Egypt's Brotherhood and allies: Back to square one, and beyond

Sherif Tarek , Thursday 5 Sep 2013

The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies have lost support on the street - their fate appears to be all but sealed following an intense security crackdown

Mohamed Morsi
A view of the damaged entrance of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party headquarters, which is located in front of the Cairo-based Interior Ministry, after it was attacked by people against ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in Cairo July 4, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies have exerted huge efforts for two tumultuous months to overturn what they describe as a "military coup" in Egypt. Not only have they failed to achieve their goal, they have suffered a comprehensive security crackdown that seems to threaten their very existence.

Throwing their weight behind street protests – which saw recurring deadly clashes with security forces and civilian opponents – the "anti-coup" groups evidently failed to counterbalance the nationwide protests that paved the way for the armed forces to remove Islamist president Mohamed Morsi on 3 July, and to come down hard on his supporters the following month.

Despite their clear numerical disadvantage, the Brotherhood and its allies have soldiered on, strenuously refusing reconciliation initiatives – at least in public – amid the status quo: Morsi detained incommunicado and facing charges, the Brotherhood-dominated Shura Council (parliament's upper house) dismantled, and the 2012 constitution frozen pending amendments.

The political deadlock led the interim authorities to forcibly evict pro-Morsi sit-ins at Rabaa Al-Adawyia and Nahda squares (in Cairo and Giza) on 14 August, leaving hundreds dead, mostly from the Islamist camp. And importantly, either side of the dispersals, many Brotherhood and Islamist leaders were arrested for an array of criminal charges.

Two days after the deadly crackdowns, huge heated rallies in support of Morsi were marred by exchanges of live fire and dozens of deaths.

However, much more calm were the following two Fridays and last Tuesday, which marked two months since his overthrow, with lower turnouts at three pro-Morsi protests, fuelling speculation that the security clampdown has crippled the Islamist camp.

Under the current circumstances, does the Islamist opposition have any tricks left up its sleeve?

More feeble protests

Apart from considerable, yet fluctuating, pressure from the international community on Egypt's military and interim government to accommodate the Brotrherhood, the pro-Morsi camp's reliance on two massive sit-ins, as well as protest marches across the nation, bore no fruit, with a sizeable majority of the population, numerous political parties, army, police and state institutions opposing them.

Despite being weakened by the crackdown, the Brotherhood and the National Coalition in Support of Legitimacy (NCSL) – the Islamist alliance supporting Morsi – are widely expected to keep staging protests. But more anti-military demonstrations, according to political analysts, would be anything but efficient.

"Their protests will continue for a while, on every possible occasion and in different ways, that's beyond doubt," Gamal Abdel-Gawad, former head of the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told Ahram Online.

"Brotherhood figures as well as other Islamist activists will lead more demonstrations that are highly likely to have a negligible impact," Abdel-Gawad said.

With the arrest of most of the Brotherhood and Islamist leadership taking its toll on their ability to mobilise support, the Islamist opposition can barely move public opinion, according to political analyst Amr El-Shobaky.

"The Brotherhood's strong organisational skills are contingent on blind obedience to their leaders. With their leadership behind bars they cannot deploy their supporters effectively," El-Shobaky added.

"They already have no popular support, and that makes it harder for their coming protests to yield positive results."

But the Brotherhood and their allies "have no other option but to keep trying to prove they exist, despite their inability to instigate mass protests," according to Wahid Abdel-Meguid, a veteran political analyst and former MP.

From Abdel-Meguid's perspective, two objectives will keep the Brotherhood hitting the streets.

"The short-term one is to create a public state of anxiety and to keep the people and media preoccupied with them. The long-term target is to keep provoking the security apparatuses, hoping for harsh reactions in order to promote the notion that the Mubarak-era police state is back, which is completely deceitful," Abdel-Meguid added.

Indeed, capitalising on the fact that hundreds of Morsi supporters have been killed since he was ousted, the Brotherhood has been making widespread allegations, some of which have been substantiated, of brutality committed against them by police and army personnel.

One ugly incident saw the police fire teargas inside a police van carrying arrested Morsi followers, suffocating 36 men locked inside to death. Prosecution investigations verified the men were killed as a result of inhaling teargas and refuted earlier police claims that the detainees had been killed while attempting to escape.

El-Shobaky, however, disbelieves many other Brotherhood claims of police excesses, saying the group has been trying to appear as a victim in the ongoing struggle. "And that's not new; this is what they have been doing for decades," he stated.

"This is what they did when they assassinated Egypt's Prime Minister [Mahmoud El-Nokrashi in 1948], not to mention their failed attempt to assassinate president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the 1950s. This is what they have been doing until now, most of the time; they commit a crime and play the victim. But that will not work now."

Frustration leads to terrorism?

The inability of Islamists to mobilise broad support could lead some to fully re-adopt violent approaches, El-Shobaky explained, as insinuated by several pro-Morsi Islamist figures, such as preacher Safwat Hegazy (now detained) and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya leader Assem Abdel-Maged (at large).

"There will be some terror attacks like those seen since the dispersal of the sit-ins: the attack on Al-Nozha Al-Gedida police station in Cairo's Heliopolis district [on 30 August which killed a police officer and a civilian], among many other incidents that have taken place of late," he went on.

Islamist forces suffered repression and persecution during the tenure of Hosni Mubarak, with some resorting to organised armed violence and bombings in the 1980s and 1990s. Many were convicted for acts of terror as a result.

The likes of the Jihadist Salafists and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamyia hardcore abandoned violence and proclaimed peace in the last decade of the 30-year rule of Mubarak after being out-muscled by the security forces. And after the 2011 revolution that deposed Mubarak, most Islamist groups launched political parties for the first time, dominating the political scene for two and a half years.

Even though the Muslim Brotherhood was not among the Islamist groups that turned violent under Mubarak, according to Abdel-Gawad, the 84-year-old group is now likely to turn aggressive along with other Islamists who have become political and social outcasts.

"The idea of armed resistance exists within the Brotherhood, promoted by their celebrated thinker Sayed Qutb [who was executed by Nasser in the mid-1960s]," Abdel-Gawad said.

"Their inability to stage large rallies is frustrating for them, so I would expect some of the Brotherhood ranks to carry weapons and fight."

The Muslim Brotherhood, the ultra-conservative Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, and the NCSL have more than once categorically denied using violence, saying they have been and always will be peaceful in their quest to reverse the "coup d'état."

Nonetheless, video and testimonial evidence proves some Morsi supporters have used firearms, especially in battles with the police.

Also, enthusiastic roars at the Rabaa and Nahda sit-ins in support of inflammatory, sectarian rhetoric that often incited violence against Copts and churches, as well as the sporadic use of black flags of Al-Qaeda and photos of Bin Laden at Islamist demonstrations, indicate a lack of peacefulness within sections of the Islamist camp.

The interior ministry said police had seized firearms, including machine guns, at the Rabaa Al-Adawyia and Nahda sit-ins, reporting Islamist snipers deployed on top of buildings killed 43 policemen.

The allegation of using firearms was vehemently denied by the pro-Morsi camp, which added that it was the police who used force – and excessive force at that – while dispersing the sit-ins, killing thousands of civilians, not hundreds as officially stated.

In any case, most analysts, regardless of political preferences, agree the Brotherhood sit-ins contained elements that possessed weapons, and actually used these weapons against the police as the crackdown started.

Political solution still on the table

Egypt's interim authorities have led a massive crackdown on the Brotherhood and its supporters but they have not completely shut the door on a possible reconciliation or peaceful means to end the drawn-out feud, Abdel-Gawad said.

"It's not like they have been randomly arresting leaders. For instance, they have not detained Mohamed Ali Beshr, because he could act as a negotiator."

Beshr, a member of the Brotherhood's Guidance Bureau, reportedly denied being involved in reconciliation talks, but stressed that such negotiations could take place at "any time."

Officially, nevertheless, the Brotherhood and Co. refuse all talks unless Morsi, the original 2012 constitution (drafted by an Islamist-dominated constituent assembly) and the Shura Council are reinstated.

Unpleasant developments or remaining at this political standstill could lead to the banning of the Brotherhood, as was the case under Mubarak, Abdel-Gawad believes. He stressed that in order for fruitful talks to start the Brotherhood must show a change of attitude.

"If, for instance, a reform movement appeared within their ranks, the authorities might be able to negotiate with it," he elaborated.

"[But] it is highly likely we will see a new leadership after the old guard was arrested. Besides, many Brotherhood members, especially the youth, must have lost faith in the senior leaders; they are responsible for choosing the path that has turned them into a pariah."

El-Shobaky and Abdel-Meguid believe there is no room for reconciliation between the state and the Brotherhood as a group. But rather, their peaceful members and supporters "could be allowed to practice politics again" by the state.

"But that does not mean [the state] will accept the Brotherhood ideology or principles," El-Shobaky added

Nageh Ibrahim, a former leader of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamyia, is convinced that the Brotherhood are the only ones to blame for the dwindling chances of their re-integration in mainstream politics.

He advised the Brotherhood, in a recent interview with Aswat Masriya, "to reconsider their ideology the same way Al-Gamaa Al-Islamyia did in the 1990s. Such re-considerations need to include its relationship with the state and other political parties."

However, in the end, Ibrahim believes the Brotherhood squandered opportunities to retreat in order to survive.

"There was a chance for the Brotherhood to avoid bloodshed after the overthrow of Morsi. For example, they could have accepted dialogue, ended their sit-in on their own and admit their failure to run the state. But, unfortunately, that did not happen. Instead, they opted for a destructive choice: either 'legitimacy' or destruction and death."

"Moreover, their decision to ally with Takfiri groups in Sinai and Al-Qaeda factions has cost the Brotherhood dearly."

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