Fraying at the Center: New Ideological Disputes Harm the Brotherhood at its Core

Protesters on the streets of Cairo, October 2013. (PHOTO: Voice of America Via  Wikimedia Commons )

Protesters on the streets of Cairo, October 2013. (PHOTO: Voice of America Via Wikimedia Commons)

Since the military backed ouster of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013 and the Rabaa and Nahda Square massacres of August 2013, tensions within the Muslim Brotherhood have been further amplified and have been on display to the public.  A segment of younger Muslim Brotherhood members (mainly in their twenties and thirties) are calling for more forceful and confrontational opposition and tactics against the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.  Another faction, primarily the old guard of the organization, is urging for nonviolent forms of opposition.  Though differences between the factions within the Muslim Brotherhood are not new, the infighting and divergence in opposition tactics will exacerbate the group’s problems and will further alienate it from Egyptians and foreign governments alike.           

At first, Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna’s primary concern was reforming the social and moral elements of society before advocating for political change.  Article 2 of the group’s first internal by-laws states that “this group shall not become involved in political affairs, whatever they may be.”[1]  Eventually, the emphasis changed.  In the late 1930s and 1940s, the Brotherhood became more active in the political realm.  Brotherhood cells were established in the military, judiciary, and police force.  The Brotherhood also created the Special Military Apparatus in the 1940s.[2]  Though Banna rejected political party work, he did not object to the idea of people revolting against governments or actively repudiating authority if governments or rulers were not working in the people’s interest.[3]

Sayyid Qutb, a Brotherhood ideologue and writer, was one of the main advocates for radical thinking within the group.  His radical ideology would influence members within the Brotherhood, as well as splinter groups like Egyptian Islamic Jihad, and later, transnational jihadi groups like al-Qaeda.  He advocated for the creation of an elite vanguard to wage jihad against jahili systems.[4]  His book “Milestones,” published in 1964, promoted this idea.  For Qutb, jahiliyya was the state of willful blindness to God’s sovereign power.[5]  All governments and systems based on man-made laws (democratic, communist, secular Arab regimes, monarchies, etc.) were considered part of the jahiliyya system.[6]   

Qutb argued that preaching and jihad were essential for overthrowing the jahiliyya system.  He felt that one could not fight against jahiliyya society with just discourse.[7]  In Milestones, he calls for the vanguard “movement” to get rid of obstacles in its (the vanguard movement’s) path.  He stated that “discourse opposes [erroneous] doctrines and concepts, while it is the ‘movement’ that overturns material obstacles, the political system in the first place” (Qutb, 61).  Political scientist and scholar Gilles Kepel states that “by pairing the terms ‘movement’ and ‘discourse’, Qutb referred implicitly to the propagation of Islam by ‘the sword’ and ‘the Book,’ the two being essentially complementary.”[8]  Qutb argued that a ruler could declare his rejection of Islam by public statements or by not ruling according to Sharia law.  This practice of takfir (declaring another Muslim to be an infidel) continues to have a very strong influence on jihadi organizations in the Middle East.[9]

This philosophy was countered in a book written by influential members of the Brotherhood under the auspices of former General Guide, Hassan al-Hudaybi, called “Preachers, Not Judges,” which was written in 1969 and published in 1977.  Until recently, the moderate ideological stance articulated in “Preachers, Not Judges” influenced the group’s practices, such as the rejection of revolutionary overthrow and the gradual development of an Islamic state in Egypt by way of education, social engagement, and participation in the political system.  The recent events that have transpired in Egypt appear to have shaken these ideological pillars.               

Following the crackdowns in Rabaa and Nahda Squares, it appears that violent tactics are becoming more popular among some Brotherhood youth.  This revolutionary faction, led in part by Brotherhood spokesman Mohamed Montasser, has called for violent action against the Sisi government.  This faction also sees no avenue for reconciliation with the Sisi government.[10]  Many Brotherhood youth believe that older leaders within the group miscalculated the political environment before Morsi’s removal.[11]  The revolutionary faction does not believe in the gradual, unarmed opposition to the Sisi regime advocated by the Brotherhood’s older leadership.[12] 

Some members have formed groups known as “special operations committees” that carry out violent acts.[13]  These actions include blocking roads, bringing down electricity towers, tossing Molotov cocktails at police cars, committing arson as well as other forms of violence.[14]  In early 2015, it is believed that some Brotherhood leaders within the revolutionary faction commissioned a book that attempted to justify violent acts against the Sisi regime.  The book is entitled “The Jurisprudence of Popular Resistance to the Coup.”  Though it avoids accusing Sisi and his government of being apostates, the authors accuse Sisi and his government of being seditionists.[15]  According to scholar Mokhtar Awad’s analysis of “Jurisprudence,” he found that the authors of the book (“The Jurisprudence of Popular Resistance to the Coup”) reason that since Sisi and his government used violence against Muslims, they are considered enemy combatants and should be slain according to Sharia law.[16] 

The old guard, led by Mahmoud Ezzat, has been trying to stem the influence of the revolutionary faction.  As the old guard control the group’s international financing, they have been working to prevent money from financing violent activities.[17]  Despite the attempt to stem the influence of violent elements within the group, younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood still appear to be attracted to the more radical discourse.[18]         

Even though the old guard has made some strides in curtailing some of the activities carried out by the revolutionary faction, the ideological schism will continue to have very negative repercussions on the group.  It appears that the more moderate ideological mandate and pillars that the Brotherhood has followed since the publication of “Preachers, Not Judges” is being shaken by the ideas articulated in “The Jurisprudence of Popular Resistance to the Coup.”  As the authors of “Jurisprudence of Popular Resistance to the Coup” go through great pains in justifying acts of political violence against the Sisi government, it appears that a segment of the Muslim Brotherhood is shifting away from the more moderate ideas espoused in “Preachers, Not Judges” and are veering toward the orbit of the radical ideology espoused by Qutb.  The release of this document disrupts the more moderate ideological underpinnings that the group has followed since the 1970s and threatens to lead it down a more dangerous path.  The frustration of the younger generation will only grow due to the ongoing conflict with the government and ideological disagreements within the group.  There is a real risk that this ideological division will prompt some within the revolutionary faction to make a clean break with the Brotherhood and join more radical organizations such as ISIS (it has been reported that some young Brotherhood members have already joined ISIS).[19] 

With the hierarchical structure and old guard of the Muslim Brotherhood facing strong push-back from the younger revolutionary faction and a new ideological imperative (as seen with the publication of “The Jurisprudence of Popular Resistance to the Coup”) adopted by certain members of the group, there is a chance we might see a permanent fissure.  This will only lead the group on a downward trajectory for the foreseeable future.



[1] pg. 2-3

[2] Ibid. pg. 4

[3] Ibid. pg. 4

[4] Wickham, Carrie Rosefsky.  The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement.  Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2013.  Pg. 28

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Kepel, Gilles.  Muslim Extremism in Egypt: The Prophet and Pharaoh.  Berkeley and Los Angeles:  University of California Press, 1984.  Pg. 55

[8] Ibid. pg 56




[12] It must be noted that there are older members that advocate for violent opposition against the Sisi regime and younger members who prefer a more moderate approach.


[14] and and


[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.