Ninety Years On, the Muslim Brotherhood Faces an Uncertain Future
The Muslim Brotherhood has managed to weather many storms over its nine decades of existence. Egyptian presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak all tried to contain and suppress the Islamist movement, which ultimately seeks to create a global Muslim caliphate. But an opportunity suddenly presented itself after Mubarak’s fall in 2011, and the Brotherhood achieved power a year later. But any high hopes among voters led to an ill-fated year under President Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted when millions of frustrated Egyptians took to the streets during the June 30, 2013 revolution.
A resulting military crackdown put top Brotherhood leaders in jail and sent others into exile. As a result, the Brotherhood celebrated its 90th anniversary on April 1 in Istanbul, Turkey — one of the group’s last strongholds in the region. It attracted Ibrahim Munir, the group’s London-based secretary-general and de facto supreme guide, and Khaled Meshaal, the former head of Hamas’ political bureau. The two leaders bragged about the Brotherhood’s survival under what they labeled as tyranny and oppression.
And they tried to project a united front to supporters, despite indications that prove otherwise. The first is an internal struggle over tactics that was exposed by communiqués denouncing members such as former Secretary-General Mahmoud Hussein for criticizing deadly Muslim Brotherhood attacks on the Egyptian police and army.
Hussein, a Brotherhood official said, “not only sought to stop any attempt at rapprochement, he would occasionally go out in the media to reignite the atmosphere of disagreement and strengthen division within the ranks of the Brotherhood without regard to circumstances or regulations.”
Egyptian public opinion toward the Brotherhood changed radically after Morsi’s failed tenure, dropping from 80 percent support at the start of the Arab Spring to less than half that by 2014. “When Egyptians voted [for them], it was because they believed they would bring a better life to all,” said Azza Radwan Sedky, a Canadian-based Egyptian political analyst and author of Cairo Rewind: The First Two Years of Egypt’s Revolution. “It proved to be a sham.”
According to some, the group’s future has never looked bleaker. Says Egyptian political strategist Ahmed Sarhan, “The group’s local organization in Egypt has suffered severely under [the] continuous successful security crackdown over the past five years, and it is now safe to assume that the leadership has been completely wiped off; most of the senior leaders are serving jail sentences and [a] few managed to escape to Qatar and Turkey.”
Sedky agreed, saying that she doubts the Muslim Brotherhood can survive as a powerful organization capable of convincing the majority of Egyptians to support it. Although the group managed to survive previous security crackdowns, it now lacks the public support it once relied on to endure the hard times. This is due to the strategy of open war it is accused of waging against the Egyptian army, police, public officials, and even ordinary citizens.
A loss of public support isn’t the Brotherhood’s only challenge. Financial and political largesse from countries such as Turkey and Qatar could be affected by mounting pressure from states opposed to the Brotherhood, such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood is well known, defended the group’s activities in Turkey, labeling them “ideological and not terrorist.”
Yet that support for the Brotherhood isolates Turkey and Qatar politically and economically from neighboring states. Turkey’s ailing economy and worsening relations with the EU pose immediate threats. That situation is not sustainable in the long-term.
“Turkey and Qatar have offered safe haven to many of the [Brotherhood’s] middle-level leaders, where they have helped establish media outlets to spread their message. Nevertheless, the future of the support given to Brotherhood members in these countries [is] questionable,” Sarhan said.
Meanwhile, intellectual and organizational stagnation has the Brotherhood pushing the same political agenda that it offered during the 1970s. That program focused on infiltrating Egypt’s Parliament, vocational syndicates, and student unions, while promoting archaic social programs unfit for modern times. This included attempts to ban certain art forms, such as opera and ballet. During its one year in power, an aggressive program of “Brotherhoodization” of the Egyptian state was pursued by appointing Brotherhood-aligned officials to high government positions.
“Islamists in general, and Brotherhood sympathizers in particular, will always find their ways through the different political organizations in Egypt, especially labor syndicates and parties of the left movement,” Sarhan said. “The only way [to stop that] is to open up the political landscape to the liberal parties while keeping the pressure on Islamists.”
And techniques that helped the Brotherhood survive for 90 years, when little was known about its activities, may be less effective under Egypt’s current crackdown. Egyptians recoiled from Morsi’s rule and the Brotherhood’s influence has suffered both at home and abroad. Its past success at fooling Western sympathizers into believing it was a moderate force in a chaotic region may be more difficult to preserve.
“Brotherhood groups in exile will eventually wither away,” Sarhan stated, “since they won’t be allowed to return home. We can take lessons from Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyyah in the 1990s, which collapsed under the security forces’ pressure and their affiliates abroad ceased to exist.”
All of these factors indicate that the Muslim Brotherhood — and its traditional structure and cultural impact — may fade away. It is also possible that it will split into smaller entities.
“It will take the Brotherhood years to build a new hierarchical organization,” Sarhan said. It may be able to build an organization in exile, biding its time until conditions in Egypt are more favorable. He cited the example of Tunisia’s Ennahda movement, whose leader Rached al-Ghannouchi lived in exile in London for decades before returning to lead the government coalition in 2011.
As Sedky said, “The dream of reigning supreme across the Muslim world and the whole world doesn’t die easily.”
Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, as well as a political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly. He is the author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy and a regular contributor to the BBC.