Today the court postponed ruling on a case calling for the dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood as an entity. It will be reviewed again on September 4, at which point the group may be declared illegal and forced to disband.
The following is an effort to understand the structure of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as an effort to compare it to a more familiar Western expression of religion: The small group Bible study. Too often the Brotherhood is only seen from its top administrative levels, which fill the headlines of newspapers and command cries of conspiracy and caliphate. It is hoped a greater understanding of its organizational reach can provide perspective about the group as a whole, through which the current legal questions are being asked.
Please feel free to skip a few paragraphs if the following details become tedious.
The lowest level of organization in the Muslim Brotherhood is called the ‘family’. This consists of between 5-9 people who meet regularly, led by an established member. It focuses on general education into the Brotherhood ‘way’, so to speak. Membership in a family is not permanent; people are shuffled so as to build better and wider community. But every Muslim Brother, no matter how lofty his title, is constituted into a regular family meeting somewhere.
The family, however, is not an administrative structure. Instead, members of families in a particular neighborhood or district comprise a ‘branch’, which numbers no more than 90 people. Once it expands beyond this number the district is divided into two branches.
The up-to-90 members of a branch then elect 40 of their number to serve on the Branch Consultative (Shura) Council. In turn, the council elects 7-9 members for the Branch Administrative Council. See this geographically, for example, as the Maadi neighborhood of Cairo.
This pattern will repeat itself as the organization moves upward in hierarchy. The basic idea is that the Administrative Council runs and supervises the activities of the Brotherhood within its geographical scope. These activities include preaching, youth, politics, religion, students, service, etc. The Consultative Council is the group with its ear to the ground, running the different programs, so that the Administrative Council can make decisions and filter information upwards in the chain of command.
Every 3-4 branches then constitute a Region. Members of the Consultative Council in each branch elect 40 members to serve on the Region Consultative Council. These 40 then elect between 9-11 individuals to be on the Region Administrative Council. Geographically, this could represent South Cairo, for example.
Next, between 8-12 regions are grouped together, and the respective Consultative Councils elect 80-90 members for Administrative Office’s Consultative Council. This group proceeds to elect 13-15 members of the Administrative Office, which runs the affairs of the Brotherhood on roughly the governorate level. At this point the geographical scope might include all of Cairo.
At the highest level of the Muslim Brotherhood, The Administrative Office’s Consultative Council elects around 100 members to the General Consultative Council. This body elects and advises the Guidance Bureau, which currently has 18 members. Finally, the Guidance Bureau elects the General Guide, sometimes called the Supreme Guide. This is the position currently occupied by Dr. Mohamed Badie. For past leaders of the Brotherhood, click here.
Those who skipped ahead can pick up reading again now.
The important consideration now is to find an understandable parallel to the Muslim Brotherhood from Western culture. Along these lines it may be easier to consider whether or not the group should be dissolved on legal grounds.
From the lowest ends of Brotherhood bureaucracy, their ‘family’ appears to be akin to the concept of a small group Bible study. For those unfamiliar with American evangelical Christian culture, these Bible studies usually comprise up to ten individuals who meet weekly to monthly to study and discuss a predetermined passage of the Bible, often with the aim of finding application in one’s life. Yet within the religious discipline is the development of fellowship, knitting the group together in mutual and oftentimes local service.
These Bible studies are often but not always connected to a local church, but have no obligation to register with the authorities in any formal way. In fact, such oversight would be interpreted immediately as a curb on religious freedom and an invasion of privacy, representing ‘Big Brother’ government at its worst.
Now, it is not uncommon for these independent small group Bible studies to use pre-developed study guides or curriculums. There are numbers of options to choose from – Beth Moore, John Piper, Wild at Heart. Sometimes there can even be leadership training options offered to small groups, sponsored by these larger organizations. Sometimes there are regional conferences which celebrate unity and build fellowship among a larger constituency.
Moreover, many churches, especially larger ones, work to create extensive networks of these small group Bible studies. Inasmuch as the pre-developed study guides offer their resources for cost, however minimal, they are registered with the government as a business or a charity. These churches also are registered with the government. The network of Bible studies, however, is not. These are simply composed of ordinary citizens who open their homes to friends and neighbors.
But what would happen if these small group networks began to informally advocate for a particular presidential candidate? Or, along other lines, what if they collected donations to organize clothing drives for poor neighborhoods in their communities? Or, what is the situation if these networks spill over national borders into Mexico or Canada?
The situation is not exactly parallel, but at increasing levels of organization and complexity the question is fair: At what point should government regulation begin?
When the Muslim Brotherhood began, Hassan al-Banna utilized this ‘small group Bible study’ methodology to spread the message of Islamic renewal throughout Egypt. He wished to see the individual, family, society, and eventually state return to the principles advocated in the Quran and prophetic traditions. It was, first and foremost, a preaching organization, composed of small groups linked together creating common identity and purpose.
At different times in its history, the Muslim Brotherhood has moved away from its roots in preaching to consider politics, or even violence. Following the January 2011 revolution the group’s leadership was faced with a choice – to remain primarily a preaching and service organization or to enter full force into the political struggle.
There were voices on each side, but the majority opinion was to create a political arm – the Freedom and Justice Party. This party pushed against the limits of Egyptian law which stated no political party may be based on religion. But the final government ruling was that the party’s ‘Islamic reference’ was sufficient distance from Islam to allow its formation. This ruling is being challenged in court, also postponed to September. Nevertheless, the political party is fully registered and accountable to government oversight.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not. It never has been.
What is the Muslim Brotherhood, then? Is it simply a collection of ‘small group Bible studies’ with a developed administrative network? No members of the bureaucracy described above receive any salary for their leadership and administration. They collect dues and use these to finance programs and activities, but individuals do not profit financially from their association; they are volunteers.
As such, it is more fitting to call the Brotherhood a non-governmental organization, perhaps along the lines of the Rotary Club. Yet given the level of financial arrangement (with international donations circulating as rumors) along with the Brotherhood’s influence on the ground, government oversight would seem necessary and acceptable.
The Brotherhood has stated it will register under the NGO law, once a new government is formed and the restrictive, perhaps oppressive laws of the past are annulled. It also states that it could never file in the past due to the efforts of the Mubarak regime to discriminate against them.
Yet one reason for such discrimination is because, ultimately, the Brotherhood does not believe in the concept of the modern nation-state. While working for the good of Egypt, the group clearly advocates for some conception of a revival of the caliphate. Not only did they consider the rule of Mubarak illegitimate, they also worked toward a future in which such national boundaries become irrelevant.
Here, we move beyond the small group Bible study model. Even if such networks were to advocate for a certain presidential candidate or the reform of certain laws, none to my knowledge are calling for a return to Christendom.
This is not to argue in favor of a court ruling against the Muslim Brotherhood come September. In the middle of revolutionary struggles over legitimacy, it is quite possible the verdict could be a political move to silence opposition. Or, it could be a threat to hang over the group’s head in effort to control their actions, if not their rhetoric. Too much is going on between all parties to draw strict lines of black and white.
Yet it is not unreasonable to ask the Muslim Brotherhood to behave transparently. To a great degree, they do. The information above was supplied freely by Islam al-Bishlawi, Central Cairo Secretary for Youth in the Freedom and Justice Party, to whom thanks is offered. Yet to my knowledge, their finances are not open for public view. Billing themselves a ‘Muslim’ organization, does such secretiveness befit Islam or run counter to its sense of ethics or morality?
In September, perhaps, the court will decide.