Barbara Zollner is a lecturer in Middle Eastern 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). Diwan interviewed Zollner in mid-April to discuss a recent article she published with Carnegie, titled “Surviving Repression: How Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Has Carried On.” Its publication came just before the Trump administration appeared ready to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, providing a broader context for the discussion about the organization’s ability to survive. 

Michael Young: Your recent Carnegie article discusses the resilience of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood since the 2013 military coup. What tactics has the Egyptian state employed during this period in its attempts to repress the organization?

Barbara Zollner: The regime’s tactics are marked by the goal of disrupting the organization’s lines of command and communication. As the Muslim Brotherhood is hierarchically structured, the regime has targeted its leadership cadre to disconnect it from the body of the organization. For this reason, the state was quick to round up personnel in various executive positions. Figureheads such as the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badi‘, and former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, as well as many members of the Guidance Office and the Shura Council were, and remain, incarcerated in the high-security wing of Tora Prison, sometimes enduring long periods of solitary confinement. By going on the hunt for alleged members in all walks of Egyptian life, the regime encouraged internal disarray and fear within the organization.

The Egyptian state thus employed a comprehensive policy of targeting the core structure of the Muslim Brotherhood, calculating that the organizational body would not be able to sustain long periods without clear directives from the top cadre, particularly in the face of mounting pressures at the grassroots level.

MB: You stress that the Brotherhood’s ability to survive periods of prosecution is primarily due to its organizational structure. Can you explain what you mean?

BZ: Several things explain the Brotherhood’s potential to effectively counteract regime pressures. The first lies in the decentralization of executive decisionmaking processes, which diverts day-to-day managerial issues away from the imprisoned leadership. Executive command is thus delegated to a circle of trusted high- and middle-ranking members who avoided capture in Egypt. The auxiliary external command has its primary locus in Turkey, where it is out of reach of the Egyptian authorities. However, the imprisoned leadership remains the Muslim Brotherhood’s central leadership and continues to be responsible for major strategic and ideological directives, and it acts as a symbolic core.

Second, the diversification of organizational decisionmaking is supported by a broadening of networks of communication. Using personal relations and being supported by new communication resources and media, the organization can breach the confines of prison walls. Importantly, these means allow the Muslim Brotherhood to keep lines open between the exiled leadership and grassroots members inside Egypt.

The third aspect of the organization’s resilience lies in the diversity of its top-tier cadre, its extensive networks, and the longevity of its influence in political, social, and religious affairs. Despite regime efforts to force the Muslim Brotherhood into subjugation, the trials and mass detentions have done little to break the organization, while signaling that the Brotherhood remains intact.

The fourth and most fundamental aspect, which is related to the organization’s proselytizing efforts, brings all the other factors together. Although the Muslim Brotherhood today is in no position to pursue a structured training and selection program, its activities in this area over the previous decades have paid off, producing a large body of dedicated and skilled members. These members are not only the carriers of Muslim Brotherhood ideas but are also the primary resource keeping the organization afloat in a time of crisis.

MY: Within the Brotherhood there was disagreement about how to respond to the 2013 military takeover and regime repression. What were the ideological underpinnings behind this divide and how did the organization manage to avoid a major fracture?

BZ: The July 2013 coup, the Raba‘a al-‘Adawiyya massacre, the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the ensuing wave of persecution brought the organization to the brink of dissolution. In addition to external regime pressures, disagreements within Muslim Brotherhood ranks led the organization to the verge of implosion. A group of young, revolutionary members challenged the authority of the “old guard” within the Guidance Council and its control over the Freedom and Justice Party, founded by the Muslim Brotherhood to dominate Egyptian politics in the post-Arab Spring era. These members also demanded more radical forms of opposition against the Sisi regime. Indeed, some fringes in the radical youth movement have flirted with violence as a strategic option.

Some commentators interpreted this intraorganizational debate as a sign of a possible shift toward Salafi-jihadi militancy, and perhaps even an alliance with the Islamic State group. However, this view was incorrect on several levels. The Muslim Brotherhood youth movement was not explicitly inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb—who introduced ideas in his 1964 book Milestones that could be interpreted as calls to violence and revolution—and certainly was not enthused by a literal, Salafi interpretation of religion. Instead, its motivational background and understanding of revolutionary action came from the 2011 Egyptian uprising. Thus, the Brotherhood’s youth movement had more in common with the ideals of the Egyptian revolutionary youth movement and its vision for direct democracy than with Salafi-jihadi militants.

Furthermore, while the challenge of the Muslim Brotherhood youth movement did indeed shake the organizational setup, it did not question the fundamental ideological premises of the organization. These continue to be based on the ideas of the Brotherhood’s founder Hassan al-Banna and the directives of the subsequent generation of supreme guides to reject religious militancy. Finally, it seems that the youth movement has been reintegrated into the fold of the Muslim Brotherhood. The organization’s decentralized lines of command and communication played into this process, although it remains to be seen whether the youths will be able to influence the organizational structure fundamentally.

MY: Moving forward, what do you see as the most significant risks to the legitimacy and stability of the current Egyptian regime?

BZ: It seems that President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi is at the height of his rule. He appears to have the popular support of the Egyptian masses and the backing of the economic elite as well as the military. He has promised Egyptians economic prosperity and, above all, security. This façade belies the reality of a state in economic, social, and political crisis. Opposition to Sisi, whether from the Muslim Brotherhood or left-wing or liberal movements, is currently too weak and fragmented to act as a real challenge to his regime. However, unfulfilled hopes and persistent repression erode Sisi’s legitimacy. As the Muslim Brotherhood remains unbroken, this creates openings for Brotherhood-inspired opposition.