By Evgenii Novikov
On January 14, 2004, the Arab television station Al-Jazeera broadcast a report about the death of Mamoun El Hodeiby, the “spiritual leader” of the influential Egyptian fundamentalist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimoon). The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) is often regarded as the forerunner of many of today’s more extreme and violent groups such as al Qaeda. The MB also remains Egypt’s largest opposition group, despite its outlawed status.

El Hodeiby died at the beginning of January 2004. According to Al-Jazeera, El Hodeiby’s death has “sparked a policy shift within [the MB].” Following an unsuccessful search for a prominent Gulf cleric to fill its top slot, the organization has appointed 76-year old Mohammed Mehdi Akef, a veteran of the group’s old guard, as its “supreme guide.” Since his election, Akef has publicly called for dialogue between the MB and the government.

Yet El Hodeiby’s replacement by Akef is unlikely to stem the destructive developments already at work within the Muslim Brotherhood, a trend that was accelerated in the aftermath of 9/11, when the United States launched a global war on terror.


MB leaders acknowledge that their organization is in crisis, the roots of which stem from their earlier decision to export their ideas and practice as a supranational movement. This resulted in the MB’s followers posing a threat not only to individual countries, such as the United States or Egypt, but to the concept of democracy itself.

History shows that similar challenges in the past have been defeated, whether in the form of fascism or communism. Though both ideologies were successful for a period at the national level, when their followers attempted to dominate the world each perished, either in open conflict or in cold war.

Similarly, the current U.S.-led war on terror indicates a renewed resolve to eliminate the threat posed by Islamic terrorist organizations. In the wake of the 9/11 events it is now nearly impossible for terrorists to find any state–even among the “rogues”–willing to provide them shelter as the Taliban regime did in Afghanistan. According to the Muslim writer and analyst Kemal Habib, the realization that their time may soon come to an end is prompting MB leaders to renounce violence and propose talks with Egyptian authorities. It is important to note that such developments almost certainly would not have taken place had the MB not felt threatened by today’s international efforts against Islamic extremism.

Another observer of the MB, Mohammed bin Al-Makhtar Ash-Shankity, argues that “the leadership’s stagnation … is the greatest point of weakness” in the organization. [1] He notes that for many years the group vested all its power and hopes in El Hodeiby; his death consequently was a disaster for the organization. Additionally, Ash-Shankity has remarked that the MB relied primarily on El Hodeiby’s personal characteristics and disregarded the importance of the group’s continuity. Beginning with the MB’s founder, Hassan Al-Banna, its leaders have focused on maintaining their own power and neglected the need to educate new leaders. This reliance on individuals at the top shifted the focus from guidance to domination of the MB’s members. The leaders themselves cared more about their internal struggle for positions inside the organization than about its major goals. This internal struggle in turn undermined the MB’s ability to fight for its objectives.


Current rank and file members believe that today’s MB leaders have lost the ability to communicate with them. They assert that because of this, the group has lost its flexibility and is doomed to stagnation. Ash-Shankity states: “The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood forgot about the fundamental principle of collective leadership and mutual consulting–the principle which was claimed at the establishment of the organization.” [2] This has created dissent and led to schisms with MB branches in Qatar, Syria, Iraq and even Egypt.

This crisis has been furthered by an increased interest among the rank and file in democratic principles in general. The war on terror and the ouster of Saddam Hussein have triggered discussions about democracy in the Arab world. MB members are now demanding the establishment of democratic rules inside the organization and want the privilege of electing their leadership.

According to Nabil Shabib, a Syrian writer and analyst who lives in Germany, the MB’s problems are similar to what happened to other party-type organizations of political, religious, or social character. Splits and disagreements significantly weakened communist movements and the Ba`ath party in Arab countries, as well as other Arab nationalist movements and particularly the Palestinian organizations.

So far, the MB has not split into two or more open factions, but a “trend of renewal” has surfaced within the group represented by its younger members. They demand reform of the organization and a review of its policy, methods of practice, and leadership.

Some young members demand even more: Democratization inside the organization and a rejection of the current policy of limited confrontation with the authorities. These MB members point out that the authorities do not recognize the group’s restraint and continue to prosecute its members. Cairo has recently launched a renewed crackdown on the MB, with the security services having arrested twelve members of the organization in an effort to curb its activities among labor and student groups. [3]

Radical elements inside the Muslim Brotherhood are especially displeased that–as Yasir Ai-Zuatran, a Palestinian political analyst notes–”some politicians and ordinary people in different Arab countries criticize and even laugh at members of the Muslim Brotherhood because of their conciliatory position toward ruling regimes, even becoming a tool in hands of governments to calm and domesticate the Arab street, which is ready for revolution and revolt.” [4]

These same radicals also want to present the Muslim Brotherhood as only one among many Islamist organizations; the group’s leadership, on the other hand, considers the MB to be “the Mother” of all Islamic fundamentalist groups, having providing the others with their ideological basis. Yet the new generation does not want to link militant Islam to a single organization, even one as famous as the Muslim Brotherhood.


The crisis inside the MB is more the result of post-9/11 American actions than the consequence of moves by Egyptian authorities. MB leaders fear that a “spirit of defeat” and ideas of cooperating with the United States are becoming more widespread among Arabs. Thus, the current crisis confronting the MB is one that may well threaten its very existence.

1. “Crisis of leadership,” Mohammed bin Al-Makhtar Ash-Shankity, Mauritanian writer living in the United States, Al-Jazeera, broadcasting on December 4, 2002.
2. Ibid.
3. Cairo Al-Akhbar, January 13, 2004; Agence France Presse, January 14, 2004.
4. Yasir Ai-Zuatran, Palestinian political analyst, “How Muslim brothers understand the resistance,” Al-Jazeera, broadcasting on December 4, 2002.
5. Cited from War prompts Arabs on Democracy, New York Times, Look Who’s Talking, By Thomas L. Friedman, February 19, 2004.