The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has been experiencing one of the toughest and most intense crises since its founding more than 80 years ago. The crisis stems not only from the oppression and attempts at its destruction by the current regime in Egypt, with the help of its allies and supporters, but also from the growing rift between the organization’s leadership and its base.
It is perhaps the first time in the Brotherhood’s history that the extent of oppression and violence has reached the lower rungs of the organization in a way that has clearly blurred the Brotherhood’s vision and paralyzed its action. Although waves of oppression and persecution from the authorities have marked the Brotherhood’s history, this time, things have been escalated. There are attempts not only to weaken the Brotherhood and tame it, but also to cause it to disintegrate and eliminate it politically and socially.
Today, most leaders of the first rank (the Brotherhood’s Guidance Office), second rank (Shura Council) and third rank (heads of municipalities and administrative bureaus) are either in prison, exile or hiding. Many known political and public leaders have been repressed, arrested and pursued, including members of parliament and members of the higher committee of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). The Brotherhood’s female members have not been spared arrest and imprisonment, either.
The following question remains: To what extent has the current crisis affected the Brotherhood’s competence and method of work? Who is currently leading the organization, knowing that more than 15,000 members of the Brotherhood are imprisoned?
In general, we can say that the Brotherhood’s ability to develop a comprehensive approach to the current crisis and find a way to deal with it strategically in the long run has clearly been affected. There is unmistakable confusion among its leaders regarding a way out of the crisis, in addition to an obvious division between the Brotherhood leadership and its youth base. A small group has taken over setting the major strategic goals and visions of the Brotherhood without any real participation from remaining leaders and youths. Perhaps this has been one of the structural problems in the Brotherhood’s organization over the past two decades.
As for the Brotherhood’s main structure or “body,” it seems that it is still working regularly and actively, holding meetings, weekly gatherings and events and participating daily in protests. Although such activities always incur difficulties and are closely monitored and pursued by security institutions, we can say that the organization has managed to maintain its primary structure, especially in the suburbs and provinces, far from big cities. This reflects a high level of unity and persistence in facing the current crisis.
To understand the Brotherhood’s ability to persevere, we must note several main points regarding its course of action.
First, the organization has always had a two-pronged strategy based on two things: centralized decision-making and decentralized implementation. The leadership of the organization takes, in a centralized manner, big decisions and adopts general strategies in determining the goals of the organization. These decisions — such as to participate or to boycott the upcoming elections — are usually the result of weighing balances and conjecture. The middle- and lower-ranking officials handle the implementation of the decisions made, as they have a highly decentralized ability to set in motion the Brotherhood’s goals under the supervision of administrative offices.
Since it lost power, the Brotherhood’s general goal, as proclaimed, is to work on the overthrow of the regime that took over after the July 3 “coup.” All of the Brotherhood’s members involved in its activities are working to achieve this goal. This goal is often presented as a religious task and duty that should be carried out regardless of the high human and political cost, which makes it unrealistic as well.
Second, the Brotherhood is well known for its strict hierarchy and the horizontal and vertical discipline governing relations among its members, particularly among the middle-level ranks and its base. The Brotherhood also has the ability to replace and rotate its leaders, so that if one leader is arrested, he can be replaced by another. This is where the organization benefits from the political education and the training members get during various political events, such as elections, demonstrations, etc. Obviously, the leaders of the Brotherhood’s student movement play a significant role in the demonstrations held at Egyptian universities. This is not to mention their leading role in the street movement and their affiliation with some of the youth and other revolutionary groups, such as the Ultras and others.
In the absence of influential leaders, it seems that the management of the organization’s daily activities has been entrusted to the members of the fourth rank (MPs and members of administrative and provincial bureaus, some of whom were arrested) and to the fifth rank (university students and recent graduates). These members benefit from the fact that they have clean records with the security services, particularly since most of them joined the political and organizational work following the July 3 “coup” and the exit of the Brotherhood from power less than a year ago.
Third, the Brotherhood is not just a mere political party or religious group, but rather a social movement that has firmly established circles, networks and relations that cannot be underestimated. The movement invests in family and personal relations and in social networks to ensure the greatest support and financial and moral assistance. This is what provides the group a favorable and significant social environment that not only provides political back up, but also contributes in the mobilization of the masses in the daily demonstrations.
Despite the Brotherhood’s firmness and steadfastness, the past 10 months have revealed that there is a growing gap between the leadership and the base. This has resulted in a lack of consistency in vision and actions on the ground, leading to some organizational problems between the leaders and members of the base. For instance, Shura Council member Gamal Heshmat said the group might propose an initiative in which it expresses its readiness to relinquish demands for former President Mohammed Morsi’s return to power. This has caused intense anger and disapproval among youths in the group who rejected Heshmat's initiative before he withdrew it and denied it. The same thing happened following the statement issued by Mahmoud Hussein, the secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood, in which he rejected the use of violence by the group. This has caused resentment among some of the group’s youths who considered the statement a sign of weakness in dealing with the authorities.
Moreover, it should be noted that this is probably the first time that the Brotherhood’s leadership has hailed from outside Egypt, at least formally. This could promote the idea of the “Brotherhood at home and the Brotherhood abroad,” which has been the situation in similar cases, such as that of the Hamas movement and the Tunisian Ennahda movement. With time, especially if the crisis continues, this division and the duplication of leadership may lead to some sort of organizational division or to the emergence of new centers of power within the Brotherhood that seek to assume an important role and to have an influence on the calculations of the group’s historical leaders. This could result in significant transformations that may affect the established group.
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