While no one should fall for the reform proposed by the leaders of Tunisia’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) or confuse it with a profoundly secular approach, this reform should, nevertheless, be encouraged. It places a wing of the regional organization in a position where it is compelled to defend a different perspective than that adopted by the mother organization. Internal debate related to the ideological foundations of the organization’s political role is helpful in encouraging opposing views to surface.
The mother organization in Egypt is going through rough times. The Tunisia’s branch’s modest reforms grew in the space left by the shrinking role of the group’s center of gravity in Egypt.
The Egyptian MB seems to have stepped closer to the moment of truth: implosion from within. The London–based Mahmoud Ezzat, the group’s acting Murshid (leader), ordered on May 18 that the membership of eight influential members, all of whom are affiliated with MB’s Executive Bureau (EB) based in Turkey, to be frozen. The EB was leading a movement within the organization to revise its political and organizational order after the group’s one year of failed rule over Egypt.
Most of the frozen members were senior officials under former President Mohamed Morsi. Amr Darrag was the minister of international cooperation in Morsi’s cabinet, Yehia Hamed the minister of investment, Reda Fahmi and Abdel Ghafar Salhin were members in the Consultative Council, which plays the role of the upper chamber of the Parliament, and Ahmed Abdel Rahman is the head of the EB.
The opposition to Ezzat and the old leadership is represented by the EB, and is led by the organization’s spokesperson Mohammad Muntaser, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, and a self-proclaimed Supreme Committee. This opposition responded to Ezzat’s decision with a call to fire him as an acting Murshid, as well as all who are affiliated with his London–based office. The opposition has said that it has enough evidence of financial corruption surrounding Ezzat’s supporters, and named in particular Mahmoud Al Ibiari. In an angry communiqué issued from Istanbul, the opposition said everything comes out of London or Al Ibiari is “illegal” and should not be considered representative of the “true” MB.
The EB went as far as threatening an open split. “It seems we are approaching the moment of a face-off. Ezzat’s group has itself to blame. They triggered all this,” Reda Fahmi said upon hearing the news of the freezing of his membership. A communiqué signed by the EB denied even any relation between the organization as a whole and Ezzat’s London office. “The MB does not have an office in London. Any decision taken by a group in London does not represent our organization; therefore, it should be disregarded”.
The dispute between the two camps is almost unbridgeable. One creative way to end the split was proposed by some leaders recently in a desperate attempt to de-escalate the two opposed groups within the organization. The proposed approach splits the activities of MB into two different categories: Religious Dawa (call or education), and political party activities.
This approach aims at relatively disconnecting the two functions of the MB, preaching and political activity. Gamal Heshmat, a member in the MB’s Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council), said May 19 that all sides in the organization agree that the proposed separation of the two functions is feasible.
Heshmat, based in Istanbul, said that the dispute within the MB is confined to the “elite”. “There are efforts to conduct a wide-scale revision to our outlook and approaches. This will need time and will. It requires pushing the organization’s youth to the front rank. But what is certain is that the split is not felt in the levels of our base members”.
Heshmat offered his take of the crisis by saying: “The current crisis is not about continuing the organization or disbanding it. It is more a serious attempt to develop the group and prepare for its return to the public opinion in a better from and image, with past mistakes remedied, lessons learned, and a better view of future missions.”.
Heshmat, a member in the organization’s internal opposition, said that the EB offered a road map to solve the crisis. “The plan proposed that both sides de-escalate and take a step back. It also called for comprehensive organization-wide elections. The crisis in our group revolves around managing our mission, as it is about how to view the general crisis,”, Heshmat said.
“No reasonable person can call now for a deal with the ruling regime in Egypt which took power in a military coup. It is criminal to give this regime any hope to survive” he added. Heshmat admitted that the absence of the leadership of the organization, which for the most part is behind bars in Cairo, is one of the reasons behind the current crisis inside the MB.
It is difficult to conceive of any practical bridge between the two sides of the MB other than what Heshmat proposes. But even the dividing the group’s body into a political party and an educational, social, and Dawa one would not provide a real solution. The split is indeed based on a profound difference in how each camp sees the mission and tactics of the MB. Furthermore, it should not be expected that the old guard behind Ezzat, or the imprisoned leadership for that matter, will easily buy the proposal.
However, Heshmat’s attempt to untangle the knot between the two groups is mainly organizational, or managerial so to speak. It is not ideological, even if it’s related to an ideological view at the end of the analysis. This reflects the nature of the crisis inside the Egyptian MB. This crisis is mainly political and organizational, not ideological. A good part of the group is trying to adapt to the post–Morsi failure all the while preserving the final objective which is to regain power and implement the organization’s platform, which is basically the same as the old guard’s’ platform.
But even if the group is divided into two parts as Heshmat envisions, the same problems would remain. While in power in Egypt, the MB had its own political party, the Freedom and Justice Party. But the party was tightly under the daily control of the leadership of the organization. Furthermore, Abdel Mouneaim Abu Al-Foutouh, who left the MB a few years ago, formed his own Islamist party, which will hardly can make any mark in the current circumstances in Egypt.
However, the turning point may come if a deal is reached between the regime in Cairo and the MB. This unlikely deal may place the old guard in a dire position. It would be subjected to a barrage of criticism from the EB for “selling off the blood of the martyrs”. Yet, it would provide the organization with some space to weather the storm, all the while recovering some of the assets confiscated by the Egyptian government.
For Al Sissi government, the value of such a deal is increasingly questionable. If signing a deal would lead to a split, and if the group’s hotheads would continue their anti-Sissi campaign, the price for a deal should be reduced. But if a deal is reached, the imprisoned leaders have enough moral weight over the membership to shift the internal balance in favor of the old guard.
So long as the imprisoned leadership sees a radical wing within the organization, it will be less compelled to reach a deal. Such an unlikely deal would be conditioned by extremely tightening and restricting of the organization’s political activity, and the leadership may be able to sell the measure to its bases as a temporary long term step to ward the long-term goal of rebuilding the organization’s capacities. The imprisoned leadership, constituted mostly of members of the old guards, may be thinking of the 70’s, when the late President Anwar Sadat struck a deal with Omar Al-Telmisani, the Murshid of the time, to cooperate with the regime in return for a wider margin of freedom to “Islamize”- all aspects of social life in Egypt. The wave of Islamization brought with it many violent groups, one of which assassinated Sadat. Cairo prefers only one half of the Heshmat prescription, that of turning the group, the whole group, into a Dawa organization. But that would induce those hotheads to form a new political party, which would not be part of the general body of the MB. It is a split though through different means.
The policy of former President Hosni Mubarak was defined by allowing the group a calculated margin of political movement and hitting it hard once it stepped out of the assigned area. But this did not help much in preventing the organization from joining the spontaneous public revolt of 2011, which helped carry the group’s leadership to the Presidential palace. The best possible path, under the current circumstances, is for the MB to follow the Tunisian model.
It is difficult to repeat the Mubarak story with the group now. The MB of today is facing an internal fissure and Egypt’s authorities are less tolerant. The organization is deeply isolated on the popular level and regarded by the ordinary Egyptian with suspicion and hostility. Furthermore, allowing it to return to political activities is opposed by many in Cairo. This situation may develop counter-activism on the level of civil society. And no one in the current regime wants that to happen.
The MB in Egypt is on the road to split. Even if the two wings are kept artificially together, the underlying conditions that could produce a split will remain. What remains to be seen is the extent to which the organization’s current situation will place its ideological-political perspectives under constructive criticism.