Muslim Brotherhood Is Challenged by Generational Divides

For Release

October 18, 2012

The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic political movement that heads the national government in Egypt, faces a generational divide that poses significant challenges to the group as it works to extend its role in Egyptian society, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

The Muslim Brotherhood, one of the largest Islamic political movements in the Arab world, spawned the political party of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. The Brotherhood previously was banned in Egypt and many of its members imprisoned, but was legalized following the 2011 Egyptian revolution and the fall of former president Hosni Mubarak.

"It's important for policymakers to understand that the Muslim Brotherhood isn't a monolithic organization, but a dynamic one that is undergoing some challenges as a result of a growing, youthful group that wants more of a voice," said Jeffrey Martini, lead author of the study and a Middle East analyst at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

"The Muslim Brotherhood youth are an essential part of the organization — they're the foot soldiers, the core of its outreach efforts," Martini said. "But youth in Egypt are facing severe unemployment, delays in marriage and want more of a say in their future, particularly given heightened expectations following the revolution."

Thirty-five percent to 50 percent of the Muslim Brotherhood's membership is made up of individuals under the age of 35, and these youthful members were widely credited with playing a critical role in the January 25 revolution. Within the organization, youth participation is modeled on the principle of "listen and obey," and many prominent youth leaders have left the organization or started breakaway groups, according to RAND researchers.

The mindset of the senior leadership of the Brotherhood was forged during the mihna, or ordeal, of the 1960s, when a faction within the Brotherhood advocated violence and members faced exclusion from public life, large-scale arrests and torture. That experience reinforced the importance of organizational security, strict leadership hierarchy and the necessity of accommodating authorities, Martini said.

Generational divides within the Muslim Brotherhood are most visible in internal debates over four main issues: the lack of separation between the Brotherhood's religious and political work; the senior leadership's more-conservative positions on social issues, including gender equality and minority rights; the more modest scope and pace of change sought by the senior leaders; and the strict hierarchy of the organization, which tends to marginalize youthful voices.

The study also considered how the United States might engage the Muslim Brotherhood and its youth.

"With fresh concerns about the direction of a Brotherhood-run Egypt following the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo, it is more critical than ever to find avenues for engaging a broad spectrum of the Muslim Brotherhood, including its youth, to convey issues of concern to the United States as well as better understand the dynamic domestic political scene within Egypt today," said Dalia Dassa Kaye, a co-author of the study.

Martini and his colleagues base their findings on extensive fieldwork conducted in Egypt over four months in 2011 and 2012, as well as meetings in Washington, D.C. with current and former U.S. officials. They conducted interviews — primarily in Arabic in Egypt — with current and former Muslim Brotherhood youth, and senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders.

The study has several recommendations for policymakers, including:

  • Understand divisions within the Brotherhood, but don't try to game them
  • Make engagement with members of U.S Congress and members of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party regular and routine
  • Expand engagement to the grassroots level, targeting youth leaders and student union activists outside the major cities
  • Leverage existing outreach programs to include Muslim Brotherhood youth
  • Cultivate Muslim Brotherhood leader buy-in for youth engagement efforts.

The study, "The Muslim Brotherhood, Its Youth, and Implications for U.S. Engagement," can be found at Erin York also co-authored the report.

Research for the study was conducted within the Center for Middle East Public Policy, and supported by internal funding, which includes philanthropic contributions from individuals, foundations and private-sector firms. The center aims to improve public policy by providing decision makers and the public with rigorous, objective research on critical policy issues affecting the Middle East.

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