Fault Lines in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood
Mohammed Habib lives in a suburb of Cairo just beyond the ring of tenement housing that is closing in on the city like a noose. His flat is small but well kept, with great towers of stacked books erected from the floor and tables.
This has been Habib’s place of self-imposed exile since he and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood lost a struggle for control of the Islamist group eighteen months ago. It was generally assumed that Habib, as the then-deputy chairman, would be elected chairman when Mohammed Akef, who had held the post for six years, announced he was stepping down. When the vote was held in January 2010, however, Habib was upset by Mohammed Badie, a conservative and relatively obscure member of the Brotherhood’s governing council, known as the Guidance Bureau. Delivering his acceptance speech, according to Habib, Badie referred affectionately to Egypt’s then-dictator Hosni Mubarak as “the father of Egypt,” and he implied the Brotherhood would accept a dynastic transfer of power to Mubarak’s son Gamal. Not long after that, several Badie allies were released from prison after long periods of detention.
Badie’s remarks, to say nothing of the election results, were a surprise to pretty much everyone but Habib. “Four months before the election,” he told me, “I received information through leads within the group that Badie would be the next Supreme Guide. I believe there was an agreement between Badie and his supporters and the government. The rest of us were strongly opposed to Gamal Mubarak and his succession.”
Predictably, Brotherhood leaders deny such a deal was made, though talk of an agreement has circulated within the group. “It’s been mentioned,” said a rank-and-file member who requested anonymity so as to avoid reprimand. “An official on the Guidance Bureau told me. And while I’d rather not believe in such a thing, it may contain a bit of truth.”
I met with Habib in June. Until then, he had kept his account of the transition largely to himself. So much had happened since February, however, when Mubarak and his ruling circle were ousted in a popular revolt, that he decided to come forward in interviews and with writings of his own. National elections have been scheduled for November, and the Ikhwan, as the Muslim Brotherhood is known in Arabic, is expected to win a plurality of seats in Parliament. Almost overnight Egypt, once the wellspring of Arab politics and culture before it was rendered mute by a half-century of one-party rule, has been transformed into a fragile young democracy. At the center of this whirlwind is the Ikhwan, one of Egypt’s oldest political movements, one that has survived decades of persecution by resisting and accommodating sequential fashions of autocracy, from monarchy to secular dictatorship. Now freed along with the rest of the country, and seemingly within reach of unprecedented power, the Brotherhood faces the prospect of implosion. Though it can now openly organize and contest elections, that same process is deepening longstanding fault lines within the group that threaten its dissolution.
“The Ikhwan is behaving as if the entire political system is in its grip,” Habib said. “In fact, there are fissures, and they may be to the very core. There is concern among the younger members that the leadership does not understand what’s going on around it. But their opinions are being cast aside, just as they were under Mubarak.”
Fractures within the Brotherhood are nothing new. Since its founding in 1928 by revivalist Hassan al-Banna, the Ikhwan has been home to competing visions of Islam and the group’s role in Egyptian society. The impulse among some leaders to engage in politics and revolution, both peaceful and violent, rather than confine themselves to proselytizing and social work has at times threatened to destroy the group. A failed bid in October 1954 by a Brotherhood faction to assassinate Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the fierce secularist who led Egypt throughout the 1950s and ’60s, ended with mass arrests of Ikhwanists and the torture of the plot’s alleged leaders, including radical author and Islamic theorist Sayyid Qutb. (Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was a Qutb disciple.)
Schismatics aside, the Brotherhood has remained whole largely by entering into tactical ententes with the state and nurturing social networks that are the basis of its political muscle. If Banna was a rebel—he lashed out against what he regarded as Cairo’s corrupt political elites, neo-imperialism and Zionism, and the social salons that were Westernizing Egypt and Islam—he was conflicted about the use of violence even when deployed against the country’s British occupiers. “Revolution is not part of the Brotherhood’s ideology,” said Habib. “Even Hassan al-Banna never spoke of it. The objective has always been to reform the system from within, not to replace it with a new one.”
The Brotherhood allied with Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor, in his battles with leftists, only to turn against him along with other Islamist groups once he recognized Israel in 1979. (Sadat’s assassination in 1981 was the work of a handful of rogue Ikhwan members and other radical Islamists, along with colluding military officers.) The Brotherhood’s relations with Mubarak were equally volatile; the two sides shared an uneasy truce during the 1990s, when the regime fought a low-level civil war with militant organizations like Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya. In 2005, however, when Brotherhood candidates won the largest opposition bloc in parliamentary elections—they were allowed to campaign only as independents—Mubarak unleashed an extrajudicial assault on the group, detaining and torturing members under emergency security measures in place since Sadat’s assassination. In 2008 the government modified the Constitution to prohibit independent candidates from running for Parliament, a move clearly aimed at the Ikhwan. For good measure, it arrested thousands of its members, many of whom were tried in military courts.
It was largely in response to Mubarak’s iron hand, quietly abetted by the Bush administration and the US Congress, that the more conservative Ikhwan members became disillusioned with Akef and his policy of engaging non-Islamist dissidents in opposition to the regime. Younger members, however, pushed for more aggressive outreach to the secular world, not unlike the way Banna had challenged the religious hierarchy of his day. In a November 2008 interview, a 20-year-old Brotherhood member named Mohammed Adel told me of a growing restlessness among the youth cadres, some of whom were working with secular movements to unseat Mubarak through peaceful means. A website designer, Adel said he and a handful of young dissidents had launched an alternative to the Brotherhood’s official website, one that featured a page soliciting constructive criticism of the group. It was a hit among the Ikhwan’s youth, but the leadership ordered it removed.
“There are no dissenting ideas within the Ikhwan,” Adel told me in a coffee shop just off Tahrir Square, where thousands of demonstrators would later stage the peaceful rebellion that led to Mubarak’s eviction. “There are younger members who want to deviate from the old guard’s ways, to work with other political streams and to take action in the streets with the language of renewal, the language of the young. You also have young people who want representation in the leadership, but they have none.”
Adel, who was raised as an Ikhwanist in a family filled with them, said he participated in a day of peaceful protest launched by oppositionists in the spring of 2008. The April 6 Youth Movement, as it is known, was organized on Facebook and had particular appeal among Egypt’s angry and unemployed youth. Many young Brotherhood members joined in the demonstration in defiance of their elders’ objections. Three years later, they would do so again, with far more conclusive results.
The Ikhwan leadership was famously slow to involve itself in the anti-Mubarak rebellion that began in Tahrir Square on January 25. Even as their young brethren, in tandem with secularists and Coptic Christians, manned the barricades that kept regime thugs from clearing the area, senior Brotherhood members were loath to join a movement that was antithetical to the Ikhwan’s near-sacred embrace of gradualism. Only when it was clear Mubarak was on his way out, say dissident Ikhwanists, did Badie and other group elders officially endorse the movement. Even worse, critics say, it broke ranks with a coalition of opposition leaders by negotiating with Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s intelligence chief and unofficial chamberlain, who briefly became Egypt’s de facto head of state after the president stepped down.
When the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) established a transitional government in response to popular demands for order in the chaotic aftermath of Mubarak’s departure, it entered into a tacit partnership with senior Brotherhood leaders to restore order. At the time, military leaders told reporters that it was only natural that it would leverage the group’s sizable network to clear the streets. That has not stopped a drumbeat of speculation that the two sides had cut a less prosaic deal: in exchange for the release from prison of Ikhwan members, it was argued, the leadership would keep silent about the military’s preponderant and profoundly undemocratic role in Egyptian industry, from textile milling to the tourism trade, just as it had agreed to support a dynastic transfer of presidential power eighteen months earlier. “They brokered a deal,” said an industrialist with close ties to the military who spoke on the strictest condition of anonymity. “The army said we’ll get your guys out of jail so long as you don’t challenge the new regime at a time of great instability.”
Elijah Zarwan, the Egyptian representative of the International Crisis Group, said the evidence of Ikhwan–military complicity is empirical. “It’s no great secret,” he said. “Just look at the facts. From the military’s side, they got the Muslim Brotherhood’s vast network to take people off the streets when there was no alternative. It was a way to end the bloodshed. So what did the Brotherhood get? They got their members out of prison, a political party that is allowed to campaign in the open and direct involvement in the drafting of the post-Mubarak Constitution.” Whether the agreement extends to the military’s economic interests remains to be seen, however. (Interestingly, one of the Ikhwanists released from prison after serving just more than half of a seven-year sentence was Khairet al-Shater, one of the Brotherhood’s most influential members and, according to a member of the youth league, the most forceful voice in opposition to its demands for a greater say in the group’s internal affairs.)
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is by far the most capable political machine in Egypt’s young democracy, given the estimated 600,000 Ikhwanists at its disposal, though it has gradually estranged itself from the very movement that made this possible. It has boycotted several demonstrations and revolutionary councils, including the May 7 National Conference, in which more than 1,000 delegates from parties and movements called for more aggressive democratic reform. It has opposed calls for a constitution to be written ahead of the fall elections, on the grounds that this clashes with the results of a March referendum, in which 77 percent of voters preferred that balloting be held as soon as possible. Such an outcome was welcomed by the Brotherhood, which is far better organized than its secular rivals.
Not long after Mubarak’s overthrow, the Ikhwan demanded that Coptic Christians, who constitute about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, and women be prohibited from running for president, and it has condemned as “sinners” those who have demonstrated against the SCAF. It has also entered into an alliance with a proliferation of Salafi (fundamentalist Islamist) groups, including at least one Salafi political party, which would all but guarantee an Islamist majority in Parliament should its compact prevail in the upcoming ballot. In July tens of thousands of largely Salafi activists jammed Tahrir Square in a compelling show of force, effectively Islamizing a parcel of Cairo known to the world as an idyll of ecumenicalism. Mocking the secularist chants of “Christian, Muslim, we’re all Egyptians” that had echoed throughout the square during the rebellion, these protesters bellowed “Islamic, Islamic, neither secular nor liberal.” The secular demonstrations, which had been promoted as a display of national unity, were overwhelmed by Islamist voices, particularly Salafi demands for strict adherence to Sharia law.
Under Mubarak, Salafis worshiped largely underground, and their growing clout has caught many observers by surprise. Now in a spoiler role in the upcoming elections, they could undermine as well as enhance the Ikhwan’s prospects. Just as liberal splittists may peel away votes from the Brotherhood’s left, Salafis may cherry-pick them from its right. “We got rid of Mubarak,” Sheik Mohammed Farahat, a leading Salafi sheik, told me over dinner in a Cairo cafe that, interestingly, served beer and wine. “Now anyone who fights us will lose. There has been no compromise with my Coptic friends, but there is no problem so long as they don’t cross the constants of Sharia.” It was a remark both disingenuous and chilling, implying as it did that Islamists, and not secularists, did the heavy lifting that deposed Mubarak, and that the only good Coptic is a supine one.
What of the Ikhwan? “We all follow the same principles, only we follow the texts literally,” said Farahat. “The Ikhwan tends to maneuver politically; it is very Machiavellian. Either way, the past era of secular liberalism is over.”
In an interview, Ikwhan spokesman Mohamed Saad el-Katatni dismissed talk of secret deals and accommodation between the group and the state, either under the SCAF or the ancien régime. The Brotherhood, he said, had always been opposed to the dynastic elevation of Gamal Mubarak as president. While he was unaware of any remarks by Badie that characterized Hosni Mubarak as a national patriarch, he said, “They may have been made in the spirit of our culture of respect for elder leaders, devoid of political content.” Far from negotiating with Omar Suleiman unilaterally, he said, the Ikhwan did so in a public meeting “on terms that included all political forces.” The National Conference, said Katatni, was an attempt to undermine the results of the March referendum. “Our policy is the will of the people, even if it is contrary to our own preference,” he said. “We have no plans to dominate Parliament.”
The day before my interview with Katatni, the Ikhwan expelled Dr. Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh, one of the Brotherhood’s most respected members, for refusing to relinquish his independent presidential campaign. The leadership had declared the presidency off-limits to its members to ease public anxiety about its ambitions, and Fotouh’s renegade bid had revealed a deep split within the Ikhwan at its most senior levels. According to Katatni, the last time such a high-ranking member had been dismissed from the Brotherhood was in 1954, in the aftermath of the attempt on Nasser’s life.
Fotouh, who also served as the general secretary of the Arab Medical Association, has been a stalwart and pioneering proponent of ecumenicalism, liberal governance and a progressive Muslim Brotherhood. In a June interview with the New York Times, he declared that “people must have a free will.” He expressed support for the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and he insisted there was nothing incompatible between Western values and his interpretation of Islam. When I met Fotouh several years ago, he presciently implied that the weight of democracy would splinter Ikhwan solidarity. “The Muslim Brotherhood has a vision to interact with society, but you also have people who are narrow-minded,” he said. “There is greater awareness among the young, and they can make a difference in free elections. Otherwise, there will be an explosion.”
Many among the Brotherhood’s youth regard Fotouh as a mentor, and his banishment only hardened their resentment of the old guard. As news of Fotouh’s dismissal broke, Islam Lotfy, a 33-year-old lawyer, and a circle of fellow Ikhwanists were preparing to launch their own party in response to the Brotherhood’s refusal to consider their demands for more activist and inclusive expression. On a humid night in June, Lotfy told me the decision to break with the Ikhwan was taken only after attempts at negotiation had failed. “Our vision was heard but ignored,” he told me. “People were helping us project our beliefs, not only in Cairo but [Brotherhood] leaders in London, Kuwait and Palestine. But the leadership is undemocratic, and it will not allow us to reach out to other groups, period.”
The new party, which will contest the fall elections under the name Egyptian Current, was unveiled a few days later. Among its 5,000 members are some 200 dissident Brotherhood adherents, according to Lotfy. He described Egyptian Current not as secular—the word has been demagogued in post-Mubarak Egypt, just as it has in some right-wing quarters in the United States—but “pragmatic and nonideological.” He would just as much take advice from a Marxist as he would from a capitalist, he said, if it was found to be the most practical.
Lotfy said he expected to share Fotouh’s fate as a defector, and within days of our meeting he and four other Egyptian Current leaders were indeed expelled from the Brotherhood. The old guard, he told me, “cannot comprehend that we need to reach the people. In the Ikhwan literature there is no space for revolution in Islam. It is not in their culture, and now they’re in a dilemma. This is a revolution, and they don’t know how to interact with it.”
The only sustainable role for the Brotherhood in a democracy, according to Lotfy and his comrades among the Ikhwan youth, is its traditional mission as a social network and charitable movement of a moderate religious character. In that sense, he suggested, the ejection of liberal-minded members like him and Fotouh is part of an organic return by the group to its roots. “It is of important value,” Lotfy told me, “but when it comes to politics, they should stop or reform themselves completely.” Another frustrated young Ikhwanist and Lotfy ally, Mohammed al-Gebba, put it this way: “The Brotherhood must either return to religious outreach and social work, with its members campaigning as members of other parties, or it will bring itself down within the next few years. Politics and outreach are not reconcilable. One compromises the other.”
Recently, a senior Brotherhood official announced that any Egyptian citizen should be eligible to run for president, an apparent easing of its earlier proscription against Copts and women, and it has entered into an alliance with its old rival, the secular Al Wafd Party. While such gestures could be interpreted as a nod to the center after months of overreaching, it is not at all certain the Ikhwan can sustain itself in a democracy as it struggles to prevail against the fissionable agents of election fever. Throughout the century-long history of the modern Middle East, no political movement has proved itself so resilient as the Muslim Brotherhood. The tools of governance are different from the tools of survival, however, and the Ikhwan’s inelastic old guard has already seriously damaged itself trying to wield both at the same time.