The arrest of Mahmoud Ezzat, acting supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, delivered the toughest blow the Islamist organisation has received in the past five years. It will have a profound impact on the organizsation, and raises several questions. Why did Ezzat not flee abroad like other Brotherhood leaders? Who will succeed him as the acting supreme guide? How will the succession process affect the structure and organisation of operations?
Under the Brotherhood’s bylaws only a member residing in Egypt can assume command, which theoretically eliminates the option of flight for the person who fills the post. The rule, however, is likely to be tempered by the conditions the group has faced. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in July 2013 sent fissures through its organisation. Factions arose that opposed the old guard led by Ezzat and blamed the fall of the Brotherhood regime on members such as Ezzat, Khairat Shater and Mohamed Badie.
One product of the divisions was Mohamed Kamal’s creation of the Higher Administrative Committee in 2015 as an alternative to Ezzat’s command, providing at least one factor that compelled Ezzat to remain in Egypt: he needed to contain the opposition and the splintering in order to control the organisation.
Further incentive to remain came from a group of imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood youth who initiated reconciliation initiatives that involved ideological revisions. Many of them also blamed the old guard, particularly the wing led by Shater, Badie and Ezzat, for the popular discontent the Muslim Brotherhood regime generated, and for the violence that followed its fall in 2013. The “repent initiatives”, as they were called in the media, shook the Muslim Brotherhood just as Egypt’s reassertion of control over its territory and tightening border security made it almost impossible for Ezzat to flee. In the end, he was left with no other option but to go into hiding.
Meanwhile, the wing led by Mohamed Kamal issued a manifesto called the People’s Revolutionary Movement which sanctioned the use of arms against the state and led to the formation of a number of breakaway terrorist organisations such as Hasm and the Revolution Brigade. Most of the members of these terrorist organisations have since been eliminated and their activities have ceased. Their last attack, which targeted the Cancer Institute, was a year ago. Mohamed Kamal and his companions were subsequently arrested, weakening their influence within the organisation and enabling Mohamed Ezzat to reassert his control.
Ezzat’s leadership has been virtually uncontested since 2018, meaning his recent arrest will plunge the organisation into what will most likely be its biggest crisis since the 2013 arrest of its first tier leaders, the dissolution of its political party and designation of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation. His detention will precipitate a wave of factional rivalries and schisms, exacerbating the conflict between the old guard which includes, in addition to Badie, Ezzat and Shater, Ibrahim Mounir and Mohamed Hussein, the only two members of the Guidance Bureau who have now not been arrested, and the Brotherhood wing, mostly based in Turkey, that is closer to the jihadist Salafis such as the Salafist Watan organisation and some Islamic Jihad members such as Tarek Al-Zomor and Assem Abdel-Meguid. This is the wing that backed the Higher Administrative Committee that was formed in 2015, advocated the use of violence and supported the rise of terrorist organisations such as Hasm and the Revolution Brigade. Although the contest between these two wings subsided with Kamal’s death, it is certain to resurface in the wake of Ezzat’s arrest. The contest over Ezzat’s successor will be a catalyst for further schism and exacerbate generational divides within the Brotherhood’s rank and file.
Of the two Guidance Bureau members, Ibrahim Mounir and Mahmoud Hussein, who remain out of prison, it is the former who is technically most qualified to succeed Ezzat under the Brotherhood’s bylaws. Mounir is the deputy supreme guide and the secretary-general of the Brotherhood’s international organisation. But there are problems. He is not in Egypt, which conflicts with the provision requiring that the person who assumes command be resident in the country. Any attempt to modify, reinterpret or merely overlook this provision could trigger disputes between Brotherhood members in Egypt and those based abroad. Mounir is also a divisive figure, and not very well liked, particularly among the group’s younger members. Hussein, like Mounir, is also living in Turkey. He is rumoured to be weak, lacking the leadership qualities needed to rally members behind him and cement rifts.
So what is the likelihood of an alternative candidate emerging to take over the organisation?
Following Ezzat’s arrest there are three possible scenarios. First, that a member of the old guard, either Mounir or Hussein, does manage to take over. Second, that a candidate is elected by the group’s Shura Council, though this will require a consensus being built between Brothers in Egypt and those abroad. The logistical challenges to this are forbidding: how can the necessary communication between Brotherhood leaders in prison and those abroad be accomplished? The third possibility is that the High Administrative Committee is reconstituted to include, in addition to Mounir and Hussein, middle tier officers as well as some younger brothers.
The last scenario appears the most possible, though it could easily be derailed by the return of an old problem. For some time now Muslim Brotherhood chapters across the region, particularly in Kuwait, Jordan and Tunisia, have argued that supreme guide candidates should not be limited to figures residing in Egypt. They are likely to see Ezzat’s arrest as an opportune time to press their demand, and will be doing so at a time when the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s influence on Muslim Brothers abroad is at an all-time low.
Historians of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist movement in general must be asking themselves a number of questions at this point. Could Badie be the last Egyptian supreme guide? And will Egyptian Muslim Brothers consider the option of a local comptroller-general serving under a supreme guide of a different nationality?
What is certain is that with Ezzat’s arrest the Muslim Brotherhood is looking at a period of profound upheaval.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly