Since the military overthrow in July 2013 of Egypt’s then president Mohamed Morsi, the regime of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has engaged in the systematic repression of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Morsi is a member. It has done so by implementing policies commonly regarded as effective means of “decapitating” hierarchical organizations, particularly those with a significant capacity to mobilize grassroots support and generate public sympathy.

The Sisi regime took office in June 2014. Like the interim government that was under Sisi’s control following Morsi’s removal, it has adopted two leading approaches in suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood. First, it has targeted lines of command within the Brotherhood to destroy the leadership’s control over the organization. Second, to isolate the Brotherhood, it has constructed a narrative attempting to link it to violent Islamism. However, after nearly five years of such tactics, and despite numerous statements that the Muslim Brotherhood was at its end, the regime has failed to prevail. On the contrary, the Brotherhood has proven to be highly resilient, and there have even been signs of internal renewal, underlining that the regime’s policies may be futile and counterproductive. If this continues, it could eat away at Sisi’s legitimacy and even the stability of his regime.

The Egyptian Regime’s Logic of Repression

Within months of the coup against Morsi, the Egyptian military took several measures to undermine the Muslim Brotherhood—banning it in September 2013 and declaring it a terrorist organization in December. These efforts corresponded to a view of the Brotherhood’s power as being concentrated in an elite cadre that made strategic decisions and passed them on to the wider organization through top-down communication. The military-backed regime assumed that if this pyramidal setup was debilitated, the strains on the Brotherhood would lead to its disintegration.

After proscribing the Brotherhood and identifying it as a terrorist organization, the authorities rounded up members of the Guidance Office and the Shura Council, the organization’s top two collective bodies. Only a few individuals escaped into exile. Some of those arrested were put in solitary confinement or suffered other abuses, in violation of internationally accepted prison standards. The regime then widened its persecution and purged other domains—public services, the military, the judiciary, syndicates, nongovernmental organizations, media outlets, universities, and neighborhoods—to further curb Muslim Brotherhood influence among the middle class and parts of the elite. It also confiscated the organization’s assets and closed affiliated social welfare associations.

Through these tactics the regime affirmed its resolve to defeat the Muslim Brotherhood politically and curtail its ability to build new constituencies. In subsequent court trials, tens of thousands of people faced charges of participating in a banned terrorist organization, and many continue to be detained without a warrant or have been disappeared. Egypt’s twelve major security prisons are filled beyond capacity, with prisoners languishing in substandard conditions.

Initially, the Sisi regime’s forceful imposition of a divide and conquer strategy on the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to pay off when part of the organization’s younger members challenged the leadership. This looked like a generational conflict between more youthful members influenced by the revolutionary experience of the Arab uprisings in 2011 and a religiously and socially orthodox old guard that had controlled the Brotherhood’s administrative apparatus for decades. In reality it was a clash over different visions of how to adequately react to the military coup and regime repression. The conflict brought to the fore disagreements over whether to undertake a range of actions from civil disobedience to vandalizing public installations and ransacking police stations and public buildings. Central to the internal tensions was the younger members’ accusation that the older generation of leaders was seeking to maintain its grip on power.

The Brotherhood appeared to overcome these internal challenges. The Supreme Guide and the Guidance Office, whether in prison or exile, remain in charge of the organization’s administration, although the Brotherhood’s vertical command structure has been replaced by nonhierarchical networks and lines of communication. This has created spaces for relatively younger members to play a decisive role in the Brotherhood’s survival. The organization has thus revealed an astonishing capacity to continue functioning despite regime efforts to prevent this.

The Mechanisms of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Survival

The Muslim Brotherhood’s ability to survive through long periods of persecution lies in the specifics of its organizational structure. It also derives from its assertion of a consistent social and political vision. In times of adversity this vision plays on a notion of perpetual religious struggle that underscores the personal and communal fortitude of true believers in their conflict with the regime. This reinforces the Brotherhood’s unity and its members’ willingness to carry on.

The Muslim Brotherhood persevered during the period of repression by then president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime during the 1950s and 1960s, characterized by mass incarceration and torture strikingly similar to the present. It also endured over three decades of antagonism from the regimes of presidents Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. During all those phases, the Brotherhood gained valuable experience that it has used in continuing to oppose the Sisi presidency through satellite television channels, websites, and support for imprisoned members and their families. These activities have been made possible because administrative and communication lines within the Brotherhood have remained intact, underlining that the organization cannot be stopped by prison walls and exile.

There are four main structural reasons why the Muslim Brotherhood has survived. The first is its pyramidal organizational structure. This may seem counterintuitive, as it implies that what the regime regarded as the Brotherhood’s main vulnerability in fact ensured its continuity. In reality the Brotherhood has lasted because the Office of the Supreme Guide and the Guidance Office remain its symbolic centers of command, even as the organization has adapted to changing circumstances. While the ability of the imprisoned supreme guide and Guidance Office members to run the organization’s daily affairs is limited, crisis management and executive decisionmaking have been transferred to trusted members in exile.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s centralized, pyramidal structure has remained unbroken, but it has been supplemented by an External Egyptian Brotherhood Office, made up of higher-ranking exiled members. Among them are central figures in the Guidance Office, such as Mahmoud Ezzat and Ahmad Abdul Rahman, or higher-ranking members such as Amr Darraj and Yahya Hamid. Because Turkey, Qatar, and London are centers of the Muslim Brotherhood’s administration, the exiled leadership is out of reach of the Egyptian authorities. Therefore, despite its reduced activity, the Brotherhood remains, with the help of modern technology, a sizable opposition force to the Sisi regime.

A second reason for the durability of the Muslim Brotherhood’s organizational structure is that the top-tier cadre is large and diverse. This makes it virtually impossible for the regime to bring the entire leadership under its control, even using its extensive means of subjugation. More importantly, the regime’s antagonism toward the Brotherhood has backfired. The organization’s leadership has affirmed that the regime has not been able to break the Brotherhood’s unity. Therefore, it is conceivable that the public spectacles of the imprisoned leaders’ trials may have helped restore respect for these figures among the Brotherhood’s more revolutionary grassroots members. Although Sisi intended to demolish the organization’s hierarchical setup, it largely remains intact.

A third reason for the Brotherhood’s survival is that the diversification of its administrative processes has been supported by broadening communication networks. While the Muslim Brotherhood retains a pyramidal command structure, with key powers culminating in the Office of the Supreme Guide and the Guidance Office, its intraorganizational lines of communication do not necessarily follow hierarchical patterns. During previous times of repression, the Brotherhood refined a system of communication that did not rely on a strict top-down model but instead used multiple channels that allowed the leadership to pass on information in a relatively free-flowing manner. This was first tried and tested during the Nasser years, but was also applied during waves of incarcerations during the Sadat and Mubarak periods. The Muslim Brotherhood therefore built up skills allowing it today to transmit information among members in prison, on the outside, or in exile, through an intricate horizontal network that relies on personal relations rather than vertical lines of authority.

Personal relationships matter in the Muslim Brotherhood. There are countless examples of family ties binding members together. These links create relatively closed networks and ensure that trusted means of exchange remain open, while also safeguarding against potential infiltration and detection. For an example of how tightly knit Brotherhood networks can be, the organization’s official spokesperson in the United Kingdom between 2013 and 2015, Abdullah al-Haddad, is the son of the imprisoned Guidance Office member Issam al-Haddad and the brother of Jihad al-Haddad, who acted as media spokesperson during the early post-coup days.

These personal links are complemented by new media that permit relatively secure networking activities. For example, encrypted text messaging and voice applications such as WhatsApp or Viber allow users to pass on information. Social media sites such as Facebook, online portals such as Ikhwanweb, and pro–Muslim Brotherhood satellite television stations such as Rabea TV or Al-Watan are all outlets through which ideas can be transmitted. As most Brotherhood-linked television stations are in Turkey, and because it is difficult to comprehensively block internet sites, the Egyptian authorities find it almost impossible to prevent the dissemination of leadership announcements or news about the Brotherhood. Some of those media—at least ones not entirely under the Guidance Office’s control—have been used to express internal discontent and voice radical views. At the same time they are crucial for keeping communication lines open, therefore for connecting the leadership with grassroots Brotherhood members.

Perhaps the most important reason for the Muslim Brotherhood’s long-term survival is the fact that higher-ranking members can act relatively independently because they have been instructed in the details of the organization’s ideology, aims, and dawa—meaning its proselytizing activities or call. The pledge, or baya, is the outward oath of allegiance to the supreme guide as head of the organization. However, it is the devotion of highly trained members to the ideals of the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder Hassan al-Banna that ensures a particularly loyal and dependable membership base, one not reliant on top-down micromanagement in times of crisis. The Brotherhood’s education and selection program, which had served to screen members for posts in the organizational apparatus, has therefore contributed to tying rank-and-file members to the rest of the organization.

Proselytizing and teaching activities are not a priority for the Muslim Brotherhood today, due to the strains and risks that regime harassment has imposed. However, the training and selection program continues to pay off as it has produced skilled and devoted members. The organization’s main body can thus carry on for long periods, without daily instructions, administrative guidance, or strategic commands. Therefore, the principal guarantors of the Muslim Brotherhood’s long-term existence are committed members who can carry on through troubled times.

Ideology and the Commitment to Nonviolence

In addition to attempting to destroy the internal structures of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian regime has also taken its battle into the realm of ideas and ideology. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has often associated the Brotherhood with religious extremism. By doing so, he has attempted to undermine the organization’s claims to epitomize moderate Islamism and portray the regime as the defender of the Muslim mainstream. Sisi has revived Mubarak’s rhetoric about the danger the Muslim Brotherhood poses to Egyptian security, thereby justifying legal proceedings against the organization.

This depiction of the Brotherhood resonates positively with international actors. It also appeals to sections of the Egyptian population that agree with their regime’s view that the organization threatens Egypt’s political development, regional security, and the global fight against Islamist terrorism. However, it is questionable whether the government’s narrative has had a dampening effect on Egyptians, particularly among those with religiously conservative leanings who do not consider Salafism as a viable ideological alternative to the Brotherhood or progressive Islamist movements as sufficiently strong to oppose the regime.

In assessing the ideological trajectory of the Muslim Brotherhood, there has been a tendency to focus on the discord between younger members and the older leadership following the coup. There is a belief that the Brotherhood has been crippled by a deep ideological rift over the use of violence and revolutionary action, therefore over how to interpret the writings of the influential Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb, who was hanged by the Nasser regime in August 1966.

Such an assessment misjudges the causes, dynamics, and extent of these disagreements. In his book Milestones, Sayyid Qutb did indeed introduce radical ideas that could be interpreted as calls to violence and revolution. But it would be a mistake to assume this is what divides Brotherhood members. The label “Qutbist” is deceptive when describing the worldview of a religiously and socially conservative Brotherhood leadership that, despite the regime’s repression, has publicly called for nonviolent political change. The hardline position of the elders does not stem from the fact that they began their careers during Sayyid Qutb’s time in prison. Rather, it is a consequence of their inflexibility based on a conviction that the Brotherhood represents the only solution to the problems in Egypt’s future.

Similarly, the revolutionary fervor of the younger generation is not so much inspired by Sayyid Qutb’s radicalism, as stirred by disenchantment with the Arab uprisings of 2011, the horror of the Rabaa al-Adawiya massacre of Muslim Brotherhood protesters in August 2013, and shock at the extent of the regime’s clampdown. Indeed, the internal friction between Cairo as the base of the youth movement and Istanbul as the main center of the Guidance Office in exile has caused noticeable tremors and shake-ups that have also reverberated in London, Doha, and the wider global network. However, all this has not affected the Muslim Brotherhood’s overall ideological and organizational coherence.

The Brotherhood has shown consistency in its calls for nonviolent resistance. Although it seems that youths on the organization’s fringes have flirted with pursuing violent tactics, their anti-Sisi stance has not brought them ideologically closer to Salafi-jihadi militancy. Official regime rhetoric affirming such a link and the existence of an alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and militants affiliated with al-Qaeda or the self-proclaimed Islamic State group is not based on any conclusive evidence, but merely on an inference that there must be an ideological relationship due to Sayyid Qutb’s legacy.

While Sayyid Qutb’s writings significantly affected the evolution of Salafi-jihadism, it was not his radical revolutionary ideas on which the Brotherhood picked up as part of its ideological framework. Instead, it was influenced by Sayyid Qutb’s uncompromising resistance to the regime, which ultimately led him to the gallows. Of greater inspiration to the Brotherhood were the ideas of Hassan al-Banna, its founder. He rejected revolutionary militancy, and his legacy was further interpreted by the second supreme guide, Hasan al-Hudaybi; his son Ma’mun al-Hudaybi; and the third supreme guide, Omar al-Tilmisani, who all favored gradual social and political change. It was under their leadership that the Brotherhood rose out of the ashes after Nasser’s death, fixing a conservative, yet nonviolent, ideological path to which the organization still adheres. While some members may argue that the emphasis on gradualism needs to be revised, there is no evidence of an imminent ideological shift that will turn the Brotherhood toward violence.

One issue crucial to Muslim Brotherhood thought and discussions is the renewed emphasis on the mihna—a divinely ordained trial that tests the conviction and persistence of true believers in the pursuit of justice and truth. On both the personal and organizational levels, regime repression has become a core element of current narratives within the Brotherhood and has contributed to shifting away from a resort to violence as a potential option. The reference to mihna as a call for patience, persistence, and fortitude plays on the tribulations of those imprisoned and tortured during the Nasser period. Subsequently, the concept evolved into an integral part of the Brotherhood’s historical narrative and self-image. Rank-and-file members are familiar with the stories of the organization’s “heroes” and their sacrifices under duress. The emphasis of the mihna is a deliberate attempt to draw parallels between the past and present. It contributes to the construction of an image that regards tenacity against authoritarianism as an ideal that should be emulated as well as reaffirming a need for internal unity.

The Dangers of Unfulfilled Expectations

The costs of the relentless suppression of a significant social movement such as the Muslim Brotherhood are incredibly high. That is not only true for its members and supporters, but also for the authorities who implement such a course of action. While the Sisi regime might regard the repressive measures as necessary, they also carry a risk. The material costs of running prisons with tens of thousands of inmates—the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) reported as many as 60,000 political prisoners including opposition activists, journalists, and alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood—are immense, not counting the implicit losses due to the fact that the detainees are not economically active.

But such consequences are unlikely to dissuade the Sisi regime. However, the nonmaterial costs of the Muslim Brotherhood’s persecution weigh heavily on an Egyptian leadership that vowed to ensure democratic freedoms, bring economic prosperity, and guarantee security in the face of Salafi-jihadi terrorism. If the regime is unable to meet the expectations it created, its popularity will suffer. This could provide new political openings for opposition to the president, affecting Egypt’s stability. Unfulfilled expectations and regime violence, observed Amr Darraj, a high-ranking Brotherhood member in exile, could result in unrest or even civil war, with terrible consequences for Egypt and negative implications for Europe. The Brotherhood cannot be defeated, not even by executing its leaders. Given the signs of organizational continuity, even renewal, Egypt’s political destiny will continue to be defined by the clash between the regime and Islamists.

Barbara Zollner is a lecturer in Middle East politics in the Department of Politics, Birkbeck College, London. Her research focuses on Islamist politics, social movements, and parties in the Middle East and North Africa. She is the author of The Muslim Brotherhood: Hasan al-Hudaybi and Ideology (Routledge, 2008). 

Correction: In the section titled “The Mechanisms of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Survival,” Abdullah al-Haddad’s name was removed from the list of “high-ranking members” of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the same section, a sentence was modified to say that Haddad was the Brotherhood’s official spokesperson in the United Kingdom between 2013 and 2015, not its representative.