The Muslim Brotherhood General Shura Council issued a decision on 26 March ruling that any group that refused to abide by the Council’s authority was now considered to be outside the Brotherhood.
This is the latest episode in an increasingly bitter feud within the Brotherhood’s leadership that has been playing out in public for more than six months. The crisis dates back at least to the summer of 2020, when the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mahmoud Ezzat, was arrested in Egypt, and in truth dates back to 2013 when the Brotherhood was removed from power in Cairo. Having apparently achieved the domination over the state that it had been working towards for eighty years, the Brotherhood lost it in just one year because of its exclusivist and repressive behaviour. The fragmentation of the Egyptian mother branch of the Brotherhood has been mirrored elsewhere in the region as Islamism finds itself in retreat in the face of new social and geopolitical realities.
The contest for control of the Brotherhood has played out between two factions, one based in Istanbul, Turkey, and one based in London, Britain. After Ezzat’s arrest, Ibrahim Munir, based in London, became the Supreme Guide, but his leadership was challenged and much of the Shura Council, based in Istanbul, voted to depose him and replace him with Mustafa Tolba, who signed the 26 March decree as a response to a statement days earlier from the London wing that said it would henceforth cease to recognise any decisions from the Istanbuli leadership.
The schism has ideological dimensions, but it is very notable that Munir and his supporters have been stripped of their positions based on accusations of financial impropriety. The Brotherhood had seemed well-placed after the Arab Spring, with commanding positions in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya; all of that is now gone. The main influence the Brotherhood is able to exert is through its patronage networks—controlling “charities”, mosques, and the like—and its media platforms. It is no coincidence that mishandling money has been the main weapon the factions have used against each other and that this struggle has taken place mostly on the terrain of a competition for control of the various media institutions the Brotherhood controls.
It is also important that this struggle is taking place to a considerable extent in Europe, not in the Middle East. The Brotherhood has had a vast, if often difficult to pinpoint, presence in Europe for more than half-a-century. Since the Muslim Brotherhood generally tries to stay (more or less) within the law, and (formally) eschews violence, as it spreads its extremist ideology, European governments have long struggled to know what to do about it. Recently, in the aftermath of the Islamist terrorist wave of the Islamic State (ISIS), Europeans have begun to realise that the situation was able to get so severe because their societies had been pre-weakened by the effects of divisive extremist ideas spreading unchecked.
Several European states, led by France and Austria, have begun to take decisive action to curb these forces that are so destructive to social cohesion. There are signs that another European state, namely Belgium, is undergoing a course change.
Committee R, which oversees the Belgian intelligence services, produced a long-awaited report at the end of March 2022 about the activities of the State Security Service (VSSE) and General Information and Security Service (SGRS or ADIV) in monitoring the Muslim Brotherhood in the country. Though Committee R found that it could identify no specific, violent threat from the Brotherhood against an institution, it still concluded that the Brotherhood is a “danger” and that better coordination between VSSE and SGRS/ADIV, and between human and technical intelligence, is needed to contain the extremists.
Belgium’s intelligence agencies concluded that the Brotherhood was a “high priority threat in terms of extremism, since their short-term strategy could create a climate of polarization and segregation within Belgian society, and thus constitute a vector of radicalization”. As such, Committee R was particularly concerned about Brotherhood infiltration of state institutions, whether in administrative roles or as chaplains, recommending that the vetting process be tightened up to keep the Brotherhood away from positions of influence—whether federally, regionally, or locally.
The report has already triggered the resignation of Ihsane Haouach, the former government commissioner to the Institute for Equality between Women and Men (IEFH), who claims to have wanted to escape the public glare and the “relentless cyber-harassment” that goes with it. This was a reference to the criticism Ms. Haouach had come under after the report revealed her proximity to the Brotherhood.
As the Brotherhood goes through this crisis in its leadership, and its traditional bases of support and resource-gathering in the Middle East continue to dry up, the theatre of struggle for power and influence is shifting to Europe. It seems that Europe, at long last, is waking up to this problem.