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'Our peacefulness is not stronger than bullets': Muslim Brotherhood divisions

A jostling between revolutionist and reformist wings of the Brotherhood has continued since the 2013 military takeover
Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters stage a demonstration in Giza ahead of the 4th anniversary of Egyptian Revolution (AA)

On a crisp January morning in Istanbul, 35-year-old journalist Asmaa Shokr sits with a cup of fragrant Turkish tea at her office desk in the city’s western district of Bakirkoy.

She recounts the major events leading up to Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s presidency in Egypt, as rays of sunlight brighten up her wide, brown eyes against the folds of a dark hijab adorning her face.

“We need a revolution, not reform,” she says with a penetrating voice, summing up the reason behind an ongoing jostling among the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since the summer of 2013, a sharpening crackdown by Sisi on the opposition, along with a deepening divide among reformist and revolutionary wings in the group, has led to a drastic transformation in the Brotherhood’s decades-old approach to change.

The essence of this change lies in an upheaval of the hierarchy and a fundamental restructuring process that has seen the youth empowered into leadership roles, bringing along their more revolutionary, and sometimes even radical, approaches to challenging Egypt’s status quo.

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, established by Ismailia school-teacher Hassan al-Banna in 1928, has been a deeply influential Islamic grassroots movement. With the exception of a militant unit that was set up to fight in Palestine in 1948, and to oust colonialist Britain from Egypt, the use of peaceful means for resistance has been a deeply entrenched principle within the group’s outlook. Capitalising on its engagement in student bodies, professional associations and charity work to reach out to communities, the group’s ageing guidance council had for decades adopted "reform from within the system" as a moto for gradual change.

But after the ousting of the first and only Islamist Egyptian government by a military takeover in July 2013, and the failure of the revolutionaries to overturn tides of state militarisation, the Brotherhood “which does not do revolution well,” according to Brookings scholar Shadi Hamid, may now be doing just that.

The revolutionists win out

"All the work on the ground is now led by twenty and thirty-year-olds,” says Yehia Hamed, the 36-year-old former Morsi aide who is now seen as a leading figure in the Brotherhood’s rising youthful wing.

With the Brotherhood’s leaders either in jail or scattered in exile to capitals across the globe, for the first time in the organisation's long history, less known, but revolutionary-spirited members are leading resistance on the ground.

The rise of the youth, who “have not been immersed in the group for long enough to be imbued with its non-confrontation ethic…see revolution as more natural,” says Hamid, an expert on Islamic movements and author of Temptations of Power.

Although the majority of this newly established revolutionist trend is prevalent among younger members of the Brotherhood, the divide is not strictly generational, and neither is it confined within the Brotherhood alone. Some senior members of the group are trying to catch up with the winds of change, while other Islamist groups have called for this shift long before.

“The main lesson I learned is that gradual change would no longer work,” Amr Darrag, the fifty-six year old former Morsi minister, says as he sips on a cappuccino at a café overlooking Istanbul’s central Taksim Square.

“I was trying to reform from within the system. But after the coup, I realised that there is no space for reconciliation with the military,” Darrag’s tells MEE, before removing his black-and-white chequered jacket to prepare for a midday meeting with a leading global human rights organisation.

As head of the group's Freedom and Justice Party’s foreign relations committee, Darrag who now lives in Istanbul, actively engages with NGOs and parliamentarians via regional and international platforms to try and convince governments and global institutions that “supporting the coup is not in their favour.”

With several opposition parties - many of which are Islamist - in discussion through the Istanbul-based Revolutionary Council, the Salafist-leaning al-Watan Party and more liberal al-Wasat Party members of the Council contributed new and revolutionary ideas for resistance during the first few months after the military coup.

However, the old guard of opposition groups, represented by the Brotherhood's Secretary-General Mahmoud Hussein, won out in the internal debates, quelling the potential for ground-breaking and forthcoming ideas, says Brookings' Hamid.

Tolerance for this approach within the Brotherhood quickly faded however, and in order to pacify discord, the group conceded to the will of active members who support an escalation with the Sisi government.

Hussein – who refused an interview when approached by MEE - was reportedly side-lined or “given other responsibilities” after mounting dissent against his non-confrontational approach.

Furthermore, the group has been decentralised, allowing for decisions to be taken without referring back to the leadership for authorisation and consultation, while newly elected youth committees are managing crisis and mobilisation on the ground.

Dwindling peacefulness

“If the world thought Egypt’s Islamists were radical, they’re in for a real surprise,” says Amar al-Beltagy, alluding to the passing of a time when Islamist leaders had coexisted with the government.

“Those leaders are no more,” he says with a sharp, yet soft-spoken determination as he sips on a hot mug of milky Salep at a restaurant overlooking’s Istanbul’s Anatolian shores.

Amaar’s father, Brotherhood leader Mohamed al-Beltagy, now lodges at Cairo’s Scorpion prison facility with former Brotherhood executive committee members – including Essam El-Arian and Essam El-Haddad – many of which were known as the 1970s vanguards. These leaders led the group into an 88-seat victory during Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary elections, and subsequently adopted a similar display of apprehensive cosiness with the post-2011 state structure.

Introduced in Darrag’s words, 23-year-old Beltagy, whose 17-year-old sister Asmaa was killed in the Rabaa dispersal following the 2013 coup, elaborates on the Brotherhood’s two stage strategy for resistance. If the first fails, movement onto the next will be inevitable, he explains.

“We are giving the state a chance to self-destruct,” Beltagy tells MEE referring to what the Brotherhood have long hoped for – an eventual demise of the Egyptian state caused by a steepening decline in the economy, and the failing of security, finance and production.

Despite the millions of dollars pumped in the form of aid by Gulf States, recent reports show that Egypt’s economy is in dire conditions, indicating a near state of collapse.

Capitalising on this situation, the Brotherhood has maintained a steady flow of protests and rallies on the ground while campaigning through media outlets and NGOs to raise awareness among “all of Egypt’s social sectors” about what they see as the plight of an entire nation.

Because the ground movement is now steered by young members who have “grown up with leftist and liberal revolutionary activists, and have been calling on their leadership to work with other groups since 2007,” according to Cambridge scholar Hazem Kandil, there is hope for more collaboration among different ideologies.

The manifestation of these characteristics have already become apparent on university campuses where a broad range of students, Islamists and non-Islamists, regularly unite against the military government. 

Having fled to Istanbul only three months ago, Beltagy says there is relatively visible success for the strategy as the grassroots - the poor, the youth, and the labour movements - from across Egypt’s governorates are joining and supporting the revolutionaries on the ground.

While Beltagy – who believes that Islamist revolutionaries armouring themselves with “grassroots support is the best alternative to using weapons” - sees that the simmering anger among Egypt’s masses at Sisi’s so-called failures is on the rise, it has not garnered enough agency to renew a popular uprising.

He fears that the next stage, which has already begun, with the youth resorting to “escalatory measures”, could become more violent in the face of increased oppression by the state.

While the Brotherhood – who according to Hamid “does not support the resort to al-Qaeda style violence" – has never claimed responsibility for targeted attacks, there has been a visible upsurge in acts of sabotage and violence against police members and infrastructure in Egypt over the past few months.

The question instead, says Hamid, “has been about low level violence which might be perceived as 'defensive' from their perspective.”

The measures which could be adopted, members and analysts say, may include acts of sabotage and other measures like torching police headquarters and stations, government offices, targeting security personnel, in addition to blocking vital roads and using Molotov cocktails.

Developments continue

But recent statements, coupled with an increasing frustration among rebellious voices, illustrate that these measures could potentially become more violent.

In an Arabic statement released on 27 January the Brotherhood called on its members to prepare themselves “physical and spiritually” to fight for freedom and protect it.

It quoted Brotherhood founder Banna saying: “Peace cannot be ensured without preparing for battle […] Power is the most certain way to establishing verity.”

The statement ended with: “Everyone must realise that we are embarking upon a new phase. We gather all our strengths; recount the meanings of jihad; prepare ourselves, families and those who support us for a long-term jihad; and aspire to reach the ranks of martyrs.”  

Despite the powerful language which can be seen by many as a call for jihad, many Brotherhood members interpreted the statement as a call for protecting itself against, rather than initiating, violence. At the same time, the youth applauded the statement which they saw as significant turning point in the group’s previously reconciliatory rhetoric.

This statement was countered by another published only a few days later on the Brotherhood's English website, Ikhwanweb, renouncing violence and reiterating its commitment to peacefulness, which may be interpreted as a continuation of the jostling between the ranks.

“Those who belong to the Muslim Brotherhood must adopt its peaceful approach and path of non-violent action; but if they call for a different line of action […] the group no longer accepts them, no matter what they say or do.”

Unlike Beltagy, who believes there is still time and hope for an uprising among the masses, a strong-willed Shokr – who sold her Cairo flat and packed her bags in nine days when Egyptian security services came looking for her after she published footage of the Nahda sit-in dispersal – believes that the youth need to lead a complete upheaval of the state structure now.

“We don’t need law; we need revolutionary courts. We don’t need diplomacy; we need clarity,” says Shokr adds.

As head of an Istanbul-based NGO's media department, she works to raise awareness about human rights violations of the Egyptian government against the opposition. Yet her real focus is now impinged on setting up a youth initiative which would call for unity among the youth if the new leaders do not satisfy her hunger for radical change.

Even more fixated on this view, is twenty-six year-old Hoziafa Fattouh, who believes that “the Morsi government should have carried out a comprehensive purification of state bodies” says: “It is about time that the revolutions fight back against the violence.”

“Our peacefulness is not stronger than bullets,” he says, condemning the infamous Brotherhood motto.   

“A policeman who killed a protestor or raped a girl, should be dealt with right away,” explained the tall, dark-haired Fattouh wearing a cocky, black leather jacket.

Officially named Aboulfotoh, he now lives in Istanbul after being pursued by state security which also ravished his advertising company for publishing Rabaa posters. He changed his name to distance himself from his friend-turned-foe uncle Abdelmoneim Aboulfotoh, another 1970s Brotherhood vanguard who broke away with the movement and ran independently as a presidential candidate in 2012.

Violence has remained, however, the mainstay of non-Brotherhood groups. In the North Sinai a number of deadly attacks have been claimed by the Islamic State affiliated Sinai Province group and in Cairo the Popular Resistance Front say they have been responsible for a string of bombings.

These attacks have caused Sisi to step up his campaign against what he calls "rampant Islamist terrorism", which many observers have said has been used to further crack down on all opposition groups.

Analysts and activists alike, believe that in the absence of any signs of an expansion of freedoms or reform by the state apparatus and judiciary, the state risks pushing the Brotherhood’s revolutionary wing, and the opposition in general, toward more violent means.

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