What does the Brotherhood really want?

Dina Samak , Friday 9 Oct 2015

The tug-of-war continues inside Egypt’s biggest Islamist group while vision remains absent

File Photo: Headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, damaged by anti-Islamist protesters in the summer of 2013 (AP)

A statement sent by an official email account of the now-banned Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, last week, highlighting major changes in the group’s strategy, was only a draft article suggested by one of its members to develop a debate, according to another statement sent by the same email account the following day.

The statement, or rather draft article, entitled “A statement written by the Muslim Brotherhood” came in response to an article written by prominent political researcher and columnist Khalil Al-Anani on 24 September in pan-Arab newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, believed to be close to the group, which was published under the title “A statement not written by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

The emailed statement in fact not only adopted Al-Anani’s political position but used similar wording with minimal but substantial changes.

The statement, or draft article, explained that the group has paid a high price in its attempt to resist the “military coup” in July 2013 and to regain the path of the 25 January revolution. The statement also points to the state crackdown on its members, which has left thousands killed and tens of thousands imprisoned, as well as the negative propaganda against them that seems to have had a great effect on the majority of Egyptians, and argues that these circumstances are forcing the group to leave it to the Egyptian people to complete the struggle.

The group accordingly decides to totally detach the Brotherhood, an educational and preaching movement that “promotes virtue and prevents vice through advising both the rulers and the ruled”, and the Freedom and Justice Party, which was once the political arm of the group after the ouster of long-term autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

The group also, according to the statement, gives its members the right to establish political parties or join existing ones even if their ideology “does not have much in common with the ideology of theoretical reference of the Brotherhood” as long as these parties respect democracy, freedom and justice as key principles.

As for the Freedom and Justice Party, the statement calls on its members to revise their political stances in order to fix any errors they have fallen into since they came to power in 2012, in order to be able to establish a healthy relationship with other political forces and “reach a common agenda that aims at building the rule of law, freedom and justice.”

At the end of the statement the Brotherhood – or rather the writer – denounces violence of any kind for any reason, stressing that anyone who calls for violence or tries to find an excuse for it, not to mention practices it, categorically does not belong to the group. The group also extends the invitation for political dialogue to all parties, movements and public figures who believe in the 25 January revolution, calling on them to reject their disputes.

Another stillborn initiative

“Wishful thinking”, says a Brotherhood member to Ahram Online, describing the statement. “If the group adopting this call had any effect on the ground they wouldn’t have retreated and withdrawn the statement saying it was only a draft article that was sent by mistake. It is another stillborn initiative.”

According to this source, the email account that sent the statement and later the clarification is affiliated with the Brotherhood but not with the group that controls the leadership. “This is a newsletter sent by the group in London. They have very progressive ideas but are totally isolated from the people on the ground [in Egypt].”

The London group, according to the source, is headed by Ibrahim Mashhour, a deputy supreme guide, and does not have a strong say on what is happening inside Egypt.

A few hours after the statement was circulated, a short warning was published on Ikhwan Online, the group’s official website, saying that “the official statements and positions of the Muslim Brotherhood are the ones released on its official website, Facebook page and through its official statements.”

The current statements on the group's website exhort the youth to continue their resistance and to maintain the unity of the group.

“I don’t think that under the current conditions and with the split inside the group anyone can offer a total change in the tactics and be heard.

We need to solve our inner disputes first. A unified vision needs a unified group,” the Brotherhood source told Ahram Online.

So what is happening inside the group?

According to Ahmed Rami, the FJP spokesman who has himself been sentenced in absentia to death, the Brotherhood has been facing one of the deepest crises in its history since July 2013, a crisis that is both organisational and tactical.

Rami, in an interview with the pro-Brotherhood Al-Sharq TV channel, blamed the security challenges that the group has been facing since the ouster of its president, Mohamed Morsi, and the arrest or murder of many of its leading members and the fleeing of many others from the country.

It is hard to separate the organisational crisis and the dispute over who should lead the group at such a critical time from the question about which way to go and whether the group should adopt a more radical approach in its struggle against the current Egyptian regime headed by Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who was appointed defence minister by Morsi, or abide by a more pragmatic approach and accept the status quo to release the pressure on the lower ranks of the group inside Egypt until a new balance of power appears.

“It is not a generational question,” Rami explained, “and should not be presented this way. The first nail in the coffin of the 25 January political coalition was trying to portray the revolution as owned by the young people only.”

But if it is not a generational split between revolutionary young people and rather realistic older generation, how can the split be explained?
“It is more about who fled to exile and who stayed inside Egypt to be a part of a daily, bloody face-off between the group and the state,” a young Brotherhood member told Ahram Online.

“We are not trying to say that those who fled the country are less revolutionary, but the fact is they don’t know what is happening on the ground and thus should not have the final say,” added the young man, who spent months in prison for protesting illegally and was released in 2014.

“What kind of political resistance do they expect the young members to adhere to when the political forces which oppose the regime are not allowed a platform and have members in jail?” asked the young man, who has stopped taking part in protests called for by the Brotherhood-led National Alliance for Support of Legitimacy.

In February 2014, with most of the group's leaders behind bars, in hiding or outside Egypt, a steering committee was elected to be take charge of the movement’s affairs, now mainly concerned with protesting the post-3 July regime. The de facto leadership at that time adopted a direct confrontation with the state’s repression, including some levels of violence that they justified as self-defence or civil disobedience.

The old guard announced this summer that the role of the steering committee was over and that the guidance bureau is now in charge of the Muslim Brotherhood. The old guard, headed by Mahmoud Ezzat, a deputy supreme guide, and Mahmoud Hussein, the group's secretary-general, issues statements emphasising the group’s “historical stance” against violence. These statements however were not received positively by the group’s new leadership in Egypt.

A division of authority or vision?

“I don't believe that there is a reformist trend within the Muslim Brotherhood,” Khalil Al-Anani told Ahram Online. “The division now is rather between the veteran leadership which lost control of the movement and the new leadership (not necessarily youth) that took over about a year ago.”

“The movement suffers not only from internal divisions but also the lack of vision and unified strategy on how to deal with the current crisis,” Al-Anani adds. “The Brotherhood has been in a state of a free fall since 3 July 2013 and the worst thing is that they don't recognise that. The Brotherhood's members and leaders still live in a state of denial, which deepens their crisis.”

Politicians who have been working closely with the Muslim Brotherhood since the ouster of Morsi seem to agree with Al-Anani on the current division; however some of them think that the reformist voice that was reflected in the statement, or draft article, is available even if it is not influential.

“This position is not new,” Deyaa El-Sawi, a leading member of the Independence party and official spokesman of Youth Against the Coup movement tells Ahram Online. “It is the same position that was adopted by some young members of the Brotherhood after the January 2011 revolution, but unfortunately many of those left the group when they found out that the leadership were not willing to change the way things are run.”

The Independence party, whose leader Magdi Hussien is currently in jail for his role in the National Alliance for Support of Legitimacy, left the alliance last year due to “political disagreements” with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Independence party was not the only Islamist entity to quit the pro-Morsi umbrella group which was formed days after his ouster. Other parties and groups left due to the “lack of vision” that they described as afflicting the largest and oldest Islamist organisation.

Former parliamentarian and member of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood Conscious Front, Amr Abdel-Hady, in an interview with Al-Sharq TV, expressed his worry that a widespread apathy has started to appear among the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

“The young members are now divided to three groups: the larger group resorted to passiveness watching the developments inside and outside the Brotherhood, another group are willing to adopt whatever strategy the leadership will reach in a democratic united way, and a small group that adopt violence as a reaction to the current oppression,” Abdel-Hady explained.

According to Abdel-Hady and other sources close to the group, those who resort to violence are gaining ground due to the current dispute inside the leadership. “They are not competent and are only opening the door to more oppression against all Brotherhood members,” says Mohamed Othman, a former member of the Brotherhood and a current leading member of Strong Egypt opposition party.

The group comes to a halt

In the past couple of months the pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests that used to be held weekly in some areas around Egypt seemed to disappear or at least fade away to a great extent.

Some observers believe that the reason behind this is an attempt by some of the old guards to reach a compromise with the current regime in Egypt, whether through a deal similar to the one adopted in the latest statement, or draft article, or other initiatives that are being presented by former leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood or international figures to close to them.

Others believe that the reason behind the decline in the protest movement that has been going on since the ouster of Morsi is that the security forces are going as far as killing those believed to be involved in attacks against police officers.

“The members are tired and want a way out,” says Osman. “Most of the ranks of the group belong to the middle class and cannot live their whole life chased from one place to the other or with the fear of being killed or arrest or losing their jobs at the very least.”

Both the old and the new guard of the Muslim Brotherhood believe that the members need a break to reorganise. “Our members are changing hiding places three or four times every day,” Ahmed Rami said. “We cannot expect them to think of where to go from here under these conditions.”

Any direction the leadership decides to take will lead, according to Osman, to a split inside the group, but the majority will abide and accept the strategy adopted by “a united leadership if there is one,” he believes.

Nevertheless Osman warns that the strategy adopted should take into consideration the other side of the relationship: the state. “The state does not want to reach any compromise with the Brotherhood and only time can tell if any of initiatives taken by different international parties are promising.”

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