Victor, J. Willi, 2021. The Fourth Ordeal: A History of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt 1968-2018. Cambridge University Press. Hardcover: $90.76; Paperback: $30.45; ISBN-10: 1108822452; ISBN-13: 978-1108822459; pp. 588.
Lorenzo Vidino, 2020. The Closed Circle: Joining and Leaving the Brotherhood in the West. Columbia University Press. Hardcover: $80.51; Paperback: $30.00; ISBN-10: 023119367X; ISBN-13: 978-0231193672; pp. 296.
Can one emancipate with a structure that is largely non-emancipatory? And what is the exact role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the context of the massive insurrections known as the Arab Spring? Several observers underline a situation where the revolution has been present, whereas the revolutionaries have been largely missing (Bayet 2017, Traboulsi 2014). Others note that both the revolutionaries and the revolution have been active, but the reversal of the Brotherhood’s fortunes indicates a cycle wherein the counterrevolution has gained the upper hand and that ascendency has not spared the Brotherhood, even when the latter has always “avoid[ed] revolutions and revolutionary change [as they are thought to] lead to unexpected consequences.” (al-Anani 2022, 2) Still, the predomination of the counterrevolution does not in any sensible way guarantee that history will work in favour of the counterrevolution indefinitely. Much has been at play, and the following review essay accelerates the magisterial findings in both books to go beyond what each one highlights.
To begin with, Willi’s The Fourth Ordeal presumes that the demise of the Brotherhood—its fall from grace—in the coup of July 2013 is a tactical error. Differently put, had the proponents of the Society’s fourth Guide (el-Tilmsani) prevailed, the Qutbists (a vanguard subgroup within the Society that follows the ideology put forth by the radical jihadist Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966)) would have little chance in fragmenting the Brotherhood both just before the surge of the Arab Spring and after the group’s victory in the presidential elections in June 2012. In what follows, I will show that rapid ascendency, while plausible, remains untenable in the case of the Muslim Brotherhood. In other words, the demise of the Society could not have been avoided regardless of which competing wing within it had been in control. The demise of July 3rd, 2013 and the subsequent fragmentation had not been a tactical miscalculation. And rather, it has been the undistorted translation of the motoring principle within the soon-to-be a century-old movement.
My contention presupposes an unbridgeable methodological divide between strategies of and for reform and those of revolt. Since Egypt was caught amid a radically incendiary situation, the means and the mindset of reform subscribe more to the prerequisites of the counterrevolutionary moment and its demands. This is different from ascertaining that the Brotherhood is categorically (as a matter of principle) a regressive or restorative force like, say, the military. Rather, it is the Society’s pseudo-revolutionary dynamic, its political duplicity that borders on naivety, which is another facet of its theoretical poverty and distrust of radical youth forces that dictated its vulnerability to counterrevolutionary forces. The combination of all these shortcomings has dictated its fourth ordeal.
This review essay pleads for a radical distinction between the social means of a revolution, seeking a rupture with the manners of the past, and those tools aiming at reform, stressing gradualism and long-term change. Once this distinction serving a methodological axiom is set, the Brotherhood’s performance in the revolutionary situation put forth by the post-2011 situation cannot be mistaken. This distinction also serves in reading Vidino’s The Closed Circle as it zooms in on what he chooses to study: the Brotherhood’s international branch, meaning: the Brotherhood’s affiliates in Western Europe and the U.S. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, both the original/Egyptian Brotherhood and its structure in the West (Western Europe and North America) are reformist. And unlike Willi, Vidino seizes on the logical implications when opting for a reformist track, taking part in the political game and hence the reverse of fortunes coming with the impasse of its project in both Egypt, Tunisia as well as in France, Denmark, Sweden, the U.K. and, certainly, the U.S.
Both Willi and Vidino, from the start, embraced the method of oral history: conducting not a small number of interviews with rank-and-file members of the Brotherhood and certain leadership figures and dissenters both in Egypt and abroad. This method the authors contrast with the approach that reads the Brotherhood as a social movement. The advantages they advance are multiple. For interviews-based approach facilitates seeing the movement less like a solid structure and more as a social actor in the real world, combined with a heterogeneous pool of opinions across the movement’s hierarchal spectrum. In contrast with Vidino, the interviews Willi conducts are massive, and so are his readings of memoirs, brochures, and news updates on blogs and websites. Still, both authors’ command of Arabic boosts their grasp on the thematic they engage with. The result shows in a plethora of details that corroborate their thesis rooted—unfortunately in Willi’s case more than Vidino’s—more in speculation than in a solid historical reading of these facts they amassed.
In Chapter I: “The Society of the Muslim Brothers”, Willi stresses that the niche for his study lies in the lack of serious, reliable, and unbiased literature addressing the Brotherhood. Most of what exists is produced by attention-grabbing pseudo-scholars and think-tanks. Against a background rampant with simplistic studies and severely lacking in written archives, Victor’s project of doing oral history explains the importance of spelling out the details of the “great saga” (12). He does this by zooming in on al-Banna’s project of reviving the faith within a colonial context in which Egypt was a British protectorate. Contextualization is vital in beating up cliches. Willi then considers Banna’s precursors in the political revival of Islam: Mohammed’ Abduh, Jamal din Afghani and Mohammed Rachid Rida. The book does not overlook the Sufi elements in the Banna’s vision serving as a ‘pure’ fountain for the reactivation of the faith in the sociopolitical order of the 1920s and 1930s. Later, the reader encounters al-Banna’s organizational seven-step blueprint and the basic literature of the movement. He ends the chapter by reassuring Western audiences that al-Banna’s idea of the caliphate is more of a metaphor, “a catchphrase” (33) for founding a Muslim parallel to the European Union or the United States of America.
Chapter II: “The Second Founding (1968-1981)” invokes the post-1954 incarceration of the Brotherhood’s leadership under President Nacer. The latter almost cancelled the Society from existence. However, in the wake of the Arab defeat of 1967 in the war with Israel and the Student Protests of 1968, the leaders of the Brotherhood were freed from prisons and connived into Egyptian social life. But it was until President Sadaat’s tenure that Brotherhood members were grudgingly tolerated a political role. ‘Omar al-Tilmsani became the third Guide officially in 1973 and it was his gradualist approach as specified in his book, Preachers, Not Judges (1969), resonated with President Sadaat’s policy of appeasement on two levels. The first comes in the context of a rival group, Jama’at al-Muslimin (Society for Muslims). The latter aligns itself with a radical jihadi ideology as outlined by Sayyid Qutb, which was then on the rise and threatened to destabilize the country. The second, which is no less important but overlooked by Willi, is the prominence of socialist and communist parties, exerting pressure on the powers of the time. Thus, al-Tilmsani’s rendition of the Brotherhood and his balanced approach served Sadaat’s policy of personalist rule. Sadaat’s rapprochement with Tel Aviv and his eventual assassination in 1981 dictated that this arrangement with the state becomes now lacking.
Chapter II: “The Rise of the Vanguard (1981-1991)” refers to how al-Tilmisani’s adherents (proponents of gradualism in dealing with the powers that be as well as in the decision-making structure inside the Brotherhood) started losing currency to the more radical elements. Instead, it is now the vanguardist approach, those followers of Sayyid Qutb’s ideology as specified in the latter book, Signposts on the Road (1964), who are gaining momentum. Other than the takfiri and jihadi articles of faith, the vanguardists trust in the Qutb’s philosophy of jahiliyyah or modern-day structural ignorance whose raison d’être explains Society’s need for the vanguards, those people “who engage with society while practising mental and emotional withdrawal from it.” (107) With the vanguards in charge, the Brotherhood expanded both nationally (to all governorates in Egypt) and internationally (literally, worldwide). Meanwhile, it expanded into all professional syndicates and won an important number of seats in parliament.
Of capital interest in understanding the fourth ordeal of the Brotherhood is the section titled: “The Brotherhood’s Neoliberal Turn” in Chapter IV: “Brotherhood Incorporated (1991-2001).” The section traces the rise of the business-minded cadre in the Guidance Office, the likes of Khairat al-Shamir, who, while a vanguardist and jihadist, is similarly a business tycoon and strategist. The rise of al-Shamir and his cliques, Willi outlines, echoes the Brotherhood’s overall change of perspective where “Quranic ideals with newly acquired market economy concepts…the emerging Islamic discourse embraced the modern business corporation as a model through which one could articulate specifically Islamic policies and objectives.” (157) A subsequent section bearing on the consequence of the seismic turn marks the “Transformation of the Social Base” within the several-decades long Brotherhood, ending in a quasi-class struggle within the movement. Therefore, the decade preceding 9/11 not only witnessed the break up between various Brotherhood national Chapters over the first Gulf War but a rupture with classical Brotherhood formation in Egypt itself.
Chapter V: “Struggle for Leadership (2001-2011)” carefully reads the decade spanning the period between 9/11 and the kick-off of the Arab Spring as it marked a further split between the gradualists and vanguardists groups within the Brotherhood. The denialist narrative of 9/11 by people introducing themselves as members of the Society complicated the relationship with the U.S., given how neoconservative orientalists branded political Islam. The Guidance Office started a public relations campaign denying allegations of its alleged static disposition and succeeded in establishing a rapprochement with the U.S. administration. On the eve of the January 25th Revolt, Willi specifies that the Brotherhood spearheaded by the vanguards was never in its best shape. The author lists several strategically fatal decisions paving the way for its fourth ordeal.
Chapter VI: “Revolution, Rise, and Fall (2011-2013)” enumerates several strategic miscalculations that resulted in the fourth ordeal of the Brotherhood. Chief among those several miscalculations, in Willi’s opinion, is the inability of the Vanguard group to register the steam and the scale of the real and unexpected change that the revolutionary situation of post-January 25th has made possible. Victor notes a mental lag between the old school activism that marked the leadership on the one hand and the Brotherhood’s youth revolutionary zeal and ardour. Against the specific warnings of the Brotherhood’s youth, the leadership harried toward a hasty and farfetched alliance with the Egyptian military, expecting to be rewarded for its allegiance with power (al-Aswany 2021). The fiasco illustrates not only how (contrary to its youth) the negotiating cadres of the Brotherhood showed a lack of imagination but deep-seated duplicity, as shown in incidents such as the Maspero and the Blue-Bra Girl. The race for power for its own sake sealed the Brotherhood’s unfortunate fate.
Chapter VII: “The Beginning of the Fourth Ordeal (2013-2018)” starts with how General Sissi’s cracked up on the Brotherhood sit-ins in both Rab’a and al-Nahda Squares in August 2013 instead of uniting the remaining leaders, those who managed to escape or go underground in time, had fragmented them further. The crack-up, Willi finds out, has been unprecedented in intensity since Nassers’ times in the 1950s and 1960s. Naturally, the second rank leadership had its chance in steering the Brotherhood. But the vanguard group, both from prison and exile, refused to secede important prerogatives, resulting in a feud, which, whether motivated by ego or by ideology, Willi does not specify. However, he specifies that a non-negligible section in the Egyptian leadership of the Brotherhood has propagated towards the necessity of the revolutionary path, including the armed struggle against General Sissi’s dictatorship. But with the execution of Mohammed Kamel in October 2016, the revolutionary path lost currency. Rivalry and division remain, however, endemic, marking the Brotherhood to this day (the first half of 2022) even when the book closed its study in 2018.
Even if Vidino’s The Closed Circle approaches the Western chapters of the Muslim Brotherhood, it does not substantially differ from Willi’s monumental gathering of facts and analysis. Eternalization of politics and duplicity in using it or the unprincipled deployment of religion rank supreme among Vidino’s critique of the Western Brotherhood. The seven testimonial chapters are sandwiched between two introductory chapters varying between definitions and hypothesizing and two concluding ones as they synthesize the findings and read those findings beyond the amassed evidence. Hence, concerning Vidino’s volume, I am saving the readers the middle chapters because all the seven testimonies (in the seven middle chapters) are squeezed into the synthesized findings and the methodological readings that go beyond the evidence.
Chapter I, “What is the Muslim Brotherhood in the West?” starts with a methodological note regarding the sea of confusion in identifying Brotherhood organizations in the West. The reasons are multiple, but chief among which is the stigma the name recalls, given the 9/11 attacks and the steeped Orientalist portrayals that often present the movement outside space and time. Therefore, policymakers in the West are indeed in the dark, and Vidino’s volume sells its credentials to facilitate practical ways of dealing with not a small number of Brotherhood offshoots in the West. While invariably sharing the belief that Islam is complete in and for itself, the Brotherhood groups do not seek to Islamize Western societies, aiming to facilitate the integration of Muslim immigrants into these societies. Vidino identifies three major categories of Brotherhood organizations. He counts a- pure Brotherhood bodies, which prefer non-public or secretive networking; b- Brotherhood spawns where affiliated members maintain an emotional link with the original organization but are not structurally tied to it; c- there are those groups who are only distantly influenced. All the three varieties have a vested interest in being representative of Muslim communities and collaborating with governments bodies in a way that channels partnerships over funds and political capital in the countries where they are based.
Vidino outlines in Chapter II: “Joining and Leaving the Brotherhood” the criteria for selection of members and subsequently the reasons for these recruits’ disillusionment which are inducive for parting ways with the movement. As to joining, the Brotherhood selects its cadres, not the other way around. No application in the classical sense is reported. The selection criteria have to do more on signs that promise piousness and obedience. Now, concerning leaving the movement, Vidino zooms in on two principal reasons. The first is disenchantment with the leadership and or dissatisfaction with the inner workings of the Society. The second specifies the group’s ideology, particularly the Brotherhood’s gradualist approach and its political duplicity. At the end of the chapter, Vidino broaches upon the dissenters’ own life after leaving the Brotherhood, often reported as tough as the former members had had little, if at all, social life outside the movement.
All the seven chapters from the III to the IX examine those moments of recruitment in detail. They contextualize both the joining and the leaving and provide reasons for each. The format used is a testimony that the author recomposes from face-to-face interviews and email correspondence. The common thread is the appeal or radiance that the Brotherhood holds, the enchantment of the early days and months, even years, and the expectations of serving in a larger-than-life cause in a movement whose name inspires owe and pride. No less common is the stifled dissatisfactions stamping the secretive nature of the Society’s inner working, which the dissenters find no solid reason for maintaining except perhaps due to greed for power and manipulation of the lower and mid-ranking brothers. Most of the common testimonies Vidino brings note how the penchant for secrets could be quite an in place when working under or dealing with autocratic governments such as Egypt, Jordon, or Syria but certainly out of context when operating in Western democracies. Likewise, the testimonies note that leading Brothers, those involved with the real decision-making, rarely bother to read the languages of the Western societies they live in, say little as to genuine attempts at understanding these societies’ histories and complex dynamics.
Chapter X: “Joining and Leaving: What the Evidence Suggests” underlines a methodology in reading the problem of dissenting from the Brotherhood. Most dissenters left because they thought “current leaders have strayed from Hassan al-Banna’s original message.” (179). Others raised the concern of secrecy and doublespeak in the proceedings, which is thought to serve only “a small nomenklatura of interconnected activists, an aristocratic elite.” (179) Differently put, ideological convictions are hardly the reason. Only a tiny minority of the dissenters (Ahmed Akkari, Mohamed Louizi, and the American Brothers) zoom in on the motoring principle behind the various chapters of the Western Brotherhood and find it problematic. They list the leaders’ duplicity in playing politics with the powers that be. The face-saving infuriation concerning the Danish cartoons that featured Prophet Muhammed from 2003 to 2007 reveals how the key leaders can go in trading with their presumably principled defence of the faith. Other less fatal problems are listed in the chapter.
The last chapter: “The Western Brotherhood’s Future: From the Arab Spring and Beyond.” The video draws the picture of the Western Brotherhood transitioning toward post-Islamism. Contrary to Western governments’ lack of policy, Saudia Arabia and UAE cracked up on their local chapters and tagged the principal Brotherhood in Egypt (following the July 2013 coup) with its Western wing, a terrorist organization stipulating a major geostrategic turn. Adding salt to injury, as soon as the Arab Spring started, Western Brothers joined Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and other places (their countries of origin) to assume leading positions there. Still, they left their former positions in the West empty. For converts and those Muslim staying behind in the West, that move, like Ghannouchi’s, dealt a serious blow to the image of the Western Brothers, pilling evidence of the opportunism of these leaders and the uncertain future of the Western Brotherhood as a whole. Vidino suggests that the scene is perhaps ready for post-Ikhawanism, like post-communism during the 1970s and the 1980s.
The extensive details about the extremely divergent pool of opinions between the Brotherhood’s inner circle, the small group of decision-makers, and their contestants, as well as the dissatisfactions, even the dissenting voices of second rank leaders in the provinces, as brilliantly displayed in Willi’s study, however, are never a waste of time for the perceptive reader. Such details specify that Willi has actually spelt everything except the essential, or perhaps he has gradually broached upon that essential. For if they amount to anything, these extensive details remain food for thought because they confirm how a structure or movement founded for reform cannot by any stretch of the imagination propagate towards reform’s antithesis: revolution. Such a situation does not result because of the overblown narcissistic drives of certain leaders or the fact that an ageing leadership in the Guidance Office was cut off from rapidly evolving reality, the way Will tries to convince us.
With a rapidly evolving revolutionary situation or overblown egos, leaders’ out-of-touch are solid empirical factors. However, as the historical experience of the long durée shows, they remain marginal because each of Willi’s listed factors enjoys no autonomous scenario of its own. The fact that the radical Qutbists won over the al-Telemsani-influenced members of the Shura council or became dominant in the Guidance Office does not alter the situation that the Brotherhood remains marred in theoretical poverty as literally not a single figure among its presumed thinkers dares to question the bedrock of the world’s political economy. The Brotherhood’s early bidder for the presidency before Morsi was Khairat el-Shatir, a proponent of the Qutbist ultra-conservative approach but equally an ambitious business conglomerate with literally billions of dollars. As his asset! The contradiction in combining piety and worldly success in a world deemed by Qutbists corrupt to the marrow is worthy of a study all on its own. That study can explain how the Brotherhood has had no qualms over sending emissaries to Washington DC and freely giving assurances concerning Israel’s future security. Not a small number of observers mistake this Brotherhood’s maneuverer as realpolitik. It offers a death blow to ordinary Egyptians’ expectations for a substantial rupture from Mubarak’s era. This is an example of Willi’s impressive display of facts minutely scanned but are not pressed enough to yield and distil a solid historical reading showcasing that reform cannot befriend and accommodate revolt, in the sense that it cannot meet the people’s minimum expectations in the wake of ousting an enduring dictator such as Hosni Mubarek.
The Brotherhood’s appeal to the U.S. establishment specifies two issues, not one. Apart from showcasing the leadership’s lust for political power (al-Anani 2022, 10), its readiness to play with the available-but-abusive so-called ‘rules of the game’ indicates the extent to which the movement suffers from a severe theoretical confusion. The stipulation of the theoretical clarity stands at odds with Willi’s broodings over tactical issues such as the Brotherhood’s decades of incarceration and overall underground work carried out as an opposition entity made the movement apathetic to, not just, unready to assume political rule. All these are true but theoretical muddiness made the Brotherhood it is own worst enemy because that muddiness renders it incapable of embracing its historical responsibility. Indeed, the shallowness of its theoretical foundation largely decides its incapacity of spotting an alternative to the post-1945 American order. The combination of putting people of the like of al-Shatir’s calibre in key positions in the movement illustrates that they take the laws of the market economy for granted. Similarly, their unconditional readiness to compromise on matters both delicate and of principle, such as the Palestinian Question, confirms those readings which trust in the Brotherhood as a radical alternative to Mubarek’s corrupt ways are not only slightly mistaken but fundamentally false.
Suffice it to note that ever since its inception in 1928, the Society has never introduced itself except as a fundamentally reformist movement. Why pity the Brotherhood against reformism, the reader legitimately asks? The short answer is that Islam is either revolutionary or it is not. In this context, it is worth noting that Prophet Muhammad did not rub shoulders with the Meccan capitalists of his own time, not because he was not capable or that the opportunity did not present itself. For historical accuracy, the Meccan lords pleaded with him to preside over them. And it is he who did not accept because he knew he would be serving their caravans and businesses, and he was looking for a world without caravans and businesses. In the case of the Brotherhood, as Willi’s succinct study brilliantly shows but rarely seizes on the fact that the Brotherhood had never been missing committed activists with exceptional talents and organizational skills. Therefore, to blame one faction or pity one subgroup against another is to participate in confusing, not elucidating, Egypt’s revolutionary/counterrevolutionary situation.
Vidino’s synthesis from the interviews and email exchanges puts its hand directly on the spot where it hurts the Western Brothers the most, that is, on the future of the movement as a whole. I learned how the multicultural Society envisioned by Western Brotherhood is exactly the opposite of what Western governments have in mind or plan for their nations. Pierre Durrani and Mohamed Louizi’s testimonies both note how the Brotherhood flouted multiculturalism to maintain its parallel societies or ghettos: anti-universal Muslims communicating with like-minded Muslims and cheating the hospitality extended by Western societies. For anti-universal Muslims nurse the illusion that they can conquer Rome from within one day. Rome here is that mythical Western capital in the prophetic tradition. Despite Vidino being bemoaning how Western governments lack a long-term and consistent approach to the Society, this very duplicity in bending laws and abusing multiculturalism could be behind the U.S. policy planners’ decision to let Morsi and his government down. Likely, U.S. planners did not want another heart-breaking Islamic republic, à la Iran. And in cutting the head of the mother movement in Egypt, its Western offshoots will be automatically powerless. In this context, we can read the ongoing feuds between Brotherhood leaders inside and outside Egypt, Ghannouchi’s statement in favour of post-Islamism, and the assassination of Mohamed Kamel, rendering the Brotherhood’s revolutionary bid into nought.
The powerful point of the two books is how they allow Brotherhood members to speak and allow several voices and insiders’ informed opinions to sketch the readers’, not necessarily the authors’, final analysis. The fact that the two authors speak and read Arabic, along with other languages, is an asset and facilitates their intentions to translate their humility and patience (unlike attention-grabbing Orientalists carrying out pseudo-scholarly works) to learn from the materials and synthesize their learning in these two books. The two authors are likely to transform how Islamist movements are approached and understood through such studies. Willi’s study, in particular, highlights the role of functional social movements (in a similar vein to functional states) as the American establishment does not want to divulge the Brotherhood from a functional role, namely: quelling genuine revolutionary movements or those that can propagate toward upsetting the post-1945 world order. In The Fourth Ordeal, readers find that “U.S. strategic planners used an active and conscious policy of mobilizing political Islam to crush ideologies unfavourable to U.S. interests.” (117). Unfortunately, Willi overlooks this methodological thread where he has failed in his critical observation, for the Brotherhood was specifically founded to suppress the nationalistic aspirations that emerged in 1920 (Soueif 1999, 224).
Speaking of the number of ordeals and given the reformist agenda of the Brotherhood or, more precisely, its lust for power, it is unlikely that the Brotherhood will cease playing with fire from which it bitterly tasted four times so far. Other ordeals will follow suit because, at the moment of composing these lines, reliable news reports circulate that the Brotherhood has been repeatedly involved in direct talks with representatives of General Sissi’s government, the very person who caused the Brotherhood’s demise. The fact that the Brotherhood is even willing to sit and consider proposals by Sissi’s representatives is evidence of its political naivety. Many will rebut that aspiration to play a role in the future of their country. The number of ordeals, and the vocabulary itself, as the word mihnā or ordeal in Arabic stipulates a momentary but also necessary hardship from which a positive situation will eventually follow, expresses a willingness to impersonate the naïveté of an idiot and cancel ordinary Egyptians’ historical destiny.
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Al-Aswany, Alaa. 2021. The Republic of False Truths: A Novel. Knopf: New York and London. Trans. S. R. Fellowes
Bayat, Asef. 2021. Revolutionary Life: The Everyday of the Arab Spring. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England.
Bayat, Asef. 2017. Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring. Stanford University Press.
Soueif, Ahdaf. 1999. The Map of Love. Bloomsbury Publishing, London and New York.
Traboulsi, Fawwaz, 2014. thāwārt bilā thouwār. (Revolutions without Revolutionaries) Dar Riad al-Rais for Publication and Distribution, Beirut, Lebanon ISBN-139789953215723