The acting leader of the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin), the oldest and largest Islamist organization in the world, has been arrested in Egypt. Mahmoud Ezzat took over the group after its “supreme guide” Mohamed Badie was taken into custody in 2013. Ezzat is regarded as “a hardliner,” even by the standards of the Muslim Brotherhood.
IMPLICATIONS FROM THE ARREST OF MAHMOUD EZZAT
After the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi was removed from office in July 2013, the new government, led by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and initiated a wide-ranging crackdown. Much of the Brotherhood’s leadership was imprisoned and the remainder went into hiding or fled abroad.
For the post-2013 Brotherhood, the primary strategic aim has been to topple the Sisi government, but the old methods—patience and proselytism—that continue to be preached by most of the exiled leadership have been rejected by significant and growing numbers of the rank-and-file Brothers left in Egypt, who have increasingly gravitated to violent revolutionary tactics—or simply joined the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Sinai.
Many observers use words like “durable” and “resilient” in describing the Muslim Brotherhood—it was, after all, founded in 1928, and nearly ninety years appears extant—and with Ezzat in control, with his reputation “as the Brotherhood’s ‘iron man,’ embodying its reputation for top-down decision-making,” it might be thought the group will rise again. But it will not. “The old Muslim Brotherhood no longer exists, having splintered after its fall from power in 2013,” as Mokhtar Awad and Samuel Tadros explained at Hudson in 2017.
The fragmentation has meant that Ezzat and the other Brotherhood leaders have been unable for many years to reliably issue instructions to direct the anti-Sisi effort inside Egypt. The Egyptian government says that encrypted communications show Ezzat overseeing several assassinations and a bombing by the Brotherhood in Egypt, and this might well be true, but Ezzat’s public instructions were against this kind of activity—and it had no effect on the emerging violent elements of the Brethren, like Hasm, which continued on with their own program.
The Brotherhood and its thinkers like Sayyid Qutb incubated a number of ideological precepts that have become pillars for the Salafi-jihadist movement, the building blocks for Al-Qaeda and ISIS. With the disintegration of the Brotherhood as an organisation in Egypt, many of its members have gravitated to ISIS, believing the jihadist group is the most likely means to retake power for the Islamists. Given the unlikelihood that Ezzat’s successor can impose his writ on what is left of the organisation, this trend is likely to continue, alongside the radicalization of whatever remnants there are.
While the overall dynamics of Islamist militancy and the contest for Egypt, between the Sisi government and the Muslim Brotherhood, therefore, are not radically affected by Ezzat’s arrest, it is nonetheless an important marker. Ezzat’s arrest on August 28 brings to an end even the appearance of organizational integrity and a functioning command structure for the Brotherhood; it is a symbolic moment that cannot be ignored, signalling that the Muslim Brotherhood as it has been known for nearly ninety years is gone.
The Egyptian Interior Ministry noted in its statement on Ezzat’s arrest that he had been picked up in “the capital, despite incessant rumours circulated by officials of the Brotherhood about his presence abroad”. Ezzat’s location over the last seven years is very murky and it is possible he has been outside Egypt for some or most of that time, only returning at some point recently.
Whatever the specific case with Ezzat, since 2013, much of the Brotherhood’s leadership has gone into exile, and they have concentrated overwhelmingly in one location: Turkey. By some estimates, thee are 20,000 Egyptian Brotherhood members in Turkey.
The Turkish government under president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose ruling Justice and Development (AKP) Party itself derives from Brotherhood roots, has waged an unremitting political war against the post-Morsi government Sisi government. Part of this campaign has involved Ankara allowing the Egyptian Brotherhood members present on its territory to incite relentlessly in the media against the Sisi government. This has had an effect, with Brotherhood and Brotherhood-derived actors conducting guerrilla activity in Egypt with increasing frequency and sophistication.
With the battle lines drawn in the struggle for regional order between the anti-Islamist coalition (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt) and the pro-Islamist camp (Turkey and Qatar), and this confrontation only becoming further entrenched, it seems unlikely Turkey will give up its support for the Egyptian Brotherhood any time soon. The ability of the Brothers based in Turkey to practically affect events in Egypt is likely to continue to decline, but for Ankara the Brothers will continue to be a useful political and propaganda instrument.
Turkey has found the Brotherhood useful in many areas of its foreign policy in recent years. For example, one of the largest Syrian factions from which Turkey recruited mercenaries that were sent to Libya to do Ankara’s bidding in its power-struggle in the Mediterranean was Faylaq al-Sham, a Brotherhood group, and just days before Ezzat’s arrest the United States vigorously protested Erdogan’s meeting with the leader of Hamas, the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is recognized internationally as a terrorist group.
Due to its harbouring of extremists and use of them for destabilising activities from the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt to Palestine and Syria, some scholars have begun comparing Turkey with Pakistan, another highly problematic state that is officially in the allied camp for the West. Much now depends on how the West reacts; a significant chorus argues against coercive options because of Turkey’s importance to NATO, yet the path of appeasement was taken with Pakistan and it did not induce better behavior.