Following a painful blow to the Muslim Brotherhood due to the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi’s regime on July 3, 2013, there was talk about a rift within the group due to divergent positions on the transitional phase in Egypt. This was evident in the dual media discourse and the group’s position on the violence that followed the dispersal of the Rabaa and Ennahda sit-ins, on August 14, 2013.
The first camp was a political movement that raised the slogan of peace, adopting the instruments of civil change and popular protest as a means of restoring power and thwarting what they called a military coup. The second camp was a revolutionary movement, which believed in the need for an armed response, resorting to violence to impose rules based on the Brotherhood’s interpretation of the Shariah.
While difference of opinion is possible within any organization that deals with changing circumstances, be it a religious or political organization, or both, the Brotherhood’s past, and the way it tackles its crises during critical moments in its history, gives us a glimpse of its peculiar organizational and intellectual dimensions. This suggests that the group will most likely initiate structural changes and draw lessons from its experiences with its “Special Apparatus“ to cope with the situation.
It also exposes the vulnerability in the Brotherhood’s perception taking into account the need to manage the contradictions within, which in turn necessitates a dual organizational structure, by creating a Special Apparatus . Such a unit can undertake actions and missions that cannot be pursued by a public or overt wing of the organization.
So, what is the function of the Special Apparatus? How was it established? How did it evolve? Can it be revived? What are its current manifestations?
Defending the group and crushing the foes
Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, established the first building block of the Special Apparatus in 1940, 12 years after it founded the Brotherhood itself. The idea was to enable it to be an effective and powerful tool for clandestine violent operations after the ground had been prepared by the scout teams. The image that Al-Banna envisaged – from the time he began his dawa (Islamic preaching) in Ismailia and set up the scout team – “was that of a military team achieving the idea of “jihad” in Islam”1.
One researcher got it right when he said: “If the Special Apparatus is the army of dawa, the scout team was its official army, recognized by the government, which was subsidizing it, and allowing it to organize parades”2. Therefore, the introduction of the Special Apparatus as a tool alongside the scout team as a public front was a strategic shift in Muslim Brotherhood’ approach of managing its political struggle for power and establishing its promised “caliphate”.
Al-Banna set three goals for the Special Apparatus – waging war on the British colonialism, fighting those who try to obstruct the course of dawa, and reviving the duty of “jihad”. Yet, the Special Apparatus focused too much on the second goal3, and hence grew hostile to Muslims, especially rulers, just because they held a different opinion and opposed the group.
Mahmoud Abdel Halim, the first leader of the Special Apparatus, recognized the real motive behind the unit when he wrote: “With the sense of leadership that God has given him, murshid (the Supreme Guide) realized that the traditional enemies of dawa, which are the colonialists, led by the British and their local minions among the Egyptian rulers who are acting as the oppressing hand of this colonizer – are on the alert to frustrate the dawa, and that dawa should not be an easy prey for them, but should be an agonizing and unbearable thorn. Hence, the Special Apparatus came out to defend the dawa”4.
It is no secret that in the Brotherhood’s view, dawa is the group and the group is the dawa based on a monopolistic understanding of religion among the leaders of the group. Al-Banna himself once said: “Oh people, we are humble followers of the Messenger of God, and the bearers of his flag after him, and bearers of his flag as they raised it… and the missionaries of his dawa as they preached, and God’s mercy to the world”5. Mustafa Mashhour, the so-called Iron Man of the Special Apparatus, once wrote in a newspaper column: “Those who are hostile to the Brotherhood are hostile to God and his Messenger”6.
The other two stated goals of the Special Apparatus remained hidden. The motive behind the formation of the apparatus was not to rid Egypt of the British occupation, since “the apparatus was completely absent in the armed struggle in the Canal (1954)7”. The group did not make any more sacrifices than other national movements. However, the Palestinian cause was used for the purpose of propaganda. They did not provide real support for the Palestinian cause throughout their history, except for preaching and guidance, and calling for jihad only in rhetoric”8.
Ali Ashmawy, one of the leaders of the organization, revealed in 1965 that: “all the major acts that the Muslim Brotherhood boasts about in their history have been hollowed out. For example, they did not join the struggle in Palestine, which the Brotherhood is constantly proud of,”9. They exploited the Palestinian cause against their political opponents because it “allowed the leader of the group to engage in political action outside Egypt’s borders, and to find a bridge between dawa – the group’s stated goal – and political action”10.
In doing so, the group was able to “turn the anti-Zionist reaction in its favor, not considering that the battle was one between Zionism and the Arab National Movement, but rather between Judaism and Islam. Thus, it revived the issues that were resolved and built itself – in the name of religion – a pillar in the face of the national movement, and raised the binary and dichotomy of religion and homeland in the political life of Egypt”11.
Thus, defending the group – and not supporting the Palestinian cause – and defeating its opponents were the main reasons behind the establishment of the Special Apparatus. It drifted toward intimidation and criminality, which was mentioned in the official investigation memo of the then Under-Secretary of Interior, Abdul Rahman Ammar, on December 28, 1948: “The group went beyond legitimate political purposes to one that are prohibited by the constitution and the laws of the country. It sought to change the basic systems of the social body by force and terrorism, it went further in its activity, using criminality as a means of carrying out its objectives”12.
Indulging in politics and violence, which plagued the leaders of the Special Apparatus, included the assassination of judge Al-Khazindar and Al-Nuqrashi Pasha. Then the Jeep accident happened in 1948, which prompted the government to issue a decree to disband the group. Hassan Al-Banna was also assassinated and ultimately became the victim of a retaliatory operation in 1949. These developments led the group into alliances and rivalries jockeying for power and collided with the leadership of the organization, led by the second Supreme Guide Hassan Al-Hudaybi.
The incidents of the occupation of the Brotherhood headquarters in protest against the project to review the Special Apparatus and the assassination of Sayyid Fayez, one of the cadres of the apparatus who sided with the Supreme Guide, should also be seen in the same context. These incidents were responses to the appointment of Youssef Talat as a leader of the apparatus instead of Abdul Rahman Al-Sindi, who was dismissed along with the leaders close to him by an administrative decision of the group’s leadership in 195313.
In doing so, the Special Apparatus’s objectives aligned with those of the jihadist organizations that also lamented over Palestine and saw anti-Westernism as a means to inflame sentiments and mobilizing the youth.
Khaled Mohammed Khaled, a close associate of the group and witness to the tragic machinations, gave a statement about the similarity between the Special Apparatus and jihadist organizations: “The Muslim Brotherhood formed their Special Apparatus to prepare their youth for jihad. Today, extremists are claiming to revive the “religious duty that has been neglected” and the Special Apparatus has permitted the killing of some of its leaders. Today, extremists are permitting the killing of each other, and the Special Apparatus has relied on reckless violence to settle its scores and support its group’s dawa just as extremists do today – not only in Egypt – but in all Arab countries”14.
The cover of secrecy and infiltration strategy
It seems that the belief which has prevailed regarding the demise of the Special Apparatus in the aftermath of the arrests and the prosecution of its members since the Jeep incident in 1949, and the events that followed, is not based on a futuristic assessment of the group’s evolution. This is especially the case considering the Al-Manshiyeh incident of 1954 and the Qutb’s organization in 1965.
This was followed by successive deaths of its most prominent leaders, particularly Mustafa Mashhour, the group’s former Supreme Guide (1996-2002). Before it was developed into a unit with cadres and leaders, the Special Apparatus was an idea capable of developing, evolving and materializing in new and renewed organizational forms, the common denominator among them is the clandestine work and the tendency toward military coup.
The Special Apparatus, as we saw in the previous paragraphs, was set up by an official decree of the group’s leadership to serve its objectives. However, it turned against the leadership in the following years, especially after the group’s members were released from prison beginning in the 1970s. These members infiltrated its institutions and influenced their intellectual orientations and organizational structures.
This infiltration resulted in the exclusion of moderate elements from the group’s administration, such as Mohammed Farid Abdul Khaleq, first deputy of the Supreme Guide, Saleh Abu Rafiq, the second deputy, and Saleh Ashmawy, the group’s assistant. An attempt was also made to block Umar Al-Tilmisani, the successor of Hassan Al-Hudaybi form the Guidance Council15. Instead, the cadres of the Special Apparatus succeeded in breathing a new life into the body of the group through “militarization of the organization”16.
According to Tharwat Al-Kharbawi, members of this apparatus, namely Mustafa Mashhour, Kamal Al-Sananairi, Ahmed Al-Malt, Hosni Abdel Baqi and Ahmed Hassanein during their meeting in February 1975, a year and several months after the death of Al-Hudaibi (on August 11, 1973), decided to elect a secret guide to succeed Hassan Al-Hudaibi. This was supposed to be “a figure that no one knows, and meanwhile facilitates the restructuring of the group according to the vision of this team”17.
After the failure of their plan and the revelation of their message “an unknown secret guide led the group into the unknown with help from the Gulf brothers, especially the Saudis”. They decided to back down and appoint Umar Al-Tilmisani as the Supreme Guide from the first day of 1977 while Mustafa Mashhour became the deputy Guide and played an important role until 198118.
The same year witnessed arrest warrants targeting a number of Islamist activists, including Mustafa Mashhour, who managed to escape and settle in Kuwait and Germany. He did not return to Egypt until in 1986, after the death of Umar Al-Tilmisani. Then he entered into “a deal with the Egyptian regime by Salah Shadi”, where he took over the position of Deputy Supreme Guide, Mohammed Hamed Abu Al-Nasr (1986-1996).
However, Mustafa Mashhour was “in control of all the affairs of the group through Maktab Al-Irshad (the Guidance Office)” and was the de facto leader of the group since the departure of the Hassan Al-Hudaibi19. Before his return to Egypt, some Brotherhood leaders linked to the Special Apparatus and Sayyid Qutb’s thought, returned to the country.
These leaders included Mohamed Morsi, Khairat Al-Shater, Mahmoud Ezzat, and Mohamed Badie. Even though they were strangers to the Brother milieu, Mustafa Mashhour made them key positions20. This rapprochement between members of the Special Apparatus and the “Qutbis” can be attributed to the consensus over the military coup, which was evident in Mustafa Mashhour’s quest to revive the “units” 21.
He even quoted one of the former officers as saying that this division played a role in the success of the revolution in January 25, 2011, and so did the presence of leaders in the army “who were very close to the Brotherhood, although they pretended that they were the most arch-enemies of the group”22.
In 1992, during the tenure of the fourth Supreme Guide, Hamid Abu Al-Nasr (1986-1996), the Salsabil Company case came to light. Salsabil was run by members of the Special Apparatus. According to Egyptian security reports, this was meant to camouflage their project, which was then known as the “empowerment” plan. It formed a mini organization under the Salsabil banner, with a board of director consisting of Ahmed Abd Al-Majeed in his capacity as the owner of the parent company in London, and Khairat Al-Shater as the chairman, and Hassan Malik, Mohamed Ibrahim, Taher Abd Al-Moneim as members, and a number of Brotherhood agents in each governorate. A branch of the company was also established under the leadership of Dr. Muhammad Saad Al-Katatni and Dr. Kamal Al-Fouly to be responsible for marketing the Special Apparatus in Upper Egypt23.
During Mustafa Mashhour’s tenure as Supreme Guide (1996-2002), the Special Apparatus began to take control of the group because of the new leader’s use of the apparatus’s own men, such as Mahmoud Ezzat and Khairat Al-Shater, who were previously excluded by Umar Al-Tilmisani from taking any role within the group24. During this period, “the principles of Sayyid Qutb, the principles of confidentiality of organization and exercising dawa in public, and the question that we live in an ignorant society”, resurfaced, and thus the “Special Apparatus came to exercise complete control over the group”25.
In 2006, the so-called Al-Azhar Militias was formed by Ayman Abd Al-Ghani, under the supervision of his son-in-law, engineer Khairat Al-Shater, the second deputy of the Supreme Guide of the group”. Security reports also talked about the involvement of Dr. Muhammad Ali Besher, “a member of the Guidance Office, and Hassan Malik, the millionaire of the group. Reports added that billionaire Yusuf Nada was on top of the most wanted list of those living outside the country in 2007”26.
In January 2010, the group’s internal elections saw radical leaders from the Qutb lobby dominating the post of the Supreme Guide, his three deputies and the general secretariat. “The wing’s goal was to build a strong organization instead of communicating with society and its other political and intellectual forces”27. The former Mohammed Mahdi Akef (2004-2010) who opened the door for his son-in-law Mahmoud Ezzat, one of the most dominant figures of the organization in 1965, supported by a lobby led by Mohammed Badie, Rashad Al-Bayoumi and Mahmoud Hussein and Gomaa Amin.
This happened when the wings of those promoting openness were clipped. Those included in this list were Deputy Supreme Guide Mohammed Habib and member of the Guidance Office Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh with the help of Akef who were all victims of mock elections28. There was a process of systematic exclusion of some key figures who differed with the strategy of the Special Apparatus during the tenure of the seventh Supreme Guide, Mohammed Mahdi Akef 29.
In February 2010, the Deputy Supreme Guide Mahmoud Ezzat and three members of the Guidance Office as well as 12 provincial leaders were charged in the “Qutbis’ case” (in reference to those who espouse Sayyed Qutb’s radical thought). The Supreme State Security Prosecutor accused Mahmoud Ezzat of “forming an organization affiliated with Sayyid Qutb, based on the Takfiri ideology and seeking to set up armed camps to carry out hostilities inside the country”. The investigations also confirmed the existence of two power centers within the group, one public and the other secret.
Mahmoud Ezzat was “the actual Supreme Guide of the international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood worldwide. He was the one to whom the leaders of the group outside Egypt pledged allegiance to two weeks before the official announcement of the selection of Mohammed Badie as the Supreme Guide”30. This accusation is consistent with the statement of Ahmed Raif, a historian close to the group, who said that “there is a secret organization within the group but not armed”, consisting of “Mahmoud Ezzat as a head of the organization, and Rashad Bayoumi, Goma Amin and Issam Al-Erian as members”31.
Despite Brotherhood’s rule in Egypt (from June 30, 2012 to July 3, 2013), the clandestine work and the putschist ideology continued under the leadership of the Special Apparatus. They considered their electoral success as a mere advanced stage toward empowerment, including adopting a policy based on the “Brotherhoodization” of the state, which angered their closest allies, the Salafist Nour Party32.
Other contentious decisions included the attempt to control the judiciary by appointing a new Prosecutor General to replace Abdel Majid Mahmoud, then called Special Deputy33, as well as neutralizing the decrees issued by President Morsi that were aligned to Qutb’s thoughts. This was contrary to democratic norms to give him a free rein to shape the state in accordance with his intellectual reference exclusively through the Constitutional Declaration issued on November 22, 2012 34.
After the June 30, 2013 demonstrations, which saw the participation of a wide spectrum of people supported by judges, politicians and religious figures, culminating in the overthrow of Morsi, the group’s leadership rejected all political initiatives put forward by Mohamed El-Baradei, the then interim Vice President of President Adly Mansour, to diffuse the situation. Even efforts to save the group’s face by integrating the Brotherhood into the political process, which allowed the “postponement of the security forces’ decision to break the sit-ins of Morsi supporters”35 went unheeded.
Later, the intransigence of the Brotherhood leaders came to an end with the intervention of the army to break the sit-ins in Rabaa and Ennahda by the security forces on August 14, 2013. This threw the country into an open conflict. Several jihadist organizations were banned by the Egyptian authorities in September 2013 and designated as terrorist organizations on December 25, 2013. They were accused it of blowing up the Daqahliya Security Directorate. This required the group’s leadership to put its house in order. A “Special Operations Committees” hence emerged as a modified version of the Special Apparatus.
The latest forms of Special Apparatus
During the Rabaa and Ennahda sit-ins, which followed Morsi’s removal, the Brotherhood’s Guidance Office agreed to launch “operations” amid calls for revenge that overwhelmed the group members. Ahmed Al-Mugheer, one of its prominent figures, revealed that the site of the sit-in in Cairo was armed enough to repel the campaign of the Interior Ministry and possibly the army as well, but two days before the dispersal of the sit-in, 90 percent of the weapons were removed outside Rabaa, due to a “betrayal” by an official36.
Al-Mugheer also admitted in a Facebook post that during the final days of the sit-in, Issam Al-Erian, a key leader in the Brotherhood, and vice-President of the Freedom and Justice Party “fled to the borders of Western Egypt, or Eastern (Matrouh or Sinai), and issued statements inciting violence against the security forces”37. Thus, according to the testimony of one of its members, the group relied on a double-speak – a public position advocating peaceful solution, but a call for armed confrontation in secret”. The writings of Sayyid Qutb was invoked so that “all of this could be attributed to the confusion between religion and the group and in which the group is considered faithful and an alternative to the nation”38.
After a series of arrests of its leaders, the group held internal elections in February 2014 and set up a crisis management committee. The election resulted in Mohamed Badie remaining a Supreme Guide while a chairman was appointed to head the crisis committee. A secretary-general was appointed to oversee the Brotherhood’s affairs in Egypt, and an administrative office was set up, headed by Ahmed Abdel Rahman, to manage its affairs abroad. The group also promoted many of its young leaders to lead the activities on the ground”39.
Under these circumstances, the Brotherhood drew up a new strategy to cope with the pressures. On the one hand, it formed a “peaceful political front” to manage its external relations with the international civil society and Western capitals and address public opinion in and outside Egypt to accommodate the reformist voices within its ranks. On the other hand, it set up secret cells comprising its young members eager to engage in “military action” against the Egyptian security forces. The idea was to bleed out the regime of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi through sabotage, assassinations and bombings. These cells were supervised and directed by Mohamed Kamal, a member of the Guidance Office.
In contrast to Mohamed Kamal and his companions, Mohamed Montaser and Mohamed Wahdan, who are considered revolutionaries and had won the group’s early organizational elections in February 2014, another camp emerged. It claimed to be a peaceful one under the leaders of the old guard, who are residing abroad, led by Ibrahim Mounier, Secretary of the international organizational unit, and Mahmoud Ghazalan, Mahmoud Hussein, and Mahmoud Ezzat, who was appointed by his supporters as acting Supreme Guide.
Their alleged disagreement came to light in mid-2015, when prominent Brotherhood youth leaders and a large number of provincial offices publicly defected from the Old Guard40, to mislead the security services, Western countries and the general public opinion about internal differences and disagreement over taking up arms.
The goal was to spare the fugitive leaders outside Egypt the repercussions of being accused of terrorist acts, and not to embarrass the authorities of the countries that shelter them41. This is also the opinion of Mokhtar Noah, who considered the matter to be “a mere hiding behind misleading slogans”. He cited that “Yahya Musa, who was in charge of the Special Operations’ cell that killed Attorney General Hisham Barakat, could not have disobeyed Mahmoud Ezzat’s orders”42.
That scenario was further entrenched with the launch of the “Special Operations Committees” under the leadership of the Guidance Office member Mohamed Kamal. These committees “played the role of the Special Apparatus of the group43” in the words of Khaled Okasha.
Mahmoud Ghazalan acknowledged this during investigations by the Supreme State Security Prosecution, following his arrest. “Mohamed Kamal is the new Abdul Rahman Al-Sindi as he took over the tasks of forming the armed wing and supervising it within the Brotherhood. He rejected the pressure exerted on him to back down from the formation of the armed Special Operations Committees”, he said44.
It is argued that these Committees began early on “to forge an alliance with Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis”, which was used to launch terrorist operations in Sinai. The Committees continued to play crucial roles west of the Canal including facilitating “the transfer of terrorists, weapons and explosive materials, the provision of safe havens and shelters, and the collection of information and surveillance of targets”.
However, given the Egyptian army’s successes on the ground, in the beginning of 2016, Mohammed Kamal came up with an alternative plan from the fugitive Brotherhood leaders in Turkey, during the first half of the year. It was decided that the Special Operations Committees in Egypt will form and run “terrorist organizations” to act directly.
To disguise the relationship between the Committees and the leaders living abroad, and to fool the security apparatus into believing that there are differences within the regime, Mohamed Kamal published during this period – on the Brotherhood website – what was then called the statement of “Renunciation”. He announced that he was leaving all his administrative positions to fool the security services into believing that he is defecting from the leadership represented by the wing of Mahmoud Ezzat, the first deputy Supreme Guide.
He laid down the organizational structures for the Hasam Movement and Louwaa Al-Thawra, which Egyptian security said were “originally a single organization that divided the roles and the Brotherhood cadres”. Muhammad Kamal and his close associate, Yasser Shehata, were killed in October 2016, during a raid by the security forces on their headquarters, south of Cairo45.
Following this incident, the Special Operations Committees attempted to “disrupt security by bombarding the scene with numerous organizations, which issued statements under various names. The Popular Resistance, Revolutionary Punishment, Helwan Brigades, Death Squad, and Revolution Brigade were among the first to “form cluster cells, with each cell considered an independent organization”.
This phase in the Brotherhood history constituted the “Third Revival” undertaken by the “New Generation”, represented by Muhammad Kamal and the new Special Apparatus. This required Mohamed Kamal to develop “a new intellectual repertoire, that had a revolutionary core over the Brotherhood’s previous literature, which he worked on during the years of armed struggle”46.
Around this time, Muhammad Kamal tasked the Shariah Committee of the Muslim Brotherhood to draft a study to legitimize the “revolutionary activity”47. This took the form of a study entitled The Jurisprudence of Popular Resistance to the Coup, by an imaginary author, called Abu Al-Ezz Ziauddin Assad. After a “jurisprudential review” of the overthrow of Morsi, which they consider a coup, the study concluded that “Allegiance to Dr. Morsi is still an obligation on all Egyptians, because he was not legally impeached by this coup”48.
It said that it draws on the literature of the Muslim Brotherhood and that “jihad” is not a heresy in their path. “Jihadism has been established as a doctrine at the core of Imam Al-Banna approach, and the educational incubators of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, until they become slogans they chant, morning and evening, and on every occasion (God is our objective; the Quran is our constitution; the Prophet is our leader; jihad is our way; and death for the sake of God is the highest of our aspirations)”50.
Perhaps what corroborates the argument about camouflage and the division of roles within the group is the extent of sympathy following the news of the killing of Mohammed Kamal on October 3, 2016. The Brotherhood old guard, led by its Secretary General Mahmoud Hussein, said the assassination of a high-ranking leader carried multiple messages.
The most important is that “there is no limit to the bloodshed that accompanies a coup, and everyone is vulnerable to assassination and liquidation”. They viewed the assassination as “a message of reassurance from El-Sisi to Israel and the West with regards to his policy toward their great historical enemy” and, labeling this as “ultimate betrayal at the expense of the country”51.
He also stressed in the same statement that the assassination of Mohamed Kamal “threw the group in a state of sadness and anger as one of its senior leaders was killed. He warned against exploiting the incident to sow seeds of division within the ranks of the Brotherhood” and demanded the Brotherhood members to “deny them this opportunity”.
Talaat Fahmy, the official spokesman of the Brotherhood, indicated that “the Brotherhood special apparatus did not violate its approach to killing when it assassinated Kamal”. The group saw that his assassination “has further exposed the reality of the current regime to the Egyptian people, who are about to get rid of the military rule despite the regional and international support the coup receives”54.
It is worth emphasizing the importance of examining the political practice of the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization that aspires for social hegemony and political change. This is critical considering its experiences and the ability of its radical leaders to accommodate the divergent trends within it through a loose, adaptable discourse in more than one situation by adopting pragmatism at one time and using violence at another.
Political developments often provide the circumstances to reshape the relationship between ideology and practice and allow reality to reformulate theoretical literature in light of the possibilities for effecting change. However, it can be argued that the outbreak of violence in Egypt following the collapse of the Brotherhood’s rule and the formation of the Special Operations Committees, as a new version of the Special Apparatus, within its organizational structure, now forces us to rethink the future of the group by invoking the book titled Popular Resistance to the Coup.
The book reveals an intellectual orientation that constitutes a departure from what is usual and familiar in the dawa and political writings of the Brotherhood thinkers, an approach that mimics the Salafist-Jihadist ideology in its theoretical premises and combat-related perspectives.
And Ahmed Adel Kamal, To put things in Proper Context (Literally: The Points Above the Letters) (Cairo, Dar El Zahraa For Arab Mass Media, 2nd edition, 1989), p. 354. See also the other references mentioned in the “Special Apparatus File”, Ikwan Wiki website: https://bit.ly/2HsNwNq
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