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Egypt: ‘The Muslim Brotherhood has never been more disconnected from society’

By Ariane Lavrilleux
Posted on Tuesday, 8 December 2020 13:25

Mideast Egypt Mass Trials
Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists gesture from the defendants cage as they receive sentences ranging from death by hanging, life in prison or and 8-15 years, in Alexandria, Egypt on 19 May 2014. (AP Photo/Heba Khamis, File)

In December 2012, the former Egyptian President and Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsi tried to amend the constitution so as to grant himself more powers. A military coup ensued. Where does the Muslim Brotherhood stand today, eight years on? We put this question and more to Egyptian researcher Abdelrahman Ayyash.

On 25 January 2011, the “Day of the Police”, tens of thousands of protesters caught the Egyptian authorities off guard when they flooded Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Despite the subsequent violent crackdown, the revolt did not peter out for another 18 days. Caving to the demands of demonstrators, the dictator Hosni Mubarak resigned on 11 February 2011, ending his 30 years of rule.

The secretary-general of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, welcomed that “[t]he voice of the Egyptian people […] has been heard”, while calling for “a transparent, orderly and peaceful transition”. Quite the opposite transpired. The opaque Supreme Council of the Armed Forces objected to handing over power to a civilian government, triggering yet another round of demonstrations and crackdowns. Candidates belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood movement, Egypt’s main formal opposition group over the preceding decades, were elected to parliament and the presidency in 2012.

READ MORE Egypt: Democracy, Coup and a Muslim Brotherhood

In December of that same year, Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, tried to expand his powers, sparking a new wave of protests. His defence minister, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, initiated a coup and installed himself as president. On 14 August 2013, close to 1,000 Morsi supporters were killed at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square by security forces that were in part armed by French defence firms. The Brotherhood was banned and labelled a terrorist organisation by the military regime.

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Portrayed for some time as the big winner of the Arab Spring uprisings, the Muslim Brotherhood movement is in the midst of what may be the worst crisis in its history: many of the organisation’s members have fled Egypt and are being sought by the authorities, while the organisation has lost its legitimacy following political failures in Egypt, Tunisia and even Sudan.

Ten years after ex-President Morsi’s ouster, the movement founded in 1928 on the banks of the Suez Canal is disconnected from its base and facing a steep decline, according to Istanbul-based researcher Abdelrahman Ayyash’s reading of the situation. His work focuses on the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic movements in the Middle East.

Some 10 years after the 2011 revolution and the subsequent authoritarian backlash, where does the almost centenarian Muslim Brotherhood stand?

Abdelrahman Ayyash: The organisation is no stranger to being banned or having its members persecuted and even executed. But this is the first time it has experienced such wide-scale suppression. After losing hundreds of members in the Rabaa massacre, the Muslim Brotherhood entered “survival” mode, and by that I mean its leaders are primarily focused on saving the organisation. No opposition or disagreement is tolerated within the movement.

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What’s more, its leaders – whether imprisoned or in exile – are getting old. Some of them were incarcerated back in the 1960s (under Nasser’s presidency) and today are between 70 and 80 years old, so they’re much older than the majority of the movement’s members and supporters. They’re unable to produce new ideas or attract new members. The organisation’s basic principle continues to be “listen and obey”. This approach has driven away most young members. A lot of the 20- to 30-year-old crowd has left the movement.

Yet young members got involved in droves after 2011 and paid a high price for their activism.

The Brotherhood’s leadership hasn’t supported its many young members who fled Egypt because of disagreements with them on certain points. Egyptian refugees in Malaysia, Sudan and Turkey have publicly criticised the indifference these leaders have shown towards them. Many of them landed in Turkey without a job, a degree or family support. Their lives are difficult, whereas the Brotherhood’s leaders in exile live in luxury villas. A huge rift has emerged between the old guard and the young set, and the latter feel the organisation has abandoned them. Some have completely distanced themselves from politics, while others no longer practise Islam.

Have the organisation’s leaders shifted ideologically since Mubarak’s ouster and the Brotherhood’s brief stint in power?

The movement’s ideology has become hollow. Its overarching idea is to have Islam play a significant role in society and government, but it’s all very vague. While its members continue to adhere to this ideological framework, its leaders have stopped talking about any concrete issues. Over the last seven years, they’ve limited their activity to media blitzes attacking the current military regime, to little effect.

But supporters still have a sentimental attachment to the organisation because it provides a network that is useful in their everyday lives. For instance, some rely solely on these circles to find a spouse as well as educational institutions for their children and services offered by doctors and accountants. For the vast majority, their involvement extends hardly beyond that.

Do the movement’s leaders, currently in exile in London and Istanbul, still have ties to or remain in contact with their base in Egypt?

The number of supporters in Egypt who feel close to the Brotherhood’s school of thought is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. The movement has spent the greater part of its history operating underground [because it was banned by every successive Egyptian president, though less so under Anwar Sadat editor’s note], which is why a full list of its members has never existed. It’s a network that’s run collectively and it has many sub-organisations that are no longer active. However, the Brotherhood relies on such “inactive” members to provide financial assistance to prisoners’ families and raise money for their cause.

The authorities have shut down every last one of the Brotherhood’s charitable organisations. In doing so, have they dismantled the movement’s charitable work?

The Muslim Brotherhood continues to carry out charitable work, but it’s solely directed at people within its network rather than the population as a whole. In the past, they held big fundraisers to help finance schools and hospitals. Today, their work is exclusively focused on the families of prisoners and victims killed during the Rabaa massacre.

READ MORE Is Egypt’s army adapting to growing regional and domestic threats?

In Mansoura (north-eastern Egypt), for example, the Brotherhood’s networks donated several hundreds of thousands of Egyptian pounds to the families of three people wrongly executed for the death of a judge’s son. Many maintain close ties with the organisation solely for the financial assistance it provides.

In 2019, hundreds of young prisoners sought amnesty in exchange for their disavowal of the movement. Their proposal fell on deaf ears, as Egypt’s president once again ruled out any potential for reconciliation. Is there no open line of communication between the current regime and the Brotherhood?

Both sides say they aren’t open to reconciliation. The Brotherhood’s acting supreme guide, Ibrahim Mounir [who lives in London, editor’s note], said this past autumn that he rejected “the Egyptian regime’s numerous attempts” to hold talks with the organisation. That was a stupid political move.

A few days later, President el-Sisi said that “some individuals” – implying people in the regime – wanted to resume talks with the Brotherhood but that he didn’t agree with them.

READ MORE Egypt: Sisi’s power reinforced after passing of new law

While some have said that generals like Sami Annan [who was imprisoned after he tried to run in the 2018 presidential election against el-Sisi, editor’s note] could initiate these talks, I no longer believe reconciliation is possible in the current climate. Massive pardons never include political prisoners.

Are you concerned that the regime’s suppression of the movement and inflexibility is going to lead to the radicalisation of some of the Brotherhood’s members?

Some Brotherhood members have become jihadists, but few prisoners go this route. No founders or leaders have joined the Islamic State while in custody. The prison environment and torture do produce jihadists, but the organisation has managed to maintain a firm hold on its members, with the help of money.

For instance, the Brotherhood’s leaders – based in London and Istanbul – immediately cut off financial support to the families of inmates in Alexandria when the local branch of the organisation sought to use violence as part of their strategy, thus breaking with official policy. Ultimately, the Alexandria-based branch caved to financial pressure and patched things up with the leaders in London.

Yet the jihadist group Hasm was actually founded by ex-Brotherhood members and has committed several terrorist attacks against security forces.

That’s true, but Hasm is a small group of around 200 to 300 people and their acts of terrorism have had a very minor impact. A few former leaders, like Mohamed Kamel, have backed the group but they were fiercely criticised by the Brotherhood’s top brass. Their opposition to violence is more strategic than ideological. Many leaders haven’t always been against it, but decided that a violent strategy wasn’t sustainable after the regime’s brutal crackdown.

How does the movement view Morsi, whose short-lived presidency was overturned by the military and who died in the middle of his trial on 17 June 2019?

Right after Morsi’s death, one of the organisation’s Turkey-based leaders, Mahmoud Hussein, was smiling during a television appearance, as if he was happy about it. His attitude really shocked people, especially young adults, and they reacted on social media. Although a majority of the Brotherhood’s members describe Morsi as a poor leader, many of them respect him as a man of principle who died for his ideas.

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