CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article did not make it clear that Egyptians did not vote specifically on Article 2 of the constitution during Egypt’s constitutional referendum.
Just six months ago, Islam Lotfy seemed like the new face of the Muslim Brotherhood. The 33-year-old human rights lawyer and other “young brothers” lobbied the sclerotic Islamist party to join the demonstrations that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak. Lotfy parked himself in Tahrir Square to give dozens of interviews to Western reporters as the Brotherhood’s representative in a prominent activist coalition.
Today, Lotfy won’t even talk about the Brotherhood. After Mubarak fell, the group formed the Freedom and Justice Party to enter politics. The Brotherhood’s ruling council filled the party’s top posts with its own senior leaders, who could be relied upon to advance a conservative Islamist agenda. None of the party’s 9,000 founding members had a chance to vote on those selected—or to run themselves. Lotfy, who supports the Brotherhood’s role as a provider of social services, nevertheless believes that Islam should not play a prominent role in Egyptian politics. He launched a party with secular partners who say they are a “civic party with an Islamic frame of reference.” The Brotherhood responded by excommunicating him and his followers.
With a wide cross-section of liberals, independents, and Islamists, Lotfy’s Egyptian Current Party echoes the populist sentiment of the protest movement.
“We will go to the people and ask them about what problems they have, and then ask them for solutions to these problems,” Lotfy said.
The heady post-Mubarak mood in Egypt, where two-thirds of its 80 million people are under the age of 30, has buoyed younger activists like Lotfy who have been at the forefront of Egypt’s political transition for months. By contrast, Lotfy says the Brotherhood’s powerful leaders—many in their 70s and 80s—will keep “doing things the same way for the rest of their lives.”
“The concept of revolution is against the literature of the Brotherhood,” Lotfy said. “I think if they continue thinking and dealing in the same way, Egypt will lose a lot.”
After decades underground, when the Brotherhood acted as an umbrella group for the opposition, its doctrinaire entry into politics has alienated members and provoked a spate of schisms. Breakaway brothers have formed at least four political parties in recent weeks; experts think that number will grow before Egypt’s fall elections. And the divisions don’t break down just along generational lines.
In Washington and other Western capitals where officials are anxious about the impact of the Arab Spring, the splintering of formerly tight-knit Islamist groups like the Brotherhood—organizations once united around their opposition to autocratic regimes—suggests that democracy could eclipse Islamism as a political force.
“We don’t know the magnitude of what we’re talking about. Is this a deep schism, an emptying out of the Brotherhood’s energetic members, its youth?” said Tarek Masoud, a professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government who is writing a book on the Muslim Brotherhood. “Is it the end of a big Islamist movement, or is this a small exiting of the party by a few disgruntled members? This will all be made clear in the election.”
The rifts highlight Egypt’s growing political free-for-all. In addition to the various splinter groups, the Brotherhood has also axed its ties to Abdel Moneim Abou el-Fotouh, a 59-year-old former member of the group’s exclusive leadership council who was expelled after he unilaterally declared his candidacy for president-–a race the Brotherhood had vowed to sit out—on a moderate platform. (He condones religious conversion between Islam and Christianity, supports the right of Muslim women to reject the veil, and says he can envision a woman or a non-Muslim one day serving as Egypt’s president.)
“Anyone who wants to work in another party—he can,” said the Freedom and Justice Party’s vice chairman, Essam el-Erian. “But it means he leaves the Muslim Brotherhood. This is a normal decision. All parties don’t want to divide.”
And outside the Brotherhood, dozens of other parties are jostling for position. Some have platforms far more extreme than the Brotherhood’s. Leaders from the ultra-fundamentalist Salafi movement, for instance, have said they would oppose giving senior government jobs to women or Christians; the group’s followers have been tied to a string of recent attacks on Coptic Christian homes and churches.
In theory, the post-Mubarak era should allow the once-banned Brotherhood to emerge stronger than ever. But the group appears increasingly worried about its chances in the fall’s parliamentary elections. It performed poorly this year in university elections—a domain in which the Brotherhood was once supreme. Recent opinion polls put the Islamist group in second place behind the liberal Wafd Party, which supports a civil state. In a clear attempt to broaden its appeal, the Brotherhood now says that it would build a parliamentary coalition with more secular groups such as Wafd; it even tapped a Coptic Christian to become a deputy head of its party.
The turmoil is problematic for the Obama administration, which had hoped that Egypt could be a model for Arab countries transitioning to democracy. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the United States will start limited contact with the Brotherhood as part of its policy to engage with a cross-section of peaceful parties. But if the deeply-rooted Muslim Brotherhood continues to splinter, there will be even more players to deal with than the U.S. previously thought.
The Brotherhood already won its first legislative battle by supporting a “yes” vote to March’s constitutional referendum, confirmed by a landslide 77 percent of the 18 million Egyptians who voted to approve a series of amendments including one to impose term limits on the presidency. Yet the constitution’s second article, which stipulates that sharia law will remain Egypt’s “principle source of legislation,” was left unchanged, and in a new era, the on-the-ground implications of this remain unclear. The Brotherhood itself is hard-pressed to make basic decisions about its political platforms—its abstract motto of “Islam is the solution” won’t translate very easily into concrete legislation.
The internal debate to define its legislative goals must include the youth, said 22-year-old Abdelrahman Ayyash, a glasses-wearing computer engineering graduate who spent years spreading the Brotherhood’s message for its media committee. Ayyash helped run both the organization’s English-language Web site and Ikhwanophobia.com, a second English site dedicated to refuting allegations that the Muslim Brotherhood maintains links to violence or terrorism. Now, Ayyash cautions that if the Brotherhood doesn’t listen to its younger members, it risks dying—literally—of age.
“Some of the leaders in the Brotherhood are very old,” he said in a Skype interview. “If they don’t renew their blood with new youth, then of course the leaders and the intellectuals will die. Then it will be very weak.”
The Brotherhood’s youth population has effectively become its public face in recent years, with many younger members such as Ayyash gaining individual notoriety through their online personas. That the blogging, tweeting, Facebooking youth want to have a voice is simply “about how we were raised and how we understand the world,” said Ayyash, who eventually quit the group. “For years, I was fighting a lot of people, a lot of rigid ideas. After the revolution, I was like, ‘I can’t handle that anymore.’”
This isn’t the first time the Brotherhood has suffered defections. Jamaat al-Islamiya formed after the Brotherhood renounced violence in the 1970s; the radical group wanted to turn Egypt into a religious state, and some leaders joined forces with al-Qaida. On the other side of the spectrum, members split off in 1996 to establish the moderate Wasat Party, which wants to separate preaching and politics. But despite the occasional desertions, the Brotherhood has traditionally held onto most of its power.
Harvard's Masoud said he would bet “any amount of money” that more schisms are coming. “Will the Muslim Brotherhood survive the strains of democracy? Probably. But are they going to dominate? Probably not,” he said. “Democracy is good at breaking up monopolies.”