Munir a golden opportunity to knock them down.

First, Munir made two shocking decisions: one is to dissolve the Administrative Office of the Muslim Brotherhood, based in Turkey, and the other is to dissolve the Shura Office of the Muslim Brotherhood, based in Qatar. He justified the decision by being part of an agreement with the political authorities in Turkey and Qatar, following the Gulf reconciliation agreement, signed in January. Expectedly, Hussein and his team decided to plot a coup on Munir, that started by mobilizing the Muslim Brotherhood youth against him, using the vast social media teams that they fund and control.

Eventually, Munir referred Mahmoud Hussein and his supporters to internal investigations, accusing them of committing administrative and financial violations. Last week, on the 10th of October, a decree signed by Munir, in his capacity as the Acting Supreme Guide, ordered the suspension of Mahmoud Hussein, and other five of his supporters from the Shura Office, based on the outcomes of the investigations that proved them guilty. By all means, this can be seen as Munir’s successful and final checkmate move in this dispute. He has successfully won the control game against his brother-rivals. Hussein has become too weak to fight back, due to the political and financial marginalization of his team inside Turkey. Also, his favorite companion Mahmoud Ezzat is now in prison. Plus, the Muslim Brotherhood’s bylaw already supports Munir’s extreme decisions.

However, in the process, Munir created a power vacuum in the leadership of the group that threatens the fall of his own seat, if not quickly filled with appropriate leaders that appeal to the group’s external sponsors, and to the grassroots members of the group, especially the youth, who are mostly biased to the leadership of Hussein and Ezzat.

Ibrahim Munir, the Secretary General of the International Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Acting Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Horizontal Fractures between the Base and the Leadership

While the fleeing leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood spent the past seven years, since their ouster from Egypt, fighting over elusive power positions in their dying organization; the Muslim Brotherhood has been shedding thousands of base members and sympathizers. Most of them are the Muslim Brotherhood youth, who are traumatized by the political failure of their leaders and the fact that they were left behind to pay the full price for the group’s failure.  

A large chunk of the Muslim Brotherhood youth and grassroots sympathizers, got arrested by the Egyptian authorities, in the period between 2013 and 2015, for their involvement in riot and violent activities. In this period, the Muslim Brotherhood elements committed more than three thousand violent atrocities against policemen, innocent civilians, and state facilities; as documented by police and court records. These violent activities, were implemented by youth, but funded and planned by the middle-leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, who remained in Egypt after the top leaders either fled the country or got arrested. Their purpose was to create a state of uncontrollable chaos that forces the new Egyptian political leadership of President El-Sisi, to seek a political settlement with the Muslim Brotherhood, similar to what the former authoritarian regime of Mubarak did.

Although Mubarak’s regime and media labeled the Muslim Brotherhood as a “banned group,” he did not stop them from practicing shadow political mobilization activities among the grassroots citizens. Smartly, the Muslim Brotherhood seized the opportunity to attract unprecedented number of supports by providing the grassroots citizens with the healthcare and social services that the corrupt Mubarak regime failed to deliver. As a result, the Muslim Brotherhood were able to win 88 seats (about 20%) of the lower house of Parliament, in the legislative elections of 2005, which was a benchmark in the group’s history. This also explains why the group got a large number of grassroots supporters, following the Arab Spring revolution against Mubarak, that enabled them to take over presidency and the majority of parliament, in 2012. However, it did not take a long time for the Egyptian grassroots citizens, fooled by Muslim Brotherhood’s religious rhetoric and social services, to discover that the Islamist group is not less corrupt or manipulative than Mubarak’s regime.

In the immediate aftermath of removing the Muslim Brotherhood regime from power, in 2013, about 600 young members decided to resign from the group and design their own political Islamist party. They represented their bold move as a rebellion against the flawed policies of the group’s leaders that led to the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood from power. At that time, the dissident youth revealed to media that they refused to obey the leaders’ orders to wreak havoc, all over Egypt. A few years later, this group of dissident Muslim Brotherhood youth disappeared with no footprint behind them, implying that their emergence at that time was only a tactical maneuver by the Muslim Brotherhood to ensure political survival inside Egypt, after their resounding fall in the firm grip of security forces.

Meanwhile, a huge number of the Muslim Brotherhood youth, estimated by four thousand members, decided to follow the path of violent jihad to compensate for the group’s political failure. They were not only motivated by their psychological trauma and the need to prove themselves to their leaders and followers. More importantly, they wanted to keep the funding from external sponsors flowing to the group, via them not via the leaders, by showing the group’s foreign sponsors and financers that they are the motor of the group.

Some of them formed small militias, such as HASM, and started operating inside Egypt until they got arrested in 2015. However, the majority of them fled Egypt to join terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic State (ISIS), in the Levant and eastern Africa. In early October, Sudanese authorities announced the arrest of a terrorist cell affiliated to ISIS, that is led by an Egyptian young man, who used to be a Member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Several similar stories about the Muslim Brotherhood young members operating at terrorist organizations in Syria and Libya, have also been revealed, in the past few years.

Even the small number of the lucky Muslim Brotherhood youth, who managed to escape Egypt on the tail of the fleeing leaders, to Turkey and Qatar, are not suffering less than their peers as a result of the leaders’ selfishness. According to their own video statements, they have been treated like slaves by the group’s leaders, who held away their asylum and travel documents to force them to work with a marginal payment. When they attempted to rebel using social media platforms, they were expelled out of their hardly paying jobs and some of them ended up homeless; sleeping on side pavements in Istanbul. Nevertheless, the recent restrictive measures taken by the Turkish authorities to curb the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities on its soil, as part of its reconciliation process with Egypt, has doubled their suffering. Most of them have got expired Egyptian passports and thus cannot move out of Turkey to another country, through legal channels.

Mahmoud Ezzat was the only person in the collapsing structure of the Muslim Brotherhood, who was able to contain the rebellious youth inside the group. They liked him to the extent that they took his side against the London-based leadership of Ibrahim Munir. For them, he was the actual Supreme Guide. Ezzat made use of his popularity among the group’s youth to run a vast social media parade that gave the illusion, for domestic and international audience, that the group is still active and influential. When he got arrested by the Egyptian authorities, in August 2020, that extremely weakened the will of the rebellious youth against their leaders.

In August 2019, the Muslim Brotherhood youth, who are imprisoned in Egypt, leaked a hand-written letter directed to the Egyptian political leadership. In the letter, they asked the authorities to give them a second chance to review their ideas of violent jihadism, and thus re-merge them into the Egyptian society as peaceful citizens. Also, in the letter, they made it clear that this is a youth initiative that has nothing to do with the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership, whom they described as “distant and uncaring.” Yet, their appeals fell on deaf ears. The Egyptian political leadership of President El-Sisi is known for its unyielding stance against the Muslim Brotherhood. Similarly, El-Sisi has ignored several offers of reconciliation and compromise by the fleeing Muslim Brotherhood leaders, in the past five years.

The Ruptures in Support Network

The internal divisions and fierce fights over powerful positions inside the Muslim Brotherhood’s hierarchy of leadership, or between the old leadership and the young base members, are not new. In fact, such internal conflicts are as old as the group itself. The most interesting of these internal conflicts took place in mid-2000s, when the young women of the Muslim Brotherhood tried to rebel against the guidance office and asked for equal rights with their fellow men in the hierarchy of the group. However, the internal disputes among the Muslim Brotherhood leaders, these days, are the first to happen in the absence of the Muslim Brotherhood’s international network of support.

There has always been a network of protection that allowed the Muslim Brotherhood members to manage their internal disputes without affecting the coherence of the group or the continuity of its operations. This support network was strongly stretched, over the past decade, to keep the group intact for as long as possible, especially after their fall from power in Egypt. Currently, the main threads of this important network are either torn or struggling against inevitable thinning and rapture.

Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (L-2), Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman (4th L), Deputy Prime Minister of Oman Fahd bin Mahmoud al Said (L-3), Salman, Crown Prince of Bahrain (R-3), Vice President of the United Arab Emirates Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (R-2) and Emir of Kuwait Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah (L) pose for a photo during the 41st Summit of Gulf Cooperation Council in AlUla, Saudi Arabia on January 05, 2021. (Photo by Royal Council of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The most important thread of the Muslim Brotherhood’s support network, that is currently weakening, is the Turkey-Qatar axis. After signing Al-Ula agreement with the Arab quartet of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain, in January, Qatar has taken sincere steps to rebuild its regional relationships. This required dropping its unconditional support to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was one of the main factors that previously triggered the conflict with sisterly Arab countries. On the other hand, Turkey provided the fleeing Muslim Brotherhood leaders with the safe land to refuge to and work from. The Turkish President Erdogan voiced unconditional support to the Muslim Brotherhood, even though this costed him to lose relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and UAE, who are determined to fight against the extremist political and jihadi ideology of the group. However, in the past few months, the Turkish Intelligence applied restrictive measures on Muslim Brotherhood activities on its soil, especially the media activities targeting the distortion of the Egyptian state and president. As a result, Muslim Brotherhood leadership in London had to order the closing of Muslim Brotherhood offices in Turkey and Qatar, three months ago.

- Rached Ghannouchi, head of the moderate Islamist Ennahda in his office, in Tunis, Tunisia, March 9, 2021. Ennahda Party in Tunisia is currently disassembling under popular pressure, as the anti-Muslim Brotherhood Tunisian President Kais Said’s power is rising. (REUTERS/Jihed Abidellaoui)

Another crucial, but thinning, thread in the Muslim Brotherhood’s support network, is the Muslim Brotherhood’s affiliated political parties, which are holding decision-making positions in focal Arab countries. This includes, for example, Ennahda Party in Tunisia, Justice and Development Party in Morocco, and the Islamic Action Front Party in Jordan. All of these Islamist parties have been collapsing, like pieces of domino, in the past two years. In Morocco, in September, the Justice and Development Party lost legislative elections for a liberal party, and thus lost its strong influence over the King’s decisions. Last year, supreme Jordanian court ruled the dissolving of the Muslim Brotherhood as a group, and thus put the Islamic Action Front Party in a tough corner. Above all that, Ennahda Party in Tunisia is currently disassembling under popular pressure, as the anti-Muslim Brotherhood Tunisian President Kais Said’s power is rising.

The concurrent failures of the political parties affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, in more than one country, is definitely weighing down the entire organization and undermines the Muslim Brotherhood’s legitimacy and credibility worldwide, especially in light of the current conflict between Munir and Hussein.

The Missing Catalyst

The internal breakdown, stimulated by external financial and political pressures, that the Muslim Brotherhood is going through, right now, is unprecedented in the history of the group. That is marked by the extreme vertical and horizontal divisions in the core structure of the organization and the lack of proper external financial and political support. The current disputes between the Muslim Brotherhood leaders, based in London and Istanbul, does not only put Mahmoud Hussein’s front in a less advantageous position. It, also, exposes Ibrahim Munir’s front to failure if he cannot fill in the positions underneath him with loyal affiliates that appeals to group’s base and sponsors. This, simply, means that the current dispute between Munir and Hussein could be the tragic finale of the Muslim Brotherhood’s century-old drama. However, a catalyst factor is needed to ensure accelerating the group’s collapse and prevent Munir from re-assembling the scattered pieces. Re-mobilizing the loosened cooperation between the Arab alliance of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain is the crucial, but missing, catalyst factor. In parallel, the aforementioned Arab alliance needs to further enhance the recently revived individual ties with Turkey and Qatar, in a way that prevents the withered tree of the Muslim Brotherhood from blossoming once again.

 

Dalia Ziada is an Egyptian author and Director of the Liberal Democracy Institute. Her work covers military affairs, political Islamism, and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa. Tweets at @daliaziada.

 

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