The Muslim Brotherhood, Its Youth, and Implications for U.S. Engagement

by Jeffrey Martini, Dalia Dassa Kaye, Erin York

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Research Questions

  1. How has the Muslim Brotherhood responded to the January 25 Revolution?
  2. Who are the Muslim Brotherhood Youth?
  3. What are some common misconceptions in the United States about the Brotherhood youth?
  4. What are the generational challenges the Muslim Brotherhood faces?
  5. How can the United States effectively engage with these groups?

Abstract

Since the January 25 Revolution of 2011 that ousted Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has emerged as a legal entity operating the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). That party won a strong plurality in the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections as well as claiming the presidency. But while the group was one of the primary beneficiaries of the revolution, its future is clouded by serious generational divides within the organization. The MB is led by an aged leadership whose formative experience was the mihna (ordeal) of the 1960's when the state tried to stamp out the Islamist movement. This hardened the group's leaders and put a premium on secrecy and organizational security. Although individuals under the age of 35 make up a large share of the MB's membership, their participation is modeled on the principle of "listen and obey." This overbearing hierarchy has already led to splits within the MB and will continue to present challenges going forward. These youth merit attention not only as a challenge to the Brotherhood's organizational cohesion, but also as a potential conduit for expanding U.S. engagement with the group. This study presents several recommendations on how the United States can incorporate MB youth into engagement efforts, including understanding but not gaming divisions in the organization, expanding engagement beyond a handful of MB senior leaders, leveraging existing outreach programs to include MB youth, and cultivating leadership buy-in for youth engagement efforts.

Key Findings

The Muslim Brotherhood Is Trending in Political Significance

  • The group has emerged as a legal entity operating the Freedom and Justice Party, which won a strong plurality in parliament as well as the presidency.
  • Internal challenges remain.

Youth Play Key Roles in the Group, But With Limited Influence

  • Individuals under 35 are central to outreach efforts and as organizational "muscle," manning demonstrations used to communicate demands and challenge political competitors.
  • Youth participation is modeled on a principle that puts them in a position of deference to an aging leadership, creating friction regarding not only their involvement, but also on the issues of mission prioritization, gender equality and minority rights, as well as the scope of political change.
  • Chafing at such restrictions has led several of the best and brightest to separate from the Brotherhood, although these factions do not pose a significant electoral challenge to the Freedom and Justice Party.
  • The real significance of these splinter groups is in laying down issue markers that the Brotherhood feels compelled to adopt.

U.S. Officials Are Paying Closer Attention, but Run the Risk of a Skewed View

  • Some U.S. misperception may result from the fact that disproportionate attention is paid to splinter groups despite the fact that the majority of the youth cohort remains committed to the Brotherhood.

Recommendations

  • Understand divisions within the MB, but don't try to game them. The rationale for including MB youth in the engagement process is to better understand a complex, diverse organization and not to play on splits within the MB or determine who does and does not speak for the MB.
  • Regularize and routinize engagement, including among members of Congress and FJP parliamentarians, to reduce politicization of engagement efforts. Engagement will be most effective when it has bipartisan support in the United States and embeds contact with the MB as part of broader engagement with Egypt's profusion of political parties.
  • Expand engagement to the grassroots level, targeting youth leaders and student union activists outside the major cities. A particular blind spot for the United States are the emerging leaders within the Brotherhood who are based outside major urban areas. It would benefit the United States to expand its contacts with young leaders from these outlying areas in order to provide a fuller understanding of the MB's rural membership.
  • Leverage existing outreach programs to include MB youth. In a period of budget constraints and competing priorities, the good news is that the U.S. government already has existing programs that can be used to expand engagement to incorporate MB youth.
  • Cultivate MB leader buy-in for youth engagement efforts. Due to the hierarchical nature of the MB, outreach to the youth wing will have to be coordinated with senior leadership.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Who Are the Muslim Brotherhood Youth?

  • Chapter Two

    The Muslim Brotherhood’s Generational Challenge

  • Chapter Three

    Engaging the Muslim Brotherhood and Its Youth

The research described in this report was sponsored by the RAND Initiative for Middle Eastern Youth and conducted within the RAND Center for Middle East Public Policy, part of International Programs at the RAND Corporation.

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