Monday, December 2, 2019

Muslim Brotherhood conference in Istanbul described as “disappointing”, by Sami Moubayed

Behind closed doors, the Muslim Brotherhood held a two-day conference in Istanbul on 14-15 September 2019 entitled, “Authenticity and Continuation.” Attended by 500 members, all carefully selected from the organization’s old guard, it was hosted by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and had notable participation from his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which traces its ideological roots back to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The low-profile event came just six days after the group’s Egyptian leader Mohammad Badie was handed yet another a life sentence in Cairo, and three months after the prison death of ex-Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi, a firm ally of Erdogan. By hosting the conference amidst high tension in the Middle East, the Turkish leader was sending a message to friends and enemies alike, saying that the Brotherhood was still alive, against all odds, still visible to the rest of the world, capable of constantly reinventing itself—and still firmly in the hands of Ankara.

According to the organization’s spokesman, Talaat Fahmi, the conference was organized to prepare for the Brotherhood’s 100th anniversary (due in 2028) and aims at “re-introducing our principles to the world, along with our methodology in all walks of life, in politics, dawa (call to Islam), foreign relations, and international affairs.” The Brotherhood has suffered extensive setbacks in recent years, starting with the toppling of their regime in Cairo in 2013 and culminating with the recent ousting of their ally in Sudan, Omar al-Bashir.

Earlier this year, it was said that US President Donald Trump was mulling the idea of designating the Brotherhood as a “terrorist organization,” which would be fatal for—among others—the Syrian opposition, where the Brotherhood has a heavy presence. Of all the factions and political groups, they are the most powerful, well-organized, and battle-tested, having waged three wars against the Syrian government, the first being in 1964, the second in 1982, and the third in 2011.

The Brotherhood are currently facing an uphill battle in Libya, as the UAE and Saudi-backed forces of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar march on Tripoli to topple the Brotherhood-affiliated government of Fayez al-Sarraj.

Only two countries remain firmly committed to the Brotherhood’s program, Turkey and Qatar. The first provides them with political cover while Doha provides them with accommodation, allowances, and prime time on Al-Jazeera TV.

Against all odds, Erdogan remains committed to this project, says Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Speaking to EER, he explained: “Erdogan is not oblivious to his setbacks in Syria, Egypt and Libya. He believes, however, that the Arab uprisings are far from over because the preconditions that ignited them have not disappeared. Erdogan does not expect a Muslim Brotherhood breakthrough to take place during his lifetime, yet he seems to think that the fact that it has survived adversity, even if bloodied, attests to the group’s resilience.”

Conference Proceedings

The first to speak at the Istanbul conference was the group’s current Deputy Supervisor Ibrahim Mounir, who said that their call to Islam runs parallel with the political agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood, stressing that the two are inseparable. In other words, they would resort to the sword if need may come to spread their message, converting people along the way while attracting new recruits. “Over the past 91-years, we did not rest like other fighters do, fighting one storm after another,” said Mounir.

Then Imad al-Hout spoke. A surgeon and parliamentarian from Lebanon, Al-Hout said: “We are not seeking power but will not shy away from our responsibility, if duty calls.” Al-Hout presented a working paper at the conference entitled “Our Vision and Message.”

Ranking Brotherhood figures then took turns at the podium, lashing out against Egypt’s government, while praising the group’s founder, Imam Hassan al-Banna. Prominent speakers included Mohammad Hikmat Walid, leader of the group’s outlawed Syria branch, their ex-general supervisors in Jordan Abdulhamid Thnaibat and Humam Said (whose lecture was entitled “Group Work in the Brotherhood”), and their Palestinian counterpart Mahmud Hussein, now serving on the Brotherhood’s powerful Guidance Office, who presented a working paper entitled, “The Muslim Brotherhood: Reform and Change”

Also present was infamous Tarek al-Zummar, a notorious Egyptian Islamist who was arrested for the 1981 assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat. Having been released in 2011, Al-Zummar now resides in Qatar.

Thnaibiat, an ex-parliamentarian, addressed the crowd, asking: “Is the Muslim Brotherhood’s peaceful path still the correct path?” He failed to mention that the Brotherhood had famously taken up arms in Syria and Egypt, and was still armed in Gaza, via Hamas, and Yemen, via the Islah Party.

Petty Talk and Recommendations

Instead of discussing strategy, however, the conference delved into micro-affairs of the umma or Islamic nation, like how raise money for the building of mosques and how to empower Muslims living in the west, “so that they can influence their societies rather than get influenced by non-Muslims.”

Attendees spent considerable time lashing out against two philosophical books that they saw as threatening to their vision and future conduct. One was “Al-Islam wa Usul al-Hukum” whose English version was entitled “Islam, a religion not a state.” It was published by the Azharite scholar Ali Abdul Raziq back in 1925, arguing that the caliphate was not mandatory in Islam. Its author has been dead since 1966. The second book “Mustakbal al-Thakafa Fi Misr” (Future of Culture in Egypt) penned by Taha Hussein, widely considered the “Dean of Arabic Literature.” Released in 1938, it has long been on the Brotherhood’s hit list for calling for a modern secular state in Egypt, affiliated with Europe. Zuhair Salem, spokesman for the Syrian Brotherhood, went as far as to say that the decline in sales and readership of both books was one of the “achievements” of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The conference wrapped up with a list of “recommendations” which included solidifying the legacy of Imam al-Banna, standing up to military regimes across the region—and, very noticeably—setting up a think-tank for Muslim minority studies.[1] There was no mention of where this think-tank will be established or through what funds, though Doha and Ankara are the only possible options for funding and accommodation. The recommendations also included empowering women and youth—but only those “who carry the vision of the jama’a (Brotherhood).” It included no call for a new leadership and no evaluation of the Brotherhood’s previous mistakes.


Many were highly critical of the event. One prominent attendee, Issam Talimeh, spoke out harshly against the conference, saying that it posed a series of strategic questions about future conduct, but reached no tangible outcomes. Talimeh is the former secretary of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qardawi, the Doha-based Egyptian chief ideologue of the Brotherhood, considered the party’s spiritual godfather. “Any conference that poses serious questions, then fails to answer them, is a failure,” said Talimeh.[2]

Also upset was Mohammad al-Bashlawi, a member of the Brotherhood’s Shura Council, who claimed that only old-timers appeared at the podium, criticizing the near-total absence of a younger generation. “Where are the youth” he angrily asked Mahmud Hussein, who muttered: “We did not prevent young people from attending”.[3]

The conference was obviously assembled in haste, given that participants were allowed a minimum of one—a maximum of two weeks—to prepare their presentations. It was more about Turkey than the Muslim Brotherhood itself, reminding the world that Recep Tayyip Erdogan ought to be accommodated in critical issues throughout the region, ranging from Syria to Cyprus. Otherwise, he still has the ability of spreading havoc, through a variety of non-state players, still at his disposal.

It was also a strongly-worded message to other allies within the region, probably inspired by Vladimir Putin’s unwavering commitment to his friends in Damascus. Erdogan seemed to be saying: “I stick by my allies, through thick and thin, unlike others in the neighborhood, who only use them as bargaining chips.” Erdogan needed such a message, after mounting accusations against him by the armed Syrian opposition, who accuse him of selling them out in Idlib just like he did in East Ghouta last year and Aleppo back in 2016. Only weeks before the conference, his photo was torched in Idlib by a young Syrian who had previously been pro-Erdogan to the bone.

Apart from organizing the event, Turkish authorities seemingly did not intervene with what the Brotherhood veterans said and did at the conference, perhaps explaining why their performance was mediocre and unimpressive. Unlike its affiliates in Palestine, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the Brotherhood did not elect a new leadership at the Ankara conference. That clearly was not its objective. A younger generation might ask too many unwanted questions, whereas the older ones were firmly aligned behind the Turkish President. Nor did it amend its founding charter in order to appeal to a younger generation, or even to the international community, especially in light of possible terrorist designation from the US. All of that will soon backfire on the Brotherhood from within, as critical voices mount, accusing the Brotherhood leadership—not Turkey—of being delusional and of living in another world. Changing its top command was previously one among many demands being constantly heard by the younger generation of Brotherhood members. In the forthcoming period, it might become the only demand.



[1] Al-Bayan al-Khitami li Mu’tamar al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoun (The Final Communique of the Muslim Brotherhood Conference). Ikhwan Online (15 September 2019):

[2] Sharnoubi, Abdul Jalil. Mu’tamar al-Ikhwan: Istirad al-Tamasuk La Yubadid al-Inshikakat (The Brotherhood Conference: A show of solidarity does not dispel cracks). Al-Arab (16 September 2019):

[3] Sharnoubi, Abdul Jalil. Mu’tamar al-Ikhwan: Istirad al-Tamasuk La Yubadid al-Inshikakat (The Brotherhood Conference: A show of solidarity does not dispel cracks). Al-Arab (16 September 2019):