In the aftermath of the “Arab spring”, which began at the end of 2010, it looked for a time as if conditions in the Middle East were breaking the Islamists’ way. Since 2013, however, the Islamist tide has been ebbing, and recently the final holding, the Muslim Brotherhood government in Tunisia, was eliminated. Now, the Brotherhood itself—the mother branch from Egypt, currently in exile in Turkey—appears to be crumbling.
The Regional Picture
The Arab revolutions in 2011 swept away governments in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, replacing them with governments dominated by the Brotherhood and its offshoots. By 2013, Turkey, which has long used the Brotherhood in its foreign policy, had the alliance of these three governments, a dominant control of the Syrian insurgency, and was expanding into theatres like Yemen in the same way. Meanwhile Qatar, a prominent supporter of the Brotherhood during the rebellions, retained significant influence, and then there were the Islamist regimes in Sudan and Iran pursuing their various designs across the region.
The demise of the Brotherhood government in Egypt in the summer of 2013 in some ways removed the keystone. The Brotherhood’s leadership repaired to Turkey, where it has been broadcasting incitement around the region, though so far is practical efforts to regain power have come to little. In Libya, the Brotherhood government has been dislodged as the sole authority. As mentioned, the Brethren are out in Tunisia, too, and the extent of their failure can be seen in the fact that after ten years controlling the state they were unable to mobilise any mass support to resist this change.
Meanwhile, Qatar was reined in by decisive Gulf action and now operates a more normal and less disruptive regional policy. Sudan defected from the Islamist camp and has gone so far as to normalise relations with Israel. The situation in Yemen is deeply alarming, but Turkey and the Brotherhood no longer seem to be major factors.
Turkey remains in many ways a worrying case, but even its ambitious ruler, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been hemmed in by a series of domestic and foreign policy failures, to the point that he is—at least publicly—trying to deal with the post-Brotherhood Egyptian government he had anathematised.
The major regional exception is the Iranian theocracy, whose regional Islamist imperialism continues unabated. Tehran has effective control of the entire Northern Middle East, stretching from Iraq through Syria to Lebanon, with serious inroads in Afghanistan and the outstanding case of Yemen, where Iran’s Huthis continue their relentless jihad, which may yet plunge the country and its neighbours into an even worse crisis.
A Brotherhood Collapse?
Against this background, of strategic decline for and popular rejection of the Islamist vision, the Muslim Brotherhood finds itself increasingly isolated, politically and physically. The space for the Brotherhood has quite literally shrunk: it has outposts in Istanbul, Doha, and a couple of other cities. But, whereas in the past the Brethren could call upon a certain amount of popular sympathy to act as a force multiplier for their influence, the Brothers now face a landscape of hostility outside of their immediate support networks.
Eternally conspiratorial, and reduced to dealing only with itself, the Brotherhood has begun to turn this suspicion inwards.
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 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.
Munir has tried many ways of making the Brotherhood relevant again since its downturn began in 2013, including by collaborating with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the terrorist wing of the Iranian regime. None of it has done him any good and now he faces a very public rebellion from his own long-time comrades, questioning both his right to hold his post and his conduct during his tenure.
It is possible that Munir will hold on—the Brotherhood is a very hierarchical organization, after all, and he does have nominal authority. But if Munir does survive it will be because he persuades; he cannot enforce his writ.
Thus, regardless of Munir’s fate, this schism underlines that the Brotherhood of the past is gone: under the pressure of the Egyptian government specifically, and the regional trends generally, the Brotherhood is no longer a cohesive organization and its mechanisms of control have eroded.