European Eye on Radicalization
Broken Bonds is a meticulous work was recently published by The Century Foundation. It is a joint effort made by three authors. Abdelrahman Ayyash is a fellow at Century International and director of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood working group. Ayyash is an award-winning journalist and a researcher specialized in Islamic movements. Amr El Afifi is a PhD candidate at Syracuse University where he works on the relationship between trauma and political participation. He is also the research manager at the Freedom Initiative, where his work is focused on conditions of detainment and how they affect political prisoners and their loved ones. Noha Ezzat is a writer and researcher. Her work focuses on geopolitics, and political and historical sociology, with a focus on Egypt, Turkey, and Iran.
An Existential Crisis for the Muslim Brotherhood
Broken Bonds digs deeply into the crisis that the Brotherhood has been experiencing in the last decade and does so from a unique angle that merges the insider perspective of Abdelrahman Ayyash—a former member of the organization—and the experiences of the other two authors who have been directly affected by the political and social changes that occurred in Egypt since 2011, with the rigorous political science approach of the three writers.
In this book Ayash, Ezzat, and El Afifi explain how the modern world’s most influential Islamic organization arrived at this point of existential crisis, and where it might go next.
Their personal history, necessarily, informs this analysis. In the words of the authors: “Our generation grew up believing in the vision of the Muslim Brotherhood and discovered a reality that fell well short of the ideal.”
In some ways, the Brotherhood never recovered from the crises of legitimacy and identity that followed the assassination of its founder, Hassan al-Banna, in 1949. Banna did not leave behind detailed instructions, only general guidelines, and no Murshid (Supreme Guide) of the Brotherhood since Banna has had comparable charisma to fill the void. Successive generations interpreted these guidelines differently.
This book posits that the Brotherhood today faces three main crises: a crisis of identity, a crisis of legitimacy, and a crisis of membership. A decade since the 2013 coup that overthrew Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood operative who served for a year as the elected president of Egypt, the organization continues to be torn between dead-ends in Egyptian politics and complex crises within its ranks. These crises animate the organization’s work. But unless they are resolved, they may threaten the longevity and efficacy of the organization. This is the most existential threat that the Brotherhood has faced to date, and so long as the third reconstitution currently underway fails to address some of these issues, the organization may be doomed to disarray.
The ‘Brotherhood’ Dimension of the Muslim Brotherhood
This book highlights how the Muslim Brotherhood, as an organization and as a social and political movement, is facing the worst crackdown in its history, and how its internal dynamics are shaping the future of the movement. The ultimate adaptability of the Muslim Brotherhood is another characteristic that the three authors try to dissect and understand, to explain why it is too early to write an obituary for a movement whose most active members are either behind bars or living in unforgiving exile.
Instead of looking exclusively—like many other works—at the “Muslim” part of the Muslim Brotherhood, Broken Bonds decidedly focuses on the “Brotherhood” side of things. The interactions between members and their leaders, the sense of fraternity among the rank and file, and the followers’ feeling of being part of an extended family that provides security and support are more important to the analysis than religion. Factoring in this unquantifiable information leads to better understanding of the group’s internal dynamics and decision-making processes.
The long Prologue penned by Ayyash jumpstarts a journey into the organization. Although the author attended his final weekly usra meeting in December 2010, the Muslim Brotherhood still occupies a considerable chunk of his personal interest, as well as his professional interest as a journalist and a researcher.
“The Brotherhood provided a community for me and many other young Egyptians. Some of them grew up to have several forms of attachment to the group, and others rose to be high-ranking members and mid-level leaders. The Muslim Brotherhood gives its members a safe social circle and a livelihood. If you are a member who is also a business owner, a doctor, an accountant, an engineer, or (especially) a lawyer, you are assured of clientele. Along with the benefits of Brotherhood membership come risks: a Brother (in the parlance of the group) knows that he will probably get arrested at some point. He also knows that his family will be well taken care of while he is in detention. The Brotherhood used to provide detainees’ families with the same salaries their breadwinners earned before arrest, maintain the lifestyle these families were used to, and even pay for their children’s private schools.”
Despite passages where the reader can sense an awkward nostalgia and tolerance for the Brotherhood flaws—which at times in the book seem to be determined only by lack of farsightedness and strategic vision rather than ill-conceived plans and malicious intentions—the former Brother and his colleagues are able of rationally describing the organization as only individuals who grew up in it or in contact with it are capable of doing.
They highlight that no member would describe the Brotherhood as a mere political party, a social movement, or a religious sect. It is none of the above. It is all of the above. Indeed, in order to reestablish what he described as Islam’s “mastership of the world,” Banna intentionally created the all-inclusive support system of the Brotherhood to advance these goals.
As a young member of the organization—which he came to know since his childhood—Ayyash recalls what it means to be surrounded by this all-encompassing system even in times of change and trouble.
In 2004, for instance, the Brotherhood’s highest executive entity, the Guidance Bureau, enforced the so-called Identity Declaration, according to which it would start using the name of the Muslim Brotherhood publicly. Until then, Brotherhood affiliates had been using aliases.
The Brotherhood’s university students, for example, called themselves the “Students of the Islamic Current”. Of course, Egyptian authorities knew that they were affiliated with the Brotherhood, but using a different name kept the appearance of an organization that did not have overt Egyptian political ambitions. Following the identity declaration, however, these students’ pamphlets were signed by “Students of the Muslim Brotherhood”.
Adaptability and Disillusionment
Around the same time, the Brotherhood began making good use of the Internet. Young members led in the adoption of these new communications technologies, where the Brotherhood had initially been slow in their adoption. There were, though, a few leaders who saw the Brotherhood blogosphere as an opportunity to refresh the group:
“In 2007, Khaled Hamza, a Brotherhood media guru, asked me to work under him at ikhwanweb.com, the official English-language Brotherhood website, for the campaign against referring civilians to military trials. Shater and other Brotherhood leaders had just been referred to military trials, and the Brotherhood mobilized human rights advocates, civil society organizations, and Islamic scholars worldwide to denounce these trials. I was just seventeen, and over the moon to meet Ramsey Clark—a controversial figure and prominent critic of U.S. foreign policy and the former U.S. attorney general—upon his arrival to Egypt to support the Brotherhood’s cause by monitoring the trial (which Egyptian authorities banned him from attending).
The campaign successfully attracted civil society’s attention to the calamity befalling the Brotherhood. But it also shone an uncomfortable spotlight on some of the group’s more controversial ideas, which were articulated that year in its first-ever party platform.”
In some of the most interesting sections of this personal account, Ayyash explains the inception of his disenfranchisement feelings towards the Brotherhood. Some of the ideas that were circulating in the 2010s, 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, created significant discord within the Brotherhood and he also disagreed with them strongly and wrote blog posts criticizing the platform, which were picked up by the national media.
This free-thinking behavior did not go unnoticed and a few months later Mohamed Morsi—then a member of the group’s Guidance Bureau and the head of its political committee—summoned Ayyash to his office: “If you have other preferences, the space is open [for you to leave the Brotherhood and join other groups]. Egypt needs your effort and energy.”
The meeting was the first time he thought about leaving the Brotherhood. He left the Brotherhood and then, in 2013, Egypt, moving to Turkey.
The Brotherhood in Exile
Today, the leaders and members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are scattered, principally in Turkey—where there are at least 15,000—but also in countries in the Gulf, in Sudan, in Britain, and elsewhere.
The organization is fractured and somewhat adrift, more so than it has been at any point in its ninety-four-year history, packed as that history has been with state repression.
The authors, however, note that, in spite of their unprecedented crises, Islamic social and political formation are still an unavoidable part of the res publica in the Middle East and beyond. In the years that preceded 2011, Egyptian intellectuals enthusiastically debated scholarship that anticipated the eclipse of “political Islam.” A diverse array of scholars, including Asef Bayat, Gilles Kepel, and Olivier Roy, imagined a post-Islamism world in which Islamists would abandon idealism for pragmatism, leaving their organizations for “non-movements”. According to this perspective, Islamists were retreating from the public sphere to focus on personal religiosity—or they were simply no longer relevant. Less than a decade after these scholars published their ideas, Islamists, in their varying colors, have become major players that gained the votes of tens of millions and have a massive influence on contemporary politics in many Arab countries. This book shows that Islamic social and political formations are not only alive and kicking, but that they may also still be able to influence the region’s present and future.
The Roots of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Crisis
The three crises analyzed in the book are the identity, legitimacy, and membership crises. Chapter 1 discusses the Brotherhood’s identity crisis, highlighting the organization’s historical development and how it morphed under different waves of repression and changing political contexts. Starting with the establishment of the organization by Banna in 1928, the chapter traces critical junctures at which the Brotherhood responded to social and political changes.
Chapter two discusses the Brotherhood’s legitimacy crisis by presenting accounts of the 2013 crackdown and how the Brotherhood, as an organization, contended with its leadership vacuum. Based on several interviews with current and former leaders and members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the chapter analyzes the power struggles within the movement and how it attempted to answer the questions of violence, its international presence, and the internal splits over power and resources. The chapter details the different views of the competing factions within the Brotherhood’s leadership, and how one faction managed to control the group through a complex set of ideological, financial, and organizational moves.
Chapter three discusses the Brotherhood’s membership crisis—the exodus of active members from its ranks. The chapter builds on interviews with current and former members of the Brotherhood. We asked about the lived experience of being a Brother or Sister in the aftermath of the Rabaa Massacre of August 2013, including in the exile that followed. This membership crisis has two main facets. First, the organization is unable to provide for a generation of members in the same way that it has for previous generations. And second, the members themselves are undergoing a series of overlapping and continuing crises posed by both the Brotherhood and the current Abdel Fattah al-Sisi regime in Egypt. In many ways, the membership crisis is an outcome of the crises of identity and legitimacy. People have left the organization for a variety of reasons. Some say the Brotherhood is “not being Brotherhood enough.” Others have lost trust in the leadership. Some left because they are more ideological than the Brotherhood; others because they found the Brotherhood to be too ideological.
According to the three writers, the membership crisis is a manifestation of the legitimacy and identity crises discussed in the previous two chapters. In this transitional moment, much was lost in the attempt to maintain the sanctity of the organization and to cater to the needs of the Brothers and Sisters and their families.
The lines between what was personal and what was political or organizational were blurred, and the most vulnerable often paid the price. The Brotherhood is dealing with a generation that has experienced an ordeal, as did the senior members, thereby challenging traditional claims of ordeal-base legitimacy. Further, a changing social and political context has rendered its traditional recruitment and retention mechanisms less effective.
An important insight, shared by the most sensitive observers of the Brotherhood, is that the experiences and challenges of the members themselves, across different countries, are now perhaps too disparate to be housed in the same tent.
Based on interviews with current and former members of the Brotherhood about their lived experience of being a Brother or Sister in the immediate aftermath of the Rabaa Massacre, and their experiences in exile thereafter, the chapter provides a chronological story of some of the most important moments in their lives and by extension within the organization.
The title of the Epilogue, Unvanquished—But No Path to Victory, effectively summarizes the current situation of the Brotherhood and the contents of Broken Bonds.
To understand the Muslim Brotherhood is to understand how an organization has both endured and changed through successive waves of repression, and how these have differently affected the institution and its members. These waves of repression have informed how the organization views itself, how it behaves, and how it recruits and retains members. The complexity of studying the organization, in many ways, speaks to the complexity of understanding authoritarian durability, political and social participation in autocratic contexts, and a form of postcolonial political agency that has been able to withstand decades of official scrutiny.
The Egyptian Brotherhood has navigated the lines between political engagement, social and moral reform, and religious proselytization. In Egypt, its activities spanned running for professional syndicates, providing course notes and summaries to university students at economical prices, providing for the poor, and weekly meetings with members in which they read religious texts for spiritual and social development. To be a member was to be enveloped in a life that was seemingly more active and meaningful than the average life available to most Egyptians.
The organization, however, grew very unevenly, which has contributed to what we have called an identity crisis. Whenever the state closed a door, the Brotherhood saw other organizations in society (universities and syndicates, among others) as a window. The organization’s modus operandi was to react—and considering the array of constant challenges and threats it had to contend with, who could blame it? But this strategy, over the long run, prevented the Brotherhood from having a positive definition of itself or its goals.
The Brotherhood’s reach into distant villages in Egypt and over eighty countries around the world created a sense of invincibility within the organization. During the 2012 presidential elections, the Brotherhood had representatives in every electoral circuit throughout Egypt. Their presence allowed them to announce the results of the elections—Morsi’s victory—with great precision, well before the Egyptian elections authority. The question remains, however, whether this sense of invincibility is more myth than reality
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will keep gaining popular power, because they are capitalizing on things that no other group has been able to do as effectively. First, the Muslim Brotherhood is building on religion and religious nostalgia, and this is a strategy that the state under Sisi has also employed. Second, the Brotherhood is building on the narrative of victimhood, and the inhumane treatment they are subjected to by the state increasingly supports this narrative among the widening circle of the state’s economic and political victims. Lastly, the Muslim Brotherhood is building on the dreams of the middle class in Egypt to be relevant, heard, and supported. And in the absence of real civil society or the possibility of meaningful political participation that could attract the middle class, there will be no venue for many millions of Egyptians to practice political and social work other than joining the Muslim Brotherhood and its likes.
There is no doubt that the way the state has been dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood has limited the Brotherhood’s recruitment capabilities, but history suggests that the setback will be temporary. The reasons for the Brotherhood’s popularity are intrinsic in the state’s failures in dealing with society’s problems, and the highly securitized approach cannot be maintained indefinitely. So, when the state loosens its grip over Egypt’s population, the school of thought that Hassan al-Banna founded and that is rooted in centuries of Islamic political thought, will find a new audience it knows how to address, and the same old foes it knows how to out-wait and will have perhaps learnt to better out-maneuver.
Broken Bonds is an interesting book that stresses the implications of the brotherhood half of the name Muslim Brotherhood, thus enriching readers’ understanding of the complexity of the movement, the crises it is experiencing today and the role it might still be able to play in the future.