The Brotherhood’s democratically elected government was toppled by Egypt’s military. Some think the movement lost its chance to be a feasible alternative, but the group’s spokesperson tells us its role as a moderate voice is more needed than ever.
ISTANBUL, Turkey — “Our comeback is only a matter of time,” Talaat Fehmi, the spokesman of the Muslim Brotherhood, says with a smile.
An elderly man with a well-trimmed beard, Fehmi lives in exile in Istanbul, where he spends most of his time running Al Aqsa International School, a newly established private institution that offers courses on a range of subjects in the Arabic language, for primary and high school-aged students.
One evening in early August, days before Egyptians would commemorate the fourth anniversary of the Rabaa massacre, he sits behind his desk at the school he now runs, wearing a crisp white shirt and a dark blue tie. Initially, his mannerisms are friendly and lighthearted, but as our conversation turns to politics and the future of the Brotherhood, he acquires a more measured tone. His face turns grim.
"Ideas do not die," he says. "What Muslim Brotherhood aims is to free the people."
Although he speaks with a sense of authority, the reality on the ground is different. Ever since the Egyptian military led by Abdel Fattah el Sisi overthrew the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, Fehmi, along with his senior associates, have been on the run. For many, Istanbul is the exile of choice.
Following the Rabaa massacre in Cairo, which claimed over 800 lives of unarmed protesters who challenged the military coup, Sisi launched a brutal crackdown against the Brotherhood, declaring it a terrorist organisation. Since then, the party's senior leadership has either gone underground, or moved to the UK, Qatar and Turkey.
Hounded out and staring at the prospect of imprisonment if ever they returned to Egypt under Sisi's rule, the Brotherhood leaders are struggling on various fronts. The perception that the group is going through internal rifts has grown in the last two years.
Fehmi acknowledges that internal tensions had gripped the group, but nonetheless, dodges the question, linking any tensions to the larger social unrest the world is facing today. "The problems [in the Brotherhood] are also the problems of society, which are needed to be addressed not only at the local level, but at regional and international levels."
One of the biggest challenges for the movement’s coherency are the differing worldviews between the old guard and younger members. And for the exiled leadership, it's getting harder and harder to narrow down the differences since they are unable to mobilise people on the ground from foreign lands.
The signs of the ideological divide were forced out into public view in early March, when the group's Administrative Committee, led by new and relatively younger Brotherhood leaders, released a report containing critical observations about the organisation's past performance. The Administrative Committee was formed by the Cairo-based Brotherhood leader Mohamed Kamal, who was assassinated in October 2016. His killing, allegedly by the Egyptian military, took place about six months before his faction released the contentious report.
Fehmi did not agree with the report back then. He told media that the report carried an "illegitimate call for revisions or assessments." He still holds the same view.
As the group is braving Sisi's hunting spree and also dealing with internal rifts, it's hard to foresee it back on the streets of Egypt with the same zest and influence as it wielded during the so-called Arab Spring.
The Brotherhood is being cornered from many sides. Its senior leadership is in jail, including the ousted president Mohamed Morsi, and the second-tier members who managed to escape Sisi's military crackdown are living in exile. The group is also grappling with international tensions. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are pressing hard on Qatar and Turkey to stop giving refuge to Brotherhood leaders. And many Western governments have mostly stayed mute over the atrocities committed by the Egyptian military to quell the public dissent of their people.
Ismail Yaylaci, a political science professor at Sehir University in Istanbul, says that voices of discontent have always existed in the group, and that they go back all the way to its initial days.
“There have been affiliations like pro-Banna [the founder of the group] or pro-Qutb [a prominent leader of the movement in 1960s]. There has always been a tension between politically-oriented wing and community-oriented wing,” he said. “While the former defends a political agenda, the latter advocates a non-political path as the best course for the movement.”
Yaylaci researches political movements in Muslim-majority countries. Looking at the crisis in the Muslim Brotherhood's Egyptian unit, he says whenever circumstances have gotten worse within the group, all the differing factions go their own ways, making it hard for an outsider to figure out what really estranged them at the first place.
The Brotherhood, known in Egypt by their Arabic name of Ikhwan, has long been considered by its supporters as offering a concrete answer to the questions of how Islamic ideas and principles could be represented in the political sphere and how they could peacefully be expressed in a democratic way.
Turkey, where many of the senior Brotherhood exiles now live, has been against the Egyptian coup from the very beginning — as has the Gulf state of Qatar. The country’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly used the four-fingered sign of Rabaa as a symbol of his convictions and his political philosophy during his mass rallies.
“They decided [to protest there] so that the world would hear their voices, as human beings, for their right to a free and dignified life,” Fehmi told TRT World.
“[But our brutal] oppressors only know the killing and burning ... They killed children, women, young men and women in a terrible massacre that claimed the lives of thousands of innocent people and left scores of wounded, detained and missed,” he said.
“It has been four years and it will remain the symbol of our resilience [against oppression].”
What is next for the Brotherhood?
Though Fehmi thinks his movement’s comeback is “just a matter of time in Egypt,” he is evasive when asked to specify a concrete timeline or details of the Brotherhood’s strategy.
This could either be a tactical stance to hide the group’s political intentions in a period where operating in secrecy could be vital to its very survival. But that could also be a sign that the movement is struggling to hold itself together in a coherent way.
Undoubtedly, the Ikhwan has serious problems to overcome. During his lengthy interview with TRT World, the exiled Brotherhood spokesperson opted to speak in mostly broad sweeping philosophical terms about the movement’s current shape and its future aspirations.
When a movement suffers such severe repression and efforts to undermine it, maintaining its internal organisational structures is extremely challenging. Tensions between the old established leadership and upstarts who question the path of the old guard; between the conservatists and reformists.
But the terms of conservatists and reformists are not adequate to explain what is going on inside the movement, thinks Yaylaci. “There have been too many differences inside the group from the very early stage of the movement,” Yaylaci told TRT World.
In their March report, the Administrative Committee, called for more action and less dialogue, charging the movement’s leadership-in-exile with losing several opportunities by doing nothing.
Fehmi and the exiled Brotherhood leadership have increasingly come to be seen as the defenders of the old guard opposing the young and more active Brotherhood wing inside Egypt.
"The major disagreement between the two groups is the desire of the Old Guard to engage in political dialogue and reconciliation with the current regime, while the Cairo-based group is totally against the idea of reconciliation and is more lenient toward the use of violence," Sameh Eid, an old member of the Ikhwan, told Ahram Online in late March.
Fehmi denies any kind of division inside the movement, however, saying that the movement has a concrete structure to debate its own problems to set a proper agenda. “In any social group, it is understandable that people could have different opinions. It is normal to have different opinions even in the Muslim Brotherhood. If somebody goes against the principles, he is automatically outside,” Fehmi points out.
“There is a system of shura [council]. We discuss [our problems there]. Everybody can have his/her opinions and we discuss there. However, the party has the last word. If you do not accept it, you are outside [the movement],” he observes.
According to the movement’s shura, the group has a definite stance not to resort to any kind of violence at all costs, Fehmi says. “The nation is more important than the party [Muslim Brotherhood],” he says, taking a bitter tone.
Fehmi has strongly argued that if there were an armed struggle against the Egyptian regime by the Brotherhood, there would be a bitter civil war and political deadlock. Egypt would be a new Syria, which should be avoided at all costs. Political parties could function in a national platform, and if a nation ceases to exist as a whole, there will be no point to be a political party there. There would be no winners, he argues.
But if there is no strategy of armed struggle against the existing regime, what will be next for the political movement, many are wondering. In a political situation like this, time is the ultimate decider — particularly for a movement with a strong religious motivation and a well-practiced patience.
Though every political movement has a timetable for its moves, he preferred to emphasise that the Brotherhood has “no specific time limit” to address the challenges with which it is confronted. These challenges are not only the challenges of the movements but also the challenge of Egyptian society, which need to be addressed not only at the local level but also at the regional and international levels, he says.
The one resource which they have aplenty is time to ponder these issues. “The first thing we need to do is the right thing which can not have a time limit. The right will follow its own course no matter what time it is,” he insists, in a characteristically ambiguous manner.
But ordinary people obviously want to go ahead with their lives no matter what has happened to the Brotherhood or other movements. It is not clear how the movement is able to appeal and remain relevant to ordinary people in Egypt. Fehmi says they are simply biding their time.
“If you check recent polls concerning Egyptian politics, you will see there is still a relationship between the Brotherhood and ordinary people. The popularity of the Brotherhood has been increased as opposed to [movements who] supported the coup [back in the day] or the Egyptian military,” Fehmi says confidently. “Indeed, people who were previously against the Brotherhood have changed their mind, recognising the fact that Egypt was better off under its governance than what is now happening.”
The Brotherhood’s comeback could be a matter of time, but that depends on the movement’s ability to remain relevant and to survive.
“What will they do against Sisi?” Yaylaci asked. “The ones who had stayed in prisons during Qutb’s leadership advocate a non-political orientation. Now they say we need to compromise with Sisi and we need to go back to our old way of operations in the 1970s.”
But the young members of the group with a political orientation have strongly been opposing this stance and they want to embrace the methods of violent Salafist groups like Al Qaeda, Yaylaci observed. Ayman al Zawahiri was a former member of the Brotherhood before he became one of the top leaders of Al Qaeda. The youngsters are more inclined toward taking the Zawahiri path.
“The Egyptian regime provokes them to wage an armed struggle in order to define the movement as undemocratic. How long they can operate as a non-violent group is not all clear. How long is the leadership able to keep its base from not resorting to violence under the regime’s constant provocation?” Yaylaci asked.
Survival of a movement
With its exceptional organisational structure and powerful human resources, the Brotherhood has been one of the most powerful Muslim political organisations in the world for decades, despite most of that time being spent in opposition. Its founding leader, a pious teacher from a humble origin, Hassan al Banna, has been a source of inspiration for years for members of the group across the Islamic world.
The emergence of the Brotherhood at a time, when the Ottoman Caliphate, the political representative of the Muslims was just dissolved by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the secular founder of the Turkish republic, is also notorious. The group moved to claim a political space nullified by the secular governments of Muslim states in a time when the Islamic world had mostly been colonised by Western imperialists and was in a state of crisis.
It went up and down in its colorful history from fighting against colonial powers in Egypt during the 1930s and 1940s to join with its Palestinian brethren to defend Palestine against Israeli aggression in 1948. They had not hesitated to go against Egyptian rulers from Gamal Abdul Nasser to Enver Sedat either.
But they have survived not only in Egypt but also in other countries including Tunisia where its sophisticated branch, an Nahda led by its intelligent leader Rached Ghannouchi, wanted to choose to withdraw from power in 2014 under the pressure of secularist alliance supported by the state’s bureaucracy with the fall of the Arab Spring movements and Turkey, where the country’s President Erdogan publicly backed the movement following its deposition from power.
Between Shia power Iran and the brutal Sunni force Daesh, the Brotherhood can resettle itself as a moderate voice for the political aspirations of the Muslim ummah. “We are embedded in society,” said Fehmi, the movement’s spokesman, implying that they can not be wiped out as long as the Egyptian regime wants to destroy the very nation their authority has been based.
“Thirteen million voted for Dr. Mohammed Morsi. Let’s say three million were coming from the other segments of Egyptian society. But at least ten million believe in Islam this course [the way Brotherhood thinks] in Egypt,” Fehmi said. There are substantial populations in other Muslim countries who probably also believe in a kind of Islam the movement defends.
It is all not clear how long Muslim-majority statecrafts with their Western backers can hold to go against a strong current living in their societies. The Syrian conflict is a cruel example. Turkey provides another powerful pattern. Though the country is a secular state for decades, Erdogan and his AK Party, which has its origins in a religiously-inspired movement called Milli Gorus (National View), has dominated the national landscape for the last 15 years. Among other Muslim political movements, the Brotherhood has been a particular influence for the development of Milli Gorus.
In the face of a mind-boggling Russian-American axis or a new Sykes-Picot in the Middle East which is also under the threat of Iran’s Shia Crescent, the Ikhwan still appears to be the best candidate to conduct a non-violent balancing act resonating with democratic principles in the Sunni world.
“There is no contradiction between Islam and democracy. We are trying to do our best for the people without going against the will of God,” Fehmi observed.
It is a difficult task anyway.
Achment Gonim did the translations for this article and Melis Alemdar contributed to the transcribing.