Is the Brotherhood pushing the self-destruct button?

Is the Brotherhood pushing the self-destruct button?

Not long ago the Muslim Brotherhood was the most dynamic opposition force in Egypt. Now, excluded from any meaningful political participation and riven by internal conflict, it is practically indistinguishable from the country’s other opposition parties. How has this come about?

Elections for the movement’s leadership – the 16-member Guidance Office and the position of General Guide – have demonstrated the extent of the Brotherhood’s troubles. The results illustrate the profound impact of Egypt’s closed political environment, deepening internal division and further entrenching the movement’s conservative leadership.


Since its strong showing in the 2005 parliamentary elections, in which it won 20 per cent representation in the People’s Assembly – the lower chamber of parliament – the Muslim Brotherhood has been subjected to sustained repression by the Mubarak regime. In an attempt to limit the Brotherhood’s political influence, the government has systematically detained its members, condemned the movement’s leaders and those who fund it to long periods of imprisonment imposed by military tribunals, and manipulated electoral procedures and election results.

The government has also introduced several constitutional and legal changes, which it admits are aimed at shrinking the space available for the Brotherhood’s participation in politics. Most significantly, religious parties and political activities were banned by a 2007 constitutional amendment, and constitutional articles were changed to pave the way for a party-based electoral system. The consequences of these changes have been severe for the Brotherhood; as a movement banned by law, it must either field election candidates as individuals, or join forces with an existing legal party.

The first major outcome of all this has been a gradual closing off of the formal political sphere for the Muslim Brotherhood. In spite of its significant representation in the People’s Assembly and the solid appearance of its parliamentary bloc, the Brotherhood has become an isolated movement with little influence on Egyptian politics. In fact, almost no one in the Brotherhood’s leadership expects it to secure more than five per cent representation in the new People’s Assembly that will be elected in the autumn.


The second major outcome has been a growing recognition by many in the Brotherhood’s leadership that the movement is under siege and will remain so indefinitely. The dominant view has come to be that the Brotherhood’s priority should therefore be to sustain the movement’s organisational solidarity in the face of regime repression, rather than invest effort in futile political participation. In other words, the closed environment in which the Brotherhood has been operating since 2005 offers no incentive for political participation, prompting the movement to turn inward.


Under these conditions, it comes as no surprise that the Brotherhood’s internal dynamics have been shaped by diverging positions on the strategic value of political participation. The inclusionist wing of the Brotherhood’s leadership, which advocates participation, has inevitably lost support and organisational power over the past few years, while the isolationists have grown more influential and now represent a secure majority.


The results of the internal elections last month reflected this changing balance of power. An influential moderate, and arguably the Brotherhood’s most outspoken defender of political participation, Abdul Munim Abul Futtuh, lost his position in the Guidance Office to opponents whose priority is the movement’s social and proselytising efforts.

In addition, Muhammad Habib, the former Vice General Guide with a reputation for building consensus between inclusionists and isolationists, failed to keep his seat in the Guidance Office. Among the four newly elected members to the Office, only Issam al Iryan can be identified as an advocate for participation. And very few of the Office’s re-elected members, including the head of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, Muhammad Saad al Katani, can be considered pro-participation.


Finally, the newly elected General Guide, Muhammad Badi, is known for his interest in the movement’s internal solidarity and its activities in the social and religious spheres. His position on political participation has yet to be clarified.

The Egyptian people have been stunned by the Brotherhood’s public display of internal rifts, a division played out mostly in the media. The Brotherhood is no longer the secretive movement it once was, revealing little of its internal affairs to outsiders. Recently, figures such as Muhammad Habib have accused other leaders of manipulating the electoral process for the Guidance Office. Indeed, several voices in the inclusionist group have openly discussed the possibility of the Brotherhood’s break-up.


The Brotherhood’s collapse from being Egypt’s most viable opposition force into a bickering rabble is being viewed with barely concealed pleasure by the Cairo regime, which is intent on keeping the country’s political scene on lock-down and punishing the Brotherhood for any attempt at genuine participation.