Egypt hunting down Brotherhood ‘sleeper-cells’

Mariam Rizk , Tuesday 24 Mar 2015

An alleged leaked communiqué from the Cabinet to the agriculture ministry orders Brotherhood loyalists and sympathisers to be hunted down

Student supporters of Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Morsi face a line of riot police during a demonstration outside Cairo University last year (Photo: Reuters)

In an alleged leaked document from the Egyptian Cabinet entitled “urgent-top secret,” the government asks the minister of agriculture to hunt down “sleeper-cells” of the Muslim Brotherhood at the ministry and to train staff on security tasks “to overcome the scarcity of security elements” in different government installations.

The leaked communiqué, of which Ahram Online obtained a scanned photo copy, bears the date March 2015 and lists five security regulations, allegedly sent to the ministry of agriculture, among other ministries.

Addressing former agriculture minister Adel El-Beltagy, the message recommended reallocating security men to different government offices according to need.

The letter also advises ministries to carry out periodical security checks of all employees and remove from their posts “all those who are proven to believe in or sympathise with terrorist or saboteur ideas.”

Leaders who occupy "high-sensitivity" positions should be finely selected, the paper said, with the “possibility of assigning those with a security background” to head the offices.

Ahram Online could not independently verify the document but four officials approached by Ahram Online from different ministries said they could not deny nor confirm the existence of such a letter.

Chasing the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters has been ongoing since the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. Hundreds of the group’s members and supporters have been killed in clashes with the police and civilian opponent while thousands have been arrested and tried on a variety of charges.

Two court rulings in 2013 and early 2014 banned the Brotherhood, ordered the freezing of all their assets and confirmed a government decision to designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist group.

The alleged leak suggests the hunt will not be exclusive to Brotherhood members but also to their “sympathisers,” and will not be executed by the security forces but also by “employees trained to carry out security tasks.”

Neither confirm nor deny

When asked about the document that bore the logo of the general secretariat of the Cabinet, spokesman for the Cabinet Hossam Qawish said: “I have no confirmation or denial to that…I have no idea about it.”

Former agriculture minister El-Beltagi, to whom the communiqué was addressed, said he was no longer in charge and thus this should be confirmed by the new minister Salaheddin Helal, who said he “took office a few days ago and is not aware of such a document.”

Spokesman for the ministry of electricity, Mohamed El-Yamani, took the same stance.

Pursuing a hunting strategy

El-Yamani, however, speaking to a news show on private television channel Al-Hayat on 4 March, said the ministry in the past months has demoted more than 1,000 employees to lower-level positions "in accordance with security reports."

“There has been coordination with the security forces,” El-Yamani told Al-Hayat channel. “We do not exclude anyone without evidence.”

Last summer, when electricity blackouts rolled through the country for long days, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab partially blamed the power cuts on saboteurs, in a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood members and loyalists, who led months of defiant protests against Morsi’s toppling.

Dozens of attacks have been reported on electricity pylons, production and distribution units, incurring losses worth millions of pounds.

The attacks were believed to be executed by Morsi loyalists who seek to destabilise the country through informers and supporters inside the electricity ministry.

The country’s energy crunch is also to do with the depleted resources and ill-maintained power plants.

Acknowledging the problem, most of the billions-worth of deals signed in the country’s March 13-15 economic conference went to the oil and energy sector.

In the same week that the document surfaced, the ministry of religious endowments (Al-Awqaf) warned in a statement that whoever is proved to harm the national interest "especially those who belong to terrorist groups or what is called the coalition to support terrorism…will be immediately banned from preaching or giving (religious) lessons in mosques.”

The statement by one of the highest state religious authorities was referring to a pro-Brotherhood coalition of parties called the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy.

It is not the first time the state has tightened its grip, through the Al-Awqaf ministry, on religious speech, which authorities say was dominated by the Brotherhood and other radical Islamist allies, and was used against the country's national interest and security.

Last year, Al-Awqaf mandated all preachers to acquire a permit before giving religious sermons on the pulpit, banned hundreds of preachers and prohibited holding Friday prayers at the small less-regulated mosques known as Zawaya, which were often dominated by preachers from the Brotherhood and fundamentalist Islamist Salafists.

According to a law passed under former president Adly Mansour, unauthorised preachers could face jail terms of up to a year and fines of up to LE50,000 ($7,000).

"We supposed it was enough to stop these groups' members from occupying any leading position in the ministry," Awqaf ministry said in the March 8 statement, citing its policy the previous months.

"But now…we are asking all the clerics and preachers to write a written endorsement letter that they do not belong to any of the terrorist groups and especially the Muslim Brotherhood, to publicly denounce all the actions of violence, sabotage and explosions and to pledge to abide by the ministry's moderate (religious) discourse," the statement added.

The ministry said it will consider this written pledge an "official document." Violators of the pledge would be deprived from giving lessons and speeches, with deduction of their affiliated salaries.

A media coordinator at the ministry of endowments, Osman Mohamed, told Ahram Online he was not authorised to deny or confirm whether the ministry had received the communiqué from the Cabinet.

Answering a question to why this statement came in the same week that the document surfaced, Mohamed said “we are a state institution; we work in the context of the general state policy.”

A pass to more privileges?

In a similar incident in November 2014, El-Watan private newspaper published what it claimed was a communiqué from State Security to a governmental office in Giza governorate ordering investigation into nine employees suspected of forming a "sleeper-cell."

The nine, who happened to include the wife of novelist Ibrahim Abdel-Megid, filed a police complaint and demanded-through a newspaper piece-an explanation about the alleged document, which could have potentially cost them their jobs.

"The alleged document included names of all those who had disagreements with the former manager," Abdel-Megid's wife Tayseer Samak said. 

"It would become a tragedy if government employees used security reports (against their colleague) as a pass card to get more privileges," she added.

The media effect

Since Morsi’s ouster, state media as well as the pro-government private media, has launched a fierce campaign demonising the Brotherhood, their supporters and in some instances urging a community-based confrontation.

Show presenters blamed all the violence over four turbulent years on the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters.

Presenters, some in hysterical voices, hailed the crackdown on Islamists as positive moves.

Featuring the alleged leaked document on her show on Al-Mehwar channel, presenter Riham El-Deeb said excluding Brotherhood loyalists from their positions was necessary and considered it “a late step.”

A successful strategy?

Political analyst and researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, Wahid Abdel-Megid, said the strategy of segregating a sector of society for no clear crime “is a form of fascism.”

“This will only deepen societal division and polarisation… and a moral breakdown by turning people into spies who sell themselves and their conscience,” Abdel-Megid said.

“It is against the constitution to hunt down someone with no legal basis,” he said, adding that the media’s applause for this scheme “means the [societal] crisis is bigger than we realised.”

Having a similar view, political analyst Mohamed El-Agati said that chasing down the Brotherhood and their supporters will not end their problem with society, but will rather empower the group, feeding them on self-pity.

“It is a problem that the state is solely resorting to a security solution in dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood,” El-Agati said. “It is even a bigger problem to make the whole society follow this scheme.”

Throughout Egypt’s history, the Brotherhood was in strife with the state, now they are enemies with the society, El-Agati said.

He added that this policy is contradictory to the idea of development the government is promoting with the investor conference and the economic reforms underway.

"You develop with the people and for the people,” he said. “Experiments [in the past] which tried to pass over the people failed miserably or had short-term successes.”

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