Superglue: The remarkable unity of the Muslim Brotherhood


As the greatest internal crisis the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has experienced for over half a century took place in full view of the media one obvious question arose. Is the group on the verge of splitting? With each day that passed expectations that the MB would splinter grew. It seemed more a question of when than if.

The crisis, though, blew over without the group coming apart at the seams. After the MB elected a new leadership it retreated into self- contained mode. One of the group’s ideologues was moved, as a result, to speak at length about its invincibility. The MB was inspired by divine factors, not mundane considerations, he insisted.

The MB, at least in Egypt, seems uncannily capable of resisting division. This is particularly true when one compares the MB with other groups. But it does not mean that the group is immune to splits. They have happened in the pat, some minor, others of more significance.

Ahmed El-Sokkari, a co-founder of the group and once its number two, left the Brotherhood after failing to see eye to eye with Hassan El-Banna.

Small groups, too, have been known to break away, the best known being the coterie around Mohamed Rifaat and the Shabab Sayedna Mohamed (Youths for Our Master Mohamed) faction.

The biggest split took place under Hassan El-Hodeibi, the second supreme guide. Several Secret Organisation leaders, including the organisation’s commander Abdel-Rahman El-Sandi, tried to oust El-Hodeibi. They were joined by members alarmed at El-Hodeibi’s dealings with the post-1952 Revolution regime, including Azharites Mohamed El-Ghazali, Sayed Sabeq and Abdel-Moez Abdel-Sattar.

Some who left the MB went over to the 1952 revolutionary regime and ended up in senior positions within the government’s religious organisations (Sayed Sabeq and El-Ghazali), political organistations (Abdel-Aziz Kamel) and security services (Naguib Gowefl). The desertions continued throughout the revolutionary era as the Nasserist regime sought to co-opt many former MB members.

During the clampdown of 1965 the MB suffered a doctrinal, not just an organisational, schism. Many members were influenced by Sayed Qotb’s ideas about hakimiya (government by divine ordinance) and jahiliya (ignorance of the true faith). While in prison MB members debated Qotb’s ideas, subsequently issuing a document, Doah la Qodah (Preachers not Judges), in which they refuted Qotb’s hardline concepts.

In prison the MB held trials of Qotb’s followers as a result of which some recanted. Others left the group and formed what came to be known as the Qotb current. One prominent member was Ahmed Abdel-Maguid Abdel-Sami, who received a death sentence along with Qotb, though it was later commuted. The main ideologue of the Qotb current was Abdel-Maguid El-Shazli, whose Hadd Al-Iman wa Haqiqat Al-Islam (The Boundary of Faith and the Truth about Islam), is considered by many to embody the group’s manifesto.

We should not, however, confuse the above group with the Qotb sympathisers of today, though it is true that most of the latter were linked to the MB in 1965. The most prominent of today’s Qotb sympathisers are the eighth Supreme Guide Mohamed Badei, Mahmoud Ezzat and Sabri Arafah El-Komi.

One cannot speak of organisational schisms in the MB in the 1970s and 80s, or under supreme guide Omar El-Tilmisani. The MB, at the time, was too busy picking up the pieces after the havoc wrought on its structure by the policies of the Nasserist regime. El-Tilmisani oversaw a forceful attempt at restructuring, during which the MB succeeded in recruiting many members among college students.

Even so there were desertions. Farid Abdel-Khaleq resigned from the Guidance Bureau in protest at the dominance of Secret Organisation members within the MB. A few years later Sheikh Abdel-Sattar Fathallah Said walked out from the Guidance Bureau in frustration over the MB’s endorsement of President Hosni Mubarak’s re-election.

The 1990s, a time in which the MB gathered momentum, saw the desertion of over 100 members from Al-Azhar University under the leadership of Mohamed Roshdi (after whom the resulting faction was called). Roshdi was influenced by Qotb, and the MB dismissed his ideas as erroneous. The Roshdi schism took place under the fourth supreme guide, Mohamed Hamed Abul-Nasr.

The beginning of the term of the fifth guide, Mustafa Mashhour, saw a major generational split. A group led by Abul-Ela Madi, Mohamed Abdel-Latif, and Salah Abdel-Karim, the so-called middle generation ( geel al-wasat ) defected, declaring its intention to form a political party that would integrate fully in political life.

The MB experienced further turbulence with the resignation of a majority of members of the Administrative Bureau of South Cairo who took over some MB institutions and declared their independence from the group.

Still, the MB remains relatively cohesive. Certainly it has demonstrated that it is more capable than other parties when it comes to retaining unity in the face of harsh clampdowns. The MB is over 80 years old now. During its existence Egypt has moved from a monarchy to a republic. The country has had two kings and four presidents, some quite determined to destroy the MB.

The reasons for such cohesiveness are numerous. They include the centralised organisation of collective work, the emphasis on cohesion, and the doctrinal and religious commitment to unity. All these factors have boosted the group’s staying power.

The MB has produced a wealth of literature on the merits of collective work and the drawbacks of division. It has drawn on many religious texts, taken from various phases of Islam, to persuade its members that unity is the only way to survive.

The MB constantly exalts the value of loyalty to the group. MB preachers often say that the value of any “brother”, however senior his position in the hierarchy, hinges on his loyalty to the group: If a member thinks of leaving the group, the MB responds with the dismissive remark, “The group throws away its junk”.

The MB doesn’t claim to be the only truly Muslim group, but the frequency with which it harps on the topic creates a sense of obedience, indeed subservience, among its members, associating even the thought of dissent with guilt. As a result, few members think of the MB as a political entity or preaching organisation with which it is fine to disagree. Members swear to obey the supreme guide whatever they may think of his directives.

The organisational cohesiveness of the MB is exceptional. There is a great variety of MB interests and members often disagree, both about the manner of working and the nature of the work itself. Nothing keeps the group together beyond a simple ideal and harsh organisational discipline. Despite the MB’s claim to a universal Islam, doctrinal variety, even contradictions, exist within the group.

The MB doesn’t follow one school of Islamic law. It even refuses to embrace any one branch of Islamic jurisdiction in a forthright manner, although it is mainly a Sunni group. The MB will not produce a clear opinion on controversial matters unless it is forced to do so, as was the case when it denounced violence. The group refrains from taking sides because it wants to pose as the sole representative of a universal Islam. This conduct gives it great flexibility and allows it to maintain organisational cohesion. Within its ranks, the MB allows pluralism of thought, so long as such pluralism does not reach the point of challenging the leadership.

Beneath this broad umbrella of intellectual and doctrinal interpretation the MB can effectively absorb members. It puts its foot down only when someone defies orders or challenges the leaders.

The MB is more than a party and less than a state. The group has created a parallel society with its own network of social relations, political roles and economic interests. It has carved a social arena for itself in which members can live from birth to death without once having to step outside.

The brother is accepted into a group that provides organisational and social connections to the point when he doesn’t have to look elsewhere. He can live and receive education, make friends and get married, find a job and engage in politics. The MB has created its own society, established its own institutions, created its own activities, and managed its religious, economic and social affairs in a manner that allows individuals to interact with society at a distance.

When a brother enters this society he loses the ability — or the will — to break free from the group. To step aside would be like stepping out of your own skin. To depart would be like leaving the only clan to which you belong.

After years of collision with the regime the group has developed a bunker mentality, one that makes it feel that it is hunted down and surrounded by enemies, who also happen to be the enemies of God. As the MB prepares its members for constant confrontation with its enemies it encourages paranoia among them. The resulting siege mentality helps keep everyone together. Internal differences are disregarded for the sake of unity.

In times of expansion, internal debate is seen as a diversion from the cause. In times of contraction, members fear to augment the pain by criticising the group. Internal dissent is invariably associated with feelings of guilt.

The Quranic text in which Moses blames his brother Aaron for letting the people pray to the bull while awaiting his return is often cited. Aaron, it is mentioned, risked the faith of the community to maintain unity. Similarly, the MB buries any organisational lapses or intellectual glitches in order for unity to prevail.

The regime’s tactics have also served to promote MB unity. It has never attempted to engage in dialogue with MB dissidents which in turn discourages dissent. The experience of the so-called middle generation is a case in point. For the last 15 years they have done everything they can to form a political party, but the regime has refused to budge an inch.

The regime clearly believes that dealing with a united MB is better than dealing with splinter groups. A united MB, with a known leader and hierarchy, can be pressured and cajoled. It is much easier to handle one group than a multitude of dissenters. Hardly surprising, then, that MB dissenters prefer to stay within the bosom of the group rather than to face the cold realities without.

* The writer is an expert in Islamist movements.

Al Ahram

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