How likely is a significant split within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood by 2020?

We recently put a set of questions to ten expert contributors participating in our Rethinking Political Islam initiative. (See here for the list of scholars.) They are among the leading scholars of Islamist movements, with each having conducted extensive fieldwork on Muslim Brotherhood and Brotherhood-inspired groups in 12 countries.

The first question we posed to our experts was: How likely is it that the Muslim Brotherhood will abandon its official non-violent stance? The second question was: How likely is it that an Islamist group will govern in each Arab country listed at some point before 2020?

The third question we asked our experts, and the focus of this post, is: How likely is a significant split within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood by the end of 2020? Since the Brotherhood has already experienced major internal divisions since the 2013 coup, a significant split would entail a formal split where the Brotherhood fractures into two or more distinct organizations. Participants gave their answers in the form of a percentage value expressing the likelihood of this happening by 2020. Below, we’ve summarized and averaged the responses we received.

Overall, our participants’ responses averaged out to 51 percent. The respondents gave several reasons for answering the way they did.

Adversity tends to beget splits in large organizations. One of our scholars mentioned: “History shows that the Brotherhood often divides in times of hardship and crackdown,” and that this was “no exception.” A notable difference, this time, is that the adversity—in terms of repression, arrests, and deaths of Brotherhood members—has reached unprecedented levels, surpassing the so-called mihna (ordeal) of the 1950s and 1960s.

Many of our experts noted that there’s a significant generational divide in the Muslim Brotherhood. One scholar noted that “evidence of generational divisions in the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly in Egypt and Jordan,” while another pointed to “growing [Brotherhood] youth disillusionment.” “Following Morsi’s fall from power,” said one expert, “many members of the younger generation of Brotherhood followers see the need for a new approach to pursuing and exercising political influence.” Yet another participant saw the emergence of any potential new Brotherhood faction at least partly dependent on “the organizational capacity of younger leadership cohorts” and “the availability and willingness of new leadership to form a new group.”

The current regime might eventually strike a deal with the Brotherhood or an emergent Brotherhood faction. One participant theorized a scenario where the regime tries “to split the Brothers by encouraging a ‘moderate’ Islamist party to form,” while noting that any new party would face an uphill battle in attracting support. Another scholar did not rule out the possibility of “an accommodation with the regime [in order] for a restrained and politically defanged Brotherhood to re-enter public life.” However, another expert warned that a new political opening could “prompt fundamentally different visions of the Brotherhood’s identity and agenda to clash.”

Internal ideological divides may persist without necessarily leading to the formation of any separate groups. Should the disgruntled choose to maintain unity and not split, it is likely that the Brotherhood will “become more ideologically plural [but] less internally disciplined.” Another observed that her conversations with Brotherhood members and members of other regional Islamist groups reveal that “important disagreements persist” and “self-identification into different camps” is already taking place.

Another option: members could quit the organization—and politics—altogether. Whether from disillusion, hardship, or otherwise, internal discord may drive some members to leave the group entirely, either in effect giving up on politics or deciding to focus their activities in other groups or civil society organizations. As one of our scholars mentioned, “the bigger risk is just quitting the group. I could see multiple smaller and high-profile defections (like with the centrist Wasat party in the 1990s), but not on the scale of a quarter of the membership quitting and reconstituting themselves in a new group.”

Yousuf Abdelfatah contributed to this post.