No united front: Mixed messages from the Muslim Brotherhood on violence

Amid wide-scale social prejudice and a regime deploying its security apparatus to crackdown on the movement, the Muslim Brotherhood has been producing a somewhat confused discourse in recent months.

“The coup is on the brink of collapse,” has been declared by several Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated outlets, referring to the President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime, in what many have described as a clear divorce from reality.

Several statements have been issued by various Brotherhood-affiliated platforms that indicate a harder line than the organization’s traditionally moderate discourse. For example, the Brotherhood issued a statement on the decision to freeze the assets of affiliated organizations, claiming this provides opportunities for Muslims to abandon their faith and become apostates.

In another statement on the anniversary of the Presidential Palace clashes between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and secular opposition groups in December 2012, they referred to “Egyptian liberal and leftist secular politicians who hate political Islam for ideological reasons.”

Where are these statements coming from?

“The Brotherhood was stripped all of a sudden. Leaders of the first and second ranks have disappeared, and the masses took control of the whole movement,” a second-rank leader told Mada Masr anonymously, fearing for his safety. He fled to Sudan following Morsi’s ouster and the arrest campaign targeting the group’s members. “Suddenly the leaders, mainly middle-class professionals, syndicate members, and university professors, are either in prison, at large, or dead. The rank and file took over.”

“First and second-rank leaders used to be in charge of the Brotherhood. They gave advice to the leaders and took part in the decision making process,” he adds, explaining that the rank and file of the group have sectarian and dogmatic tendencies. Disconnected from the leadership, these bases of support have also been missing a political vision, he adds.

The Brotherhood member explains that some violent action, such as attacks on churches and statements that are politically incorrect can be attributed to this take over. Cheering on the Islamic State and militant activity against the state in Sinai are also symptoms of the control of a new crowd of members over the group, he says.

This winter, in one of the recurrent Brotherhood marches in Matareya, Cairo, protesters raised the Islamic State flag next to the famous yellow hand sign associated with the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in.

Disconnected from their own leaders, the Brotherhood rank and file have been coordinating public action with a few Salafi hardliners who have chosen to stand by them against their own leadership, which aligned itself with the military against Morsi, the self-exiled member says.

“In normal situations, infiltration would have been difficult, because the Brotherhood is a centralized and solid organization. But with the current organizational chaos, and the Brotherhood eagerly flocking after any potential ally, emerging poles are more likely to be at the organization’s center,” says Ahmed Abd al-Hamid Hussein, a researcher of social movements.

“Channels like Al-Sharq are speaking on behalf of the Brotherhood. Who exactly is funding large channels like this?” Hussein ponders.

Al-Sharq channel, broadcasting from Turkey, is now one of the well-known pro-Brotherhood channels, and its fame largely derives from airing audio leaks of alleged conversations by Major General Abbas Kamil, head of the Presidential Office. It is funded by a number of businessmen, most notably Bassem Khafagy, the leader of the newly established Islamist “Change and Development” Party.

“With the increasing detention of its members, the Brotherhood has lost its most important feature: the centralized decision-making process,” Hussein says, adding that the rank and file have achieved some sort of an organizational victory, as they tend to move in a more decentralized way and are influenced by new currents.

“What came out recently in the Brotherhood’s statements reveals two things: firstly, that there’s a tendency toward violence, especially under the current decentralized leadership, and secondly, this is a clear message to the regime that the Brotherhood is capable of enduring to the end,” adds Hussein.

Earlier this year, pro-Brotherhood channels aired a statement asking foreigners currently living in Egypt to leave, and another statement was posted on the group’s websites, stating its readiness to fight the regime using violence. The statement was however removed shortly after.

Even Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, head of the Strong Egypt Party and a former key leader in the Brotherhood before he resigned, acknowledged “the Brotherhood youth is resorting to violence,” which he strongly denounced in a press conference.

This rising radicalization among the group’s rank and file is creating an aversion to any prospect of reconciliation with the regime, despite some official statements by the Muslim Brotherhood condemning terrorist attacks and showcasing some leniency.

Their case is reminiscent of major historical feuds within the Brotherhood between its top leaders, most notably Sayed Qutb and Hassan al-Houdaiby.

In 1965, the Brotherhood witnessed a major ideological rupture between the supporters of Qutb, who drafted his ideas in several works, most prominently Ma’alim fi al-Tariq (Milestones), and a rival group dubbed the “wise members” who issued a document countering Qutb’s ideas titled “Preachers, Not Judges” (Du’at la Qudat), allegedly inspired by the former group’s Supreme Guide Houdaiby.

While Qutb perceived governments at the time as “pre-Islamic apostate regimes” that should be opposed and fought, calling for organizational impenetrability and the secrecy of its call, the Brotherhood leaders considered this a deviation from the ideas of Hassan al-Banna, the founding imam of the group, and subjected those who “deviated” from the Brotherhood’s ideology to internal trials.

“The current situation is different to that of the 1960s. There is disagreement on whether the old crisis produced an organizational rupture, or whether it was just an ideological dispute that was contained by the organization. What is happening now is a radical wing overpowering a reformative wing,” says a leader of the Brotherhood-affiliated Students against the Coup group in Zaqazig University in northern Egypt. He also preferred to remain anonymous.

“The bases are tired from the organization’s official discourse,” adds the young man in his 20s.

He mentions that the way the regime handles opposition has left no room for traditional political activity or reconciliation based on new political rules. “Mass capital punishments, the daily killing of opposition members, and demonizing us in the media, all this has pushed the youth to make radical choices. When the regime keeps repeating that Brotherhood members are violent for a year and a half, while in fact we were organizing peaceful protests and marches … eventually with all this propaganda we say: ‘Well, if you want violence, you got it’.”

It remains to be seen whether under this discursive layer of violence there is more radicalization among existing and active members of the Brotherhood, and the extent to which their plea will survive reports of potential reconciliation with the government, especially when imprisoned group members are signing statements of repentance in prisons.


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