Following the 2013 military coup in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood was subjected to the most severe campaign of repression in its history. The campaign, initiated by the regime of the now-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, aimed to completely dismantle the movement and remove any prospects of its return in the future. Generally, the campaign has been successful in suppressing the movement domestically. Muslim Brotherhood members ended up either in underground secrecy, imprisoned, or exiled weaving a narrative of victimhood reminiscent of the Arab odes to Palestine. Eight years later, what remains from one of the most central Islamist movements in the 20th century?
It is hard, if not outright impossible, to overemphasize the importance of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (EMB) in 20th-century history. The movement, founded in the 1920s in Egypt, started a whole universe known as Islamism, a catchall term for various movements, groups, and schools of thought that seek to create a modern Islamic political reality. The movement suffered various periods of severe repressive campaigns yet was always able to fall back on its strong organizational structure to carry it through. This indeed remains the definitive characteristic of the EMB, not its ideology, but its remarkable organization that is coveted by all political actors in the Middle East.
The organizational structure of the EMB endows it with significant advantages over its rivals.
The organizational structure of the EMB endows it with significant advantages over all its opponents and rivals, and those advantages put it in an excellent condition to take advantage of the opening of electoral politics in Egypt following the Arab Spring and ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak in January 2011. This legacy of astonishing survival in one of the most politically unforgiving regions in the world constitutes by itself another strong asset of the movement which made it into an inspirational idea for Islamists across the Middle East and the globe, and it is exactly that asset which the repressive campaign of President Sisi is targeting.
What seems to be an over-emphasis on organizational institutionalism in a movement that immerses itself in Islamic symbolism is not at all an exaggeration. Since the beginning of the movement, the simplicity of its ideology in comparison with the complexity of its organization was always pointed out by its rivals, from the classical Islamic authorities of Al-Azhar, Egypt's seat of classical Islamic scholarship, to the neo-Islamist Salafists. One could even say that the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood goes only as far as its slogan, "Islam is the solution." The ambiguous details of this solution are left to personal imagination, allowing the movement a rare ability to embrace everything while committing to nothing.
The Muslim Brotherhood is a universal power style that can be easily adopted by varied political actors.
This made the Muslim Brotherhood not an ideology, but a universal power style that can be easily adopted by various political actors in various political contexts whether in Turkey, Gaza, Morocco or the US. It is a style that Islamically conscious political aspirants can adopt while espousing Turkish neo-liberalism, Palestinian terrorism, or American identity politics. In Egypt, a Muslim Brotherhood president can promise to respect the peace treaty with Israel, and in Gaza, a Muslim Brotherhood-styled group can vow relentless terrorism. Externally, it can adopt democratic mechanisms, and internally it can maintain a rigid authoritarian structure and reject political pluralism. It can sharia monger, and in the same breath praise electoral democracy.
The Brotherhood's ideological malleability can easily be mistaken for realpolitik pragmatism.
The Muslim Brotherhood could very well be the largest movement in history to be based entirely on symbols, a testament to the emotional power of Islam among its adherents. But for Western observers, this malleability can easily be mistaken for the endless elasticity of realpolitik pragmatism instead of what it really is, a devout commitment to hypocrisy and the absence of any principles except for the symbolic value of Islam, the quest for power, and the primacy of the organization. Even for the shrewdest politicians, the flexibility of holding contradictions is not limitless and even the most skilled juggler has a maximum capacity.
In Egypt, the ideological malleability, among other things, allowed the Brotherhood to maintain such an extensive network of members and supporters without ever risking internal schisms, and it is also what allows the brand of the Muslim Brotherhood to stand behind a very broad range of behaviors and ideas from political violence, terrorism, to sensible moderation and Islamic romanticism. The Egyptian movement resulting from such a unique composition was a hierarchical organization in which brand loyalty is paramount and ideology is what-ever-works.
Since 2013, after the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian regime sought to destroy the movement by attacking all constitutive elements: decapitating the hierarchical organization by imprisoning its leadership, criminalizing the brand, and making nothing work. The result of such a phase was a moment of chaos and dispersal which saw the severe tensions and disagreements inside the movement about the best way to deal with the circumstances. But this moment has already subsided, and the EMB has settled in its new reality, a domestic movement from which we have no clear data but whose activity primarily evolves around supporting the families of those who are in prison, especially now that carrying on previous charitable and social work is impossible. It also has an external movement based in Istanbul, Doha, and London which seeks to maintain the movement's relevance and survival, to which a narrative of victimhood plays a vital role.
The current situation puts the EMB in a tough position. If the movement needs to become inward-looking, take care of its members, build up morale, and maintain cohesion, it cannot at the same time undertake the necessary revision needed for it to maintain relevance to Egyptian and regional politics. Within and without the Brothers, such challenges seem to cast shadows of doubt on the future relevance of the EMB. Throughout its history, Islamic politics, including the Brotherhood's, failed to articulate any political theory, theory of the state, institutional theory, or expound its understanding of democracy with other than the deployment of slogans and Islamic symbols. This issue is getting wider scrutiny as many Arab populations are attempting to integrate the failed experiences of the Arab Spring. The problem was expressed succinctly by Wadah Khanfar, the Jordanian founder of Al Sharq Forum:
If you sit with any Muslim Brotherhood [member] now they are trying to find a way out; millions of questions but no answers about the theory of political Islam itself... A hundred years have passed since Hassan al-Banna established this organization. Is it still valid to adopt a concept called political Islam?
Inside the Brotherhood, this problem seems to arise especially from enthusiastic younger members who seek to find answers, many of whom either steer towards the Salafist right, which is more doctrinally sophisticated, or to the left outside of Islamic politics altogether. This rising ideological interrogation of a minimalist ideology is sharpened by the lack of the leadership's introspection regarding the missteps of the EMB during its brief rise following the Arab Spring. A young exiled Muslim Brotherhood ex-minister, Amr Darrag, recently left the movement citing his loss of hope that the organization can change or adapt to the new reality. To all these challenges, the only response of the Muslim Brotherhood seemed to have been mourning and betting on the failure of Egypt's Sisi in providing economic relief and security to the country.
For a time, the messy power geopolitics of the Middle East seemed to offer the Brotherhood some relief from its burdens. The Turkish adoption of the exiled Brotherhood provided a safe haven for nearly 20,000 EMB members and their families under a friendly regime from within the circle of Islamic politics. Turkey seemed to be able and willing to support the Brothers during their darkest hours and save them from becoming obsolete while they are waiting for their bet on Sisi's economic failure to materialize. Moreover, the Erdogan model could offer young Islamists what they sought as an actual actionable model of Islamic governance. This is already another leap of compromise from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood which, despite its lack of clear ideology, remains committed to the traditional Egyptian very conservative ethos that finds Turkish social liberalism excessive. Yet, beggars cannot be choosers, especially when Turkey was ready to embrace Islamists of the world. Since 2013, the EMB ran a wide network of media outlets aiming at raising discontent in the Egyptian public, fanning the flames of any domestic issues or problems, and anxiously waiting for an economic failure to spark a new uprising.
The generosity of Erdogan towards the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is not innocuous. By adopting the cause of the Brotherhood, Erdogan strategically placed himself as the symbolic knight of the symbolic cause. His policy then should be viewed as part of the same geopolitical agenda which included many other symbolic actions that he took in recent years. It included the re-Islamization of the Aya Sophia mosque, the defense of Uighur Muslims, promotion of Ottoman romanticism, and the fostering of an Islamist friendly environment accompanied by a sharp authoritarian turn domestically all while extending Turkish influence in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, and nearly starting a war with Egypt. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the movement that started it all, had to be content with being a pawn on someone's else chessboard used by Erdogan to intimidate Sisi.
The EMB has to be content with being a pawn on someone's else chessboard.
Humiliating as it is, as the Turkish economy stumbles and the Egyptian economy shows no signs of wavering anytime soon, a recent attempt at Turkish-Egyptian rapprochement caused the Turkish government to stop the Muslim Brotherhood media anti-Egypt broadcasts. Already exiled once, the Turkish-based EMB may need to look for a new home soon. Some of its senior and wealthier members are already contemplating Western Europe and North America, while not-senior-ones with expired Egyptian passports are left with no options. After probing Erdogan as the new "caliph" of Islam for eight years, the Muslim Brotherhood seemed to have dug itself into a deep hole.
Today, the EMB, a movement that influenced the world's politics is a shadow of its former self. The solid organizational infrastructure might be able to withstand the internal repression and external fragmentation, but faith in the movement might not. Societies are in constant motion at an increasing speed. The longer the Muslim Brotherhood is absent from Egypt, the more socially irrelevant it will become, and as the region shifts geopolitically, it will become more obsolete. A narrative of victimhood can only go so far when there is a diminishing interest. If Sisi is able to continue his economic improvements, there will be no interest at all. This does not mean that the political interest in Islam is disappearing. As long as Islam's symbolic power captivates Muslim societies, Islam will be used and misused in politics. However, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood may be so discredited that even the captivating power of Islam can longer help it. In the recent Egyptian spectacle of the parade transporting mummies to the new Grand Museum, the Egyptian state's showcased might is another deadly blow to any EMB aspirations of return.
However, the enduring success of the Muslim Brotherhood in bringing the utility of Islam into modern political life is undeniable. The power style and the organizational model it created will remain politically present. Across the region, Islamic groups self-styled after the Brotherhood remain significant in Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Gaza, Jordan, and Kuwait. It can even be seen within the identity politics activism on US college campuses. These groups are no doubt taking note of what had transpired in Egypt. They can easily dismiss the outcome as the result of the foolishness and the ill-judgment of their Egyptian Brothers, but they cannot easily turn a blind eye to the fact that the Middle East remains politically brutal and unforgiving.
Hussein Aboubakr Mansour is a fellow at the Middle East Forum and director of the Program for Emerging Democratic Voices from the Middle East at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).