The Muslim Brotherhood is, currently, struggling through one of the most shaking existential crises in its history. The fight between the elders over the ailing body of the group, which has not stopped since 2014, has reached an unprecedented bar. Up till this moment, the battle is limited to the exchange of media statements between Ibrahim Munir’s front, based in London, and Mahmoud Hussein’s front, based in Istanbul. Each side is using their self-claimed authorities to dismiss the powers of the other side. Yet, some experts suggest that this heated situation may escalate into actual acts of violence, at any moment, as one side may attempt to assassinate the other.
However, the escalating divisions among the Muslim Brotherhood leaders, and the consequent gradual withdrawal of the group’s foreign political and financial supporters should be the group’s least worries, at this critical moment. The biggest concern, however, stems from the tendency of young female members, collectively labeled as “the Muslim Sisters,” to follow their male peers to the path of violent jihad. The devout and low-profile sisters of the Muslim Brotherhood have always been the secret ingredient that saved the group from breakdown in times of existential crises. In light of the current crisis, the sisters are, probably, the last lifeline that the group cannot afford their absence.
Hammering The Pegs
The Muslim Sisters sub-group is as old as the Muslim Brotherhood organization. It was initiated, in 1932, a few months after the group’s leadership moved to Cairo, merely with the purpose to bear children and make families that serve the long-term expansionist goals of the group. However, in a short period of time, the sisters proved to be an essential pillar of support, that continued to play a crucial role in preserving the group’s coherence, especially in tough times of political oppression, despite repeatedly being mistreated and exploited by the brothers.
The Muslim Brotherhood group started in 1928, in Ismailia, as an underground Islamic association with the mission to restore the unity of Islamic Umma under one Caliphate system ruled by Sharia Law. In Ismailia, a small rural town in eastern Egypt, where people were completely detached from the modern and secular lifestyle in the capital city of Cairo, Hassan Al-Banna found a fertile soil for planting his ideology and attracting base supporters. At that time, the majority of families in rural cities inclined to be religiously and socially conservative as they could not keep pace with the quick and extreme modernization of all aspects of life in the capital city of Cairo. The years following the 1919 revolution, marked the liberal era of Egypt’s modern history, when women broke the barriers of fear and decided to leave their homes to intensively participate in public life shoulder-to-shoulder with men.
In 1930, as the Muslim Brotherhood popularity increased among grassroots citizens in rural cities all over Egypt, Al-Banna decided to move the Muslim Brotherhood mission to Cairo, where he can sneak his group, as a new political party, into the then new and evolving liberal political system. Al-Banna knew that his group would not be welcomed in the modern secular Cairo, if he openly showed his extremist ideology that looks down at women as “less-developed humans,” and orders them to be submissive followers to their husbands. Therefore, in 1932, Hassan Al-Banna decided to launch the “Muslim Sisters” as a marginal section within the Muslim Brotherhood, and wrote a memo titled “A Message to The Muslim Woman” wherein he set the terms and conditions of living for the women, who were called to join the group.
In addition to making the group falsely appear as open-minded and supportive to women, the main purpose of recruiting women, at this early stage, was to create a tribal bond that connects the growing number of Muslim Brotherhood members with blood, rather than with a common political or religious ideology. In simple words, women’s primary mission inside the Muslim Brotherhood is to make families and raise children, who will later marry from each other and make new families, and so on. This was Al-Banna’s strategy to keep the group growing in number and expanding in size over a long period of time in the future. Clearly, it worked successfully!
The blood bond, which is much stronger than the common ideology bond, made the brothers more willing to donate their money and risk their lives to serve the group’s mission and goals. By time, the next generations grew up with a sense of exclusive devotion and belonging towards their Muslim Brotherhood tribe, that is bigger than their sense of belonging as citizens to their nation-states. Actually, this tribal / blood bond is the main reason why such an extremist political and religious organization managed to live for almost one hundred years, while other dogmatic ideologies, like communism for example, had died under the pressure of time, war, and the changing political agendas of the international community.
Keeping the Boat Afloat
The era of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser (ruled from 1954 to 1970) was, allegedly, the darkest period of political oppression for the Muslim Brotherhood. Nasser, who came with an agenda to promote the communist ideology, which was internationally popular at that time, was determined to finish the Muslim Brotherhood. He did not hesitate to put the group’s leaders in jail and subject them to mass executions based on exceptional court decisions. Some of the group leaders managed to flee Egypt but they were too weak and too scared to challenge Nasser and his massive popularity, not only among Egyptians, but also in several Arab countries.
At that critical time, the Muslim Sisters decided to break the ceiling set by Al-Banna to rescue the organization from collapsing under Nasser’s iron grip. They started to secretly organize themselves to fill in the role of the absent middle leaders. That is; passing communications between the imprisoned leaders and the free base, collecting donations for the group’s central fund, and taking care of the families and children of the imprisoned brothers. Above all that, the Muslim Sisters kept transferring the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological principles to their children, who grew up later to be the new leaders of the group that was revived after Nasser’s death, and the inauguration of Mohamed Anwar Sadat as the next president.
The Muslim sisters, especially from older generations, are playing a similar role in our current time. After the removal of Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, in 2013, a large number of top leaders fled to Turkey, Qatar, and the United Kingdom, while the Supreme Guide and a few others got arrested. Between 2014-2015, almost all middle leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested by the Egyptian security forces or killed in armed confrontations. This created a gap that required Muslim Brotherhood women to step up to fill. Since then, the elder sisters started to play the role of the middle leaders, to keep the group alive in the shadow; in hope that a future president may come after El-Sisi, who will bring the group back to public life, as Sadat did when he took power after Nasser.
Sadat’s short years in presidency (from 1970 to 1981) were not as easy as Nasser’s. People did not admire him as much as they were infatuated by Nasser. His openness to peace with Israel and his call for establishing an open market economy and a liberal political system was met by fierce opposition from the supporters of Nasser’s communist ideology, who call themselves “the Nasserists.” To neutralize the influence of the Nasserists among the grassroots citizens, Sadat had to employ Islamists against them. Therefore, he released the Muslim Brotherhood leaders from prison and allowed them to practice religious breaching and social activism on a limited scale. Sadat’s strategy to suppress Nasserists by empowering Islamists was successful. In a record time, the majority of the citizens ditched every communist belief they once embraced under Nasser and started to adapt to Sadat’s new style of governance and living. Yet, eventually Sadat’s life was ceased by the Islamists he empowered.
Following Sadat’s assassination, his Vice President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak, was upgraded to be the new president. Mubarak (ruled from 1981 to 2011) had to deal with two main challenges; to improve the economy and control the expansion of Islamists and extremist jihadist movements that flourished under Sadat. While Mubarak was ruthlessly successful in fighting jihadist organizations, he availed a huge social space to political Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist movement. Although Mubarak’s regime and media labeled the Muslim Brotherhood as a “banned group,” he did not stop them from practicing shadow political activities among the grassroots citizens.
The sisters of the Muslim Brotherhood were the key players in this game. At this stage, the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood had already realized that the sisters are one of the main pillars of support to the group and that they can achieve missions that the brothers cannot do, such as mobilizing grassroots for political support in municipal and parliamentary elections. Moreover, the new generation that took the lead of the group, during Sadat era, was more open to the idea of involving women in social activities that serves the group. Therefore, they invested in educating their daughters to be teachers and physicians, specifically. Later in the 1990s and early 2000s, the sisters, who got trained as doctors and teachers, led charity campaigns that provided free healthcare and education to poor citizens in rural villages far from the capital city of Cairo.
Smartly, the Muslim Brotherhood used the sisters to magnify the influence of the group on grassroots citizens and turning them into political supporters. As a result, the Muslim Brotherhood were able to win 88 seats (about 20%) of the lower house of Parliament, in the legislative elections of 2005, which was a benchmark in the group’s history. This, also, explains why the group got a large number of grassroots supporters, following Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution that ousted Mubarak regime in 2011, that eventually enabled them to take over presidency and the majority of parliament seats, in 2012. However, it did not take a long time for the Egyptian grassroots citizens, fooled by Muslim Brotherhood’s religious rhetoric and generous social services, to discover that the Islamist group is not less corrupt or manipulative than Mubarak’s regime.
Meanwhile, the young sisters of the Muslim Brotherhood were extensively present on the then new medium of the internet. They created personal blogs and managed websites affiliated to the group, in a very effective way, that helped spread the Muslim Brotherhood message among the liberal youth, who were dominating the Egyptian online space, at that time. It may be a surprise to some readers to know that the editor of the flagship English website of the Muslim Brotherhood, “Ikhwan Web,” during those years, was Sondos Assem, a brilliant young sister in her twenties. Later, she was hired as the Foreign Media Advisor to the President of the State, when the Muslim Brotherhood took power in 2012. Up till today, she is still heavily engaged in advocacy activities for the group in decision-making circles in the West.
Despite the obvious devotion and sincerity of the sisters in serving the group’s mission, the Muslim Brotherhood leadership had always kept women within a frame limited by gender stereotypes. For them, women's rights are described as a foreign set of western values that have nothing to do with Islam. The space provided for women on the Brotherhood's official website, for instance, was called "Family Oasis" and was full of skill-sharing articles about bringing up children, pleasing a husband, and the proper dress code for the Muslim woman.
Within the group’s hierarchy, the Muslim Brotherhood had a shameful record of marginalizing women. The Muslim Sisters had never been allowed access to leadership positions inside the group. In 2007, Essam Al-Arian, one of the leading figures of the Muslim Brotherhood, at that time, stated that the group may never allow women or Coptic Christians in decision-making positions, because this is contradictory to Islamic Sharia.
However, following the 2011 revolution against Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood established a political party to compete for presidency. Only then, they decided to change their discriminative policy towards women, to be accepted by the young liberal base that led the revolution and the western audience who was closely watching the political developments in Egypt, at that time. Therefore, the Muslim Brotherhood hired a few of the elder sisters in the supreme committee of their new political party.
In the parliamentary elections of 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood listed only three women among the 133 candidates on their parliamentary election campaign platform. These women were the wives of prominent members in the group, with zero experience in practicing politics. One of them was Makarem Eldiary, who included many items in her political electoral program that were clearly discriminatory towards women. Her equivalent in the post-revolution parliament was Azza Al-Garf who had been lobbying against the 2003 legislation that criminalized the savage practice of female genital mutilation and called for legalizing child marriage.
In contradiction to that, the younger sisters were vocally criticizing the extremist positions of the group towards women. Even, some of them openly showed support to basic women’s rights on their web-blogs and social media accounts. However, they were never given a proper chance to act on the political forefront of the group, as the priority was given to the elder sisters, despite their limited political experience, narrow-minds, and lack of active social engagement.
Favoring Violent Jihad
In early October, Sudanese authorities announced the arrest of a terrorist cell affiliated to the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists. The relatively small militia is led by an Egyptian young man, who used to be an active member of the Muslim Brotherhood. But that is not the surprising part of the story.
A huge number of the Muslim Brotherhood youth, roughly estimated by four thousand members, decided to follow the path of violent jihad to compensate for the group’s political failure, in the aftermath of the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in 2013. Some of them formed small militias, such as HASM, and started operating inside Egypt until they got arrested in 2015. However, the majority of them fled Egypt to join terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic State (ISIS), in the Levant and eastern Africa.
However, it seems that the youth who decided to turn into violent jihadists are not only men. The investigations on the terrorist cell that was recently discovered in Sudan, found young Egyptian women among the jihadists. Some of them used to be members of the Muslim Brotherhood. One of them is a young woman, born in 1997, whose family reported her, in 2017, as forcibly disappeared. This could be seen as an indicator that violent jihad has become a favorable trend for the young sisters, similar to what happened with their male peers.
This shockingly unpredicted transformation in the role played by young women, within the structure of the Muslim Brotherhood organization, may accelerate the collapse of the group. The sisters of the Muslim Brotherhood have always been the secret ingredient that helped the group survive darkest moments of oppression, in the past. The young sisters’ gradual disengagement from the political future of the group is a foretell for the Muslim Brotherhood’s eventual cessation. Yet, at the same time, this may also mean the appearance of a new trend of jihadism with new female jihadist elements that are too elusive to recognize and too devious to control.
Dalia Ziada is an Egyptian author and Director of the Liberal Democracy Institute. Her work covers military affairs, political Islamism, and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa. Tweets at @daliaziada.