Since its founding in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood has been controversial. The group, which has active and public chapters in many countries around the world, has, over the decades, developed an immunity against annihilation. Even as a quasi-clandestine organization, it exerted great influence in Egyptian and regional politics. For a series of Egyptian autocrats, the Muslim Brotherhood, with its reach and popularity, was a hidden threat that needed to be managed. Those authoritarians jailed tens of thousands over the years.1 For generations of wronged and alienated Brotherhood members in Egypt, the movement provided a foundation for political action, and held the promise of a different kind of society and government.
After the January 2011 revolution, the Brotherhood finally had its chance to govern. But governing required different strengths from leading the opposition, and after some failures and in the face of much hostility from other nodes of Egyptian power, the Brotherhood lost credibility. In July 2013, just a year after the Brotherhood took power, the Egyptian military staged a coup, ousted the president, Mohamed Morsi, and crushed the group. The army killed hundreds of Brotherhood activists in the streets, and arrested tens of thousands of others. (Morsi died in June 2019, while in custody.)
The coup and crackdown left the Brotherhood adrift, perhaps more so than it ever had been in its ninety-two-year history. Nevertheless, it has been able to survive, in large part because thousands of members fled the country and continue to lead the organization from abroad. Though extant, however, the organization is forever changed. For those who appreciate the Brotherhood’s importance to Egyptian and regional history, the group’s new situation poses burning questions: What shape will it take in the future? Will it continue to be an Egyptian organization?
Finding the answer to these questions requires a deeper understanding of the Brotherhood’s current circumstances. It is now an organization led mostly by a diaspora. The political, ideological, and social dynamics of this Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood diaspora directly affect the present and the future of the movement. Further, the presence of large numbers of Brotherhood members in Turkey, and the close relations between the group’s leadership and the Turkish ruling faction (the Justice and Development Party, known by its Turkish abbreviation, AKP) mean that events and politics in Turkey are now a great influence on the group—as much, perhaps, as events and politics in Egypt.
What this Turkish influence means for the future of the Brotherhood is still up for debate. One outcome could be the promotion of a “Turkish model” of Islamic governance in Egypt. In Turkey, this model has meant a blend of Islam and democracy, which voters have embraced and the military has accepted.2 Another possible outcome could be the end of the Muslim Brotherhood as a conservative, youth-based movement, as it loses its youth to the more open and liberal society they are embracing in Turkey.
This report is based on the author’s years of experience studying the Muslim Brotherhood, his long-standing contacts with current and former members of the group, and many interviews that were conducted in person and over the phone in Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar with mid-level Brotherhood leaders, members, and a few of the group’s officials.3 Phone interviews were also conducted with current and former Muslim Brotherhood prisoners and their family members.
The Muslim Brotherhood and Erdogan: A Brief History
According to senior Turkish officials who were quoted in the media in 2019 and 2020, there are some 15–30,000 Egyptians living in Turkey.4 An opposition leader in Istanbul told the author that Muslim Brotherhood members, along with their families, number around twenty thousand. In other words, it is possible that most Egyptians now living in Turkey have some type of connection to the Muslim Brotherhood. These numbers represent only a tiny fraction of the Arab nationals living in Turkey. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Turkey continues to host more than 4.1 million refugees and asylum seekers, mostly Syrians.5 The relative smallness of the population of Brotherhood members in Turkey—as compared to other Arab migrants—has allowed the Brotherhood to benefit from its friendly relationship with the AKP government, without provoking nationalistic fears in Turkey. In general, it is safe to say that the Turkish people continue to have favorable opinions about the Egyptian diaspora—in contrast to their feelings about other Arab populations in Turkey. For example, a poll from July 2019 found that more than 80 percent of Turks want to send Syrian refugees back to Syria.6
It is possible that most of the 15–30,000 Egyptians now living in Turkey have some type of connection to the Muslim Brotherhood.
However, the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the AKP has not always been amicable. In 2001, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and several other politicians, including Abdullah Gul (president 2007–14) and Bulent Arinc (speaker of the parliament 2002–7), founded the AKP. The Muslim Brotherhood took a negative view of this move, which entailed those three Turkish politicians’ defections from the Islamist Virtue Party and its spiritual mentor and leader, Necmettin Erbakan. The Egyptian movement saw a threat in Erdogan’s defection, which might encourage similar defections by popular Brotherhood leaders in Egypt.7
Additionally, traditionalists in the Brotherhood abhorred the idea of a generational split within the organization—the type of split on display in the actions of the robust young leaders of the newly founded AKP. A Brotherhood saying about Erdogan and his fellow travelers at the time said that “they were grapes, and now they have become wine”—in other words, they had become akin to a prohibited beverage, impure. In 2007, Morsi—at the time a member of the Guidance Bureau, the highest executive body in the Brotherhood—wrote an article on the movement’s official website refusing to describe the AKP as an Islamist party, and denouncing its ideology. “The AKP is announcing its approval of the Western notion of secularism,” he wrote. “This is different from [the Brotherhood’s] ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic State.” He continued: “We cannot compare between two successful cases of two totally different movements [the Brotherhood in Egypt and the AKP in Turkey] that do not agree in their fundamentals, goals, ends, or even their tactics and tools.”8
The Brotherhood needed to distance itself from the AKP for political reasons, as well. On various issues, the AKP government that took control of Turkey with Erdogan’s election to the premiership in 2003 took radically different stances than the Muslim Brotherhood. For one, the AKP tended to forge coalitions with secular and liberal elites in Turkey. Even more significant, the AKP’s foreign policy was aligned with that of the United States, and had a considerable focus on Turkey’s European Union accession bid.9 Traditional Islamists in Turkey, however, focused their foreign policy around Turkish rule as an Islamic regional player, establishing Islamic alliances and coalitions with Muslim-majority countries.10 Notably, the AKP decided to continue Turkey’s normalization of political and economic ties with Israel. This was a policy that the Brotherhood felt was impossible to accept or to pass to their supporters in Egypt or elsewhere.
Until the 2011 revolution, the Brotherhood continued to see a threat in the AKP model and feared that young Brotherhood members would adopt similar ideas. For Brotherhood leaders who valued organizational loyalty and coherence above everything, acknowledging the success of the AKP in ruling would have meant implicitly acknowledging the success of an Islamist splinter movement, which jeopardized the Brotherhood narrative that the organization had a monopoly on righteous resistance. In October 2009, Rafik Habib, a Christian advisor to the Brotherhood’s late supreme guide, Mohammed Mahdi Akef (1928–2017), described what Erdogan was providing as not “impaired secularism” (a phrase common among Egyptian intellectuals) but rather “impaired Islam.” Habib urged the Brotherhood not to adopt a similarly impaired version of Islam.11
For Brotherhood leaders, acknowledging the success of the AKP would have jeopardized the Brotherhood narrative that the organization had a monopoly on righteous resistance.
The Brotherhood attitude changed after the 2011 Egyptian revolution. The group began using the economic successes of the AKP to promote the Brotherhood’s own political image in Egypt as a viable electoral option. The Brotherhood also began describing the AKP as an Islamist party and, at times, as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. (Brotherhood foes also adopted that description.)12 The AKP did not uncritically accept the Brotherhood’s new embrace. In September 2011, Erdogan publicly advised Egypt to adopt a secular model. “I’m a Muslim prime minister to a secular country,” Erdogan said in a television interview.13 It came as little surprise that Erdogan’s statement did not receive much Brotherhood appreciation, and some Brotherhood leaders tried to distance their movement from the Turkish prime minister.14 It is hard to say that Erdogan was an enemy during these times, but he was not a close friend either.
This changed rapidly in the months that followed. The electoral successes of the Brotherhood, and later, its winning of the presidency, enhanced the relationship between the two countries.15 The movement kept highlighting the political and doctrinal similarities with Erdogan—Morsi reassured Egypt’s international partners that its relationship with Israel would not change, for example, and did not make religious language a central part of his public discourse. The Brotherhood–AKP partnership offered considerable economic opportunities, as well. Soon enough, Erdogan and his AKP became the closest international ally to Morsi and the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).
It is important to note that the Muslim Brotherhood, as an organization, has also experienced major shifts in its political thinking since the revolution. As a candidate in 2012, Morsi told Christiane Amanpour of CNN that there was no such thing as an “Islamic democracy”—meaning that the Brotherhood believed in democracy as a concept, period, and that it did not believe democracy needed to be modified to be made Islamic.16 In September 2012, as the newly elected president, Morsi praised Erdogan’s goals and hopes for justice and equality, in a speech before thousands of AKP members in Ankara.17 For these reasons, it did not come as a surprise that Egyptian Brotherhood members chose Turkey to flee to after the military coup in the summer of 2013.
Disassociation from the Egyptian Experience
As the Muslim Brotherhood apparatus evolved over the course of the 1930s, it rapidly grew into an international organization. Becoming international made sense ideologically, because the Brotherhood’s vision was built around the idea of pan-Islamism. But its international presence also became crucial for the endurance of the movement later on, when it needed international nodes to survive repression in Egypt. Despite this international orientation, however, the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, for most of its long history, considered itself the ultimate policymaker and the sole responsible body for determining its strategies. None of the many crises that the Egyptian branch lived through before changed this—until the 2013 overthrow of Morsi.18
Turkish and Egyptian sources, including Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a former Brotherhood leader and a spiritual figure for the movement, claim that the Turkish political leadership had warned the Brotherhood about General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s intentions months before the military coup. These claims cannot be verified; nevertheless, the Brotherhood evidently wasn’t exhorted by the Islamists’ history in Turkey, which witnessed four military coups in the second half of the twentieth century—one of which was extremely bloody.19 The Brotherhood did not seem to take note of the possible parallel implications for its rise in Egypt. In the two years between the revolution and the military coup, the Brotherhood insisted on believing in the exceptionality of the Egyptian military, and showed no concern that military officers—Sisi included—would ever overthrow a democratically elected president. The “coup from below,” as Egypt expert Amy Austin Holmes has described it, came as a surprise for the Muslim Brotherhood. Most of its leaders and the rank and file had no inkling that the military might turn against them.20 In several conversations with the author between late 2012 and early 2013, senior Brotherhood officials said that they were not expecting a betrayal from the military, though they didn’t seem to trust the interior ministry’s intentions against Morsi. Many spoke about the Brotherhood’s unshaken trust for the military—even when the tanks had taken control of the streets at the end of June, 2013, just days before the coup. Similarly, the Brotherhood leaders did not attend to the public rage that had been mounting against them for months before the coup. “You do not understand the Egyptian people and their drivers, we do,” a Brotherhood leader said in November 2012, a few days before popular protests erupted against Morsi.21
This failure of the Brotherhood leadership to sense the political tides in Egypt forced the young and lower-ranking members, perhaps for the first time, to doubt their leaders’ once unquestionable abilities and political cleverness. In the wake of the coup, driven by their group’s structural weaknesses and its fresh defeat, Brotherhood members were ready to learn from different players, including the ones whom their leaders once considered “forbidden wine.”
The Brotherhood insisted on believing in the exceptionality of the Egyptian military, and showed no concern that military officers—Sisi included—would ever overthrow a democratically elected president.
Even before Muslim Brotherhood members and leaders decamped to Turkey, Ankara had already begun to learn its own lessons from the Egyptian experience. The coup against the Brotherhood reinforced the authoritarian tendencies of the Turkish leadership. Since the military coup, Erdogan has used the events in Egypt as a scarecrow to suppress different elements of the civil society in Turkey and his political opponents—even those in his own party.22
For its part, the Brotherhood’s new support of Turkish policies emerged in different forms and shapes. For instance, in April 2016, Arab Islamists close to the Brotherhood held a major event in Istanbul that they called “Thank You, Turkey.” The three-day event was dedicated to extending the Brotherhood’s gratitude to the Turkish leadership for hosting Islamist politicians and opposition leaders from different Arab countries. Keynote speakers described Erdogan as a “sultan,” and Turkey as the house of the “caliphate.” The acting supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ibrahim Mounir, was present. Khalid Meshaal, the former leader of Hamas, attended and said that “Turkey presented the best example of political Islam in democracy, governance, and economy.”23
This support of Turkey for the Brotherhood has been clear in some of the comments of former Brotherhood leaders, including Amr Darrag, the international cooperation minister in Morsi’s administration.24 In comments published in a 2020 RAND Corporation report on the U.S.–Turkish strategic partnership, Darrag expressed support to Erdogan’s internal policies toward Fethullah Gulen’s movement, which the Turkish government had labeled a terrorist organization. (The movement led a failed coup attempt in July 2016.)25 Darrag also rejected assertions by Western and Arab commentators who have called Erdogan’s government authoritarian.26 Although Darrag did not represent the Brotherhood at the time he made his comments, they are consistent with other Brotherhood statements in 2017 endorsing and justifying Erdogan’s decisions—regardless of how undemocratic they are. For example, the Brotherhood officially applauded the Turkish constitutional amendments, passed through a popular vote in April 2017, that were designed to allow Erdogan to rule until 2029.27 These amendments, in many ways, contravene democratic norms and good governance, and even many AKP members announced their opposition to them, including the former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
Although the Brotherhood makes few public statements about its official position on the Erdogan government, Brotherhood supporters, members, and officials have made it clear, through their published articles, op-eds, and studies, that they are adopting policies in the Turkish model. Additionally, websites that are linked to international branches of the Muslim Brotherhood have been publishing articles in support of Erdogan’s policies, whether internally or in terms of his foreign policy.28 Some of these websites have rejected op-eds and readers’ responses that bear even a mild critique of Erdogan’s policies—whether domestic or foreign.
There are multiple political, social, and organizational reasons for the change in Brotherhood attitudes toward Erdogan: from the total rejection of his experience in 2001, to accepting him as a close ally in 2012, and embracing him as a political mentor and role model.
The Social Factor
When Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, he relied heavily on the urban cadres and activists that played a pivotal role in spreading the ideas of the Brotherhood to the world. The organization presented itself as following the tendencies of Sufism, an approach to Islam that is popular in rural North Africa and gives leaders enormous power over their devotees and followers.29 But from the beginning, urban political values and practices, such as institutionalism and professionalism, were prevalent in all aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood’s work and ideology. Such values were clear in the movement’s recruitment systems, laws, organizational structure, and power dynamics.
For historical and social reasons, the Brotherhood went through what the late Hosam Tammam, an expert on the group, called the group’s “provincialization.”30 This transformation—which, according to Tammam, began in the early 1990s—embraced rural values, such as patriarchy and the domination of personalities over institutionalism. The Brotherhood abandoned critical thinking, instead favoring the emotional discourse of preaching. This affected the relations between the movement’s members and their leadership, which, again according to Tammam, became governed by the fear of showing internal discontent or opposition. In an article published in 2008, Tammam said that the urban personalities who had led the organization for decades had disappeared, and that new leaders with rural backgrounds had come to power, including Morsi and Saad el-Katatni.31 (Morsi and Katatni would, of course, go on to become the first president and first speaker of the parliament, respectively, in post-revolution Egypt.) Although the organization kept its original structures and regulations, its urban norms were stripped by the daily practices of its rank and file. In order to sustain its newly acquired rural values, the Brotherhood resorted to promoting charismatic father figures as leaders that were respected among the followers of the movement.
Consequently, when Erdogan rose to power in 2003, the Brotherhood leadership saw a threat in the emergence of a young charismatic ex-Islamist, which could shake values of obedience inside their own organization and inspire similar internal splits. At the time, and until 2013, the Brotherhood had not faced a problem in convincing its supporters that Erdogan was a felicitous friend, but that the Brotherhood should not import his experience into the Egyptian context. For their part, many Brotherhood members felt that the Brotherhood’s own seasoned leaders had inspired Erdogan’s leadership and charisma. However, as a result of the Brotherhood’s more recent political decline, the Brotherhood rank and file lost faith in the group’s leaders as strong and infallible leaders.
Beginning in the 1990s, in a process that observers have called the “provincialization of the Brotherhood,” the group abandoned critical thinking, instead favoring the emotional discourse of preaching.
It was not just the coup that caused Brotherhood leaders to lose credibility among the membership. In the spring of 2019, a voice note was circulated among Brotherhood members on WhatsApp that purportedly recorded a conversation between two Brotherhood leaders, Amir Bassam and Mohamed el-Desouky.32 In the recording, Bassam complained to Desouky about how Mahmoud Hussein, the Brotherhood secretary general, had just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars that belonged to the organization to buy an estate and a private car for his son. At the time that the note circulated, exiled members of the Brotherhood in Turkey received just 200 Turkish liras (less than $30) each month from the movement. Officially, the Brotherhood rejected Bassam’s claims on the basis of technicalities, but Brotherhood members saw the recording as proof of their leadership’s recklessness, if not corruption.33
In this context, many of the Brotherhood rank and file viewed Erdogan as a savior to the organization—a powerful sponsor and one of the last world leaders to truly believe in the same ethical framework that inspired the Brotherhood.
Another important aspect of the rise of personalities over institutionalism in the Brotherhood is that its patriarchal nature has given more weight and respect to older, more experienced men. Erdogan, now sixty-six, is in many ways of the same generation as most of the current, active Brotherhood leaders, who are in their sixties and early seventies. These include the secretary general, Hussein, seventy-three; Mohamed Soudan, sixty-four, a senior leader in London; and Medhat al-Haddad, seventy, a senior leader and a businessman whom the Egyptian government is accusing of heading the financial committee of the movement in Turkey.
The second factor in the Brotherhood’s readiness to learn from Erdogan’s experience is his effectiveness. For a populist grassroots movement, the bloody coup experience combined with the rise of ruthless populist leaders in the region and beyond have given the Brotherhood reasons to believe that, in a world that seems to know only the language of power, it must be feared to succeed. The ways of Erdogan, democratic or not, are working.
The Turkish president has been in power for two decades, was able to advance the Turkish economy in what was considered by many an economic miracle, and, most importantly, has been able to curb the military’s ambitions and control its officers’ lust for power. In addition, Erdogan has been doing all this without losing legitimacy as an elected leader. As Oxford scholar Monica Marks put it, in a description of the possible effect of Erdogan’s policies on the Brotherhood: “What you’re seeing in Turkey is a regime that at least on its surface looks very powerful, using a discourse of democratic legitimacy to defend what are in many ways undemocratic policies. It’s very seductive.”34
It is not just the Brotherhood’s views of Erdogan that have evolved; the Turkish leader himself has greatly changed since the early years of this century, when the Brotherhood rejected him. He has switched from relying on the collective leadership of his political party to individual leadership, and from a representative-democratic party—which was the original form of the AKP when it was founded—to a highly centralized one. This new version of the party is built around the personality of Erdogan, and particularly so since the failed coup attempt in 2016. These changes in Erdogan’s orientation have resonated perfectly with the Brotherhood’s acquired rural and patriarchal values.
Erdogan’s stubborn ways are also attractive for the Brotherhood because of the latter’s predominant self-image as an uncompromising, principle-based movement. For many outside the Brotherhood, especially its political rivals, this self-image has been proven false almost every time it was tested. Nevertheless, it remains strong within the Brotherhood, and fits neatly with the Brotherhood narrative that justifies the group’s authoritarian decision-making process in recent years. In contrast to their admiration for Erdogan, Brotherhood members in Turkey show little appreciation for the political approaches that were adopted by the Tunisian political party Ennahda and its leader, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, who is seen by many as a softhearted leader who gave up too much in order to sustain his movement’s involvement in Tunisian politics.
A Hollow Ideology
The third factor in understanding the openness of the Brotherhood to learn from Erdogan’s political experience is ideology.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded as a doctrine-based movement. However, the organization’s apparatus—its governing structures, its efficiency, and its bureaucracy—has been more crucial than ideology in sustaining the organization. There are many possible explanations for the weakness of the Brotherhood’s ideology, which has morphed with ease. First, Hassan al-Banna, though a brilliant preacher and advocate, was just twenty-two years old when he founded the organization, with limited life experience as a young teacher of Arabic and religion, and intellectual skills that were probably less than fully independent and developed. Second, Banna wanted to unite a broad spectrum of people and ideas under the umbrella of the Muslim Brotherhood, which meant that he had to maintain flexibility in ideology as far as he could. To this end, Banna designed the movement to include members from different religious perspectives and political tendencies. He had a clear ideology of political Islam, but had complete tolerance of subsidiary ideologies—he didn’t mind members having different interpretations and political orientations, as long as they agreed on the big picture of the importance of Islam in public life. The Brotherhood, he wrote, is a “Salafi call, a Sunni way, a mystical (Sufi) truth, a political body, a sports group, a scientific and cultural association, an economic society, and a social idea.”35 At the same time, the type of organization that Banna built did not leave space for radical ideas, which are typically appealing to young activists. He wanted to build a middle-class mass movement that would be able to recruit millions of followers, not only in Egypt but also around the world. The premise was clear: if the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to build an Islamic state, it had to start from the grassroots and the lowest common denominator. This made the Brotherhood’s ideology simple and appealing to the largest proportion of Muslims—but also weakly founded and easily influenced by more radical ideas.
Hassan al-Banna, the Brotherhood’s founder, described his organization as a “Salafi call, a Sunni way, a Sufi truth, a political body, a sports group, a scientific and cultural association, an economic society, and a social idea.”
By choosing to adopt a simple ideology, Banna sacrificed his movement’s intellectual depth in favor of its organizational strength. In his epistles, Banna usually glorified practical actions and structure over thoughts and ideology. For the Brotherhood, this manifested in the organization’s estrangement from new ideas or intellectuals. In fact, in the last two decades, the Brotherhood has discouraged independent thinking and even used disciplinary actions to suppress new ideas, including the suspension of senior officials’ membership, and even the expulsion of members and officials who showed signs of intellectual independence.36
This disregard for ideological development has led the Brotherhood to lose a lot in its intellectual battles with other Islamists. The Brotherhood’s political defeat in 2013 manifested on the intellectual front. It wasn’t just the state’s maximum violence against the movement—the coup and the dispersion of the pro-Morsi sit-ins—that vanquished the Brotherhood. It was also losing power among the religiously conservative. Salafi, and sometimes jihadist, non-Brotherhood ideas were overwhelmingly present in the narrative pronounced on the podiums in the different sit-ins of 2013. They convinced scores of Brotherhood members, who lost faith in the traditional Brotherhood ideas.37 The Brotherhood “never taught us about jihad or how to resist autocratic regimes,” said a twenty-nine-year-old former Brotherhood member, who is currently serving a life sentence in prison for his political views. He said that many Brotherhood members in prison feel betrayed because of the movement’s intellectual gaps.38 Scores of Brotherhood members left the organization in the years that followed the coup, and founded or joined groups that called for using violence against the government.39
The gaps in the movement’s ideology are not limited to political thought. They also extend to the details of its political program. Critics have long charged that the Brotherhood never offered a reliable political plan in any of its electoral confrontations, and that the group relied on strong slogans rather than substance.40 That was one of the reasons the Brotherhood, since it started participating in elections during Hosni Mubarak’s early years in power and until 2012, leaned so heavily on its organizational structure, and tribal and personal networks—rather than political platforms—to recruit voters and supporters.
As much as some Brotherhood members were swayed by more radical Islamist ideas after the coup, others are equally ready to follow Erdogan’s lead. What they have in common, it seems, is a dissatisfaction with the Brotherhood’s lack of intellectual evolution.
Unlike the Brotherhood, the AKP and Erdogan have had a successful political program and a clear ideology. Erdogan refuses to use religious terms when describing the party; instead, he defines the party’s agenda as being “conservative democracy.”41 However, the AKP’s victories, as Turkish commentators see them, have more to do with “bread-and-butter issues” than ideology.42 For nearly two decades, Erdogan and his party have been able to maintain startling economic achievements. In the first decade of party rule (2002–12), Turkish GDP per capita is estimated to have risen 43 percent.43 This appealing platform of growth has convinced the majority of Turkish voters for the last two decades. And this economic success, combined with the populist emotional approach that Erdogan has been using in his support to the cause of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, induced Brotherhood members in Turkey to look at Erdogan’s experience with awe. As much as some Brotherhood members were swayed by more radical Islamist ideas after the coup, others are equally ready to follow Erdogan’s lead. What they have in common, it seems, is a dissatisfaction with the Brotherhood’s lack of intellectual evolution.
A Strong Apparatus, but Not in Turkey
The Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology may have been weak and malleable, but its structure has remained strong. In fact, its ideological weakness required rigidity in organization and structure in order to push the movement forward.
The Brotherhood’s apparatus has been much more powerful than imagined by its enemies, and it has proved able to carry the ideas of the movement and care for its members and followers. To some extent, the apparatus has been able to recover very quickly since the Egyptian crackdown and the dispersal of sit-ins on August 14, 2013. In many places around Egypt, weekly meetings (known as “usra”) never stopped, except for a few weeks after the sit-in dispersals. And the organization returned to functioning in survival mode, as it has been doing marvelously for decades.
This apparatus has also remained very efficient in serving the needs of Brotherhood prisoners. It has served as a social incubator for the prisoners who have been in and out of jails since 2013. In all Egyptian prisons, the Brotherhood, which has experience with prisons going back to the 1940s, has been supporting prisoners through providing educational and self-development courses and spiritual advice.44 The organization has been conducting elections to choose its leaders in prisons and their representatives to negotiate on their behalf and convey messages to prison authorities. Moreover, it has been providing social, financial, and emotional support to prisoners’ families—an effective means of control. For example, when the Brotherhood started to suffer internal splits over ideological differences in 2014 and 2015—a year or two after the coup—the apparatus was able to control the members’ taking of sides by only providing financial support to members who endorsed the traditionalists in leadership.45
But such methods of control, effective for many years, have proven inadequate for shoring up loyalty in Turkey. With the Brotherhood’s exposure to new life experiences in relatively socially liberal countries like Turkey, the tactics are becoming irrelevant. A twenty-one-year-old ex-member, who was also a former prisoner before managing to leave Egypt, said that many members find no reason to remain in the organization other than the accommodation provided by the Brotherhood and the insignificant aid they get each month.46 His comments may foreshadow the future of the Brotherhood in Turkey, with young members drifting away if the apparatus does not adapt.
Normally, Brotherhood members have tended to live in communities that are semi-isolated from society. This tendency may be the result of the ideas of Sayyid Qutb, the influential early member of the Brotherhood who was executed in 1966 after authorities accused him of plotting the assassination of Gamal Abdel Nasser. For example, Qutb championed the idea of “emotional alienation”—a concept that called for the Muslim elite to separate themselves from society to escape its power over their minds.47 Brotherhood members also removed themselves from society to escape the periodic suppression they were subjected to—often with popular backing—throughout their history.
But the material support that the Brotherhood gave to its freshly isolated members in Turkey and other countries was inadequate. These members received stipends, but their new lives created new needs that the Brotherhood did not meet: many had to find work in an unfamiliar society or, having left Egypt at a young age, had to return to school. In Turkey especially, this has meant that Brotherhood members have found themselves in new social settings that have drastically affected their mindsets. These changes will, in turn, affect how the organization looks in the future. As Brotherhood leaders watch the authoritarianism-prone Turkish administration in total admiration, they are also encountering Turkish society, which has more liberal values than Egypt’s. Brotherhood youth are warming both to less democratic styles of governance, and to cultural norms that are less restrictive for women in general, and more accommodating of difference in religious convictions—or at least of less conservative models of religious engagement.
Toilsome jobs and education that necessitates learning the Turkish language and interacting with different people have led many Brotherhood youth to adopt a lifestyle that is utterly different from that preached in the movement. Brotherhood youth have, to some extent, redefined relations between men and women to be more open than in their original communities. They have also become less attentive to religious practices and rituals, and more accepting to different lifestyles and choices. These new ways of living could eventually lead the youth to break away from the Brotherhood, or to completely or partially relinquish religious motivations. In essence, they are adopting a new worldview.
Usually, these kinds of transformations receive fierce reactions from the Brotherhood, whose leaders decide to retreat and further isolate themselves to maintain the “purity” of the organization. While the Brotherhood is flexible in its ideology to a degree—more so than, say, Salafi groups—it remains deeply attached to certain principles of religious interpretation that could be considered, by global standards, very conservative. For example, Islam is more than a religion—it is an ideology that must be represented in power. The Brotherhood’s public stance toward women is relatively progressive when compared to other Islamists in the Middle East (namely, jihadists such as al-Qaeda and Saudi-influenced Salafis). Still, the Brotherhood does interpret some scriptures in ways that can be oppressive to women. The Brotherhood also views itself as having the purest and most accurate interpretation of Islam; this perspective is apparent in the movement’s texts, old and new, and in the day-to-day dealings of members.
While the Brotherhood is flexible in its ideology to a degree—more so than, say, Salafi groups—it remains deeply attached to certain principles of religious interpretation that could be considered, by global standards, very conservative.
For many close observers of the Brotherhood in Turkey, the group’s younger generation is losing its faith in these core principles of the movement’s ideology. The questioning of the ideology goes beyond previous shifts in the group’s history, when it was a matter of flexibility but not evolution of a new worldview. And maybe for the first time, these youth also do not feel the need to be part of the Brotherhood apparatus, with the social benefits it provides.
An Uncertain Future
Unless the Muslim Brotherhood goes through a rough and radical episode of self-criticism and reform, it may forfeit its youth. Those youth—the potential future of the movement—will view the remaining Brotherhood leadership as an elderly and incompetent clique who have had more than their fair share of failures, and an unjustified sense of entitlement.
In a ceremony that the Muslim Brotherhood held in Istanbul in April 2018 in celebration of its ninetieth anniversary, Islamist leaders of different nationalities spoke about the history of the Brotherhood, portraying it as a sacred and faultless movement.48 The Brotherhood’s narrative admits no crisis. Most speakers presented the organization as an abstract notion without attending to any context—some would say that they were even detached from reality. However, there was a single contribution that addressed some of the Brotherhood failures and asked the divided organization to unite. This came from Yasser al-Abasiri, a forty-nine-year-old sentenced to death, in a deeply flawed “mass trial,” for the killing of two police personnel in Alexandria in 2013.49 Abasiri, whose wife said he was forcibly disappeared for eleven days, during which he was severely tortured into confessing a crime he did not commit, submitted his comments from prison by letter, which the presenter read.50 In his comments, he asserted his allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood and said that he didn’t fear death. Instead, what was “defeating” him was “seeing the rifts between the Brothers.” Abasiri, who has been in jail since March 2014, concluded by saying: “I only wish for one thing before my execution, for you [the Muslim Brotherhood] to be united behind your leadership.”51
Another speaker appeared at the event to give comments on behalf of the Brotherhood youth. His short contribution seemed, to those with any familiarity of the actually prevalent sentiments among young Brotherhood members, to be vacantly optimistic. His speech did nothing to tackle the real issues that occupy his generation’s minds. Perhaps the real concerns of the youth are too inconvenient for the Brotherhood. It is impossible not to wonder: Will prisoners and yes-men play a more significant role than the diaspora in defining the future of the Muslim Brotherhood? And if so, does the Brotherhood have a future at all?
This report is part of “Faith and Fracture: Religious Politics under Transformative Pressure,” a multi-year TCF initiative supported by the Henry Luce Foundation.
header photo: Supporters of the late Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member, at a demonstration shortly after the military coup in July 2013. Source: Ed Giles/Getty Images
- Barbara Zollner, “Surviving Repression: How Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood Has Carried On,” Carnegie Middle East Center, March 11, 2019, https://carnegie-mec.org/2019/03/11/surviving-repression-how-egypt-s-muslim-brotherhood-has-carried-on-pub-78552.
- Omer Taspinar, “Turkey: The New Model?,” Brookings Institution, July 28, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/research/turkey-the-new-model/.
- These interviews took place over many years, from about 2012 until, most recently, May 2020.
- “Erdogan’s Advisor to Egypt’s Brotherhood: You Are Our Refugees” (in Arabic), Al Arabiya, May 20, 2020, https://www.alarabiya.net/ar/arab-and-world/egypt/2019/07/23/مستشار-أردوغان-لاخوان-مصر-أنتم-لاجئون-لدينا; and Ahmed Ramadan “Egyptian Associations in Turkey: An Attempt to Represent and Organize the Immigrants” (in Arabic), Al Jazeera, March 12, 2020, https://www.aljazeera.net/news/politics/2020/3/12/الجمعيات-المصرية-بتركيا.
- “Turkey, Global Focus,” UNHCR, http://reporting.unhcr.org/turkey.
- Kemal Kirisci and Gokce Uysal Kolasin, “Syrian Refugees in Turkey Need Jobs,” Brookings Institution, September 19, 2019, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2019/09/11/syrian-refugees-in-turkey-need-jobs/.
- Mid-level Brotherhood leader, interview with the author by phone, May 20, 2020.
- Mohamed Morsi, “The Muslim Brotherhood and Modern Islamic Parties” (in Arabic), Ikhwan Online, August 5, 2007, https://www.ikhwanonline.com/article/30200.
- Senem Aydin-Duzgit, “The Seesaw Friendship Between Turkey’s AKP and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, July 24, 2014, https://carnegieendowment.org/2014/07/24/seesaw-friendship-between-turkey-s-akp-and-egypt-s-muslim-brotherhood-pub-56243.
- Alessio Calabrò, “Islamist Views on Foreign Policy: Examples of Turkish Pan-Islamism in the Writings of Sezai Karakoc and Necmettin Erbakan,” Insight Turkey, January 2017, https://www.insightturkey.com/articles/islamist-views-on-foreign-policy-examples-of-turkish-pan-islamism-in-the-writings-of-sezai-karakoc-and-necmettin-erbakan.
- Rafik Habib, “The Dangers of Islamic Nationalism” (in Arabic), Ikhwan Online, October 20, 2009, https://ikhwanonline.net/article/55407.
- Wael Talaat, “The Muslim Brotherhood and the AKP: The Origin and the Branch” (in Arabic), Youm 7, September 29, 2011, https://www.youm7.com/story/2011/9/29/الإخوان-المسلمون-والعدالة-والتنمية-الأصل-والفرع/502711.
- “Erdogan Advises the Egyptians to Adopt the Secularist Model of Turkey” (in Arabic), Deutsche Welle, September 13, 2011, https://www.dw.com/ar/أردوغان-ينصح-المصريين-بالإقتداء-بالنموذج-العلماني-التركي/a-15382710.
- “The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt Attacks Erdogan” (in Arabic), Arab 48, September 14, 2011, https://www.arab48.com/أخبار-عربية-ودولية/أخبار–الوطن-العربي/2011/09/14/%E2%80%ABالإخوان-المسلمون-بمصر-يهاجمون-أردوغان%E2%80%AC-.
- Morsi did not campaign as a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, though he had long been a member. He was instead affiliated with the Freedom and Justice Party, the electoral face of the Brotherhood in Egypt after the 2011 revolution.
- “Muslim Brotherhood Candidate for Egypt’s President,” published to the CNN YouTube channel, May 9, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjpbceIANmc.
- “President Morsi’s Speech in Turkey on Sunday 9-30-2012” (in Arabic), published to the Al Jazeera Mubasher YouTube channel, September 30, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHayGWDf6Xo.
- Zollner, “Surviving Repression.”
- Turkey’s military has intervened in politics in four major events, in 1960, 1971, 1980, and 1997.
- Amy Austin Holmes, Coups and Revolutions: Mass Mobilization, the Egyptian Military, and the United States from Mubarak to Sisi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
- Conversation with the author.
- “Erdogan on the Coup Attempt in 2016: Turkey Is Not Egypt, Libya, Syria” (in Arabic), CNN Arabic, November 5, 2019, https://arabic.cnn.com/middle-east/article/2019/11/05/erdogan-egypt-syria-turkey-fethullah-gulen-pkk.
- “Thank You, Turkey, Ceremony” (in Arabic), published to the Aljazeera Mubasher YouTube channel, April 23, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHaL9Csr7VE.
- Amr Darrag, “A Reading in RAND’s Report on Turkey and Its Hidden Messages” (in Arabic), Egyptian Institute for Studies, April 29, 2020, https://eipss-eg.org/قراءة-في-تقرير-راند-عن-تركيا-ورسائله-المبطّنة/.
- Ibid.; Daren Butler, “Turkey Officially Designates Gulen Religious Group as Terrorists,” Reuters, May 31, 2016, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-gulen/turkey-officially-designates-gulen-religious-group-as-terrorists-idUSKCN0YM167.
- Stephen J. Flanagan et al., “Turkey’s Nationalist Course and How It Affects U.S.–Turkish Relations,” RAND Corporation, January 14, 2020, https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2589.html.
- Muslim Brotherhood, Facebook post, April 16, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/MBSMOfficial/posts/1809447542715404.
- Majed Azzam, “The Spring Shield, A Full Story” (in Arabic), Arabi21, March 11, 2020, https://arabi21.com/story/1251826/%D8%AF%D8%B1%D8%B9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D8%A8%D9%8A%D8%B9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%82%D8%B5%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%83%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%84%D8%A9.
- Annemarie Schimmel, “Sufism,” Encyclopædia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sufism.
- Hosam Tammam, “Provincialization of the Brotherhood” (in Arabic), Islamism Scope, October 26, 2008, https://tammam.org/دراسات/307-q-.html.
- “Amir Bassam, the Brotherhood Leader in Turkey, Exposes Mahmoud Hussein and Other Leaders in a Leaked Audio Message” (in Arabic), published to the MBC Masr YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oi31PHqEg6s.
- Yahya Ismail, “Holes in the Brotherhood’s Dress: Accusations of Embezzlement and Financial Corruption” (in Arabic), Al-Manassa, August 1, 2019, https://almanassa.com/ar/story/12739.
- Patrick Kingsley, “Decimated Muslim Brotherhood Still Inspires Fear. Its Members Wonder Why,” New York Times, July 15, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/15/world/europe/muslim-brotherhood-qatar-egypt-turkey-saudi-arabia.html.
- Hassan Al-Banna, “The Epistle of the Fifth Annual Conference of the Muslim Brotherhood” (in Arabic), Ikhwan Wiki: The Muslim Brotherhood’s Encyclopedia, https://www.ikhwanwiki.com/index.php?title=رسالة_المؤتمر_الخامس.
- Ashraf El Sherif, “Egypt’s New Islamists: Emboldening Reform from Within,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 12, 2012, https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/46452.
- Abdelrahman Ayyash, “Strong Organization, Weak Ideology: Muslim Brotherhood Trajectories in Egyptian Prisons Since 2013,” Arab Reform Initiative, June 20, 2019, https://www.arab-reform.net/publication/strong-organization-weak-ideology-muslim-brotherhood-trajectories-in-egyptian-prisons-since-2013/.
- Imprisoned former Muslim Brotherhood member, interview with the author by phone, November 2018.
- Ayyash, “Strong Organization, Weak Ideology.”
- Amr Hamzawy and Nathan J. Brown, “The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood: Islamist Participation in a Closing Political Environment,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 9, 2010, https://carnegieendowment.org/2010/03/09/egyptian-muslim-brotherhood-islamist-participation-in-closing-political-environment-pub-40318.
- Taspinar, “Turkey: The New Model?”
- Medeni Sungur, “Erdogan’s Success May Prove to Be His Undoing,” Wall Street Journal, December 23, 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/erdogans-success-may-prove-to-be-his-undoing-11577144758.
- Ayyash, “Strong Organization, Weak Ideology.”
- In 2014 and 2015, the Brotherhood experienced organizational splits after the decision of several brotherhood leaders to support the foundation of militant offshoots of the Brotherhood in order to fight the regime. See also Khalil al-Anani, “What Happened to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood?,” Al Jazeera, February 15, 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/02/happened-egypt-muslim-brotherhood-170212130839987.html.
- Former Brotherhood member, interview with the author, Istanbul, December 2019.
- William E. Shepard “Sayyid Qutb’s Doctrine of ‘Jāhiliyya,’” International Journal of Middle East Studies 35, no. 4 (2003): 521–45.
- “The Muslim Brotherhood Celebrates Its Ninetieth Anniversary,” published to the Al Jazeera Mubasher YouTube channel, April 1, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Qz1IVpzkh4.
- Sixty-eight defendants were charged together, for an incident in August 2013 in which two police officers and thirteen civilians were killed. Defendants said they were tortured into confessing.
- Mohamed Moghawer, “An interview with the Wife of Yasser Abasiri, Who Was Sentenced to Death in Egypt” (in Arabic), Arabi21, December 14, 2018, https://arabi21.com/story/1144798/عربي21-تلتقي-زوجة-الأباصيري-المحكوم-بالإعدام-في-مصر.
- Al Jazeera Mubasher, “The Muslim Brotherhood Celebrates.”