Decimated Muslim Brotherhood Still Inspires Fear. Its Members Wonder Why.

 Decimated Muslim Brotherhood Still Inspires Fear. Its Members Wonder Why.

Defendants in the 2015 killing of an Egyptian prosecutor flash the Rabaa sign, symbolizing support for the Muslim Brotherhood, while being held in a courtroom in Cairo last month.

ISTANBUL — For Magdy Shalash, an Egyptian exile living here in Turkey, there is a certain irony to a recent diplomatic spat that has divided the Middle East.

Several Arab countries — led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt — are enmeshed in a standoff with Qatar and, to a lesser extent, Turkey. One major reason? Qatari and Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement that Mr. Shalash helps lead.

To its enemies, the Brotherhood is a terrorist group that seeks to unravel the established Arab order, and not just in Egypt, where the group was founded in 1928, but in countries like Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, where the group has inspired similar movements.

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Yet, members like Mr. Shalash, many of whom are either in jail in Egypt or in exile in countries like Turkey, say the group is not only democratic, but decimated and divided. They say it has little ability to exert control over even its own members, let alone the governments of the Middle East.

“Us sitting here,” said Mr. Shalash, in reference to the exiled Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Turkey, “we cant really do anything.”

This sense of helplessness is nevertheless new. In 2011, the Brotherhood or its offshoots seemed to be the coming force in regional politics, having a hand in most of the uprisings that challenged the old order in several Middle Eastern countries.

In Egypt, the Brotherhoods Mohamed Morsi was elected president. In Tunisia, Ennahda — a party inspired by the Brotherhood — initially emerged as the most powerful post-revolutionary faction. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood played a major role in the rebellion against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

All this frightened the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Like the Brotherhood, the Saudi and Emirati royal families adhere to variations of Sunni Islamic doctrine. But the more populist vision promoted by Brotherhood brands implicitly threatens the hereditary monarchies of the Persian Gulf region.

“The Brotherhood provides a different kind of religious legitimacy,” said Shadi Hamid, author of “Islamic Exceptionalism,” an exploration of political Islam in the 21st century. “It will remain the only long-term threat of importance to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.”

In the short term, however, the Brotherhood poses few practical problems for its enemies. While some of the groups it has inspired, including Ennahda and Hamas in Gaza, retain positions of prominence, the original Egyptian group has been crushed.

Since Mr. Morsi was ousted as president by the Egyptian Army in 2013, backed by both Saudi Arabia and huge crowds of Egyptian protesters, thousands of members of the Egyptian Brotherhood have been arrested or killed. A minority managed to escape, some to Qatar but most to Turkey, where about 1,500 have found sanctuary.

Many live in and around Yenibosna, a drab suburb several miles west of Istanbuls city center. Some have business interests and some study, while the most senior have established a leadership in exile.

By their own description, the leaders are largely powerless. They struggle to maintain basic levels of contact with their colleagues back home, some of whom, the exiles say, have been arrested after speaking with Turkey-based Brotherhood members by telephone. Scores of exiles are now without passports, unable to renew their documents at the Egyptian Consulate in Turkey.

“Communications on a human level and a political level are more or less impossible because people there are in hiding,” said Ayman Abdel-Ghani, once a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhoods political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. “Even if you have a family member back there, its hard to reach out to them.”

For instance, Mr. Abdel-Ghanis father-in-law, Khairat al-Shater, was considered an important back-room player during Mr. Morsis presidency. Now he, like Mr. Morsi, is being held in an Egyptian prison.

The Brotherhood in exile does what it can for its jailed members. Exiles are currently raising awareness about 13 Muslim Brotherhood members recently sentenced to death in Egypt for what they say are trumped-up charges, and raising money for the detainees families.

But resources are scarcer than they once were. The Egyptian government has seized many of the exiles businesses and savings, while most struggle to find lucrative work in Turkey, said Ahmed Gad, a former lawmaker from the Brotherhoods political wing.

“Its hard to find job opportunities,” said Mr. Gad, hinting that their lives are subsidized by Turkish and Qatari institutions or their surrogates, and by wealthy members of the wider Brotherhood movement. “The same governments that are supporting our freedoms are supporting our lives here,” he said without further explanation.

Perhaps the Brotherhoods biggest problem, however, is a lack of unity. Once a strictly hierarchical institution, members of the group now openly disagree about how it should respond to the current Egyptian dictatorship; how it should structure itself, should a political opening ever emerge in Egypt; and what it did wrong during its year in power from 2012 to 2013.

The group is now loosely divided between those who back the old hierarchys gradualist approach and a smaller faction that favors greater confrontation with the Egyptian state. “If revolutionaries take to the street, they should be able to protect themselves,” said Mr. Shalash, who is a leading figure in the second faction. “Not to initiate aggression,” he added. “Just to protect themselves.”

Then there are exiled Brotherhood members who support neither of the above, people like Abdallah Karyouni, a 31-year-old physician who finds both approaches unrealistic. The first group is “still waiting for Allah to make them victorious without mastering the political tools that will make them victorious,” Mr. Karyouni said. The second group “might lead the country to similar experiences to Syria and Algeria,” a reference to those countries civil wars.

During previous crackdowns, Brotherhood members and their affiliates have also spent time in exile, and the location of that exile has often affected their political approach upon their return home. “Just as where you study abroad in your 20s is important, where you spend your exile is also very important,” said Monica Marks, an academic at Oxford University who researches the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots.

It remains to be seen what lessons, if any, Egyptian Muslim Brothers will learn from living in Turkey. Brotherhood members disagree about whether the group should have tried to work with a wider coalition during its unhappy year in power or showed even greater strength.

The experience of Turkeys president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, arguably shows how both approaches can work.

In his early years in office, Mr. Erdogan — whose ideological roots are comparable to the Brotherhoods — consolidated power by seeking alliances with liberals and various minorities. Yet, since the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood began to move to Turkey, Mr. Erdogan has, conversely, staved off competition by cracking down hard on his opponents, particularly after last years failed coup.

And Ms. Marks wonders whether Mr. Erdogans second approach will prove more alluring to the exiled Brotherhood members than his first.

“Theyre seeing a very majoritarian model in practice and I fear that this might be reinforcing some of their more autocratic tendencies,” said Ms. Marks. “What youre seeing in Turkey is a regime that at least on its surface looks very powerful, using a discourse of democratic legitimacy to defend what are in many ways undemocratic policies. Its very seductive.”

Follow Patrick Kingsley on Twitter @PatrickKingsley.

By: The New York Times

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