CAIRO — Since more than 1,000 people were killed at protest camps in August 2013, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has become the subject of a state-sponsored crackdown. Labeled a terrorist group, the Brotherhood has become public enemy No. 1, singled out for mass arrests, en masse death sentences, lethal security raids and media scrutiny.
Over the past several months, public and private media outlets have predicted the implosion of the more than 85-year-old organization, citing debilitating internal divisions in ideology since former President Mohamed Morsi's military-backed ouster.
More sympathetic media outlets, such as the privately owned dailies Al-Arabi Al-Jadeed and Masr al-Arabiya, have reported that the group's more peaceful old guard has perpetrated a "coup" against the new leadership.
For its part, Turkey's Anadolu news agency published a lengthy piece entitled, "Peacefulness and violence spark a legitimacy crisis among the two leaderships of the Egyptian Brotherhood."
In turn, Egyptian newspapers seized upon this news as a basis for claims that the organization is in ruins.
While the conflict is nothing new, the public nature of the disagreement has raised many questions. It drew the media's attention in May 2015, when a leader of the old guard, Mahmoud Ghozlan, published an article calling for peaceful protest. The Brotherhood's spokesperson, known by the pseudonym Mohamed Montasar, responded to Ghozlan's article and similar statements by other members of the old guard with a sharp retort: Only elected members of the organization can speak with any authority on its behalf.
Meanwhile, inside sources have pointed to the election of new leaders to manage the crisis.
Trouble on the inside
Though the Brotherhood's inner workings remain shrouded in secrecy, the crackdown on the group over the past two years has led to division and crisis. According to social movement researcher Ahmed Abdel-Hameed Hussein, the prevailing discourse among the Brotherhood's rank and file changed suddenly, as many rejected what they saw as failed and ineffectual tactics, especially non-violent resistance.
The overriding belief, Abdel-Hameed Hussein says, was, "We tried it, and we got nothing but bloodshed and a coup against legitimacy."
This conviction, he continues, was only strengthened as the organization's top leadership either escaped or were arrested. Youth members became increasingly disgruntled, blaming those leaders for the group's plight.
Abdel-Hameed Hussein holds that a clear split has formed between longstanding members, who control all the most critical aspects of the organization — such as international relations and funding — and the new leadership, which was elected by a membership that has lost faith in leaders who seem less invested in seeking retribution.
Three hardliners named Mahmoud — Ezzat, Ghozlan and Hussein, respectively — have recently emerged as influential, in addition to Abdel-Azim el-Sharqawi and Mohamed Wahdan, both of whom were recently arrested with Ghozlan.
Ezzat, Ghozlan and Hussein have all served as Brotherhood secretaries general. Ghozlan also served as the official spokesperson, while Hussein took over several responsibilities, most notably communications with the Muslim Brotherhood abroad. Hussein was the subject of a recent controversy stemming from allegations that he traveled to Iran, which he categorically denied. Press sources went on to claim that the visit was the reason for Hussein's removal from the group's crisis management body known as the Guidance Bureau.
Ezzat seems to be the most prominent of them all, as he recently published an article signed as the acting supreme guide.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Brotherhood youth member who is active in one of the Delta provinces says that while things are far from clear on the ground, it doesn't necessarily mean that there's disagreement among the leadership.
"The Muslim Brotherhood is a large organization with diverse factions," the member says. "But it is also a durable organization that security crackdowns haven't been able to destroy until now. What I can say for sure is that no one in the leadership disagrees with our belief that we need to continue to fight the coup and the police in every way possible, at any time, in any place."
A more nuanced view
A researcher of Islamic movements, who also wishes to remain anonymous, disagrees with the idea that there are two factions — an old guard committed to peace and a new generation pushing for militant action.
"First, in the new chain of command, no more than 30% are under the age of 40," the researcher says. "Second, all of the elected leadership were already present in the organizational hierarchy, and sooner or later they would have risen to the first rank anyway. It's just that the vast campaign of arrests accelerated this. Third, the depiction of the struggle as occurring between those who want jihad and those who see peace as the only solution is false."
According to the researcher, this isn't the Brotherhood's first such crisis. In February 2014, the group's Guidance Bureau held an emergency meeting in Egypt and abroad, and the only item on the agenda was the dismissal of Mahmoud Hussein.
The Muslim Brotherhood's national HQ in Cairo — Photo: Ahmed Asad/APA Images/ZUMA
The deadlock originated from a disagreement between prominent leaders in the group's upper echelons. One faction, headed by Wahdan and Gamal Heshamat, believed that they could compromise a bit on Morsi's legitimacy, while the other side, led by Mahmoud Hussein, disagreed. The pragmatists seem to have won out, becoming members of the crisis management group.
"Add to this the fact that the rest of the crisis management group is definitely not keen on violence," the researcher says. "We're talking about a group of businessmen not accustomed to pushing the conflict to zero-sum stakes."
There are two different paths, the researcher says. "The first sees the completion of a protest track, but in a less bloody framework than the one imposed by the current regime, and at the same time not opposing, or at least remaining silent about, a truce."
The second track, the source says, moves beyond the legitimacy of Morsi and engages in a broader framework that plans to "save the state from what the Brotherhood expects will be a collapse of the economy and basic services, followed by a collapse of the idea of the state itself as a result of internal conflicts within its institutions."
Abdel-Hameed Hussein believes that it's difficult to understand the group's current dynamics without considering the two main factions that have vied for primacy throughout its history.
While the contemporaries and followers of founder Hassan al-Banna have held more pragmatic political and evangelical agendas, another faction — which Hussein says has been called at various times "the Qutbis," "the inner circle," "the militant Brotherhood" or "Khairat al-Shater's men" — took the path of political assassinations and security operations.
The group's temporary leader Mahmoud Ezzat and its Secretary General Mahmoud Hussein are both considered members of the "inner circle," and adherents of pro-jihad Islamic scholar Sayyid Qutb. On the other end of the spectrum were individuals like Abdel-Moneim Abol-Fotouh and Essam al-Erian.
Abdel-Hameed Hussein explains that the aforementioned Shater was a key player in establishing "the militant Brotherhood" as the dominant faction. He was assisted by then-secretary general Ezzat, who presided over the promotion of members and the group's political mobilization. The most prominent of these were Morsi, Saad al-Katatny and other municipal leaders.
This group would remain in control until the months preceding the January 25 uprising.
But another source close to the Brotherhood asserts that the issue isn't about peacefulness versus violence. The faction of the "three Mahmouds" has no problem with violent means. There are many reasons that this faction could be pushed toward considering peacefulness. "Perhaps in the context of the Turkish-Saudi attempt to find a political solution out of the crisis, or if the faction tried to distance itself from the 'Call of Egypt' statement, or maybe only to deliver the message that 'we've returned after being on the run.' Perhaps all of the above."
The "Call of Egypt" statement was issued in late May by representatives of various Islamic institutions. It stated that "Judges, officers, soldiers, muftis, journalists, politicians and all of those who've been proven beyond certainty to have participated — even through incitement — in the shedding of innocent blood and unjustified loss of life … they are killers according to Sharia, and they are subject to the punishment of a killer in accordance with Sharia."
This statement has been widely read as a call to target such officials.
Accounts of what is currently happening in the Brotherhood may vary, but the group is clearly faced with a choice between supporting the political game and eradicating internal inclinations toward violent confrontation, or taking the conflict to the extreme and eliminating any hope of political reconciliation. The state's current and future policies will have an important role in influencing which of these factions will triumph.