Why Aren’t More Muslim Brothers Turning to Violence?

After the 2013 military intervention against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, many voices warned that the Brotherhood would shift its tactics to include the use of violence. However, only a minority within the Brotherhood has decided to take up arms. While most policy attention focuses on the causes of radicalization, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt raises an equally important question: why, despite the measures adopted by the regime since 2013 against the Muslim Brotherhood, has only a small minority turned to violence?

The answer is threefold: the position of the leadership, a recognition of the costs of violence and the Brotherhood’s idea of itself as non-violent.

Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood supporters march during the vote on a new constitution on 14 January 2014. Photo: Getty Images.

The removal of President Mohammed Morsi, a Brotherhood figure, from power in July 2013 and the ensuing crackdown by the Egyptian authorities led to a split within the group between the historical leadership, which has insisted on using non-violent means to resist the regime, and newer leaders who advocated the use of limited violence, or what they call a ‘painful nonviolent’ approach. In January 2015, this newer leadership began to promote a strategy to escalate violent attacks throughout the year, and violence increased considerably from January to July 2015.(opens in new window) However, the old leadership interfered in order to put an end to this revolutionary approach and to restore its control over the Brotherhood.

The historical leadership used its organizational skills to promote its own men to higher positions in order to control the Brotherhood’s various administrative offices. In addition, it played the financial card to put pressure on those who were supporting the new leadership strategy. The position of the historical leadership is influenced by two main factors: pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood outside Egypt to renounce any level of violence in order to protect the image of the Brotherhood as a non-violent movement, and the desire to prevent the new leadership from extending its control over the organization.

Many Brotherhood members approach the idea of the use of violence rationally. They know that the cost of using violence is much higher than its benefits. This is particularly because the historical leadership withholds financial support, for the supply of arms as well as for the families of members who are killed or imprisoned because of their use of violence. Additionally, many of the Brotherhood’s members know the cost of going against the Egyptian regime, having witnessed the defeat of the Islamist groups that tried to challenge the state authority in the 1980s and 1990s. Experiences outside Egypt have also framed the Muslim Brotherhood’s choices, such as the confrontation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian regime in 1980s, during which the Syrian regime violently defeated the movement.

Rejection of violence has also been a key part of the institutional ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood for over 40 years. While there is an internal ideological debate over whether the organization allows the use of violence or not, over the past four decades the Brotherhood has preached against the jihadi approach of using political violence. Moreover, it has institutionalized these ideas into its membership rules. Members are accepted or rejected partly based on their stance towards the use of violence, and there have traditionally been clear orders to not promote any sympathizer to the level of official member if there were any doubts about their views on the issue.

These factors have an important influence over the attitudes of the majority of the Muslim Brothers and have led most of them to refrain from using political violence. But it is also important to note that these factors do not have the same influence over the different groups affiliated with the Brotherhood, and might not have the same influence over time.

These factors have weaker influence when it comes to the youth, particularly those who have been jailed after 2013. A Muslim Brotherhood member who spent two years in prison, speaking anonymously, said that he believes that, after 2013, over 1 in 5 Muslim Brotherhood members inside his prison had become more willing to use political violence. The leadership does not have the same level of influence on newer members, who have only been with the organization for a few years and have not developed the same pattern of respect and obedience to their superiors. For many, who have dropped out of education and share with many younger Egyptians the belief that they have little future prospects, there is much less to lose in turning to violence. And in prison, they are exposed to jihadists and their ideology of violence.

Once released, they will represent a challenge for the Muslim Brotherhood leadership to reintegrate. So far, the leadership, the understanding of the limits of violence and the Brotherhood’s history have all limited the influence of this ideology. But wider disappointment about the ongoing struggle over leadership and the lack of a coherent strategy to confront the regime might make the message of violence more attractive to more members in future.

Georges Fahmi, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.

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