The television footage was jarring. Mohamed Badie, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, was under arrest. The group, which was Egypt’s dominant political power just two months ago, had already been decimated under the new military-installed government, with its top leaders arrested and more than 1,000 of its supporters killed. But the broadcast of Badie’s arrest on Tuesday was still a jolting blow—even under former dictator Hosni Mubarak, who repressed the Brotherhood ruthlessly over the course of his three decades in power, the group’s top leader had always remained free.
Analysts say that the heavy-handed police tactics being employed against the Brotherhood—from the crackdowns on the street to the continuing wave of arrests—is having, in the near term at least, the intended effect. The Brotherhood appears to be an organization on the ropes, with no clear strategy for continuing its fight and a rank-and-file in disarray. “The group itself is in serious trouble,” says Eric Trager, an Egypt specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who studies the Brotherhood. “The military’s decapitation strategy is working.”
Into this void steps Mahmoud Ezzat, one of the last senior Brotherhood leaders still standing. With Badie gone, Ezzat takes over the top position more or less by default—of the Brotherhood’s four deputy guides, two are now in prison. But analysts and former members of the group say that the low-profile Ezzat has long wielded considerable influence behind the scenes. “He was the top Brotherhood leader that nobody focused on, mostly because they were just paying attention to who was in the media,” Trager says. “But this is someone who is close to the most important people in the Brotherhood, which is how he got his influence.”
Ezzat is a professor of medicine at Egypt’s Zagazig University. Born in 1944, he has suffered dearly for the Brotherhood cause, perhaps one reason he is known as the “iron man” within the organization. He was jailed by military ruler Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1965 and imprisoned for nearly a decade during a period that Brotherhood members say was the last time they faced such a grave threat from the state. Ezzat served his prison time alongside Badie. Former Brotherhood members say that the incarceration shaped his worldview—like Badie, he comes from a school of thought that stresses secrecy and sees the Brotherhood’s main purpose as achieving power.
Ezzat is also seen as a disciplinarian within the Brotherhood, and a keen organizational man—traits that may serve it well as it tries to regroup. One former Brotherhood leader says Ezzat “is considered the strongman inside the Muslim Brotherhood” and has been responsible for coordinating the group’s second and third lines of command. While not confrontational, he is expert at employing the levers of power inside the Brotherhood, sources say, using bureaucratic maneuvering, along with his deep institutional knowledge and personal connections, to enforce his will. “Ezzat is a strong person with a sharp mind and an amazing memory,” says a current Brotherhood official, who asked not to be named for safety concerns. “He knows everything and every person in the group.”
Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, has met Ezzat several times. He describes him as soft-spoken and unassuming in person—but at the same time, a man with a reputation as an “enforcer” who “has been one of the most influential figures in the movement for quite some time.” Ezzat has also been known for “policing internal dissent,” Hamid says, and his personal style may be ideally suited to the times. “One of the top priorities for the Muslim Brotherhood, and one of their big challenges right now, is how do they maintain organizational discipline and how do they coordinate decisions,” Hamid says.
Yet with the state’s crackdown on the Brotherhood continuing and so many of its leaders gone, Hamid adds, “in this case the issue of who’s really in charge doesn’t matter as much. They’re more in reactive mode. It’s a question of how they respond to repression.”
It’s unclear whether Ezzat will really be calling the shots or how long he’ll remain in the role. He could also be arrested like his comrades. Perhaps reflecting that threat, his current whereabouts are unknown. But the Brotherhood’s rush to put his name forward on Tuesday showed two main concerns, according to Abdel Ghalil el-Sharnouby, a former senior member of the group: “To preserve the organization and protect it from dissolving, and to shield the members from their pessimistic state and lift their spirits.”
Trager, of the Washington Institute, says even those modest goals may be hard to realize. “It doesn’t matter [who’s in charge] now because there’s no structure in place for him to command,” he says. “It will be hard for the Brotherhood to really channel any kind of national strategy. The chain of command is ruptured. And I think it’s going to be even more ruptured in the coming weeks and months.”