A sharp conflict over the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has played out recently. The former members of the Guidance Bureau, the top executive body that formulates the policies of the organization, are jockeying with the new leadership that was elected in February 2014 and has been spearheading the activities of the Brotherhood on the ground since then.

The conflict is not a new development—the Brotherhood had managed to contain the dispute for months to avoid harming the cohesion of the organization and the morale of its members on the ground. But the public expression of protracted disagreement is new. It burst into the open in May 2015 after sharp exchanges between the two factions in the media. 

Georges Fahmi
Fahmi was a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focused on religious actors in democratic transition, the interplay between state and religion, and religious minorities and citizenship.
More >

The media has treated the conflict as a dispute over two opposing strategies: a peaceful approach advocated by the former leadership and the trend toward violence adopted by the current one. 

But this picture is misleading. The dispute involves a deeper conflict about the rules governing the organization, as well as the nature of the relationship between the popular base and the leadership, and their respective roles in the organization’s decisionmaking processes. 

The political conditions in Egypt since the overthrow of then president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 have led the Brotherhood to formulate new rules to govern its activities. The leadership no longer has absolute authority in managing the organization’s affairs, as it had been able to before August 2013. Instead, the popular youth base is often leading activities on the ground, and the leadership has had to balance the principles of the organization with the initiatives of its base. The old leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood sees this as a departure from the pattern of management it was used to and as a threat to the organization’s cohesion and identity.

The Brotherhood and the State

The popular uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s regime in February 2011 opened up new opportunities for the Muslim Brotherhood, whose activities had until then been strongly restrained by the government. The Brotherhood established the Freedom and Justice Party in April 2011 and competed in the legislative elections at the end of that year. The party won 218 out of 498 seats, and its presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi won the second round of elections in June 2012.

During Morsi’s rule, the Islamic movement and its opponents were sharply polarized around the issues of freedoms and democracy. Tensions also rose between the Brotherhood and Egyptian state institutions, particularly the judiciary and security agencies, over which the group attempted to tighten its control. 

The crisis peaked on June 30, 2013, when opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood took part in massive demonstrations to demand early presidential elections. With the support of the protesters, as well as the judiciary, political opposition, and prominent religious representatives, the armed forces intervened to remove Morsi and put the country on a new political path. The Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters rejected these procedures and staged sit-ins at Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda Squares in Cairo to demand Morsi’s return to the presidency. 

Differences between two currents in the transitional authority in Egypt emerged over how to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood. The first approach distinguished between the toppling of Morsi’s regime and the need for a political solution to the upheaval in the country that would integrate the Muslim Brotherhood into the political process. This current was represented by then vice president Mohamed ElBaradei. The second current pushed for the exploitation of the popular mass movement against Morsi to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood once and for all. This current was represented by the leaders of various security apparatuses. 

At first, the ElBaradei current appeared to have the upper hand and to have succeeded in blocking the efforts of the security forces to use violence against Morsi’s supporters. But the failure to reach a political solution to the crisis between the Brotherhood and the state allowed the second current more room to maneuver. 

Security forces intervened in August 2013 and forcefully dispersed the Brotherhood’s demonstrations, pushing the Brotherhood back underground to operate under even-harsher conditions than during the Mubarak era. The resignation of Mohamed ElBaradei on the same day marked the end of attempts at a political solution and put the transitional regime in direct confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Effects on the Brotherhood

The Brotherhood incurred significant losses during its confrontation with the state. In addition to the security clashes in the squares that resulted in thousands of deaths and arrests, the interim government froze the assets of 1,055 charitable religious organizations in December 2013, accusing them of belonging to the Brotherhood or being affiliated to it. This move has weakened the organization’s social and religious activities. The government also declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization in the same month. The Supreme Administrative Court then dissolved the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the group, and confiscated its assets in August 2014.

The escalation of the security confrontation and the arrest of the Brotherhood’s leaders dealt a strong blow to the organization, which was unstable for several months before returning with a new structure and working plan. At the organizational level, the Brotherhood began to develop structures to adapt to changes on the ground, namely the need to work underground and the increased confrontations between its members and the security forces.

The Brotherhood held internal elections in February 2014 and formed a committee to manage the crisis. The result of the elections kept Mohamed Badie as the leader of the Brotherhood, but a chairman was appointed to manage a crisis committee, a secretary general in Egypt was appointed to oversee the organization’s affairs, and an administrative office was formed to manage the affairs of the Muslim Brotherhood abroad under the chairmanship of Ahmed Abdel-Rahman. The organization also promoted several of its young leaders to spearhead the Brotherhood’s activities on the ground. 

These changes amounted to the replacement of more than 65 percent of the organization’s previous leadership. Ahmed Abdel-Rahman estimated that the youth account for 90 percent of that 65 percent.

On the procedural level, the new leadership adopted what it called a “creative painful nonviolence” approach, which combines continued peaceful activities on the street with limited violence used in operations designed to hurt the political regime. That meant carrying out operations without targeting innocents, exacting controlled revenge, and avoiding random violence. 

Members of the organization had committed to nonviolence in the past. But some believed that the peaceful option was not going to achieve the organization’s objective of bringing down the current political regime or at least pressuring it to make concessions in the security crackdown it has carried out. 

Consequently, some members began to carry out individual acts of limited violence, such as burning police cars. Because the leadership failed to prevent these individual acts, it then attempted to organize these operations with the aim of unsettling the regime and draining it of its strength. 

The new leadership was careful to avoid alienating the segments of society that had been against the violent crackdown on the Brotherhood but might also be against the organization resorting to violent means to resist the authorities. It demanded that operations should be conducted in line with the popular sentiment in a given area. In other words, in areas where there was clear anger against the political regime, it allowed a greater number of operations to be carried out, and vice versa.

However, the new leadership has refused to allow its members to randomly employ violence against the army and police forces. According to the leadership, individuals who have not been engaged in violence against members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their families should not be targeted. It has also expressed reservations about the use of violence to avenge the violence that has been carried out against Brotherhood members and their families, but it was forced in some cases to approve those actions. It insisted, however, that these acts of revenge should be proportional to the violence committed in the first place and target only the person who was engaged in the violence.

Limited violence appeared to be an appropriate strategy for the new leadership. It could help maintain organizational cohesion and prevent young members from becoming part of fundamentalist jihadist organizations in light of the youth’s increasing anger and refusal to adopt peaceful means. It could also help put pressure on the political regime in order to change the balance of power and pave the way toward a political solution. 

In addition, the proportion of members within the Brotherhood who want to bear arms appears to be relatively small. In a survey held at a meeting of the Brotherhood’s youth cadres in one of the Egyptian governorates, less than 30 out of 300 members who attended the meeting were in favor of armed action. The others preferred to continue their work on the ground using nonviolent means.

The new leadership envisioned several scenarios for the future of this strategy. The Brotherhood’s action could succeed in attracting other opponents of the political regime and could develop into a popular revolution that could force the regime to give up its power. Or the movement on the ground could weaken the new President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s control over his regime, which could pave the way for a palace coup, resulting in the formation of a new state leadership with which the Brotherhood could negotiate. 

The Rift in the Leadership

But the new leadership’s vision is not shared by all members of the Brotherhood. Some figures from the old leadership sought to reassert control.

The crisis was contained within the organization for several months, but it was exposed to the public in May 2015 in the wake of an article penned by a leader from the old guard, Mahmoud Ghozlan. In the article, he outlined the fundamentals of the Muslim Brotherhood and called for commitment to those constants:

“He who believes in the call of the Muslim Brotherhood must be committed to the general fundamentals of Islam, and on top of those, to the fundamentals of the Muslim Brotherhood, and should not deny or stray from them. These constants include: the need for teamwork, education as a means for change, peace and nonviolence as our chosen way, commitment to shura [consultation], the rejection of tyranny and individualism either within the group or outside, and a refusal to resorting to the takfir [excommunication] of Muslims.” 

The article was followed by a statement from Mahmoud Hussein, the former secretary general of the Brotherhood, that said:  

“The Brotherhood operates with its apparatuses and institutions in accordance with the regulations and with the members of the Guidance Bureau. It has supported its work with a number of assistants in accordance with these regulations and the decisions of its institutions; its deputy leader accordingly acts as a general guide [head of the organization] until the general guide is released [from prison] God willing, and the Guidance Bureau is the one that manages the work of the organization.”

Ghozlan’s article and Hussein’s statement provoked angry reactions from the youth leading the struggle on the ground. They saw in the article a departure from the revolutionary approach adopted by the new leadership, and they saw in Ghozlan’s and Hussein’s words attempts by the old leadership—who they hold largely responsible for the situation during the transitional period—to impose its vision on the youth. 

The Muslim Brotherhood’s media spokesman responded in no uncertain terms that the Brotherhood’s institutions were elected by their popular base and are managing their own affairs, that only the Brotherhood’s spokesman and other officials speak for the organization, that Mahmoud Hussein is no longer secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that the group has elected a new secretary general from the field. 

Members from the two camps had increased contact with one another in an attempt to contain the crisis. The intensified movements of the leadership during this period made them an easy target for the security forces. A number of prominent leaders were arrested.

The Essence of the Conflict

Some have said that the old leadership’s response can be boiled down to a disagreement over the use of violence. But the conflict is broader than the dichotomy between a commitment to peaceful means and the use of violence against the regime. It relates to the rules of management of the organization, internal decisionmaking processes, and the relationship between the leadership and the popular base.

The old guard rejects the wide area of maneuver that the more revolutionary base has been granted and the base’s ability to define its own priorities on the ground. The older generation sees this as a threat to the survival of the organization as a cohesive entity, and feels the need to tighten the leadership’s grip on the direction and speed of the movements on the ground. 

The new leadership finds that the old guard’s vision has been overtaken by events and that the balance of power between the leadership and the base has changed. As a result, the new leaders believe, the base’s priorities should be taken into account. They believe that the goal must be to ensure the continuity of the revolutionary movement on the ground. While some may agree and even share the concerns of the old leadership, the new leaders believe that the risk comes at an acceptable cost.

For a large portion of the new leadership, decisions should no longer be made within the organization’s leadership offices and sent from the top down to the base. The organization should be more democratic. The base should lead, and it is the role of the new leadership to balance between initiatives on the ground and the principles of the organization.

The new leadership understands that the popular base has to accept and be satisfied with any political solution that is reached with the regime. It knows it will not be able to sell the base any political solution that does not meet its expectations. 

The old leadership fears this approach. It holds that this way of operating may succeed in containing the base, but it will change the shape of the organization as it has long existed. The old leaders prefer to lose some of the popular base over losing the organization they know and have built over the past four decades. 

The old guard still believes that the leadership has the right to make any decision it sees fit and that the base must comply with those decisions. The old leadership does not mind losing some popular support in exchange for maintaining its management style. 

Another element that disturbs the old guard is the increasingly important role played by Islamist circles unaffiliated with the Brotherhood, but sympathetic to it, in determining the path of movement on the ground. These Islamists are on the front lines, being arrested or injured during clashes with security forces, and they do not feel obligated to abide by the decisions of the Brotherhood leadership, which is only one part of the struggle against the regime. While the new leadership recognizes the need to take advantage of those unorganized Islamists, even if it allows them greater leeway on the ground, the old leadership sees in this fluid situation a threat to the organization’s structure and ideas.

Meanwhile, both leaderships in fact agree that widespread violence should be avoided, but for different reasons. The old leaders reject the trend toward violence because it violates the principles of the organization, of which they consider themselves the protectors and the interpreters. The new leadership refuses to be dragged into violence for practical and pragmatic reasons that relate to the regime’s current amount of popular support and the losses it can incur should the organization take up arms and resort to widespread violence. However, the new leaders acknowledge that if there is at some point societal approval for the use of more widespread violence, they will use it. For the new leadership, the use of violence is an option that should only be evaluated according to a cost-benefit analysis, and should not be ideologically excluded as the old guard argues. 

The old leadership has other calculations that go beyond the internal situation in Egypt. The old guard realizes that the base’s choices on the ground do not relate to the Egyptian situation only, and that they will have significant effects on the Muslim Brotherhood movement in other countries. Resorting to more violence will hurt the Muslim Brotherhood and its nonviolent discourse outside Egypt. This dimension seems to be absent from the priorities of the new leadership, whose moves are primarily dictated by the internal situation in Egypt.

Repercussions on the Organization and the Regime

It does not appear that the public displays of conflict over the leadership of the Brotherhood will persist indefinitely because both factions are aware of the impact the conflict has on the organization and its cohesion—which is particularly important as the Brotherhood faces an increasingly harsher regime crackdown. But the deeper disagreement between proponents of the rules of the old guard and proponents of the new rules borne out of the political climate since 2013 will likely persist.

Neither side’s approach is perfect for the organization. 

A return to the old guard’s rules could lead many of the organization’s youth to leave, tired of receiving instructions on which they had not been consulted but for which they are required to pay the price on the ground. Criticism of the old guard and its responsibility for what happened to the organization has increased in recent months. Some youth even went as far as accusing some figures of the old guard of collaborating with the Egyptian security apparatus. While the declared aim of the old guard’s strategy is to try to regain control over the organization to prevent it from moving toward violence, this attitude might lead to exactly the opposite outcome. Going back to the old model of the Brotherhood could have disastrous consequences on both the organization itself and political stability in Egypt.

A significant number of the youth cadres reject this leadership and its controlling approach and so might decide to leave the Brotherhood and join armed groups. They are already frustrated that their actions on the ground for two years have led to nothing. 

In addition, the popularity of Salafi jihadist movements, such as the Nusra Front in Syria, among the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood is growing. The Nusra Front’s emir has already called on the Muslim Brotherhood to abandon its nonviolent ways and bear arms, a call that fell on sympathetic ears among some of the organization’s youth in Egypt.

The new rules laid down by the new Brotherhood leadership in Egypt have succeeded in maintaining the cohesion of the organization and in keeping the level of violence low, but they have weakened the leadership’s power to make pragmatic political choices, such as going for a political compromise with the regime. While some of the new leaders know that at some point there will be a need for a political compromise, they cannot require it of their lower-ranking members. 

Moreover, these rules cannot be sustained for long. A more decentralized base could erode the organization’s cohesion and lead it to break down into separate groups working independently. The approach can buy the new leadership some time, but it is not a viable organizational model.

If it wants to maintain the coherence of the organization, give members more room to act, and at the same time ensure its ability to make and enforce decisions even if not all members accept them, the new leadership should work toward new organizational rules. These rules would balance internal democracy by including lower-ranking members in the decisionmaking process with the need ensure that all members are committed to decisions and that the current decentralized structure does not prevent the leadership from making and enforcing its decisions when needed.