The Middle East Channel

Rethinking the Muslim Brotherhood

What happened to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood? Variants of this question have consumed the international media, academics, and policymaking circles over the last few weeks. Many Egyptians have equally given voice to unprecedented rage against the MB during the crisis sparked by President Mohamed Morsi’s moves to push through a controversial new constitution. Bloody clashes between ...


What happened to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood? Variants of this question have consumed the international media, academics, and policymaking circles over the last few weeks. Many Egyptians have equally given voice to unprecedented rage against the MB during the crisis sparked by President Mohamed Morsi’s moves to push through a controversial new constitution. Bloody clashes between the MB followers and protesters in front of the presidential palace and the provocative discourse of some of the MB leaders took many by surprise, as did the outrageous actions of the MB and what is said to be torture chambers that were allegedly run by some of the MB members against peaceful protesters who were beaten and terrified at Morsi’s presidential palace.

The Brotherhood’s behavior seems bewildering to many observers who have followed the organization for many years. The recent crisis seems a profound setback and a retreat from its "moderate" character and longstanding "reformist" agenda. Some Egyptian politicians now accuse the MB of adopting a "fascist" propensity in dealing with its opponents. Many western commentators go farther, using the crisis as an excuse to cast profound doubts on the MB ideology and to question its democratic credentials. What does this crisis really say about the "nature" and the true "color" of the MB? Has it changed its ideology after taking power, or revealed its reformist rhetoric as a lie?

As someone who has been studying the Muslim Brotherhood intensely for decades, I would argue that any attempt to fathom the MB behavior should take into account two key points: the impact of ideology on behavior and the role of internal dynamics in shaping the MB strategy and decisions.

First, despite its importance, it is problematic to assume that the MB’s ideology directly shapes its actions and behavior. Ideology can inform behavior, but political reality forges and guides it. The MB has a significantly loose and broad ideology that fits with different contexts and circumstances. Indeed, the vagueness and elastic character of the MB ideology enabled it to last for more than eight decades without significant schism or fissures. Historically, the pragmatism of the MB, in many instances, superseded its ideology. Moreover, the MB took power in Egypt not primarily because of its ideology but mainly because its unrivaled organizational and moblizational capabilities. The chief role of ideology in the MB is mainly to recruit new members and foster their commitment and loyalty to the movement.

The MB has always calculated its moves and decisions based on interests rather than its ideological or ontological views. Therefore, it is highly misleading to contend that the MB ideology was behind the recent events. Likewise, it would be imprecise to argue that the MB has changed its ideology after taking power. In fact, it is quiet the opposite. The inability of the MB to modify its ideology to adapt with the new environment in Egypt after the revolution has created many problems and distorted its image. This is in part because ideologies don’t change overnight. They take years, if not decades, to be internalized within a movement’s structure and embraced by its members and leadership.  

The crucial question then becomes: if the MB wasn’t changed and its ideology doesn’t shape its behavior, how could we construe the recent actions and attitude of the MB? One short way to answer this question is to reconsider the functionality in an open and fluid context. The MB has struggled to reconcile its internalized ideology with Egypt’s rapidly changing political reality. The MB was created and operated for decades as an "opposition" movement. Over decades, it developed a tradition of how to "protest" not how to "rule." After the revolution, the movement couldn’t make the required shift from an opposition movement to a ruling party. In other words, the MB is still unable to restructure itself as a normal political party instead of a semi-clandestine movement with vexing and multi-faceted agenda.

The bewildering behavior of the MB reflects the complexity of its internal structure and dynamics. And here we come to the second point. By internal dynamics I mean two things: the internal coherence and balance of power within the MB. For decades, preserving the MB’s survival and unity was a key objective to the movement’s leadership. The indoctrination and socialization process within the MB is deliberately designed to serve this goal above all else. However, maintaining the integration of the MB came at the expense of modernizing the movement’s organizational structure to become more democratic and transparent. The decision-making process within the MB is strict and exclusionary, and the line of leadership doesn’t allow real participation from the lower levels particularly in the strategic decisions. The organizational norms of allegiance (bay‘a), obedience (ta’ah), commitment (iltizam), etc. enable leaders to act on behalf of all members without real accountability or checks on their power. Despite the new environment, these norms still operate and manifest in the MB’s behavior and decisions. Thus, when the leadership calls for protest or marches, members do nothing but obey their leaders — or else, as with a number of youth leaders, leave the organization.

Former President Hosni Mubarak’s repression interacted with the internal dynamics of the MB to shape this organizational ideology. It entrenched the sense of victimhood among members and created a subculture of ordeal and tribulation (mihna) that bound members and dominated them over the past three decades. However, after the downfall of Mubarak and the extraordinary political openness, the MB’s leadership couldn’t (and may be doesn’t want to) develop a different subculture or mechanisms that could maintain members’ unity and loyalty in a more participatory and inclusive manner. It was the "external" threat or enemy that preserved the integration of the MB and continues to ensure member commitment. Therefore, when President Morsi and Mohamed Badie, the Supreme Guide of the MB, or any other senior leaders talk of "conspiracy," plot, or "hidden hands" that "seek to subvert the revolution," their eyes are on their followers not opponents. It is the language that resonates with the hearts and minds of Ikhwan. In other words, the MB’s embedded anxiety about unity and coherence makes it hard for members to act as normal political actors.

The other internal element is the balance of power within the MB. The MB organization is currently under the control of conservatives. Since the end of the 1990s onwards, the conservative leaders managed to solidify their grip on power within the MB. After two decades of a relatively balanced relationship between the so-called reformists and the conservatives, the latter became more powerful and were able to dominate the MB organization and decision-making process. This was the case until the 2011 uprising, when the entire organization came under the control of the conservatives. The conservatives, led by Khariat El-Shater, Deputy of the Supreme Guide, Mahmoud Ezzat, the former Secretary General of the MB from 2001-2010 who was promoted to Deputy of the Supreme Guide two years ago, and Mahmoud Ghozlan, the Spokesperson of the MB and member of the Guidance Bureau as well as Shater’s brother-in-law, were able to alienate the reformists and expel them from the movement. They restructured the influential bodies of the MB, the Guidance Bureau and the Shura Council, to become more obedient and loyal to them. Not surprisingly, after the revolution, the reformist current within the MB faded away. Prominent figures like Abdel Moniem Aboul Fotouh, Mohamed Habib, the former Deputy of the Supreme Guide, Ibrahim El-Za’farani, Khaled Dau’d, and Hitham Abu Khalil, were excluded and had to leave the MB. Even the young reformists who took part in the uprising from the outset, such as Islam Lotfi and Mohamed El-Qassas, were unashamedly expelled and left the movement.

Furthermore, the domination of the conservatives on the MB became more visible when Shater and then Morsi were selected to run for the presidency. While the former is a heavyweight leader within the MB due to his financial and organizational capabilities, the latter was an utter example of how conservatives "craft" their loyal cadres and leaders within the MB. As I explained elsewhere, Morsi was selected for the presidency not due to his political skills (indeed he lacks a lot of them) but mainly because of his commitment and loyalty to the conservative leadership. His record of trust, obedience, and commitment over the past two decades made him an ideal candidate for the job. Therefore, when Morsi speaks, acts, or behaves, he reflects the conservative face of the MB. Since he took power, Morsi became the mouthpiece of the conservatives who have captured the MB over the past two decades. For them, he is their man in the presidential palace and his throne should be protected at any cost.

Over the past two years, the MB has been preoccupied with taking power at the expense of restructuring and modernizing its ideology and organization which has led to its current baffling and confusing behavior. It has so far won power, however, at the expense of its image and credibility.

Khalil al-Anani is a Scholar of Middle Eastern Studies at the School of Government and International Relations at Durham University and former visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at: On Twitter: @Khalilalanani.

Khalil al-Anani is a Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC and an associate professor of political science at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. Twitter: @Khalilalanani