The Muslim Brotherhood in transition
Incitements to murder on some television channels affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a growing number of supporters renouncing pacifism, and an increasing online presence of groups seeking retribution for the killing of “revolutionaries;” all this has raised the question of the Muslim Brotherhood and violence, not only regarding the origin of violence, but also the Islamist organization’s relationship with the other militant groups and how to deal with it.
There are two predominant perspectives: The first has been adopted by the official discourse, its close circles and media mouthpieces, claiming that the Muslim Brotherhood is a violent group by definition, and that their formerly latent violence has now surfaced. Advocates of this view blame revolutionary forces for once cooperating with the Brotherhood, as this has allegedly supported the network and arming of the organization. The second view is the discourse prevalent in academic circles affiliated and sympathizing with the Brotherhood, which insist that it is impossible for organization to resort to violence, and that violent events are isolated incidents or a conspiracy by the regime to portray the Brotherhood as violent to justify their ongoing killing and detention. Both views share the same essential perception of the Brotherhood as an invariable self, unaffected by ideological and social changes.
There are a number of reasons why the Brotherhood has historically sought to distance itself from violent ideologies. As an “Islamic” organization it is not based on a coherent doctrinal vision. It is rather a product of an incoherent mix of ideas appropriated from various dogmas, such as Mohamed Abduh’s “reformative/apocryphal” dogma, Qutbism, and Wahabism. Such dogmas have been integrated into the organization — in certain historical contexts — to serve its interests, which have become a base for defining Sharia and permitted and proscribed practices. For a long time, these interests have stipulated avoiding violence, principally to secure a space to practice formal politics, and secondarily to allow the organization to distinguish itself from the other Islamic groups that have proliferated since the seventies. As a result, the Brotherhood domesticated Sayed Qutb’s ideas (most importantly regarding violence and apostasy), adopting an “ideology” of constitutional and peaceful participation, which developed over time into a mainstay of the organization’s ideological coherence.
Socially speaking, the organization mainly includes middle class professionals, and they are conservative by definition and not willing — due to their professional positions — to make choices that might alienate them from society (or justify such an alienation) and lead to grave social consequences. Furthermore, the organization’s leadership has been — throughout the past decade at least — chiefly composed of businessmen, with economic interests that require protection by preserving a connection with the regime, to a certain extent. This initially led the organization to adopt an extremely conservative stance towards the revolution, reducing it to a limited reformative process, without pushing for any significant changes in economic and social structures. In addition, the Brotherhood’s social investments, in terms of schools, medical clinics, mosques, and associations, also required maintaining a certain relationship with the government, in order to preserve those investments, eventually eliminating the prospect of violence.
After a long period of stability, this ideological and social structure started to rapidly change, following the summer of 2013. On an ideological level, the Rabea massacre had a “Karbala-like” impact on the organization’s members. This massacre has become a founding moment through which both the past and the future are perceived. From this moment onward, Brotherhood supporters have become the righteous party.
Considering that their only allies were some small and diverse Islamist groups, the Brotherhood started toning down its sharp criticism of violence, and later increasingly supporting it. Simultaneously, there was a sudden absence of (solid, central, and extremely disciplined) organization due to the “Rabea moment,” marking the absence of leaders (who were either arrested or missing), and an outrage on the streets that has increasingly changed the nature of the organization’s channels of communication, no longer following instructions from a higher order. The leaders — on a number of different levels — were no longer able to control and direct this rage. In such a moment of great momentum, the interim absence of the organization as an ideological feed has helped Brotherhood members open up more to their current Islamist allies.
Concurrently with these ideological and organizational changes, the Brotherhood witnessed a social change that gradually transformed its stance from violence, namely the increasing oppression by the regime and the exclusion from society and media coverage. A media discourse dehumanizing them and excessively “othering” them as opposed to “Egyptians” (in a dichotomy of identities that construct each other so that there is no common ground left), demands (some of which were acted upon) to have them expelled from their jobs in universities, government services, and some private institutions, the seizure of the funds of leaders — who are detained or at large — and their families, the freezing or seizing of their social assets — like schools, associations, clinics and hospitals — and the countless suspensions of university students all contributed to this. The Brotherhood — especially its bases, students and the employees of its many institutions — no longer had anything to lose. Violence, which was once beyond the organization’s imagination, has become a plausible option, and even a very probable one.
In contrast with all these elements prompting violence, other factors have propelled the Brotherhood towards the opposite direction, most notably, an understanding within the Brotherhood’s higher ranks that violence should be avoided to maintain what is left of the limited international human rights support they have received against the crackdown on the organization, which helps set off the support (and the funds) the regime receives from the Gulf to eliminate the Brotherhood completely.
Such conflicting motives, combined with weak organization making them unable to control the movement as a whole, some leaders have become aware that pacifism won’t be an option for long. They have tried to prevent the full engagement of members in violent acts by redefining violence, using the now famous slogan: “Anything short of bullets is peaceful.”
As escalation has continued on both sides, this attempt has failed to prevent members from developing increasingly violent tendencies, which have begun to show in the explicit calls for the assassination of the president and police officers on “pro-legitimacy” satellite channels, and in the number of “retaliatory” organizations — founded by some Brotherhood youth — which announced their responsibility for some of the attacks on police and military personnel, as well as the more recent sympathy by some elements with clearly violent groups (like Ansar Beit al-Maqdes), indicated by the reserved condemnation of their assaults.
This violent tendency represents the Brotherhood’s “organization” only as much as “their determination to remain peaceful” does. The organization is going through a transitional phase, in which both views of violence and non-violence are being adopted, sometimes by different people, sometimes in different statements (in different languages and on different sites), and at other times by the same people in different situations. Under this organizational disintegration, there is currently no way to determine who will prevail eventually, and the statements — even the official ones — cannot be an indication of this, due to the divisions among the domestic wing (directly facing the consequences of confrontation), the international wing (which is more in control of the media), the “official” leaders (the ones who were in control before the Rabea massacre) whose organizational power has declined, and the field leaders who have strong influences in limited and unconnected geographical areas.
The Brotherhood’s tendency towards violence was not inevitable, yet the possibility of officially adopting violence is not necessarily inconceivable. There are certain social and ideological changes that have created a new reality for the Brotherhood, in which the tendency towards violence has increased. Even though the “organization” is no longer in charge, and its leaders can no longer determine the question of violence, most of the “cards” in determining the future of the organization have now been distributed to various different parties, most importantly the rulers of the country.
The more we fail to handle this situation — on the social and ideological level, the first being more important — the more likely it is for the discourse which claims that there is no difference between the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If those promoting this discourse were to realize its grave consequences — given the nature of the Brotherhood’s presence in society, in terms of number and locations — they would not be propagating it to win trivial battles.