A split in the Muslim Brotherhood? Not so easy.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is my family, my past, present and future… Nobody can resign from his thoughts, his people and his brothers, with whom he lived inside and outside of prisons.” With these emotion-laden phrases, Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, a liberal-minded Islamist, reaffirmed his membership of the Muslim Brotherhood, denying earlier reports about his resignation.

Reformist elements within the Brotherhood have in recent years clashed with conservative members over relations with Coptic Christians, the role of women in the organization, relations with secular groups, and competing visions of Islamic law, among other issues. Some observers contended that the rising prospects of democratization should encourage the group’s ostracized reformists to break ranks and form their own groups, but a look inside the Brotherhood reveals how complicated such a split would be for members.

Abouel Fotouh, sidelined by the group’s conservatives for over a year, was expected to spearhead the exodus of reformers. Yet his statement in a TV interview on 6 April proved that splitting was no easy decision, even for the most disenchanted. Far from being mere clichés, the 60-year-old doctor’s words attested to the complexity of the bonds that tie the Brother to the organization.

“Resigning from the Muslim Brotherhood is a very tough decision, because the group is more of a society that engulfs your social, familial relations, as well as intellectual and political activities,” said Mohamed al-Qassas, a 35-year-old youth leader with the group.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is also more of an educational incubator for a Brother. You get introduced to the group at an early age and ultimately your formative years become tied to it,” added al-Qassas, who was first exposed to the group’s ideas as a middle-school student. Later on, as soon as he joined college in the early 1990s, he became an official member.

The holistic nature of the Muslim Brotherhood was predetermined by its founder, Hassan al-Banna. In his writings, al-Banna defined the Muslim Brotherhood as “a comprehensive idea” that brings under its umbrella political, economic, educational and even sporting entities. With this multi-faceted mission statement, the group gradually evolved into a “parallel society”, in which a Brother can live from “birth to death”, as expressed by Hossam Tammam, author of multiple articles and books on the Brotherhood.

“The brother lives, gets educated, makes friends, gets married, finds a job, gets politically engaged in a fully Muslim Brotherhood-based environment,” Tammam wrote in one of his articles. In this same environment, the Brother is brought up on the canonization of unity and the criminalization of divisions, he continued.

“The group’s attempt to build its own society made it emerge as if it were a religious sect,” added Tammam.

Nevertheless, the 83-year-old group has experienced a few internal splits over the course of its history. The last split was spearheaded by Abouel Ela Madi, a middle-generation Islamist who broke ranks with the group over ideological differences and formed the more moderate Wassat Party in the mid-1990s. However, none of these divisions really challenged the internal cohesiveness of the group.

“When a Brother leaves the group, he is uprooting himself from a milieu with which he has organic, emotional and fateful ties,” said Khaled Dawoud, a 59-year-old Alexandria-based Muslim Brotherhood leader. Khaled is married to two Muslim Sisters and has eight children, all of whom are members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Nowadays, the Muslim Brotherhood stands as the largest and most organized socio-political organization in Egypt. There are no precise figures on the group’s membership because it had remained officially outlawed, but tolerated, since the 1970s. Yet, some observers estimate the number of registered members at between 50,000 and 60,000. As to sympathizers, they are estimated at nearly half a million.

Under the close scrutiny of ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s security apparatus, the Brotherhood recruited thousands of mostly middle-class Egyptians, providing them with religious education and social services. In the meantime, the group engaged aggressively in competitive politics by running for student unions, syndicate boards and parliament.

In 2005, the Brotherhood garnered 88 out of 444 contested seats, becoming the largest opposition bloc in parliament. Yet the organization had always to endure systematic waves of arrests and allegations of plotting to overthrow the regime. According to Haytham Abou-Khalil, an agricultural engineer who recently resigned from the group, this experience of persecution is one factor that protected the group from self-criticism and major defections.

“Those members who were jailed for the group live in denial and find justifications for all the group’s actions,” said the 43-year-old ex-Muslim Brother, referring to Abouel Fotouh’s non-resignation statement. “It is hard for them to believe that made sacrifices for a fallible entity.”

Even if a member overcomes this sense of denial and leaves, he has to be “capable of bearing the psychological cost” of such a decision, according to Dawoud.

“After you leave the group, you get a special treatment from some Brothers,” Dawoud says. “Your friends can boycott you. They may not even say hello if they bump into you in the street. Your wife’s friends, who are usually from the Muslim Brotherhood, may boycott her as well.”

In recent years, Dawoud has become identified with Abouel Fotouh’s dovish bloc for his vehement criticism of the group’s traditional structure and rigid political outlook. Although he hasn’t resigned, Dawoud was outcast by the organization’s leaders early on.

“I was subjected to moral assassination. I have not been allowed to attend certain events held by the group; they fear my attendance because they do not want me to express my views,” alleges Dawoud, owner of a real estate company in Alexandria.

Despite this allegedly deliberate isolation, Dawoud always identifies himself as a Muslim Brother. His stance is driven more by a sense of ownership of the group rather than mere fear of severing more ties.

“If our generation had not joined the group, the Muslim Brotherhood would not have survived until today,” adds Dawoud

Dawoud and Abouel Fotouh belong to the generation that resurrected political Islam in the 1970s. Disillusioned with President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s left-leaning, secular project after the 1967 defeat, thousands of middle-class university students sought refuge in religion. They formed the Jama'at Islamiya on Egyptian campuses, seeking to spread Islamic values nationwide.

The proliferation of these student-led groups coincided with the release of Muslim Brotherhood leaders from Nasser’s jails after Anwar Sadat had come to power. In an attempt to revive their ailing organization, Muslim Brotherhood leaders approached Islamist student union activists and invited them to join the ranks of the organization. Eventually, most of them became Muslim Brothers, bringing the group back to life. Later on, these young Islamists, who currently constitute the group’s middle generation, represented the Muslim Brotherhood in professional unions and in parliament. Thanks to this experience, they developed a more flexible outlook, which distinguished them from the old hardline leadership.

According to Khalil al-Anani, political scientist with Durham University, the sense of ownership expressed in Dawoud’s, as well as Abouel Fotouh’s, words attests to the plight of their generation.

“This generation is living under an immense dilemma because they feel betrayed by the older generation,” says al-Anani, author of “The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: Senility that Fights Time”.

“Abouel Fotouh is an example of the 1970s generation's dilemma. Whereas he is open-minded and adopts reform ideas which used to be rejected within the movement, he cannot take the initiative and face the older generation. His devotion to the movement is more than his faith in reform ideology,” said al-Anani.

Yet, Ibrahim al-Zaafarani, a former member of the Shura Council (the group’s legislative body) proved capable of overcoming this impasse. Last month, the 59-year-old doctor resigned from the group in protest at the lack of internal democracy and announced the formation of a political party more in sync with liberal democracy than the Muslim Brotherhood’s would-be Freedom and Justice Party.

“It was a difficult night. I could not sleep all night, neither my wife,” said al-Zaafarani, recalling the eve of his resignation.

“For two weeks, we received thousands of calls from Brothers and Sisters inside and outside Egypt. They begged me to change my mind. These phone calls used to kill us emotionally on a daily basis,” says al-Zaafarani.

Unlike Dawoud, al-Zaafarani has chosen not to fight for the ownership of the group or push for reform from within. “I do not want to get into feuds over who possesses the group. I prefer to concentrate on building a new entity,” says al-Zaafarani in reference to his would-be Renaissance Party. Earlier, Abou-Khalil, a co-founder of al-Zaafarani’s party, posted his resignation online in a defiant showing, citing more than ten reasons why he had left the group.

“After all that happened with me, I felt that I should take a stance out of self-respect, especially after the doors for freedom were opened up,” said Abou-Khalil, whose membership was frozen last year after he published an article dismissing the group’s internal elections as “a farce”.

Yet, other, younger brothers, who espouse the same democratic ideas, believe there is still room to pressure for change.

“I still hope that reform can come from within. If I had not had that hope, I would have resigned,” said al-Qassas, who was among hundreds of young brothers who recently held a conference to discuss the prospects of overhauling the group’s outlook, against the conservative leaders’ will. The success of these youths in democratizing the group might even revive the loyalties of defectors.

“If the youths succeed in reclaiming the group from the obsolete leaders who hijacked it, I will return right away,” says Abou-Khalil.

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