The House Judiciary Committee recently passed a resolution calling on the State Department to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. This resolution resonates with the feverish anti-Islamic politics of the Republican primary, fueled across the spectrum by candidates from Donald Trump to Marco Rubio. The specific focus on the Muslim Brotherhood has long been a trope over the last decade of demonization of Islam.
The Congressional bill also fits trends in regional politics. The terrorist designation for the Muslim Brotherhood has been pushed forcefully for several years by regional players such as the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Since the July 2013 military coup, the Egyptian government has aggressively pushed to equate the Muslim Brotherhood with al-Qaeda and to blame it for a wide range of violent attacks in the country. Yesterday, Egypt accused the leadership of the Brotherhood with carrying out the June 2015 assassination of public prosecutor general Hisham Barakat. In March 2014, Saudi Arabia and several of its Gulf Cooperation Council partners designated the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
The U.S. bill is unlikely to become law. Even if such a bill somehow made it through Congress, the mandated review would produce similar results as last year’s British investigation, which eventually concluded that Brotherhood membership might be associated with extremism but declined to label it a terrorist organization. Such a conclusion would be buttressed by an impressive body of academic literature developed over the past decade that did a very good job of explaining the Brotherhood’s organization, ideology, political strategy and place within the broader political and social context.
Academics have played a useful role in pushing back against a politicized terrorist designation. But they should not be overly reassured by their ability to interpret and explain the Brotherhood’s past behavior. The Brotherhood is not a terrorist organization, and there has long been a deeply significant divide between it and Salafi-jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda.
But the Brotherhood as examined and studied in this literature over the past several decades no longer really exists. The core characteristics that defined the Brotherhood’s internal organization and strategic environment, and which guided political science research about it, no longer operate.
The Muslim Brotherhood, at least in post-coup Egypt, no longer enjoys a strong presence in society with an elaborate network of social services and a tolerated public presence. Its patient strategy of long-term change through participation lies in ruins. Its organization has been shattered, with its leadership either in prison, exiled or dead and the survivors divided between multiple power centers inside Egypt and abroad. It is no longer deeply embedded in society or engaged in a patient strategy of Islamization of the political and cultural realms. It no longer has a robust internal organization, vast financial resources, a clearly defined ideology, or a tightly disciplined membership. It is neither shrouded in secrecy nor is it rigidly hierarchical.
This has important implications for long-standing hypotheses and assumptions about the Brotherhood and Islamist politics more broadly. Researchers should therefore admit to greater uncertainty about the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, organization and strategy than ever before. Arguments that held up well five years ago no longer necessarily apply.
Fortunately, political scientists have been actively engaged for several years in multiple, systematic and sustained efforts to rethink Islamist movements. The Rethinking Islamist Politics series that I direct for the Project on Middle East Political Science has just published its third collection of essays by scholars revisiting earlier theories, methods, data, assumptions and conclusions. The papers for the earlier workshops can be read here (“Rethinking Islamist Politics”) and here (“Islamism in the IS Age”). This year’s collection has now been published as an open access PDF here.
Many long-standing debates about the Muslim Brotherhood are simply no longer relevant in an entirely new institutional and political context no longer marked by durable authoritarianism, tolerated but constrained Islamist movements in the role of permanent political opposition, and a clear distinction between mainstream Islamists and violent radical groups, such as al-Qaeda. The arguments about whether inclusion promotes moderation, for instance, was based on political institutions and opportunities which have radically changed.
Here, I would like to focus on a debate directly related to the congressional resolution about the Brotherhood’s relationship with terrorism: whether the Brotherhood served as a firewall against or a conveyor belt toward violent extremism.
Prior to the Arab uprising, I argued that mainstream Islamists served as a firewall against more violent extremists. The Brotherhood publicly articulated an ideology of nonviolence and democratic participation. It competed with al-Qaeda for recruits and for public influence, and kept its members tightly embedded within its institutional structures. The Brotherhood could compete with al-Qaeda and other extreme groups in ways that liberals and state elites could not.
The competing view held that the Brotherhood was a facilitator of violent extremism, serving not as barrier but as a step along the path toward radicalization. This “conveyor belt” theory suggests that even if the Brotherhood itself did not sanction violence, it set individuals on the path toward extremism and thus increased the net volume of potential terrorists. They pointed to inconsistencies in the Brotherhood’s rejection of violence, such as the continuing place of jihadist thinkers, such as Sayid Qutb, in their literature or their support for violence in arenas such as Palestine or Iraq.
Which of these has proven more accurate?
Many Brotherhood critics point to its erratic or violent behavior during the Egyptian, Tunisian or Libyan transitions to discredit the firewall thesis. But this is unconvincing. Some Brotherhood members behaved badly during Egypt’s transition, as did virtually everyone else. Brotherhood members violently attacked protestors outside Cairo’s Ittihadiya presidential palace on Dec. 5, 2012, while their opponents burned down Brotherhood party headquarters a few months later. Many Brotherhood took up arms in Libya and Syria, as did virtually everyone else.
Context matters more than ideology in those troubled transitions. Despite post-coup propaganda and arrests by the Egyptian regime, there is very little to substantiate the charge that the Brotherhood behaved like a terrorist organization during Egypt’s transition or embraced violence either ideologically or strategically.
Instead, the most striking trend is that the Islamic State’s upsurge and al-Qaeda’s revival coincides with the crushing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the broader regional crackdown on the organization.
The breaching of the Brotherhood firewall does seem to have coincided with a dramatic escalation in violent extremism. There are other factors, of course, but Egypt’s spiraling violence suggests that the military coup and subsequent violent repression of the Brotherhood did indeed open the space for more violent and radical actors.
What might explain the changing effectiveness of a Brotherhood firewall? There are three key mechanisms by which the firewall might operate: strategy, organization and socialization. Each has undergone severe tests over the last few years.
First, the Brotherhood might have been an effective firewall against al-Qaeda’s extremism and violence because it could demonstrate the organization’s strategic goals. This would not require any ideological conviction, nor deep buy-in from the membership — only a rational calculation by the leadership that such a stance serves their self-interest. Positioning the Brotherhood as a moderate counterweight to al-Qaeda helped to preserve the organization’s public presence, reassure a skeptical West, and win support within broad Islamist publics.
This positioning worked well in the decade following 9/11, but today it is a far less obvious strategic choice for what remains of the Brotherhood.
As Mokhtar Awad and Mostafa Hashem have carefully documented, the Brotherhood’s leadership has attempted to reaffirm its nonviolent commitments. But this stance has proved a difficult sell in the face of Egypt’s violent repression and the cancellation of any opportunity for meaningful democratic participation. Nonviolence seems less strategically effective given massive state repression and less in alignment with a new identity narrative centered around the August 2013 Rabaa massacre.
The Brotherhood has clearly struggled to articulate any effective strategic response to Egypt’s coup or to offer a compelling ideological rejoinder to those calling for more radical measures. It is difficult to occupy the center ground in a radically polarized environment, to preach the virtues of democratic participation following a military coup, or to preach restraint in the face of mass arrests and rampant unaccountable state violence.
The rise of the Islamic State has also changed the strategic calculus for the organization. Rather than being positioned as the successful mainstream avatar of Islamist politics, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is now competing with more extreme Islamist rivals from a relatively ineffectual and inarticulate position. The Syrian insurgency has been dominated by a wide range of salafi-jihadist factions that enjoy strong support from regional powers and a prominent media presence. Syria has blurred the distinctions between Islamist groups and pushed the “center” of Islamist politics toward violent jihad.
Islamist politics have moved sharply to the right and the mainstream center largely vanished, leaving the once mainstream organization isolated on a shrinking moderate flank. To the extent that the firewall was a strategic policy choice by the Brotherhood’s leadership, then, that has clearly been challenged and potentially undermined by the changing political context.
A second mechanism by which the Brotherhood might be an effective firewall has been through its organizational capacity.
The Muslim Brotherhood has traditionally been characterized by an exceptionally tight organizational structure, with a rigid hierarchy and extremely effective command and control. The Muslim Brotherhood’s internal discipline has been critical to its electoral success and its ability to survive bouts of state repression.
This organizational capacity is also a key mechanism for the firewall thesis. A strong organization gave the Brotherhood’s leadership the ability to enforce its decisions from the top down, prevent significant factional splits and exercise tight control over its membership. Those members who might have been tempted by al-Qaeda’s extremism found no space to advance those ideas or to pull the organization in a more violent direction.
The current Egyptian and regional crackdown has taken an extreme toll on this organizational capacity. Thousands of its members have been imprisoned, the assets of its leading members confiscated and the lines of internal communication disrupted. The leadership of this shattered organization is unable to maintain effective control in the face of radical reactions of youth cadres and incitement from leaders and members abroad.
To the extent that organizational capacity sustained the firewall, this, too, has been massively eroded.
Third, and finally, the firewall might have been sustained through socialization. Brotherhood members perhaps internalized the organization’s norms and ideas so fully that they would adhere to them even if strategic context or organizational conditions changed.
There are reasons to believe that the Brotherhood was especially likely to produce such deep socialization. Scholars such as Hazem Kandil and Eric Trager had focused attention on the deeply constitutive power of the Brotherhood’s cell structure, rigid hierarchy and intense indoctrination. Some went so far as to argue that this deep organizational control rendered Brotherhood members virtually incapable of independent thought or action — the so-called cultists, sheep or robots of popular anti-Brotherhood Egyptian discourse.
For the firewall thesis, this would be a very strong mechanism indeed: a full internalization of organizational norms would in principle lead Brotherhood members to sustain their ideological commitments even with the organization shattered, the political strategy failed and the context radically changed.
This thesis of Brothers as overly socialized dupes has fared poorly since Egypt’s military coup. Its members have reacted in wildly divergent ways to the new challenges. Rather than responding to the same stimuli in similar ways, different Brotherhood members have chosen dramatically different paths.
The Egyptian Brotherhood today is being battered by internal factional conflicts, challenges by the youth to a failed senior leadership and a broad rejection of hierarchical authority. Some Brothers have turned to violence, while others have reaffirmed the commitment to nonviolence. Accounts by perceptive observers, such as Abdelrahman Ayyash and Ibrahim Houdaiby, suggest a far less coherent and uniform Brotherhood adaptation to the new politics of Islamism.
In other words, Muslim Brotherhood members have turned out to be quite capable of independent thought and ideological disagreement after all.
At this point, however, we lack sufficiently fine-grained data to determine whether the proportion of Brotherhood members who adhered to their indoctrination and refused to embrace violence is greater than might be expected from a more “normal” organization. Nor do we yet know whether Brotherhood members were more or less likely than expected to join more extremist organizations than others in their demographic group. These will likely prove fine topics for future research.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s firewall against extremism, therefore, was a very real thing in the decade following 9/11. It was sustained by the seeming success of the strategic choices by the leadership, a robust organizational structure able to enforce internal discipline and the socialization of its members into the organization’s norms.
All three of the key mechanisms by which the firewall operated have now dramatically eroded.
This does not mean that the Brotherhood has been or is becoming a terrorist organization. It does mean that earlier assessments of its ability to play a role as a firewall against violent extremism need to be updated. And that is just what the scholars systematically rethinking the new Islamist politics for the Rethinking Islamist Politics project are doing.
Marc Lynch is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, and the director of the Project on Middle East Political Science.