Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Faces an Existential Crisis

How a once-mighty organization has buckled under its own weight, consumed with infighting and paralyzed by toxic hierarchy

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Faces an Existential Crisis
Egyptians demonstrate in Cairo on Nov. 22, 2013, to mark the Rabaa massacre. (Ahmed Ismail/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Call it the “Eggplant Incident.”

It was 2016, and Omar, a young member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB), had fled the violent government crackdown at home, trekking 10 days across the desert to a safehouse in Sudan.

Three years earlier, Egypt’s new dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, had massacred approximately 1,000 MB supporters after unseating Egypt’s first and only elected civilian president, the MB’s leader Mohammed Morsi. Ever since, the MB had struggled to survive as an organization — whether underground, in prison or in exile. The stakes could not have been higher for Omar, who, like many of his peers in the MB, risked death as long as he stayed in Egypt. But once he reached Sudan, he found himself embroiled in frivolous quarrels with exiled leaders.

Ever hierarchical, the MB had assigned a member named Ismail to supervise the apartment where Omar ended up in Sudan. One day, Ismail summoned his roommates for a “formal investigation.” Someone had added eggplant to a traditional meal known as maqlouba. Did his roommates have prior knowledge, Ismail demanded, that a visiting senior MB member disliked eggplant? This misstep in the kitchen could prove yet another instance of youthful insolence toward MB elders.

Omar told his tale in one of dozens of interviews conducted with current and former MB members for a new book, “Broken Bonds: The Existential Crisis of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, 2013–22” (2023), which I coauthored with Amr ElAfifi and Noha Ezzat. (Omar is a pseudonym — we changed the names of most of our interviewees for their safety.)

The Eggplant Incident, our research makes clear, was not just one unhinged Brother on a power trip. On the contrary, the petty inquisition was emblematic of a once-mighty organization that has buckled under its own weight, consumed with infighting and paralyzed by toxic hierarchy. MB members are adrift in various countries of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Conflicts large and miniscule reveal the same deep pathologies that have precipitated an existential crisis of identity, legitimacy and membership for the MB as a whole. The organization’s vision has shrunk from a grand dream of Islamic governance to power struggles over the millions of dollars in the MB’s treasury and matters as trivial as who put the eggplant in the maqlouba.

It was not always so. I grew up in an MB family. In the 2000s, the MB was everything to me: scout troop, debate society, social safety net, political incubator, league of superheroes and a light in the darkness of Egyptian authoritarianism.

The MB’s senior leaders weathered years of prison under Egyptian rulers Gamal Abdel Nasser (president 1954–70) and Anwar Sadat (president 1970–81), before a modest opening under Hosni Mubarak (president 1981–2011). Because of their sacrifices, these MB leaders enjoyed almost unquestioning reverence from their followers, even though they had not delivered on the promise of their founder, Hassan al-Banna, to create a freer society in tune with Islamic ideals. Like many others, I accepted the organization’s secrecy and slow pace, believing it had a master plan that it would reveal and implement at the right time.

For many in the United States and Europe, this picture of the MB as a beneficent and peaceful organization may sound strange. Western analysis and media coverage often fail to distinguish between Islamic movements, and the MB is perhaps most famous for its smaller but influential militant offspring, such as Hamas in Gaza. Yet the core of the MB in Egypt mostly opposed violence. Members debated the best way to promote Islamic values in society and politics, but most believed in gradual change through peaceful means.

My alienation from the MB began with a teenage foray into blogging. My technical skills and ease with the internet put me leaps ahead of senior MB communications staff. In 2007, Khaled Hamza, an MB media guru, deputized me to run an online campaign about an ongoing government crackdown on MB members. Then 17, I was delighted.

In my blogging, however, I was simultaneously criticizing some of the MB’s more controversial ideas, such as a proposal to create an elected council of religious scholars to review legislation and the disqualification of women and Christians from the state presidency and premiership. It wasn’t long before other young critics and I were summoned to meet with none other than Mohammed Morsi — then a member of the group’s guidance bureau and the head of its political committee.

In the meeting, Morsi lectured his young guests for 40 minutes and then waved off our questions. “This is how the Brotherhood understands Islam,” he told us, defending the MB’s positions. If we didn’t like it, he suggested, we were free to leave the organization.

At the time, I felt Egypt offered few other political alternatives, so it took another three years before I followed Morsi’s advice and left. But the meeting had pulled back a curtain, revealing not a capable organization with a secret plan but an ossified and closed-minded institution that couldn’t accommodate basic debates.

During those blogging years, my closest friends in the MB also began to question my intentions in criticizing the organization. Around 2010, Mohammed, my then–close friend — we belonged for years to the same “usra” (“family” or circle, the most basic unit in the MB’s organizational hierarchy) — said to me, “I know you are working with a foreign agency, you and Mostafa al-Naggar.” He was referring to one of the most prominent young reformist members, who ran for parliament in 2011 and won against the MB candidate in Cairo’s district of Nasr City. Al-Naggar vanished in 2018. His family and human rights organizations believe he was arrested and then forcibly disappeared. The authorities denied knowing anything about his whereabouts and suggested he was dead, without much light shed on his case. “You are meeting with a lot of foreigners to talk about [the MB]; there is no other explanation!”

This apprehension was common among younger members like Mohammed but was even more prevalent among many in the MB leadership, whether at the middle or higher levels. After I met with Marc Lynch, a political science professor at George Washington University, in a Cairo mall in September 2007, a local leader, Ahmed, summoned me to warn me about sharing too much information with foreign researchers and journalists. “There is nothing good that can come out of this,” he told me in an advisory tone. “Read Ronald Reagan’s memoir to know what they really think of us!”

Khaled Hamza, whom I was working with at the time, cautioned me not to pay much attention to these ideas and emphasized that there were a lot of differences in the “West” when it came to views of Muslims, Arabs and the MB. Hamza spoke to me about how important it is for the MB to open up to the world and find common ground. This was the whole idea of creating Ikhwanweb, the MB’s English website that Hamza was running, whose motto was “Building Bridges, not Walls.” However, Ikhwanweb did not have as much support within the ranks of the organization as its other Arabic media outlets, which provided more simplistic views of the world in black-and-white terms.

My alienation peaked in the spring of 2011, just a few months after Egypt’s revolution, when the MB in my hometown sponsored an event in a recreational club that belonged to the doctors’ syndicate in Mansoura. I went to attend what I thought was a public event in a public place, but it turned out to be an MB gathering, with some leaders coming from Cairo. When I tried to enter the venue, I found my old friend Mohammed at the gate. He asked, “Are you a Brotherhood member?” I needed a second to answer. “No,” I replied. So Mohammed asked me firmly to leave. I did.

Years have since passed. I did not read Reagan’s memoir, and I did not stop talking to correspondents and researchers about the MB, but the sad irony is that Mohammed, Ahmed and I all ended up exiled, while Hamza wound up in jail after the military coup of 2013. If enabled, organic intellectuals and leaders like Khaled Hamza would have changed the course of history for the MB, but the massacres committed by the government of President Sisi and the international support that he received gave traction to the narratives of those like Ahmed, who live on conspiracy theories and a sense of victimhood.

The MB’s rigidity augured poorly for its brief turn in power after the 2011 revolution. In the aftermath of the 2013 coup, many other members fell out with the MB in moments of disaffection that mirrored my own.

In January 2011, Egyptians revolted against the military dictatorship and triggered a series of rapid political transformations. In June 2012, Morsi narrowly won Egypt’s first-ever — and, sadly, only — free presidential election, ushering in a disastrous year of civilian rule that ended up pitting the MB against Egyptian reformers and revolutionaries, along with the powerful military establishment.

When the MB introduced Khairat al-Shater and then Mohamed Morsi as their presidential candidates in 2012, it was not a unanimous decision. Many MB leaders and members did not anticipate that the organization would put forward a presidential candidate. In leaked video segments from meetings between the MB and the military leadership in 2011, Shater explained that the MB made a strategic decision not to run for the presidency due to the organization’s being part of an international group and the belief that Egypt’s problems and crises could not be resolved by one party alone. Moreover, Shater feared that running for the presidency could ignite hostilities against the MB. Although this meeting was recorded unlawfully, Shater argued the same things in meetings with members and supporters at approximately the same time. Thus, the decision was a surprise for the MB and outsiders alike.

However, it is now clear that some people, including Shater himself, were preparing to run for president much earlier than when the decision was made by the MB’s internal legislative entity, the shura council. A member of Shater’s campaign for president revealed that they began working on the campaign’s materials and content weeks before the official announcement, which raised questions about the internal democracy of the MB. Even if most of the MB leaders did not know that the decision had already been made by some people in the organization without waiting for the results of the internal vote, several sources confirmed that the voting process itself was repeated more than twice. In other words, it was repeated until it resulted (by a small majority) in the decision favored by a determined minority, which was to introduce Shater as the organization’s candidate.

This anecdote reveals the ability of hardcore organizational leaders such as Shater and Mahmoud Ezzat to control the decision-making process within the MB, suppressing internal opposition and undermining or even expelling leaders who disagree with their views. The expulsion of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh in 2009 from the guidance bureau, the highest executive committee inside the MB, and then from the whole organization, for his decision to run for president in June 2011, serves as another clear example.

The reasons behind the decision to introduce a presidential candidate are probably more important than understanding the process that led to it. In my opinion, the organization’s leaders, including Mahmoud Ezzat and Shater, were more concerned with the internal structure and coherence of the MB than with broader issues such as the MB’s strained relationship with the military leadership or how the international community viewed the MB at the helm in Egypt.

Many indicators were showing that Aboul Fotouh, the former senior MB leader whom many other leaders in the organization deemed an enemy, was one of the most viable candidates. Aboul Fotouh’s success, however, would have been catastrophic for the MB, according to the leaders. His ability to attract a wide range of support from young revolutionary activists, including Wael Ghonim, posed an existential threat to the MB. This perception was enough, along with other aforementioned international and local factors, for the leaders to sway the opinion of the shura council members to vote in favor of Shater as their candidate.

Shater was confident that he could win the support of Salafist scholars, who had more influence on the Salafist supporters and devout Muslims in Egypt than newly founded Salafist parties such as the al-Nour Party. This tactic, along with smear campaigns, diverted a considerable part of Aboul Fotouh’s supporters. However, Shater was disqualified for flawed legal reasons by the Higher Elections Committee, and the MB introduced Morsi as an alternative candidate. Morsi’s campaign was divisive and packed with identity politics. It highlighted discourses that emphasized the religious and ideological differences between candidates with little attention paid to their electoral programs. Ultimately, in the midst of societal polarization, it played into Morsi’s hands by alienating moderate candidates.

When Morsi succeeded in winning the runoffs against Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, his campaign changed its motto to “Our Strength in Our Unity.” Many in the revolutionary camp supported him, despite their misgivings. But Morsi’s year in power did not live up to that motto.

Morsi’s presidency was littered with missteps, failures and ideological inconsistencies, but this is not why the military overthrew him after only one year in office. It would be terribly unfair to blame Morsi for the coup that saw him arrested and jailed in total isolation and later led to his collapse and death in a courtroom, in June 2019, after he was denied vital medical care. Much less should we blame Morsi for Sisi’s subsequent brutal crackdown. However, it was clear that the MB not only had no master plan; it didn’t even have apparatuses nimble enough to manage crises or set Egypt on a new path. It also failed to build coalitions with liberal and leftist groups, making those groups — and the MB — more vulnerable to the military’s repression.

The Rabaa Massacre of Aug. 14, 2013, marked a new era in Egyptian politics. The violent dispersal of Morsi’s supporters’ sit-ins in Cairo, which Human Rights Watch described as a crime against humanity and “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history,” left more than 1,000 dead. The massacre also left the MB in a shambles. Tens of thousands of its members were exiled, internally displaced, killed or detained and sent to prisons. Its leaders wound up dead, detained or exiled. The crackdown that Sisi started as an emergency measure to “counter potential terrorism,” as he stated in a famous speech on July 24, 2013, was legalized through new bills and laws that designated the MB a terrorist organization in December 2013 and gave the government enormous powers to arrest MB members, dismiss them from their jobs, shut down their businesses and seize their assets. These legislations and apparatuses that Sisi upgraded to suppress the MB were later utilized against a wider range of dissidents, including prominent liberal, leftist and even Coptic Christian activists, some of whom had been instrumental in mobilizing support to remove Morsi and then bring Sisi into office.

After Rabaa and the arrest of most MB leaders, the majority of the leaders who were not imprisoned disappeared from public view. Only three of the 20 members of the guidance bureau were able to organize and resume their leadership roles within the movement. Six months after the massacre, and after a period of organizational disarray, these three leaders gathered the members of the general shura council who had not been arrested and created a new entity to replace the guidance bureau in leading the movement, called the high administrative committee. This committee was responsible for managing the organization’s internal affairs and developing plans for protests and other activities against the regime. In response, Sisi’s government intensified its crackdown on the MB to unprecedented levels.

The increased pressure, combined with the MB’s fruitless plans, led to growing discontent among the group’s supporters, who objected to the high administrative committee’s leadership. In the summer of 2014, in response to the state’s violence and the anger of MB members, the committee developed a plan that included an endorsement of “creative peacefulness.” The term referred to the use of targeted violence against those who were confirmed to be involved in killing or other grave abuses against MB members and supporters. Although some accounts suggest there was general approval of these tactics within the MB, subsequent internal conflicts indicated that the endorsement of armed struggle was far from unanimous and raised major concerns among MB leaders in Egypt and abroad.

Several MB leaders later emerged from hiding and opposed the controversial plan. However, those who publicly opposed violence within the MB were arrested by security forces days after announcing their position in the spring of 2015. Security forces also undertook the extrajudicial killing of MB leaders after arresting them, as happened with nine of the high administrative committee leaders a couple of months later. These arrests and killings, which reached their peak between 2016 and 2018, did not end the internal conflict within the MB. In our book, Amr ElAfifi, Noha Ezzat and I provide detailed information about the power struggle within the group, which led to far-reaching consequences for the organization both in Egypt and abroad.

In the chaos, allegations of corruption began to surface. In one instance, in 2019, Mahmoud Hussein, the MB’s secretary-general, reportedly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars that belonged to the organization to buy an estate and a private car for his son — at a time when exiled young MB members in Turkey were living on tiny monthly stipends of just 200 Turkish liras (roughly $10). Senior MB members had long shuttled money between organizational and personal accounts to evade asset freezes but, in the new climate, what once seemed like a savvy tactic began arousing suspicions.

For decades, the organization had cultivated loyalty and unity by taking care of its members and their families, including those who were killed or jailed. After 2013, leadership feuds and exile eventually eroded the MB’s ability to provide basic care to members. Worse, it no longer had a common ideology. The MB became little more than an unreliable mutual aid society whose leaders managed members’ dues carelessly.

As we describe in our book, the MB is in the grip of a triple crisis of identity, legitimacy and membership.

Younger and idealistic members are drifting away. Oftentimes, these members were college students in 2013, when they began their years on the run, separated from their families, universities and communities. These young people saw their friends killed, maimed or detained, and lost siblings and parents to the diaspora or to prisons. Factional disputes have undermined the ideas that brought these young Egyptians to the MB. At times, the organization’s only robust activity has involved disciplining its own members.

Mahmoud, a former detainee, told us that he left the MB because none of its new factions embodied the group’s founding ideals. For him, the Brotherhood was “not Brotherhood enough.”

If the MB were to be involved again in a fresh push for democracy in Egypt, it would need the energy and purpose of this younger generation. But instead of inspiring these members, the MB has retreated ever further from Egyptian politics and activism.

And yet, it is too early to write off the MB. Even in exile and diminished by state repression, it remains today the strongest nongovernmental force in Egyptian society and politics. The MB maintains its status through a vast network of support, while Egypt’s military dictatorship smothers the development of any other organic opposition. Exile and jail cannot grind the MB out of existence.

However, the MB may never regain the pure image and unquestioning devotion it cultivated among its followers for so long. Our research for “Broken Bonds” showed us how the past decade has exposed the MB’s lack of vision and strategy, the transactional nature of membership, its brittle and opaque leadership and its tendency toward factionalization.

If the MB is to do more than simply exist — if it wants to be an agent for social and political change in Egypt — it needs to adapt to the lessons of recent years. It must address its corruption head-on. It must articulate a clear strategy. Most of all, it must introduce more democratic processes within the organization and let go of the secrecy and obsession with hierarchy that it has relied on for so long.

These changes are unlikely to happen. It is equally unlikely that the MB will disappear from Egypt or from politics. The qualities that hold it back have also sustained it through the darkest days of Egyptian authoritarianism. They may yet serve the movement’s survival — but it is much less likely that they will serve the ideals on which the MB was founded.

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