The Brotherhood Breaks Down

Will the Group Survive the Latest Blow?

A man holds a poster and a sign that shows the Rabaa hand gesture, which symbolizes support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Sudan, May 22, 2015. The poster reads: "For those who facing this difficulty, be patient and endure together." Reuters

Muslim Brothers call Mahmoud Ezzat the “Iron Man.” The stoic 71-year-old deputy supreme guide earned that nickname on account of his lifelong struggle on behalf of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, including over a decade spent in Egyptian jails, during which he burnished his reputation for toughness as one of the foremost enforcers of discipline within the organization’s rigid hierarchy. Following the July 2013 ouster of Egypt’s first elected president, Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, Ezzat’s legend within the organization grew as he evaded the crackdown that landed most top Brotherhood leaders in prison, and then hid within Egypt even as other Muslim Brothers fled into exile. “He has the ability to hide because he was imprisoned prior to this for about ten years,” Brotherhood youth activist Amr Farrag said during an October 2014 interview in Istanbul. “He can sit for something like five years without speaking to anyone, sitting in only a closed room. He can do this.” Farrag added that Ezzat asked his Brotherhood colleagues not to contact him, presumably to avoid detection within Egypt. 

Ezzat’s strategy for self-preservation ultimately worked: Egyptian security forces did not capture him. But in his absence, the Brotherhood’s internal discipline collapsed, and a severe internal rift exploded into the open in the spring of 2015. After initially attempting to resolve these divisions from within Egypt, Ezzat suddenly reappeared in Turkey in mid-November and declared himself the Brotherhood’s acting supreme guide. Yet the Iron Man had lost his touch: Many Muslim Brothers rejected his power play, and the rift has deepened considerably in the past few months.

Mahmoud Ezzat, then deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, attends a news conference in Cairo, May 30, 2010.
Mahmoud Ezzat, then deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, attends a news conference in Cairo, May 30, 2010. Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters
Ezzat’s failure to assert his control reflects a significant change in the organization’s internal culture. For much of the past two decades, the Brotherhood was dominated by a hardline faction known as the “Qutbists”—followers of the radical Brotherhood ideologue Sayyid Qutb, whose call for global jihad later inspired al Qaeda and other terrorist movements. Like other Brotherhood leaders of his generation, Ezzat was

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