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AMMAN, Jordan – Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood has formally split after 70 years — a breakup blamed on long-running ideological disputes, but also on a government attempt to further weaken what was once the country's main opposition group.
The split deals a new blow to the region-wide Brotherhood movement, which has been outlawed as a terror group by close Jordan allies Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In Jordan, some warned that the government's apparent divide-and-control policy could backfire by pushing more Brotherhood supporters into the ranks of extremists like the Islamic State group, seen as the main threat to the country's stability.
The new, officially licensed Brotherhood offshoot defines itself as a strictly Jordanian group, saying it cut ties with the regional movement to avoid being branded as militant.
"We were concerned that we would be considered as a terrorist organization if we continued to be a branch of an organization branded as a terrorist group," the group's leader, Abdel-Majid Thnaibat, told The Associated Press.
The larger Brotherhood faction, still loyal to the regional movement, alleged the government engineered the division to weaken the group.
"This is a coup sponsored by the regime," spokesman Murad Adaileh told the AP.
Jordan's government has declined to address the allegation.
The split was formalized earlier this month when the government licensed Thnaibat's breakaway faction, and the core movement promptly expelled the defectors.
The status of the second faction now remains unclear.
A government official said that while Thnaibat's group registered with the authorities, the other faction "did not correct" its status, suggesting it is legally vulnerable. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue with reporters.
It's not clear if Jordan's authorities eventually will outlaw the original movement, which is deeply rooted in Jordanian society through its social outreach and welfare system. There have been some signs of a crackdown in recent months, including the arrests of about two dozen activists and the sentencing of the group's No. 2 — Zaki Bani Ersheid — to 18 month in prison for criticizing the Emirates.
The problems have put the Brotherhood in Jordan at its lowest point in years. It has no representation in parliament because of self-imposed election boycotts and is losing some of its young to extremist groups.
"The Brotherhood, by relative standards, is fairly innocuous, it's not a significant threat to the kingdom," said David Schenker of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank. "Many are asking what (is the) utility of kicking the Brotherhood when it is down."
The division was preceded by long-running ideological disagreements between "doves" and "hawks," exacerbated by 2007 Gaza takeover of the Islamic militant Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood.
The doves emphasize their Jordanian identity, want to keep Hamas at arm's length, appear more willing to play by the restrictive rules set by the monarchy and want to focus on "dawa," or preaching. The hawks criticize government policies more openly, particularly Jordan's peace treaty with Israel, embrace Hamas and see the Brotherhood as a transnational movement.
Tribal identities also appear to play a role, as Thnaibat and some of his key supporters are members of Jordan's Bedouin tribes, while some of the leading hawks are descendants of Palestinian refugees.
For years, the Brotherhood was Jordan's largest and most cohesive opposition group, seeking political reform, but stopping short of seeking the ouster of the king. With the hawks in charge, friction between the Brotherhood and the government has grown in recent years.
At the same time, the Jordanian Brotherhood has been weakened by regional developments in recent years, including the growing ideological competition from Islamic extremists following the outbreak of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011.
Some warn the government crackdown could radicalize Brotherhood supporters and help swell the ranks of the Islamic State group. Jordan has taken on a high-profile role in a U.S.-led military coalition that carries out airstrikes against the militants, after they burned a captive Jordanian pilot to death in a cage. Jordan's King Abdullah II has framed the battle as an ideological fight to the finish.
"The Muslim Brotherhood failed to deal with the young generation and to lead them in the right direction," said Mahmoud al-Kharabseh, a pro-government legislator.
Analyst Labib Kamhawi said the Brotherhood's troubles offered an opportunity for the government to encourage the split.
"Jordan is simply trying to trim the Brotherhood in power and size, to be able to manage it easily," he said.
It's not clear how the rival factions will now deal with each other, and whether court battles over the Brotherhood brand and the movement's properties, such as hospitals and real estate, are looming.
Adaileh alleged that trying to entangle the Brotherhood in legal battles is part of the government's alleged strategy of weakening the movement.
Thnaibat left open the possibility that his group will participate in future elections, after the Brotherhood boycotted the last two rounds over claims the system favored conservative candidates. He also said his group would try to persuade the rank and file to join them.
"We are going to contact our Brothers in the provinces to explain to them why a Brother shouldn't stay in an illegal organization," he said.
Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank.
Follow Karin Laub on Twitter at www.twitter.com/karin_laub .