As European Eye on Radicalization documented in October, the mother branch of the international Muslim Brotherhood, the Egypt-based branch, has been showing signs of disintegration. This process has continued in the months since.
Ibrahim Munir has been the acting Supreme Guide of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood since the arrest of his predecessor, Mahmoud Ezzat, in August 2020. The Brotherhood, practically fragmented over the past eight years, is now showing “formal” divisions as Istanbul-based Brotherhood leaders try to displace the London-based Munir with former Secretary-General Mahmud Hussein.
Munir has announced the suspension of [Istanbul-based Mahmud] Hussein’s membership in the Brotherhood, and referred Hussein—along with five of his allies: Hammam Youssef, Mamdouh Mabrouk, Medhat al-Haddad, Muhammad Abdel Wahab, and Rajab al-Banna—for internal investigation on the grounds of “financial and administrative irregularities”.
But the Istanbuli Brethren are refusing to recognise Munir’s authority, claiming that the postponement of the elections for the Shura Council (Brotherhood executive committee), supposed to have been held in July, mean his legitimacy is at an end.
Munir is not only being challenged on these procedural grounds: many of the Brothers feel that developments in Tunisia, atop the failure to challenge the government in Egypt, show that he is incapable of being an effective leader, not least since he is so far away in the United Kingdom.
This rift—an unusual public display of dissent within an organization that is very tightly controlled and hierarchical—was deepened in a shockingly vituperative public interview with Hussein at the end of November. While insisting that Munir was still recognized as a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hussein declared that the Shura Council in Istanbul had dismissed Munir from all of his official positions and revoked all of the decisions Munir had made during this period of contestation.
“Munir is a Brother, but no longer has any current responsibilities within the group,” said Hussein, “and his recent decisions have no effect”. Hussein specified that this meant Munir’s order for Hussein and his associates to have their membership in the Brotherhood frozen and to be investigated for financial crimes were null and void. Munir’s structural changes to the group—dissolving certain committees, for example—were also reversed, according to Hussein.
Hussein went on to claim the title of Acting Supreme Guide, and received support for this not only in Istanbul but in London, where a faction of the Brothers created a new official website that recognized Hussein as their leader.
Munir responded, as expected, by rejecting Hussein’s right to do this, and declared that seventy-three more pro-Hussein Brethren had their membership frozen. Days later, in early December, the ulema (religious scholars) within the Muslim Brotherhood backed Munir, calling on the organization’s leadership and youth branches to rally around their leader, and demanding Hussein honour his pledge of allegiance (bay’a) to Munir as Supreme Guide.
In London, Munir does appear to be gaining in this struggle. Munir seems to have control of the main Brotherhood institutions of the London Office, based around official spokesman Osama Suleiman and media official Suhaib Abd al-Maqsud, a member of the youth wing of the Brotherhood.
In recent days, various efforts have been made to reunify the pro-Munir and pro-Hussein factions of the Brotherhood, notably by Qatar-based cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the highest spiritual authorities in the world for the Brotherhood, but these efforts are showing no signs of success.
As EER pointed out two months ago, the regional political situation has shifted against the Brotherhood generally, and in the intervening period, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of the key remaining state supporters of the Brotherhood, has made clear, under the pressure of a domestic crisis, that he wants to improve relations with Egypt, and part of this has been a reduction of Turkish government support for the Brethren. Where previously Erdogan might have intervened to patch up the differences in the Brotherhood Shura, the mix of domestic distractions and olive branches to Cairo has prevented that this time.
So, where does this leave the Brotherhood?
Perhaps the important factor is money. If, as some reports suggest, Hussein has been able to secure independent streams of funding outside official Brotherhood channels, it suggests he may prevail. While the London Brothers seem to be tilting to Munir, unsurprisingly since he is based there and has more direct control over the network, the Istanbul Brothers seem to be firmly in Hussein’s camp, especially—which is the crucial thing—at the leadership level. If Hussein is able to reassure would-be defectors they will continue to be paid, and thus will still be able to feed their families if they join him, it is difficult to imagine that Munir’s support will not continue eroding. Munir is deeply unpopular, especially with the youth sections of the organization, for perceived ineffectiveness.
There is no guarantee this leadership contest will be resolved: it could well result in outright schism. There has been a full-scale media war between Munir and Hussein, with them and their surrogates exchanging accusations of corruption and worse; these are difficult to take back.
Whether the dispute is resolved in favour of Munir or Hussein or neither, the damage to the Brotherhood is already momentous. Their image and reputation for competence, cleanliness, and order has been severely wounded; the organization now looks feckless, as two factions with minimal real power feud in public and bandy about tawdry charges that make everyone look sordid and petty. Morale in the organization will continue to deteriorate, leading to further ineffectiveness in administration and a slow bleed of members leaving. Recruitment of new members has also been seriously undermined.
The Muslim Brotherhood is in its most serious crisis since its founding ninety years ago, and there is no sign it will find a way out of it any time soon.