"Who determines the future of the Brotherhood remains unclear"

Egyptians waving an Egyptian flag demonstrate against the Muslim Brother Mohammed Morsi
Egyptians demonstrate against Mohammed Morsi, Muslim Brother, and from 2012-2013 Egypt's first democratically elected president (image: Getty Images)

Since the military coup in Egypt ten years ago, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi's government has cracked down on the country's Muslim Brotherhood. Abdelrahman Ayash talks about the impact of this crisis, and how the organisation has evolved since 2013

By Hannah El-Hitami

Mr. Ayash, in your book on the Muslim Brotherhood's existential crisis, you write: "No member would describe the Brotherhood as a mere political party, a social movement, or a religious sect. It is none of the above. It is all of the above". Can you explain in more detail how those different aspects come together?

Abdelrahman Ayyash: When people join the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), they see it as a community that will provide them with a job, a wife or a husband, with people who will go to their funerals after they die. It is much more than a political party, it is a whole community, a society. My personal experience informs this statement. I grew up in a MB family. 

Brotherhood members were part of my life from a very early age: whether in kindergarten, primary school, university, the doctors I went to, you name it. After I left the MB in early 2011, I actually put up with toothache for months, because I didn't know any dentists who weren't MB members.

But the movement has a political aspect as well, doesn't it?

Ayyash: For the majority of members it is not political. Many of them even criticise the fact that the MB has become far more political than they wanted. The way the MB was established and the way most people see it is as a religious movement and a community. And more than that: they see themselves as a distinct, exclusive people. I guess the equivalent would be a church. It encompasses many aspects of life, not just politics.

Crowds of supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi demonstrate
Protest organised by supporters of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi following his overthrow, in Amman, December 2014 (image: AFP/Getty Images/K. Mazraaw)

A school for political activism

You write that you had doubts about leaving the MB as a young man because there weren't a lot of alternatives for political activism in Egypt. You also mention in your book that Mohammad Adel, founder of the April 6 Movement, which contributed significantly to the outbreak of the 2011 revolution in Egypt, was a former member, as was the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1940s. Is the MB Egypt's school for political activism?

Ayyash: To a certain extent, that is true. In Egypt, where the public sphere is closed for anyone to act politically, the MB as an underground organisation provides this capacity for building experience. They give the youth a way of serving their community in line with Islam and in line with the conservative nature of their society. When it comes to issues such as the Middle East conflict or the U.S. invasion of Iraq, mobilisation for the MB has always been very high, because these are issues everyone is invested or at least interested in, and the MB shares the same position as the majority of Egyptians.

In your book you mention that the MB supported very conservative positions they were not actually convinced of – for example on female genital mutilation – to please their conservative followers. Does that mean the MB is actually less conservative than it presents itself?

Ayyash: I think it's important to say that the MB is not a coherent organisation when it comes to its social and political norms. The MB is more a school of thought and an umbrella that incorporates a wide range of different, and in some cases, conflicting social norms. To make the organisation more inclusive, the group's leaders and theorists underplayed the effect of social and religious differences (i.e. in relation to the Islamic schools of law). There have been lots of changes over the years. In the beginning, the MB was an urban phenomenon shaped by cosmopolitan cities like Ismailiya and Cairo.

Over the past 20 to 30 years, however, there has been a kind of ruralisation of the MB, leading to more conservative positions. Egyptian society as a whole has become more conservative, due to work migration to the Gulf states and the influence of Saudi Arabia in particular on religious life in Egypt. The rise of Salafism has also played a very important role in shaping the MB's agenda and political choices, especially since the 2011 revolution.

Journalist Sayyid Qutb, Muslim Brotherhood intellectual behind bars during his trial in Egypt in the mid-1960s
A transformative influence: the journalist Sayyid Qutb, shown here during his trial in the mid-1960s. Under Qutb's influence, the Muslim Brotherhood became a closed organisation that saw society as a whole as a threat (image: picture-alliance/AA/I. Yakut)

Competing with Salafism

So the MB became more Salafist in order to compete with the increasingly popular Salafist movement?

Ayyash: Yes exactly. They wanted to attract the Salafist supporters, so they became more socially conservative. The same has been happening in Germany: as soon as the AfD appeared, every other party tried to attract their followers by moving closer to their positions. We have also seen this in Turkey with the rise of xenophobic sentiments that were once limited to far-right parties and were subsequently partially or fully adopted by other parties across the political spectrum to coincide with the most recent elections. 

Let's talk about the role of the MB in the Egyptian revolution. You write that "the Muslim Brotherhood was, at heart, a counter-revolutionary organisation". But many young MB members joined the protests in 2011 and afterwards. Did the group divide over the question of whether or not to join the revolution?

Ayyash: I wouldn't talk about massive divisions. Only a few dozen activists in the organisation were in favour of participating in the revolution from the outset, against the will of the senior leadership. In terms of numbers, relatively few young people disagreed with the group's leaders. Most members are middle class, counter-revolutionary and are unable to accept radical change. 

Even when it came to the protests at Rabaa, the majority of MB members were not there. There were estimated to be around 50,000 protesters in the square at the time of the massacre on 14 August, which in no way reflects the MB's mobilisation potential. 

More than five million people voted for Mohammed Morsi in the first round of the elections in 2012. Of course, not all of them were MB members, but I think this shows the real mobilisation power of the MB.

Der Autor und Wissenschaftler Abdelrahman Ayyash
In his book "Broken Bonds – The Existential Crisis of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood 2013-22", Abdelrahman Ayyash describes the Muslim Brotherhood's existential crisis since the military coup in Egypt in 2013 (image: private)

A crisis of identity

You explain that the MB has been going through three crises since 2013: an identity crisis, a legitimacy crisis and a membership crisis. Could you briefly summarise each one?

Ayyash: The identity crisis loosely relates to the question regarding Salafism and conservatism. The MB are not sure what kind of organisation they want to be, or what kinds of supporters they want to recruit. In the same group you will find very conservative, liberal and leftist members, in both an economic and social sense. 

Ideas concerning women's rights may differ: where some would allow their daughters to travel alone or study abroad, others would never accept that. 

There are conflicting definitions as to what constitutes a good Muslim. And people have different ideas about what the MB should achieve and how. Basic questions like the use of violence are being contested among leaders. They might agree that the ultimate goal is a democratic leadership and constitutional government, as founder Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949) stated. 

But high-ranking leaders interpret his words differently to support or reject revolutionary action or violence against the government and security forces.

And who has the final say?

Ayyash: That is essentially the legitimacy crisis. Who has the right to lead the movement? This crisis has manifested itself many times before, but now it is clearer than ever. At different points, the legitimacy of the leadership was derived from three different sources: the first was the legitimacy of the founding members, the people who were around al-Banna and started the movement with him. They led the movement until the 80s/90s, when they started to lose their grip over the organisation. The second source of legitimacy is suffering an ordeal, which remains extremely powerful.

Legitimacy through suffering

You mention that in the book: the legitimacy of suffering an ordeal, based on the experience of prison. 

Ayyash: Being in prison is the way to elicit support from members. Even today, many leaders still talk about how many years they spent in prison. Some even say that the Egyptian regime can turn a person into an MB leader simply by putting him behind bars for a few years. 

The third source of legitimacy are elections. To a certain extent, the MB is democratic – at least, in theory. Some leaders manipulate the processes, but they do exist. Following the military putsch in 2013, a new source of legitimacy emerged: the legitimacy of achievement. This applies to those, for instance, who have employed violent or revolutionary tactics against the regime. Since nobody in the leadership has a strategy right now, these people provide some sort of comfort for the members by responding to the regime's atrocities.

So there is an ongoing struggle between leaders with different degrees of legitimacy?

Ayyash: Exactly. In the early years, it was ordeal-based legitimacy vs. being a founding member. Then it turned into a contest between ordeal and elections-based legitimacy. And now, the legitimacy of achievement has begun to take over. This is associated with the organisation's third crisis, the membership crisis: a considerable number of MB members are either in jail or no longer in Egypt. Not the majority, but a big part. 

There are different levels of membership in the MB, and some members had not reached a high level when they left Egypt or were arrested. So now the question is, for example, if someone on a low level is exiled in Turkey, should they be allowed to vote? When it comes to ordeal, say, he has earned it, but in terms of membership levels, he is not a full member. Who determines the future of the Brotherhood remains unclear.

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In the 1960s, thousands of MB members were imprisoned. During this period the organisation radicalised. Do you see the past 10 years as a similar phase? In the book you mention that there has been a reorientation towards violence since 2013.

Ayyash: No, this phase is different. In the 60s, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) was there as a charismatic leader who developed a whole new philosophy. Although it partially came from the experience of prisons and torture, it was not a mere reaction to that. It was based on intellectual effort. You don't have that right now. There is no intellectual product that is currently addressing violence. People are just frustrated, they want revenge and are trying to find a religious justification for it. There is some academic work or intellectual theorisation being done, but not by leaders or influential people.

How have decades of political oppression shaped the MB?

Ayyash: During Hassan al-Banna's time the MB was relatively inclusive. They allowed everyone to join, had public debates, police officers were members, ceremonies were attended by government officials. Since the 1970s, when members of the MB were released from prison, and under the influence of Sayyid Qutb, the MB became a closed organisation. It sees society as a whole as a threat and isolates itself in order to preserve its purity.

Has oppression led the MB to violence?

Ayyash: Many academics who study the MB defend it with this argument: state repression is to blame for the emergence of violent tendencies. However, I believe the MB is also responsible because its ideology remains too vague. 

Those I know of who joined violent factions within the MB came from parts of society where violence and revenge play a big role. The MB ideology is not strong enough to contain these societal factors. 

You yourself were once a member of the MB and have criticised how little influence women and young people had in the group. Do you think this has changed? Is there any hope of a young, progressive MB?

Ayyash: When I began writing the book, I was very hopeful. Most of our interviewees were young people who had started to gain leadership positions or some influence. But in recent months things have been changing. There is too much at stake, with people in prison and families relying on financial support from the MB. 

Without experienced leaders, it is very difficult for the movement to manoeuvre and keep its supporters in check. Right now, I am not as hopeful as I was about the role of young members. However, the legitimacy of achievement has become an important factor. The majority of MB members, especially those outside Egypt, do not want to follow the same leaders who led them to the current position of alienation and weakness.

Interview conducted by Hannah El-Hitami

© Qantara.de 2023 

Abdelrahman Ayyash, Amr Elafifi, Noha Ezzat, "Broken Bonds - The Existential Crisis of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood 2013-22“, Century Foundation Press 2023 

Abdelrahman Ayyash is a journalist and political scientist and has been involved with Islamic movements for many years. He has written numerous articles on the Muslim Brotherhood for the Carnegie Foundation and the Arab Reform Initiative.