Internal conflict: Is the Muslim Brotherhood falling apart?

When Muslim Brotherhood Secretary General Mahmoud Hussein issues a statement, then party spokesman Mohamed Montasser issues another to refute it

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid
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When Muslim Brotherhood Secretary General Mahmoud Hussein issues a statement, then party spokesman Mohamed Montasser issues another to refute it, it is obvious that there are internal conflicts. Hussein’s statement, which was overlooked by the Brotherhood’s media outlets, said he was still secretary general and that Deputy Supreme Guide Mahmoud Ezzat is acting supreme guide.

However, Montasser’s statement, published on the Brotherhood’s official website, said a new secretary general was appointed in 2014 and that Mohamed Badei, who is currently in jail, is still the official supreme guide. The Brotherhood has no representatives except him and the group’s official website, Montasser’s statement added.

Journalist Ahmed Khair al-Deen said the two statements indicate the emergence of two camps inside the Brotherhood: the old guard represented by Hussein, and the new guard represented by Montasser.

Khair al-Deen said the new guard, which mainly consists of the leadership appointed in Feb. 2014, adopted a different form of violence against the state, initially “supported the ‘no-bullets’ strategy, which includes forms of violence that do not include killing, like blocking roads and targeting power stations for the purpose of draining the regime and containing the anger of young Muslim Brothers.”

However, that changed, Khair al-Deen said, with the death sentences against a number of Brotherhood members, including ousted President Mohamed Mursi, and the death in detention of two of the group’s senior leaders, Farid Ismail and Mohamed al-Falahgi. “These developments triggered the rise of a more violent discourse against the state, and drove the old guard to step in before further escalations take place,” Khair al-Deen wrote.

This, he added, led to the conflict between these two camps: the old guard that wants to renounce violence and oppose the regime peacefully, and the new guard that believes it has the right to choose its means of resistance. “The first group prioritizes the survival of the Muslim Brotherhood, while the second prioritizes the toppling of the current regime.”

The new guard adopted a statement issued by 159 preachers, which explicitly adopts violence as the ideal way to combat the government. The statement called the state “murderous,” and supported its undermining with all available means.

“Rulers, judges, police and army officers, preachers, politicians, and journalists who are proven to be accomplices in the state’s crimes, even if only through incitement, are considered murderers and have to be penalized as such. They have to be executed,” said the statement.

The website of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s political wing, posted a statement supporting “the preachers who issued an edict condoning all forms of countering the crimes of the coup, last of which the death sentence against the legitimate president.”

Activist and political analyst Anas Hassan sees Hussein’s statement as “an obvious coup that was immediately aborted.” Hassan said Hussein and the old guard, which includes Deputy Supreme Guide Ezzat and Guidance Bureau member Mahmoud Ghozlan, still believe they have the upper hand by virtue of belonging to an older generation that had been in contact with the founding members.

“They assume they are the only ones who are capable of running the Muslim Brotherhood, and that any other leadership is bound to fail,” he wrote, adding that the old guard believes the new guard is not capable of facing current challenges, such as “an enemy much fiercer than [late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser,” a “more extremist Islamist ideology,” and a “war-torn region.”

Hassan scoffed at the old guard’s warnings of bloody scenarios if the Brotherhood follows the policies of the new guard, which it sees as immature and impulsive. “As if the old guard has not offered the Muslim Brotherhood to the military regime on a silver platter to be slaughtered in the Nahda and Rabaa sit-ins! What the Muslim Brotherhood suffers from now is all their doing.”

According to Hassan, this “coup” is only indicative of how insecure the old guard feels following the coming to power of a different generation with a different perspective.

Ahmed Ban, an expert in political Islam, said members of the old guard believe they are entitled to lead the Brotherhood because of their history. “They see themselves as the gatekeepers who have really suffered to guarantee the survival of the group and are still doing so,” he said.

Ban said it was unlikely that the impasse would be resolved through new elections in the group. “This will be very difficult with so many Brotherhood leaders behind bars, including supporters of each camp.” Ban said he does not see a way out of the impasse.

“The Muslim Brotherhood has ignited a fire it cannot extinguish now. This started with the dispersal of the sit-ins and the revenge rhetoric that has prevailed ever since. It was easy for them then to turn the conflict from political to religious, but they won’t be able to turn it back to political now. It is also difficult for the old guard to ask the new guard to renounce the violence it has originally instilled in them.”

Ban said the current government is the real winner in this conflict, since it would benefit from further disintegration in the Brotherhood. “The regime thought it is facing a huge organized entity that needs excessive effort to be dismantled. Now the state can sit back and watch the Muslim Brotherhood self-destruct.”

Sameh Eid, a researcher in Islamist groups, downplayed the impact of the conflict on the structure of the Brotherhood. “The old guard is still in charge, and the majority in the Brotherhood, which was trained to obey the leadership, still supports it,” he said, adding that previous disputes did not have a serious impact on the Brotherhood’s structure.

“Nothing will be more radical than the quitting of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh,” he said, referring to the deputy supreme leader who left the Brotherhood to run for president in the first elections that followed the 2011 revolution. “The Brotherhood did not collapse at the time.”

Meanwhile, younger Brotherhood members have started expressing their indignation at the mystery shrouding the dispute, and have accused conflicting leaders of dragging the group toward its destruction.

“First, Secretary General Mahmoud Hussein issues statements in the name of the Muslim Brotherhood and says no one else represents the group, then official spokesman Mohamed Montasser says Hussein is no longer the secretary general,” wrote Ali Khafagi, secretary general of the Brotherhood youth committee in Giza. “Now we have become two teams playing a game they are both destined to lose.”

Khafagi criticized leaders who keep silent about the conflict under the pretext of saving the group from polarization while the exact opposite is happening. “They destroyed us before and now they are finishing us off completely, with each of them dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood as his own private estate,” he said. “This is obviously the hardest time ever for the Muslim Brotherhood.”

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