The arrest of acting Muslim Brotherhood leader Mahmoud Ezzat by the Egyptian authorities at the end of August 2020 can be said to have dealt the group a significant blow. This is attributable to the influential role played by Ezzat, the mastermind of the group and the manager of its internal affairs during the past seven years.
Ezzat’s importance for the organization cannot be overestimated. He kept close connections with both the armed splinters of the group, the U.S.-designated terrorist groups Liwa al-Thawra and Harakat Sawa’d Misr (HASM), which have carried terrorist attacks inside Egypt, as well as the fugitive political leaders, who are residing mostly in Turkey, and he maintained responsibility for funding the organization’s activities.
Ezzat’s capture shows signs of igniting a succession crisis within the Brotherhood, evident in the controversy that followed the appointment of Ibrahim Munir as the organization’s new acting Supreme Guide.
Munir’s Contested Leadership
Ibrahim Munir is commonly considered to be the Secretary-General of the International Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood. He moved to London in the 1980s after leaving Egypt about ten years earlier. Before that he had been in prison serving a life sentence for his role in the failed attempt to assassinate the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954. Nasser’s successor, Anwar al-Sadat, had pardoned Munir in 1975.
Under Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, in 2010, Munir was sentenced to jail again, this time for five years and in absentia, for his role in money laundering and transferring money to a banned group. The next year, Mubarak was toppled in a revolution and under the man who replaced him, Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Munir was pardoned again, though remained in the United Kingdom.
It was announced through the Muslim Brotherhood website on September 17 that Munir had become the acting leader and declared the formation of a new management committee, which included among others Mahmoud Hussein, a member of the Guidance Office, the executive council of the organization.
The implications could be profound in two major senses.
First, within the Brotherhood. The appointment of Munir shows every sign of increasing internal discord in an already-fractured organization. An indication of this was the criticism of his appointment by Muslim Brotherhood cleric Essam Tleima, who blamed him, along with Mahmoud Hussein, the General Secretary, and other senior members for giving up Ezzat to the Egyptian police.
Munir’s ascension also provoked anger within the ranks of the young members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who consider the fugitive leaders to be pawns of the countries in which they are based—whether Qatar, Turkey, or the UK.
Second, the use of to violence. Munir’s appointment came just days before the call for demonstrations in Egypt on September 20, which was supported by the media outlets affiliated with Qatar and Turkey, the main regional backers of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, these demonstrations were limited, and failed to gain any popular support.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s realization that its cause lacks popular support could cause a course change in which it relies on violence through groups like HASM and Liwa al-Thawra to try to get back to power, creating greater instability for Egypt, Egypt’s neighbors like Israel, and of course costing the lives of more Egyptians.
The Foreign Dimension
For the Brotherhood, the logic of a turn to terrorism inside Egypt would be to increase the economic hardships for a large part of the Egyptian society and derail the developmental plans of the current Egyptian government, sending a message that it can create turmoil, unless Cairo negotiates with them.
Such an option would allow the new leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood to assert their control over the group, and overcome their legitimacy crisis. In addition, this option might be appealing to regional states like Turkey and Qatar that provide the Brotherhood with financial support and are locked in a geopolitical competition with the moderate Arab bloc that includes Egypt.
However, this option faces a number of challenges.
The American presidential elections are coming up and the outcome could alter the situation for the Brotherhood significantly. The current administration of President Donald Trump has considering designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and some of Trump’s senior advisors believe the Brotherhood to be ideologically indistinct from extremist and terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
On the other hand, the Democratic candidate for President, Joe Biden, who served as Barack Obama’s vice president, is perceived more positively by the Muslim Brotherhood—he could hardly be perceived less positively than Trump—and much more negatively by some anti-Islamist Egyptians who believe the Obama-Biden administration was complicit in turning a blind-eye to the abuses of the Brotherhood when it was in government in 2012-13. They worry that a Biden presidency would embolden the Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood’s Domestic Challenges
While the foreign developments—in Qatar, Turkey, and America—can impact the Brotherhood’s strategy in the next phase, the major factors are and will remain internal to Egypt. The security measures taken by the Egyptian government have shattered the Brotherhood as an organization and undermined the capacity of its derivatives like HASM and Liwa al-Thawra to engage in terrorism—indeed undermined the capacity of Islamist terrorists generally, Al-Qaeda and ISIS included.
The security situation in Egypt limits the Brotherhood’s options, even should it wish to respond violently to Ezzat’s arrest. The other options the Brotherhood has for fomenting instability, like mass demonstrations, have proven to be beyond its reach up to now; there was an expectation from the Brotherhood that it could restore Morsi in 2013 by street action but such efforts fizzled. The Brotherhood’s political purchase on the country has only weakened since then.
After the massive crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the mid-1950s, a number of terrorist organizations appeared in Egypt in the late 1970s that were distinct from the Brotherhood, albeit directed by previous members of the Brotherhood. It might well be that similar dynamics will come to the fore this time, with radical splinters proliferating from an essentially defunct Brotherhood organization.
 ‘Arrest Of Mahmoud Ezzat, Key Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Figure’, The Arab Weekly, August 29, 2020, https://bit.ly/36cOlYl
 Ibrahim Munir, The Global Muslim Brotherhood Daily Watch, 2013, https://bit.ly/3jcdoi3
 Ibrahim Munir, Counter Extremism Project, https://bit.ly/3n1kHeP
 Hany Ghoraba, ‘Acting Brotherhood General Guide’s Arrest a Major Blow to the Group’, The Investigative Project on Terrorism, September 10, 2020, https://bit.ly/30fwWuo
 George Mikhail, ‘Muslim Brotherhood Appoints Acting Guide After Arrest of Leader’, Al-Monitor, September 23, 2020, https://bit.ly/2Sd2QTH
 Anonymous Correspondent in Egypt, ‘Online Calls for Anti-Sisi Protests in Egypt May Fall Flat’, Al-Monitor, September 9, 2020, https://bit.ly/36frifq