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Muslim Brotherhood’s youth wing reaffirms leadership after failed Egypt 'soft coup'

Statement from group's media outlet directly contradicts appointments announced hours before by its own general secretary
Mohammed Badie, the Brotherhood's spiritual leader, in court before being sentenced to death in April (AFP)

Ongoing tensions within Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood have hit fever pitch with a rift widening between older and younger members of the group, who are pushing for a more radical approach to opposing the government of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

First, reports emerged suggesting that the once powerful older generation had carried out a soft coup within the group. But then, just hours later on Thursday night, the Brotherhood - which has increasingly been led by a younger generation since last year - released a statement stressing its commitment to a “revolutionary approach” in Egypt and affirming that there is “no retreat” from the struggle against the country’s government.

The statement by Mohamed Montasser, the group’s media spokesman in Cairo, also announced the Brotherhood’s aims to “restore legitimacy, exact retribution for the martyrs and rebuild Egyptian society on a sound and civilised basis”.

Some commentators, including local newspapers, quickly interpreted the statement as an indication that the group, which has long affirmed its commitment to non-violence, was now changing tactics. However, many others have since queried these claims and insist that the declaration should be seen as a reflection of the more youthful leaders seizing back power in the group.

(Translation: Among the best things that have happened in the Egyptian revolutionary movement, is the movement of young, revolutionary-minded figures to the forefront of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership.) 

In a reversal of the long-held Muslim Brotherhood approach to gradual change, this younger group of leaders has been pushing for a more radical approach to resist the military-led authorities that overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, in 2013 and then carried out a fierce crackdown against the group in Rabaa Square that August.

With no prospect of being permitted to re-enter the mainstream political scene, and with most of the group’s leadership on death row or in prison, the Brotherhood is said to be in disarray.

Changing times

In February last year after the widespread crackdowns, the Brotherhood held elections in Egypt. The vote swung in favour of new, more revolutionary members of the group who ascended into leadership positions, side-lining older figures who had dominated the group for decades.

“The election results reflect a radical change not because the people [who were] elected are radicals in the sense of being violent, but rather it is a radical change in that it is not simply an old guard dominated leadership [anymore],” said John Esposito, professor of religion, international affairs and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. “In fact, some of the people who were entrenched were not re-elected and instead new blood came in.”

Reports of the soft coup by the old guard seem to have been initiated by a declaration from one of the group’s sidelined figures, Mahmoud Hussein, the Brotherhood’s former secretary general, now based in Istanbul.

Hussein issued a statement saying that Mahmoud Ezzat, the Brotherhood’s former deputy chairman, would replace the imprisoned Mohammed Badie as the group’s spiritual guide. He then went on to call for a return of the group’s former leaders to the forefront of the decision-making process.

Hussein’s statement also declared recent decisions taken by the elected leaders invalid, including the independence of a new Brotherhood board which had been elected in April to help manage members living in exile or abroad.

However, a statement issued hours later by Mohammed Montasir, the Brotherhood’s media spokesperson, insisted that Badie will not be removed from his post, despite having been sentenced to death in April.

According to Montasser’s declaration, “the group’s media spokesman [Montasser] and media outlets are the only sources that represent the group and its views”. 

Thursday’s statements, which directly contradict one another, suggest that cracks within the group could now be emerging publicly.

“Hussein’s statement is almost like a rearguard action, an attempt to reclaim [authority],” said Esposito.

“What is reflected is more of a continuity to what is coming out [from the young in] Cairo, there is a process of change that is plugged into the ordinary unfolding of the organisation.”

“At the same time, an element living in exile is in fact attempting an old guard action, an ideological coup, [to maintain its] power,” he explained.

One of the main issues of contention between the two camps has been the use of violence or other radical means to resist the crackdown on opposition groups in Egypt. The older leaders have been committed to total non-violence, which has been seen as passive and conciliatory by the younger, more radical camp. It’s this camp that now seeks to adopt stronger measures against the military coup, although it is unclear exactly what kinds of tactics will be used.

But the rift could also be about power. According to a Brotherhood source quoted by the Arabi21 website, the core of the conflict is not the issue of violence, but rather the old guard’s unwillingness to let go of their positions, despite the group having voted in new leaders.  

Montasser’s statement published in both English and Arabic quotes a declaration signed by 150 Islamic scholars earlier this week that deems it “obligatory under Islamic law…to resist the ruling system” in Egypt.

The declaration comes less than two weeks after the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, the former elected president whom many members believe to be the legitimate leader of Egypt, was sentenced to death by an Egyptian court for his part in mass prison breaks in 2011.

Since Morsi's ousting, the Brotherhood, designated a “terrorist organisation” in Egypt in late 2013, has been accused by Sisi supporters of attempting to sow discord in Egypt by launching violent attacks.

Despite the election of a new leadership committed to a more radical approach than that of its predecessors, the group denies involvement in these violent attacks.