With rising opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood in light of the leadership of President Mohamed Morsy, who hails from the group, opponents consistently voice one criticism: that young Brothers are mindless followers of the orders of their leaders and of the supreme guide, the highest authority within the group.
Brotherhood youth fend off this criticism by saying their support of the leaders is a measure of organization that people outside the group don’t understand, but that is key to its success and continuity.
“The organization is above ideas and above people … that’s the secret of its success,” Hamdy al-Lahamy, a member of the Cairo University division who joined the Muslim Brotherhood in 2006, says.
“There have been plenty of good ideas throughout history, but the Brotherhood’s philosophy has existed for 80 years. That’s because there is an organization behind this philosophy,” he adds.
For him and others, allegiance is only normal in a group in which internal democracy, as manifested by elections, is persistently exercised.
Mohamed Saad, a Muslim Brotherhood member from the Malika division in the Giza suburb of Faisal who joined the organization in 2006, says elections to choose division members and heads take place regularly via a secret ballot supervised by division administrative staff.
In the Brotherhood’s organizational hierarchy, the “division” is made up of “families.” A family is composed of neighbors who meet on a weekly basis for religion lessons or to discuss everyday problems.
Division members elect a leader from among themselves, as well as an advisory council. A group of divisions make up what is known as a “district,” which elects a head and advisory council from among division heads.
Districts come together to form a “section,” which also has an elected head and advisory board. Section heads elect a governorate advisory council and administrative office head responsible for the whole governorate.
Saad believes this democratic process is sufficient to justify compliance with the decisions of its upper echelons, adding that the decision-making process differs according to the gravity of the matter under consideration; divisions are permitted to make decisions they see as appropriate when something happens within its scope and inform its superiors of the subsequent action.
Mohamed Ezzat, a Muslim Brotherhood member from Imbaba, agrees with Saad.
“It’s a point of strength, not weakness, and proof of successful administration that each decision is made according to the situation and time and possible consequences of the decision. That there is centralization at some times but not at others gives the process flexibility,” Ezzat says.
Meanwhile, each governorate has a quota for membership of the Brotherhood’s central advisory council, the 70-member body responsible for electing the supreme guide and members of the group’s Guidance Bureau.
However, the Guidance Bureau’s power surpasses that of free elections, according to critics. Abdel Rahman Mansour, who was previously in the group and defected, calls its democracy only cosmetic. He explains that at elections time, the Brothers are tacitly encouraged to vote for particular leaders through Dawah classes, where figures who are not liked by the Guidance Bureau are shunned, especially those who have leadership tendencies.
Similarly, the bureau marginalizes leaders it doesn’t like from Dawah work in the governorates to bar their chances of gaining popularity, which is what happened with Brotherhood defector and former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abouel Fottouh.
But Abdallah al-Keriouny, a member since 2001, disagrees.
“Guidance Council members were the first ones oppressed and imprisoned. If we started to have doubts about the leadership, the whole group would unravel. The leadership has repeatedly proven that it is well-intentioned, even if they make mistakes,” Abdallah al-Keriouny, a member since 2001, says.
Keriouny adds that adherence to advisory council decisions has a “religious dimension.”
The passion with which young Brothers speak about the group’s organization and how it reflects their choices through electoral mechanisms came into question again after recent clashes between mostly young Brotherhood supporters and their opponents near the presidential palace in December. Then, more voices repeated the concern that the Brothers have specialized armed groups who take orders straight from the Guidance Bureau, which essentially controls the whole structure.
Ezzat strongly denies this and again refers to the group’s high level of organization to explain the order exhibited during protests and clashes. He says the secret of the group’s organizational skills lies in its hierarchical structure; it is easy for the most senior member present during clashes, for example, to assign various members of the divisions different tasks.
Meanwhile, the clashes confirmed how an allegiance-based meritocracy is at play. For example, Lahamy explains that despite the fact that he was not convinced by the Brotherhood’s decision to take on the role of the state and protect the presidential palace, he is prepared to defend it and forget about his personal opinion.
“I am under a duty to respect group decisions in order to preserve its unity and because I am convinced that leaders were well-intentioned,” he says.
A Brotherhood “upbringing” is an important factor in commitment to the group, Keriouny says. “Members progress through various upbringing levels, and at each level, they are evaluated according to a set of standards,” he adds.
The “follower” and “supporter” Brothers are the two levels that all aspiring Brotherhood members pass through. The next level is the “member” Brother, followed by the “organized” and “worker” Brother levels.
Promotion to these levels takes place once the individual has fulfilled all the duties required by his membership and pledges allegiance to the Brotherhood.
Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna described 10 characteristics that must mark a Muslim Brother’s personality. He should be “of sound belief” and “worship correctly,” and be “morally solid, cultured, strong physically, able to win, a fighter for himself, careful with his time, organized and useful for others.”
The Brotherhood has not always been successful in concealing its internal squabbles, further showcasing how full and unquestioning allegiance is required of all members. After Mubarak stepped down, the youth of the Brotherhood held a news conference on 26 March 2011 in which they extended an invitation to the Guidance Bureau, following the rift that began when some of the group’s youth decided to join the 25 January protests, despite the bureau’s reservation.
Bureau members didn’t attend, and organizers were expelled from the group. “The revolution exposed a pre-existing division within the Brotherhood between two groups — one that believed in a revolutionary solution and the other in gradual reform. However, some arbitrary expulsion decisions and refusal of dialogue with young members has made things tense,” says Keriouny.
This has stopped, Keriouny adds, now that the Brotherhood leadership is obliged to contain its young members and involve them in decision-making processes, because it needs them to fill positions in syndicates, local councils and Parliament.
Despite being the most important Islamist group in Egypt, the Brotherhood does not place importance on teaching Islamic jurisprudence to its members, nor does it hold it as criteria for climbing the echelons of its hierarchy.
“Knowledge of Sharia might be a factor in promotion from level to level within the group, but it is not a prerequisite,” Keriouny explains. Lahamy says it is this that separates the Brotherhood from the more radical Salafi Islamists.
“This is a crucial point. We don’t stress knowledge of Sharia or memorization of Hadiths or even the Quran itself. People are free to do this on an individual basis, but we take Hadiths and understand them in the context of real-life situations,” he says, verifying what scholars tend to describe as a predominantly social project, as opposed to an exclusively religious one.
“To learn patience, a family member doesn’t recite all the Hadiths related to patience and explain its virtues. We went on a trip to the mountains, and while we were dying of thirst, the trip organizer poured water on the group in front of us,” Lahamy says.
He says there are three fundamental elements in the Brotherhood, which he calls the “triangle of power” — trust, fraternity and obedience. “Obedience is based on trust and because we elected our leaders,” he explains.
He goes on to say that a Brotherhood member’s relationship with the group is extremely emotional, with members playing football together, going on trips and spending the night at each other’s houses — “they know all your problems.”
“If your father has a problem, he confides in a senior member,” Lahamy says. “Before the revolution, Brotherhood members only married within the Brotherhood in order to ensure that the wife understood the Brotherhood way of life, because of repression by security bodies.
“When a member leaves the group, he leaves really upset, because there are emotional and familial bonds. It is difficult for him to leave all that,” Lahamy explains.
For Ezzat, organization is what can mediate these profound relations between the group’s members. “Organization runs in Brotherhood members’ blood,” Ezzat says.
Lahamy echoes this.
“We were all raised in the group and so organization comes easily. It’s not like people think. We don’t act in an organized manner because of restrictions imposed on us. We were brought up in the group and so it’s natural that you move with it,” Lahamy says.
This article was translated from Arabic by Sarah Carr. It was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.