The Muslim Brotherhood was founded by Hassan al-Banna in Egypt on 22 March 1928. The movement was established following the new Turkish Republic’s abolition of the Islamic Caliphate by a group of Muslims working to restore the Caliphate. To this end, the Brotherhood sought to “re-Islamize” society from the bottom-up, spreading their influence among the population, pressuring states into implementing Islamic law in daily life, and striving to expel foreign intervention from every Muslim-majority country. Muslim Brotherhood ideology calls for a gradualist strategy, starting with the Muslim individual, the Muslim family, and then the Muslim community, to work towards an Islamic government in their country, then a transnational Islamic state, and ultimately mastery of the world. The Brotherhood and its derivatives have spread around the globe, operating in more than 85 countries—Arab countries, non-Arab Muslim countries, and non-Islamic nations.
The Arab Spring provided an opportunity to the Muslim Brotherhood, which gained legitimacy—and eventually significant political power—by positioning itself among the revolutionaries. The legal prohibition on the Brotherhood was lifted in Egypt in 2011, and thereafter they won several elections, including the 2012 presidential election, when its candidate, Mohamed Morsi, became the first president of Egypt to take power through elections. However, a year later, in the wake of demonstrations and mass unrest, Morsi fell from power. The new government under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi quickly banned the Brotherhood again, and by the end of 2014 a number of regional states had followed suit.
There had been a debate after the Arab Spring revolution about how to handle the Muslim Brotherhood. Roughly, Qatar, Turkey, and some Western states like the United States and United Kingdom had argued that allowing the Brotherhood to participate in elections and hold power would channel Islamists into peaceful activities—and shunning the Brotherhood would push Islamists into the arms of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, who argued that Islamist governance could only be achieved by violence—while the other Gulf states and Sisi argued that the Brotherhood opened space for violent jihadists. By 2014, the second viewpoint had prevailed in the region, and the crackdown on the Brotherhood led its members to flee abroad, particularly to Turkey and the UK. The decline of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in their mother country (Egypt) but also in the broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, triggered internal fragmentation, and the ongoing disputes within the Brotherhood have contributed to weakening the group.
The Brotherhood has reached a stage of virtual collapse. Since Ibrahim Munir was chosen as the group’s acting guide, days after the Egyptian security services arrested the former leader Mahmoud Ezzat in August 2020, the group has been in a state of confusion and internal divisions. Mounir, based in London, dissolved the General Secretariat and formed a committee to manage the group, but a faction of the Brotherhood in Istanbul, led by Mahmoud Hussein, protested this move. The crisis deepened the faction around Hussein declared him the acting guide, and the Hussein faction then began trying to seize the financial resources and administrative and organizational levers within the Brotherhood.
Hussein’s faction have even called on the group’s youth in Egypt and Turkey to renew their pledge of allegiance to Mohamed Badie, who is still formally the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, despite his arrest in 2013 for his involvement in terrorist activity. (It was after Badie’s arrest that Ezzat became the de facto leader.) One researcher, Ahmed Ban, has argued that the key to resolving the Brotherhood schism is a ruling from the group’s imprisoned leaders in Egypt; only that could give Munir or Hussein the legitimacy they need to stabilize their position. But this underlines the trouble the Brotherhood is in.
First, the Egyptian authorities are acutely aware of the role the Brotherhood members in their prisons could play in strengthening the Brotherhood outside the walls, and see this as a national security threat, so are unlikely to allow these men to communicate with the outside world. Second, the fact that so many of the most influential leaders of the Brotherhood are in prison is indicative of the crisis the group is in.
The dispute between Munir and Hussein has severely damaged the Brotherhood brand. While some members have taken a partisan position in support of one or other faction, quite a number of others have suspended or terminated their membership. For all the criticism of the Brotherhood, the one thing it was supposed to be capable of was tight, hierarchical organizational structure, and now it is in disarray. Many of those who have left the group have done so after being shocked by the accusations that surfaced against both Munir and Hussein, particularly regarding their grossly immoral use of the group’s funds for personal ends.
The state of division within the Muslim Brotherhood is an existential challenge. All efforts at reconciliation, including through the Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch HAMAS and the Iraqi Brotherhood, have so far failed. The remnants of the Brotherhood in Egypt are generally closer to Hussein’s Istanbul faction, and have declared, in a statement entitled, “They Are Not From Us and We Are Not From Them,” that Munir’s so-called committee in charge of the work of the guide is invalid, and that everyone who participated in its creation has “chosen for himself to leave the group by violating its regulations and literature and rejecting all attempts at unification”. But even the small number of Brothers able to operate underground in Egypt are riven by factionalism: some Brotherhood members have broken away to form violent splinter organizations that reject the authority of Badie, Munir, and Hussein.
The unprecedented internal fragmentation of the Brotherhood has been compounded by an increasing awareness of the threats posed by the group in Western countries. In the past, Western countries had tended to believe that only a minority of the Muslim Brotherhood used violence, usually in response to repression by the Arab regimes, and that the group had many millions of followers throughout the Muslim world, which meant they had to engage it somehow. Now, however, there is an increasing tendency in Western states to see the Brotherhood as an unpopular group that is part of the Islamist extremist problem, not an answer to it. Some European countries, led by France, Austria, and even Germany have begun to take steps to restrict the expansion of the Brotherhood within their borders and to limit the external sources of funding that gave the Brotherhood the outsize influence it had. Surrounded on all sides by powerful states that regard it as a threat, and disintegrating internally, the Muslim Brotherhood faces a mortal danger such as it has never experienced in its ninety-year history.