Jordan’s government this week approved an application to make the Society of Muslim Brothers a licensed, local charity, paving the way for a break between the Jordanian branch of the Brothers and the regional organization based in Egypt. The move was resisted, however, not by the Jordanian government, but by the Brothers’ own leadership, the Shura Council. The Council rejected the decision and condemned what it viewed as government interference in the affairs of Jordan’s largest Islamist movement — underscoring a deepening divide between the movement and the state, and also within the movement itself.
The move toward licensing the Brothers as a Jordanian domestic organization, rather than a pan-Islamic organization under the umbrella of the Egyptian group, was led by former Brother leader ‘Abd al-Majid Thunaybat and other self-described “reformers.” Many of these men are associated with an initiative known as Zamzam, led by (relative) moderates such as Ruhayl Ghurayba, which has attempted to shift the focus of Jordanian Islamists toward what it regards as Jordanian rather than regional matters. But Jordan’s Shura Council has consistently opposed these changes, and even expelled many top officials (including Thunaybat and Ghurayba) for their efforts with Zamzam.
The Shura Council argues that the reformers are undermining the Islamist movement in Jordan, while Zamzam’s supporters feel that they are actually saving it — perhaps from itself. The stakes are high, even existential, for both factions. But the rift is not entirely new. For years the Islamist movement has been seen as divided between hawks and doves. The former, more hardline in policy, more internationalist in outlook, are keen on solidarity with Palestine and the Brothers’ links to Hamas; the latter, more moderate, more domestic in orientation, are concerned that ties with Hamas erode the Brothers’ standing inside Jordan. These divisions are made more complicated by Jordanian identity politics, with many Jordanians with Palestinian roots identifying with the hawks, and many East Jordanian Islamists considering themselves doves. This aspect should not be over-emphasized, but it is real, and all too often it lends itself to exploitation by the movement’s many opponents. (Islamist activists themselves, for example, routinely argue that Jordan’s intelligence services or mukhabarat are at least partly responsible for creating the identity-based rifts.)
Jordan’s Society of Muslim Brothers is as old as the independent state of Jordan — both emerged in 1946. The Brothers began in Jordan as an Egypt-linked charity. In 1953 the group was given the legal designation of an “Islamic society” and years later, in 1992, it added a political party, the Islamic Action Front, to its organizational structure. But the regional backlash against the Muslim Brothers since the downfall of the Muhammad Mursi presidency in Egypt has shaken the organization to its foundations, with the current fissures but the latest manifestation.
In international affairs, Jordan has shifted ever closer toward an inter-Arab alignment that includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, with each regime decrying militant Islamism. The latter three governments, however, have also outlawed the Muslim Brothers, with corresponding pressure on Jordan to do the same. So far, Jordan has resisted the temptation. For all its internal rifts and other problems, the Muslim Brothers remain the largest and best-organized opposition force within the kingdom. For those in the regime that want to balance opposition groups against one another, the Brothers serve as a counter to other opposition forces from secular leftists to growing salafi trends. Still, relations between the regime and the Brothers are frosty at best.
Reformers within the Islamist movement fear that unless they act now, they will give the regime an excuse to follow the lead of its main Arab allies in banning the group. Reformers are therefore using language similar to that of the government — emphasizing their Jordanian roots and focus — in an attempt to preserve the Islamist movement, and to cut ties with both Hamas and the Brothers’ branches in Egypt and the Gulf.
Jordanian Islamists may be on the defensive, but they are not defunct. The long-term question remains the relationship between the Muslim Brothers and the state. But in the interim, it is the short-term question that is more pressing: What kind of organization does the Society of Muslim Brothers want to be? How will it address the regional and domestic pressures, and the challenge from fellow Islamists? Until the movement can provide coherent and unified answers to these questions, it will appear to be — at least temporarily — not one movement, but two.