Through its role in the Egyptian Revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) once again demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt its behavior and discourse to new circumstances. The movement has managed to cooperate with other opposition blocs despite well-established ideological differences, and now it actively seeks to portray itself as the centrist political force capable of pulling together the new Egyptian polity. But the revolution has also created new challenges for the Brotherhood: particularly, an emboldened group of MB insiders who strongly oppose what they have characterized as the party’s extremely timid agenda of reform. And although dissention within the ranks is not a recent phenomenon for the Brotherhood, it has assumed unprecedented relevance as many observers’ predictions that reformers would break from the more conservative leadership has come to fruition. 

Reformists (as a term relevant to the Brotherhood) emerged around 2004, and the Egyptian media initially used it as a relatively hazy category to refer to those who were disgruntled with the authoritarianism of the organization’s guidance bureau; MB Reformists demanded greater freedom of debate and accountability within the movement, greater participation for women and the young, and a set of transparent guidelines to decision-making. Since then, the term has only gotten hazier and Reformists in the Brotherhood are known to come from all walks of life: the term now embraces a group diverse in age (from 20 to 50), profession (political pundits, student leaders, activists, and social media entrepreneurs), socio-economic status, and place of residence (both small towns and big cities). 

They advocate for more creative approaches to Islamic texts, and insist on the necessity of justifying the values of democracy and citizenship in Islamic terms. Crucially, they advocate far-reaching doctrinal and organizational restructuring that would separate the party’s networks of political participation from its mission of proselytization. These members were some of the most active in the youth mobilization in the lead-up to January’s uprising; they pushed senior leaders to join the revolution when the Brotherhood was initially indecisive. In debates with party conservatives, Reformists have argued that “youth passion” can be successfully assimilated into a modern Islamist party, and to this end, they held a two-day April 2011 conference in Cairo to articulate their agenda. The leaders of the MB’s Freedom and Justice party (FJP) boycotted the conference.

In fact, the conservative leadership of the MB has refused to internalize any of these criticisms, fearing that internal reform will alienate their more conservative constituency and push them instead toward the Salafis. This inflexibility has prompted a number of prominent figures to resign, such as Ibrahim El Houdaiby, grandson of the sixth General Guide Mamoun al-Houdaiby. Infamously, Abdel Monem Abul Fotouh (the most well-known reformer) left the guidance bureau during the last internal elections before the revolution; he was eventually suspended from the organization in May 2011 when he announced his intention to run for president in defiance of the official Brotherhood stance not to field a presidential candidate. 

Similar official positions taken by the leadership throughout the transition have alienated Reformists and pushed them over the edge. They have criticized the FJP’s limited commitment to state reform and emphasized the need to restructure the police and the judiciary, liquidate the regime’s political networks and resources, and support workers’ rights to demand better working conditions. Additionally, Reformists censure the FJP’s decision not to pressure the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and its failure to join the dissatisfied secular revolutionary forces that took to the streets again last April. 

The “we-did-it” euphoria has pushed disaffected Reformists to search for alternative political forums. Many have resigned from the MB, and many have been fired by the guidance bureau following an official investigation into their “violations of group regulations.” The Egyptian Current Party (al-Tayar al-Masry), founded in June by Islam Lotfy and Mohamed al-Qassas, is the largest of the new alternative parties. It includes two other prominent members, Ahmed Nazily and Ammar al-Beltagi who is particularly noteworthy because his father, Mohamed al-Beltagy, is a key and very visible leader in the FJP. Some members of the Egyptian Current Party like Muhammed Osman, Mohamed ‘Afan, and Ali El-Meshad, also defied MB warnings by joining Abul Fotouh’s presidential campaign. 

Two smaller political forums are in the process of establishing legalized parties: al-Nahda and al-Reyada. Their membership is generally older than that of the Egyptian Current Party, as most of the MB youth active during the revolution largely prefer the latter. Al-Nahda is headed by the veteran reformers Ibrahim El Zafarani and Mohamed Habib (the former deputy guide who resigned amidst an alleged character-assassination campaign during the 2010 guidance bureau elections). Al-Reyada’s constituency centers in Alexandria and is headed by Khaled Daoud. The forum includes renowned ex-MB civil society pundits like Haitham Abu Khalil, Amr Abu-Khalil and Khalid al-Zafarani. Although both al-Nahda and al-Reyada are still in the initial phase of political development, they seem to have very similar outlooks. The separation of the two is mainly based on personal antagonism among supporters. As Haitham Abu Khalil has noted, most members of al-Reyada disagree with the “authoritarian leadership style” of al-Nahda’s Ibrahim al-Zafarani. 

These new parties are working hard to emulate Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD), focusing especially on the  separation of its political and proselytizing missions and promulgating a conciliatory social message. The Egyptian Current Party, for example, notes that Islam is only one element of contemporary Egyptian society’s multiplicity of cultural identities. Members are attempting to tap the socio-economic demands of the relatively deprived middle class yuppies and youthful labor force at the heart of the January 25th uprising. Their platforms call for human rights and community development rather than the meta-politics of establishing an Islamic state. 

The differences among these breakaway factions and the Brotherhood are so deep that today many ex-Brothers find in non-Islamist movements more appealing partners than in their Islamist counterparts. In fact, the new reformist parties have debated the viability of shifting toward a center-left position in alliance with non-Islamist liberal and leftist political actors.

The Egyptian Current party and members of the al-Nahda forum have already done so, entering in October into the “Completing the Revolution” Alliance with socialist groups like the Socialist Popular Alliance Party and the Equality and Development Party and moderate liberal parties like the Egypt Freedom Party. This alliance has fielded 306 candidates in 33 electoral districts: 280 on unified electoral lists (out of a possible 332) and 26 (out of a possible 166) for independent seats to the 508-member lower house of parliament. Of these candidates, 32 belong to the Egyptian Current party (including Lotfy and al-Qassas). 

Despite these developments, given the lack of financial clout and organizational resources, MB Reformists still appear to be electorally insignificant. So far, they have not been able to win a single seat in the first round of the parliamentary elections (though other parties in the Completing the Revolution Alliance have won 10 seats). The fragmentation among them is also problematic, and they have a long way to go to catch up with the PJD’s electoral competence and compete with its extraordinary party structures. 

But despite poor performance in these elections, their presence in Egypt’s transition cannot be ignored. Though not yet apparent on the ballot, they have tapped into a generation of Islamist activists and young middle class professionals whose aspirations for socio-economic development is not fulfilled by the FJP’s discourses, and they are in the process of reshaping a new Islamist discourse on good governance, democracy, and development. In doing so, the Reformists are undermining the polarization between Islamists and secularists that long inhibited the development of policy-oriented (rather than identity-based) party politics. 

Ashraf El-Sherif teaches at the American University in Cairo. He is a specialist on political Islam. 

For more information on the figures and parties discussed in this article, please see Carnegie’s Guide to the Egypt’s Transition.