Islamism at a Crossroads: The role of ex-Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt

‘Egypt fighting terrorism’. This seems to be the new mantra of all Egyptian television stations, both state owned and private. Any media outlet that has not shared this sentiment was shut down a long time ago. After the ousting of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and the subsequent massacres against his supporters, the state and media indulged in a political branding campaign. The media mislabelled those who rejected the coup as being members of the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ (MB) and accused them of terrorism or, at least, of being sympathetic to it.

The military regime and its political allies insist on dismissing their political opponents – even if they are not a part of the Brotherhood – as so-called MB ‘sleeper cells’. Contrary to popular belief, the Muslim Brotherhood does not monopolize the Islamist sphere, let alone the anti-coup one. The Brotherhood is not an impenetrable entity that alone makes or breaks the current political scene. In fact, after the January 25th revolution, there was a sizable exodus of members from the Muslim Brotherhood. According to a report by Egypt Independent, after their split, a group of Muslim Brotherhood youth formed a new political party named ‘Al Tayyar al Masri’. These former Brotherhood members now play a significant role in the unfolding political drama and in the development of revolutionary political ideologies in Egypt, a country commonly referred to as the “Mother of the World.”

Splits inside the Brotherhood

Since the revolution, there were three types of splits within the ranks of the Brotherhood. The first being, amongst senior members of the Brotherhood, such as Mohammed Habib, the former vice guidance chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood; Abdul Monim Aboul Fotoh, former member of the guidance council bureau; and Kamal El Helbawy, former spokesman for the Brotherhood in Europe.

Secondly, were the former MB youth who have lost faith in the so-called ‘Islamic Project’ – which could be loosely defined as a social, political and cultural Islamization project. Lastly, the largest of the three groups consists of youth, who still believe in some form of the ‘Islamic Project’. Before the coup, and during Morsi’s term, all three groups dedicated themselves to challenging the Muslim Brotherhood on both an ideological and political level. During the violent clashes of November 2011, for example, the Brotherhood’s policy was to appease the army. These ex-Brotherhood members were on the forefront of the protests defying both the military apparatus and the party line. In fact a founding member of Al Tayyar al Masri, Bahaa Al Senousi, was killed in the violence. The protests were a major political turning point for them politically and ideologically.

Smoke in the distance at Rabaa Square as people evacuate. Photo courtesy of Assmaa Nounou
Smoke in the distance at Rabaa Square as people evacuate.
Photo courtesy of Assmaa Nounou

The positions of former senior members of the Brotherhood after the coup and youth differed a great deal. Only through the prism of pure politics can one understand the politics of the former senior MB members; while, the positions of ex-Brotherhood youth, secular and religious, were more ideological. The former senior members of the Brotherhood established independent political careers in which their views were taken into consideration in the Egyptian political arena. For example, Mohammed Habib and Kamal El Helbawy have built their ‘post-Brotherhood’ careers on just being ‘anti-Brotherhood’. They hailed the military takeover of the state and justified the massacres and crackdown. In an interview on a pro military channel, Kamal El Helbawy responded to Rabaa Square being massacred by saying,

‘Even though it is legitimate to disband the sit-in because of the existence of unlicensed weapons, I fear that the spread of chaos may lead us into the Syria scenario which will ultimately cause foreign intervention. I worry that our women, our mother and sisters, may end up as refugees in Sudan or Libya just as Syrian women have.’

Aboul Fotoh, on the other hand, built his political career on creating a party that can destroy the secular-Islamist dichotomy. This was not possible in a deeply polarized Egypt. His party, ‘Masr al Qawiya,’ announced that it would take part in the protests demanding President Morsi’s resignation. On June 30th he wrote on his official twitter account,

‘Only the wise learn from the lessons of history. Dr. Morsi must resign immediately and meet the demands of the people for the sake of the country ’.

After Morsi was overthrown, Aboul Fotoh took a diplomatic stance. He did not reject the military takeover of the state but he condemned the military actions. This past summer, he wrote,

‘The government of the military coup failed to end the daily bloodshed and arrests of tens of peaceful protesters daily and clamps down on the media and closes its channels, in whose interests are they working?’

By not siding with any specific entity, Aboul Fotoh discredited himself with all parties. He took an unreasonable stance of supporting the coup but rejecting militarism. His futile political neutrality led his party to freeze its activities in many governorates.

The secular ex-Brotherhood youth were then incorporated into secular parties; liberals who supported both the coup and the subsequent crackdown, and the Leftists, who supported an uprising against Morsi whilst rejecting militarism but ultimately blamed the Islamists for the massacre. Finally, the more Islam-oriented ex-Brotherhood members rejected the coup completely and actively participated in the protests against it. As a result, many of them were killed in the massacres.

crossroadspullquoteAccording to the Egyptian media and secular forces, those that have been active on the anti-coup scene, especially in the ranks of the ex-Brotherhood members, are in fact ‘sleeper cells’ of the Muslim Brotherhood. There is no telling if the secular forces truly believe this notion. However, if they do, then this is a gross misreading of the situation.

These youths have two main reasons for supporting the anti-coup movement. First, Morsi was democratically elected and the military has set a dangerous precedent in ousting democratically elected leaders, which will give little future for democracy in Egypt. Second, the youth believe that they are involved in a historical process. There are two deeply rooted institutions in Egypt, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. The clash between them is inevitable since they both represent the traditional, outdated battle for national identity and a political system. By engaging in a war with one another, their institutional strengths are respectively weakening. If the military loses its governing ability while the Brotherhood loses its religious hegemony, this new scenario could pave the way for building newer and stronger democratic institutions while also fostering a new form of religious revivalism. Certainly, the democratic process of institution building will take time and the process of social and religious reformation may take even longer; however, it is precisely for this lack of political institutions with sound ideological backing that these youth are politically and ideologically reformulating the Islamic project.


New Ideologies Emerge

New political ideologies did not immediately form to replace old defunct ones following the revolution. Rather, ex-Brotherhood youths, who were highly politicized even before the revolution, are slowly developing offshoot ideologies based on their engagement of current tumultuous events. The Islamic-oriented youth now relate the institutional battle between the Brotherhood and the military to a form of ‘Post-Islamism’ that focuses on a social Islam and takes political Islam into a more Post-colonial era. The leftist, ex-Brotherhood members have dissected dialectic materialism and developed new ideas about non-nationalist Islamic socialism. The liberal, secular ex-Brotherhood members have been easily incorporated into liberal politics. They were so disillusioned by the Brotherhood that they accepted the Egyptian military as the guardians of secular modernism.

As alliances shift, so do ideologies amongst the various political players. Ex-Brotherhood members are busy filling the political void that has developed after the Morsi coup. Who will win this epic battle for power, democracy, Islamism and militarism in this ancient country of 80 million people? No one can predict the future of the “Mother of the World”. But the political wrangling in Egypt today will certainly write new chapters of revolutionary history, tomorrow.



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  • About the autor
    Walaa Quisay

    Walaa Quisay is an MA student of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter and a former researcher at the Middle East Consultancy Services. Follow her on Twitter @WalaaQuisay.

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