In a dusty town in the Gharbia governorate on the banks of the Nile, Abdel decided he’d had enough.  The longtime Muslim Brotherhood member publicly quit the organization.  His October 12 defection marks the latest mid-level leader to leave the organization.

Abdel’s decision is part of a larger trend that reaches far beyond the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, with members dissociating themselves from the organization since the 2013 overthrow of the Morsi government in Cairo, helped along by a variety of regional developments that disadvantage the longstanding political movement. 

The situation looked different for the Muslim Brotherhood in 2011, when regional uprisings brought the group in from the cold.  The secretive group, founded in 1928, looked to be facing a golden opportunity to step forward from the shadows and participate in the political future of a number of Arab countries, including Tunisia and Egypt.  The election of Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt in the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring” initially looked especially promising.  Morsi was a longtime Brotherhood leader and enforcer for the organization.

In the half-decade since that historic development, subsequent events have not only thrust the organization out of the halls of power, but driven it, apparently, into an unprecedented decline.

The Muslim Brotherhood survived successive crackdowns by Arab governments only to reorganize in the shadows for decades.  However, this time is different, as the internal unity of the group has been shattered by disputes between younger members and the old guard, accompanied by an unheard of number of defections.  Almost the entire leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has been sentenced to life terms in prison by the Sisi government, taking from the group its most experienced organizers and thinkers.

Meanwhile, those who remain outside prison walls are subject to serious restrictions on their ability to regroup in a political capacity.  Indeed, it appears that the government in Cairo has learned from the experiences of its predecessors and developed a strategy that prevents a shadowy re-emergence of the Brotherhood.  Perhaps only the continued financial support of Qatar is enough to keep the organization from collapsing altogether.

At the same time that Egypt is cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood in its home, the Saudi monarchy is engaged in a dogmatic war with the group.  Using its authority as the custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam, the Saudi government and its religious authorities have been working in recent years to interpret Islamic law in a manner that would take away from the Muslim Brotherhood its theological foundations.

By attempting to cast the Brothers as deviants from true Islam, the Saudis are striking a massive blow to the credibility of the group among the masses.  Joining the organization in the kingdom is strictly illegal, and those who do so are subject to prison terms.  A major motivation of this aggressive campaign is the Brotherhood’s belief that monarchies are inherently un-Islamic and that governments such as that in Riyadh therefore need to be overthrown.  This existential threat to the Saudi royals has led to a growing mobilization of the religious clergy in their defense as part of a vigorous effort to strip the Brothers of any credibility or ideological grounding.

In the oil-rich Qatari emirate, meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood has played a major role in driving a wedge between Doha and its neighbors.  This division became concrete in June 2017, when an “Anti-Terror Quartet” of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and others decided to cut diplomatic and commercial ties with Qatar for its support of groups such as the Brotherhood.  The hosting of leading Brothers in the emirate’s capital, as well as the financing of the group and its current and former offshoots such as Hamas, irked its neighbors to no end and is said to have been a primary motivator of the June declaration.  The demands on Qatar that the Anti-Terror Quartet issued prominently featured the Muslim Brotherhood as one of the groups that must be removed from the emir’s favor.  This demand was of such importance that many experts opined that it looks to be the primary issue in the Gulf dispute.

The government of Sudan, once an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, is rapidly distancing itself from the group as it cultivates closer ties with its neighbor to the north, Egypt.  As the two North African states draw closer, Khartoum appears to have made the strategic decision to jettison its Brotherhood connections, despite the group having played a role in the current regime’s assumption of power in 1989.  This trend has especially gained steam since the beginning of 2017, as diplomatic ties with Cairo, Riyadh, and even Washington have improved markedly at the expense of the Khartoum government’s old alliance with the Brotherhood.  In September 2017, the U.S. removed its sanctions on Sudan, which had been in place since the 1990s, thereby acknowledging the change in policy by Osama bin Laden’s former hosts.  Some even claim that the removal of Sudan from the Trump administration’s travel ban was due to Saudi lobbying for its new allies in return for the pivot away from the Brothers.  Notably, there was no delegation from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood invited to attend the congress of Sudan’s ruling party, though Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia and a senior delegation from Turkey’s AKP did attend.

As it finds itself increasingly isolated across the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood has turned to European countries such as Spain as well as the United States across the Atlantic to expand.  Police in Catalonia are reported to have noticed and continue to monitor increased Brotherhood activity in the poor Muslim neighborhoods of Barcelona.  The Brothers are said to be preaching to Spanish Muslims about the south of Spain, which was once the Muslim province of Andalusia, which has, needless to say, attracted significant scrutiny from regional law enforcement.  Front groups across the pond in the U.S. continue to preach similarly radical messages in Muslim communities, using Qatari and Turkish funding to open mosques and related organizations, including some mere miles from Washington, D.C.  The Brothers’ activities in North America have yet to attract the sustained law enforcement scrutiny that they have in Europe or the decisive action against them that has occurred across the Middle East, and that has led to a doubling down by the organization on its expansion efforts in the U.S.

On the whole, the once-expansionist Muslim Brotherhood is in retreat across the Middle East and North Africa, with the squeeze being put on them even in their onetime strongholds of Qatar and Egypt.  However, new offshoots appear to be gaining steam in Europe and North America even as the original branches shrivel, creating potential opportunities for Brotherhood expansion even in this period of challenges for the organization.

In a dusty town in the Gharbia governorate on the banks of the Nile, Abdel decided he’d had enough.  The longtime Muslim Brotherhood member publicly quit the organization.  His October 12 defection marks the latest mid-level leader to leave the organization.

Abdel’s decision is part of a larger trend that reaches far beyond the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, with members dissociating themselves from the organization since the 2013 overthrow of the Morsi government in Cairo, helped along by a variety of regional developments that disadvantage the longstanding political movement. 

The situation looked different for the Muslim Brotherhood in 2011, when regional uprisings brought the group in from the cold.  The secretive group, founded in 1928, looked to be facing a golden opportunity to step forward from the shadows and participate in the political future of a number of Arab countries, including Tunisia and Egypt.  The election of Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt in the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring” initially looked especially promising.  Morsi was a longtime Brotherhood leader and enforcer for the organization.

In the half-decade since that historic development, subsequent events have not only thrust the organization out of the halls of power, but driven it, apparently, into an unprecedented decline.

The Muslim Brotherhood survived successive crackdowns by Arab governments only to reorganize in the shadows for decades.  However, this time is different, as the internal unity of the group has been shattered by disputes between younger members and the old guard, accompanied by an unheard of number of defections.  Almost the entire leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has been sentenced to life terms in prison by the Sisi government, taking from the group its most experienced organizers and thinkers.

Meanwhile, those who remain outside prison walls are subject to serious restrictions on their ability to regroup in a political capacity.  Indeed, it appears that the government in Cairo has learned from the experiences of its predecessors and developed a strategy that prevents a shadowy re-emergence of the Brotherhood.  Perhaps only the continued financial support of Qatar is enough to keep the organization from collapsing altogether.

At the same time that Egypt is cracking down on the Muslim Brotherhood in its home, the Saudi monarchy is engaged in a dogmatic war with the group.  Using its authority as the custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam, the Saudi government and its religious authorities have been working in recent years to interpret Islamic law in a manner that would take away from the Muslim Brotherhood its theological foundations.

By attempting to cast the Brothers as deviants from true Islam, the Saudis are striking a massive blow to the credibility of the group among the masses.  Joining the organization in the kingdom is strictly illegal, and those who do so are subject to prison terms.  A major motivation of this aggressive campaign is the Brotherhood’s belief that monarchies are inherently un-Islamic and that governments such as that in Riyadh therefore need to be overthrown.  This existential threat to the Saudi royals has led to a growing mobilization of the religious clergy in their defense as part of a vigorous effort to strip the Brothers of any credibility or ideological grounding.

In the oil-rich Qatari emirate, meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood has played a major role in driving a wedge between Doha and its neighbors.  This division became concrete in June 2017, when an “Anti-Terror Quartet” of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, and others decided to cut diplomatic and commercial ties with Qatar for its support of groups such as the Brotherhood.  The hosting of leading Brothers in the emirate’s capital, as well as the financing of the group and its current and former offshoots such as Hamas, irked its neighbors to no end and is said to have been a primary motivator of the June declaration.  The demands on Qatar that the Anti-Terror Quartet issued prominently featured the Muslim Brotherhood as one of the groups that must be removed from the emir’s favor.  This demand was of such importance that many experts opined that it looks to be the primary issue in the Gulf dispute.

The government of Sudan, once an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, is rapidly distancing itself from the group as it cultivates closer ties with its neighbor to the north, Egypt.  As the two North African states draw closer, Khartoum appears to have made the strategic decision to jettison its Brotherhood connections, despite the group having played a role in the current regime’s assumption of power in 1989.  This trend has especially gained steam since the beginning of 2017, as diplomatic ties with Cairo, Riyadh, and even Washington have improved markedly at the expense of the Khartoum government’s old alliance with the Brotherhood.  In September 2017, the U.S. removed its sanctions on Sudan, which had been in place since the 1990s, thereby acknowledging the change in policy by Osama bin Laden’s former hosts.  Some even claim that the removal of Sudan from the Trump administration’s travel ban was due to Saudi lobbying for its new allies in return for the pivot away from the Brothers.  Notably, there was no delegation from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood invited to attend the congress of Sudan’s ruling party, though Rachid Ghannouchi of Tunisia and a senior delegation from Turkey’s AKP did attend.

As it finds itself increasingly isolated across the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood has turned to European countries such as Spain as well as the United States across the Atlantic to expand.  Police in Catalonia are reported to have noticed and continue to monitor increased Brotherhood activity in the poor Muslim neighborhoods of Barcelona.  The Brothers are said to be preaching to Spanish Muslims about the south of Spain, which was once the Muslim province of Andalusia, which has, needless to say, attracted significant scrutiny from regional law enforcement.  Front groups across the pond in the U.S. continue to preach similarly radical messages in Muslim communities, using Qatari and Turkish funding to open mosques and related organizations, including some mere miles from Washington, D.C.  The Brothers’ activities in North America have yet to attract the sustained law enforcement scrutiny that they have in Europe or the decisive action against them that has occurred across the Middle East, and that has led to a doubling down by the organization on its expansion efforts in the U.S.

On the whole, the once-expansionist Muslim Brotherhood is in retreat across the Middle East and North Africa, with the squeeze being put on them even in their onetime strongholds of Qatar and Egypt.  However, new offshoots appear to be gaining steam in Europe and North America even as the original branches shrivel, creating potential opportunities for Brotherhood expansion even in this period of challenges for the organization.



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