For decades, the Muslim Brotherhood posed the most significant organized challenge to Egypt’s repressive regimes. Those who believed in founder Hassan al-Banna’s vision of a fairer society in tune with Islamic values cherished the Brotherhood as a debating society, social safety net, political incubator, and a light in the darkness of Egyptian authoritarianism.
Then came the revolution of 2011, and the Brotherhood’s swift rise and fall from political power in Egypt. In a new Century International book, Broken Bonds: The Existential Crisis of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, 2013–22 (TCF Press, February 20, 2023), we draw on our extensive fieldwork and first-hand experience to depict an organization that has buckled under its own weight, consumed with infighting and paralyzed by toxic hierarchy.
Our analysis suggests that political leaders and policymakers have misunderstood the Brotherhood. It is not a populist movement with a mass following, but an elite organization. Our research exposes the Brotherhood’s lack of vision and strategy, the transactional nature of membership, its brittle and opaque leadership, and its tendency toward factionalization. The Brotherhood’s structure explains why it failed in power, and at the same time, why it has proven resilient under unprecedented pressure.
There is not one single path to violent extremism, or to disaffection. In fact, we document that, since 2013, members of the Brotherhood have followed numerous trajectories, some choosing militancy, some apolitical faith, and some growing entirely discontented with politics.
The Brotherhood is in the grip of a triple crisis: of identity, legitimacy, and membership.
The tale of the Brotherhood is a grim testament to the dimming hopes for democracy in Egypt. Relying on dozens of interviews with Brotherhood leaders, rank-and-file members, and internal dissenters, Broken Bonds dissects the Brotherhood’s decline, and what it portends for Egypt’s future.
In June 2012, Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi narrowly won Egypt’s first-ever free presidential election, ushering in a disastrous year of civilian rule. Brotherhood devotees had long accepted the organization’s secrecy, believing that it had a master plan that it would reveal at the right time. Morsi’s erratic presidency made it clear not only that there was no master plan, but that the Brotherhood couldn’t even respond to crises or set Egypt on a new path.
Then, in July 2013, came the military coup. And a month later, Egypt’s new dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, massacred approximately one thousand Muslim Brothers and sent thousands of others to prison or into hiding. In the chaos, the Brotherhood’s vaunted safety net frayed—even as corruption scandals plagued the leadership.
Ten years later, the Brotherhood is in the grip of a triple crisis of identity, legitimacy, and membership. Those Brotherhood leaders who have not been killed are jailed, or scattered in exile. Its members have split into factions that squabble over the Brotherhood’s sizable resources. The movement staggers onward, but with little sense of purpose.
Younger and idealistic Brotherhood members are drifting away. Their energy and purpose would be essential for any fresh push for Egyptian democracy. But instead of inspiring these members, the Brotherhood has retreated farther from Egyptian politics and activism.
It is too early to write off the Brotherhood, however. Even in its current state, it remains the most powerful nongovernmental force in Egypt.
But if the Brotherhood wants to be an agent for social and political change in Egypt, it must articulate a clear strategy. Even more importantly, it must introduce more democratic internal processes.
These changes, we argue in Broken Bonds, are unlikely to happen. Equally unlikely is that the Brotherhood will disappear from Egypt or from politics. The qualities that hold it back also sustained it through the darkest days of Egyptian authoritarianism. They may yet serve the movement’s survival—but it is much less likely that they will serve the ideals on which the Brotherhood was founded.
Read more about the book Broken Bonds, including how to order it, here. Broken Bonds is part of “Faith and Fracture,” a Century International project supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.
Header image: Supporters of Mohamed Morsi celebrate his anticipated election as president of Egypt in June 2012, before the Muslim Brotherhood’s short term in power. Source: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images