Just days after hundreds of people marched through Cairo and other cities calling for the Egyptian president to step down, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi settled into a chair alongside his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump and addressed the rare explosion of public anger against his rule. “As long as we have political Islam movements that aspire to power, our region will remain in a state of instability,” el-Sissi said on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. “But I want to assure you, especially in Egypt, the public are refusing this kind of political Islam.”
In two sentences, the Egyptian leader summed up the narrative that secured his rise to power and has defined his six years as head of state: The greatest threat to the Arab world’s most populous nation is the Muslim Brotherhood, and he is the man to guarantee stability.
But there was no obvious link to the Brotherhood. Instead, the protests appeared to be a spontaneous outburst of anger over economic grievances and alleged government graft. The trigger was a series of social media attacks on corruption and el-Sissi’s penchant for building palaces posted by a little-known construction contractor, Mohamed Ali, who claims he is owed money by the military. A flamboyant, Ferrari-owning part-time actor, Ali, 45, appears to be the antithesis of the pious Islamist politician.
Yet it was inevitable that el-Sissi would accuse the Brotherhood of involvement. The Sunni Islamist organization is a useful regional bogeyman that the regime has used to justify its repressive measures. Since the protests began, the authorities have mounted a sweeping crackdown, detaining more than 2,000 people, including prominent lawyers and human-rights activists. Since leading the 2013 coup that ousted Mohammed Morsi, a Brotherhood leader who became Egypt’s first democratically elected president, el-Sissi has made it his business to crush the Islamist group. The crackdown has been pursued with relentless force over the past six years, while el-Sissi has presented himself to the West as a bulwark against extremism.
It means the secretive Brotherhood — which once laid claim to being the Arab world’s most influential non-state movement as it developed an international network and inspired groups such as Hamas, the Palestinian militant movement — has been reduced to a divided, weak organization. Thousands of its members languish in jails in Egypt. The state has seized businesses and assets associated with the group, and its organizational structures have been shattered.
Founded in Egypt in 1928, the Brotherhood has, throughout its existence, faced hostility from autocrats fearing that its organizational strength and appeal among conservative Muslims made it the gravest threat to their rule. But its turbulent period in power and spectacular fall in Egypt has “triggered new thinking” about political Islam among adherents, says Wadah Khanfar, the founder of Al Sharq Forum, a think tank. It has sparked debate over whether Islamist movements should adopt a more “values-centered approach” — similar to Christian democracy in Europe — rather than being religious-based.
“If you sit with any Muslim Brotherhood [member] now, they are trying to find a way out; millions of questions but no answers about the theory of political Islam itself,” says Khanfar. “A hundred years [have] passed since Hassan al-Banna established this organization. Is it still valid to adopt a concept called political Islam?”
With most of its heavyweights in jail, the Brotherhood now relies on an aging leadership in exile, including Ibrahim Munir Mustafa, the deputy supreme guide, who operates out of a small office above a disused shop in a northwest suburb of London, and Mahmoud Hussein, secretary general, who has sought sanctuary in Istanbul.
Speaking before the protests erupted, Mustafa insisted the Brotherhood was still the only group with “the muscle to stand up and engage in political activity” in Egypt. Yet the frail, softly spoken octogenarian, who has lived in exile in the U.K. since 1979, acknowledges that the group’s main focus now is simply “keeping the idea alive.”
“If we prove we have stood firm against this aggression, we have proved that we have won,” he says. “And this has been proven; we still exist.”
The movement’s disarray is a far cry from the Brotherhood’s zenith seven years ago. After the 2011 uprising ended Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year grip on power, the movement emerged as the strongest and best-organized political group as Egypt experimented with democracy. It secured most seats in parliamentary elections and its leader, Morsi, went on to win the presidency — with a tiny majority — giving the Brotherhood its first taste of power in its history.
But his leadership proved divisive. He faced resistance from state institutions used to viewing the Islamists as a threat, but he also failed to knit alliances with opposition forces worried about a counterrevolution. He declared his decisions above the law, uniting all his enemies against him, from young secularists who were at the forefront of the 2011 revolution to remnants of the old regime.
By the time el-Sissi — whom Morsi had promoted to be his military chief of staff — led the coup, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians were demonstrating against Morsi’s rule. In the years since, the president has imposed what Egyptians describe as the most oppressive crackdown on dissent since Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s, targeting secularists and Islamists.
The Brotherhood was designated a terrorist group in 2013 and el-Sissi has pressed Trump to follow suit. The group publicly renounces violence, but militant splinters of the organization have staged attacks against Egyptian security forces. When Morsi died in prison in June, his passing was barely marked by his supporters in Egypt because any sign of sympathy or allegiance risked jail.
Victor Willi, an academic whose book The Fourth Ordeal: A History of the Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, 1968–2018 is due to be published next year, says the exiled leadership has little control over members in Egypt. Inside the country, he says the Brotherhood has in effect worked as an independent organization, with an 11-member leadership.
“What I’m hearing in Egypt is that it’s very disrupted, with no organized activities and no real chains of command,” he says. “There’s a lack of organization, a lack of vision and strategy and no real political agenda.”
In Istanbul, where hundreds of Brotherhood supporters, members and former officials in the Morsi government now live in self-imposed exile, a small vocal group is critical of the organization’s leadership, accusing it of being dogmatic and unwilling to learn from past mistakes.
“Sometimes people in the Brotherhood are trying to fake it out — ‘we are very strong and we can still do it.’ No, guys, just be realistic with yourselves. We have been weakened,” says Yehia Hamed, who was Morsi’s investment minister. “What are the mistakes we need to talk to the people about? You need to tell them what happened in the past and what you are going to do in the future.”
He suggests the Brotherhood heed lessons from the experiences of Tunisia’s Nahda party. A once-banned Islamist movement that, like the Egyptian group, rose to power after the 2011 uprisings, Nahda made concessions, worked with secular parties, did not push an Islamist agenda and today remains a core part of the political landscape. “The question for me is if things go back to a second revolution … should the Muslim Brotherhood come back with the same face and the same tactics?” Hamed says. “Definitely not, otherwise we are not learning from it. … If you want to be in politics, do the politics like Nahda did.”
Amr Darrag, who served in Morsi’s Cabinet, says he “has given up on the Brotherhood as an organization” because of the way it is run. He has become the most prominent among the Istanbul-based critics. And he says that rather than waiting for change, the Brotherhood needs to be more proactive in preparing “to be ready” for the next uprising, arguing that its unpreparedness in 2011 was a “major mistake.”
Similar conversations about the future of political Islam are “happening everywhere,” says Khanfar. “Every Muslim movement is sitting together and asking these kinds of questions. All these discussions are huge, especially among the young people.”
The discussions are taking place in an increasingly hostile regional context. The 2011 Arab uprisings and the Brotherhood’s rise to power put Islamist groups on a collision course with Middle East powers, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The absolute monarchies in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have poured billions of dollars into Egypt to bolster the el-Sissi regime and view political Islam as the gravest threat to regional stability and their hold on power.
After the recent Egyptian protests, Anwar Gargash, the U.A.E. state minister for foreign affairs, tweeted that “the Brotherhood’s organized campaign against Egypt’s stability has failed miserably.” The U.A.E. has also been one of the key foreign backers of Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan military strongman who champions himself as the leading force fighting Islamists in that country. In Sudan, the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia and Egypt have supported the military leaders who took power after Omar al-Bashir was ousted, in part because they fear “Islamist” elements could exploit the situation. Meanwhile, Qatar and Turkey supported Morsi and back other political Islamist movements amid regional power struggles.
Still, the movement has survived previous crises. It was banned and thousands were arrested, including Mustafa, in the 1950s and 1960s under Nasser. His successor, Anwar Sadat, released political prisoners and the Brotherhood enjoyed a revival, while under Mubarak it went through cycles of crackdowns and being tolerated. And there are those who believe whatever happens within the organization, the ideology of political Islam will live on among the conservative Muslims from which it draws support.
“If the economic situation gets worse in Egypt and there is another flare-up, then yes, you can see the Brotherhood playing a role again, because the ideology is still a strong message that resonates with many,” says Willi. “That’s why so many Arab governments fear the Brotherhood — this soon-to-be-100-year-old idea still has relevance. But in terms of effective organizational capabilities, at the moment, it’s not relevant.”
The Brotherhood’s old guard appears to be banking on having time on its side but says it is ready to act should the opportunity arise. “If we see that the policy needs to change and that dealing with developments requires change, then we will not be tardy,” Mustafa says.