‘First they came for the Brothers…’: the Ikhwan’s return to opposition

As senior leaders of the Brotherhood assembled on a large stage, hundreds of the group’s rank and file members gathered in front, waving the Ikhwan flag. This was May 2011, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s new headquarters in Cairo’s Moqattem district was being opened – a move which marked a new era for the long-banned movement in the wake of the January 25 Revolution. Today however, the Moqattam building stands empty, ransacked and burnt. Its yellowy facade blackened from smoke, the Ikhwan’s banner of two crossed swords, as well as the large lettering which had adorned the front of the building, torn from the walls. On 30 June this year, anti-Morsi protestors had stormed the building, throwing fireworks into offices, looting electronic equipment, photographing themselves on the roof of the building, and even dragging heavy wooden doors from their hinges back to their own homes.

Just as the Moqattam building stands defeated, today the Brotherhood is facing a similar fate. With the group now banned and removed from the list of accepted NGOs in Egypt, its assets seized, former president Morsi and other top leaders sitting in jail, over 1000 members and supporters killed and many more injured and with reports that its media office is relocating to London, the Brotherhood has well and truly returned to its long-held position as an illegal movement operating on the fringes of society.

Events have moved breathtakingly quickly. Few, even the Brotherhood’s most vocal of critics, had expected such a turn. Having acted as a force of opposition within Egypt for the past eight decades, the Brotherhood had been the group best able to capitalise upon Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011. Its electoral successes were hardly a surprise. With its sturdy localised networks spanning the country, coupled with prior experience of political campaigning and electoral contestation, the Ikhwan were able to mobilise large numbers of votes in the country’s post-revolutionary elections. Morsi’s election come June 2012 thus sealed the deal. The Brotherhood was ‘firmly’ in control of the country.

Just a few weeks before the coup – and a ‘coup’ it certainly was – a friend and I had sat perched on a leather sofa in the main room of one of the Brotherhood’s offices in Nasr City. We were just a few minutes’ walk from what would, two weeks later, become the Rabaa al-Adawiyya sit in. Drinking tea with a representative from the movement’s youth division, we discussed the Tamarod campaign and upcoming June 30th protests. Convinced of the movement’s secure footing, the representative dismissed the campaign as “nothing but a movement. It has simply emerged from the civilians to inform the president of their opinion”. To men such as this, the presence of the Tamarod volunteers stationed around Cairo’s street corners collecting and distributing cheaply photocopied petitions, were regarded as a nuisance, but a nuisance which would dissipate.

Was this just a sign of arrogance amongst the Brotherhood, so convinced was it of its firm foothold? Or was it a sign that the Brotherhood had, despite its long-held claims to ‘represent the streets’, grown detached from the pulse of Egypt’s citizenry? Most likely it was a combination of the two: ignoring the warnings from groups such as al-Nour and refusing to initiate change such as disbanding Hesham Kandil’s government, whilst substantially underestimating the strength of the tamarod campaign. But even members of the opposition displayed a lack of confidence in the ability of Tamarod to initiate change. Islam Lotfy, founder of Hizb al-Tayyar al-Misri had commented that the Brotherhood was so aware of the power of the people, it would be prepared to withstand the protests, battening down the hatches as if preparing for an oncoming tropical storm. To topple them so soon after the revolution was simply unfeasible. Others, whilst desperately hoping for a change in Egypt’s political situation and signing the petition themselves, simply laughed at the idea of removing a president by providing their signature.

Did the movement deserve to be forced from power, suppressed, scattered and humiliated? Of course, no-one deserves this. Even our worst enemy should be treated with respect. Retributive ‘justice’, is, well, an injustice. Yet, the Brotherhood is by no means a pure, blameless creature. Its year in power witnessed the continuation of acute democratic transgressions. So minimal was the sense of change under Morsi that for many, life under the Brotherhood was no better – perhaps even worse – than under Mubarak. Morsi’s self-granting of unlimited powers in November 2012 sparked justified concerns that the Brotherhood was cementing itself in power, whilst the Brotherhood’s encouragement of a millioneya against anti-Morsi protestors in December 2012 was a gross error, so inevitable were the subsequent clashes. The harassment of journalists critical of the Brotherhood was so extensive – few would have missed the outrage surrounding the criminal investigation of satirest Bassem Youssef on claims of defaming Morsi, or Hani Shukrallah’s expulsion from Ahram Online in January this year – that Reporters without Borders included the Brotherhood on their 2013 list of ‘Predators of Freedom and Information’. The sacking of Ines Abdel-Dayem – director of Cairo Opera – in May 2013, coming shortly after the firing of both the head of the General Book Authority and the head of the Fine Arts Council, was conceived by many as a battle against culture1. And all of this whilst the country’s economy continued to flounder, food and energy prices spiraled and businesses struggled to stay in operation.

But it was not just the Brotherhood’s intentional strategies that frustrated Egyptians. It was its blunders, too. Earlier this year, Hesham Kandil accidentally tweeted a ‘Smurf Village’ update on his official Twitter page – “Doctor Smurf prescribes cakes, pies and smurfberries as part of a healthy diet” – and this summer saw the Nile River Dam gaffe live on TV. The ever-present Egyptian sense of humour was well and truly tested. As one Twitter user responded to the ‘Smurfgate’ blunder, “Hesham Kandil is playing Smurf village while the rest of Egypt is getting smurfed!!”.

Even following al-Sisi’s coup, the Brotherhood did little to clean up its act, so to speak. Whilst the group played up to the international media, attempting to appease it with conciliatory messages concerning the right for peaceful protest and Morsi’s democratic legitimacy, its domestic rhetoric has leaned at times towards violent and sectarian statements. Whilst al-Beltagui commented in his Guardian op-ed that “the Muslim Brotherhood is committed to peaceful protests and has pledged never to resort to violence in response to the violence perpetrated against it by the coup authorities”2, the FJP’s Facebook page for Helwan was whipping up anti-Christian sentiments with statements such as “the church mobilizes the copts in June 30 demonstrations to topple the Islamist president….the Pope of the church was the first to respond to al-Sisi’s call to authorize the killing of Muslims and the outcome of the authorization was more than 500 dead today”3. The Brotherhood has also stressed the religious and ideological – rather than political – nature of the conflict, framing Morsi’s ouster as a ‘war against Islam’, promoting protestors’ war-like vows to ‘protect Morsi over their dead bodies’.

“Can injustice lead to the gardens? Can oppression be a gate to justice?”4

Of course, to inherit power in a post-revolutionary environment was always going to be a tough mission for the Brotherhood, as many expected miracles to happen. But the Brotherhood’s failure to create even the sense of change meant something had to give. The military-backed government’s recent treatment of the Brotherhood however is not simply an attempt to bring the group under control, to slap the leaders’ wrists for their poor exercise of power. Far from it;it is an attempt – after decades of demonization of the Brotherhood by army leadership – to finally defeat the movement so that it can never win power again. The military’s provision of a mere 48 hour ultimatum demonstrated its mission to dislodge the Brothers as masters of state, whilst al-Sisi’s call in late July for a ‘popular mandate’ to deal with terrorists quickly converted the Brotherhood from a political concern to a security issue. They became something which could be dealt with through brute force. With state-run media cultivating its credentials through whipping up a nationalistic frenzy with constant features on the Brotherhood’s fascist behaviour, links with Hamas and international jihadists, and TV channels carrying the doomsday-like banner ‘War on Terrorists’, serious engagement with the Brotherhood has been sidelined by a lust for blood. It has become a movement presented merely as a disease which must be eradicated by any means available.

Not only does this seem to be a somewhat lazy option for its message that dialogue is futile, but it is a deluded one too. The military’s belief – or hope – that the Brotherhood can be eradicated through force and legislation demonstrates that they have learnt little from history. As the Brotherhood itself warned – or indeed, threatened – in a statement on 24 September, “the Muslim Brotherhood reminds the military putschists of their predecessors who tried these same tactics and imagined that they were able to drive the group and its members out of the Egyptian society….the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ as an idea, a method and a group, was, is and will remain steadfast on the Path of God”5.

Indeed, the Brotherhood is well acquainted with operating illegally. For the majority of its existence, it has been banned and repressed by the ruling regime: under King Farouq from 1948 onwards, from 1954 after a brief honeymoon with the Free Officers, and remaining technically illegal under Sadat and Mubarak (despite a degree of freedom as a bid to create legitimacy for the ruling regime beyond that of the constitution). Whilst key members were repeatedly imprisoned, tortured and even executed, the movement was still able to exert considerable social and political influence, as its tightly-knit organisational structure helped prevent excessive infiltration, and the movement seized every opportunity that came its way. Working on Egypt’s periphery to deliver services to the lower and middle classes; competing in syndicate and student council elections; running in alliances to contest parliamentary elections, the movement established itself as a secretive yet powerful movement with considerable political and mobilizational prowess.

Yes, this may be perhaps the Brotherhood’s harshest experiences of repression – or the bloodiest at least – but the movement’s history has prepared it for this. “They can adapt to this” commented Khalil al-Anani, the Durham-based Muslim Brotherhood expert6. Indeed, the Brotherhood is better built to act as a force of opposition than as the group in charge. This is not surprising, given that the group’s actions are under less of a magnifying glass, and considerably less is expected of them.

Perhaps most importantly however, is the fact that the suppressed movement exposed to the strong hand of the state can utilise the sympathy factor. The Brotherhood had been doing an excellent job in demonstrating just how unprepared it was to govern Egypt, illustrating that Islam is not, after all, the solution, and alienating many of those who had backed Morsi in 2012. The military’s crackdown, however, is playing right into the Ikhwan’s hands. After all, the crackdown has produced martyrs – martyrs who can be presented to the world to garner sympathy. The deaths of individuals such as the much-loved Asmaa al-Beltagui have gained considerable attention – the day following her death saw countless Brotherhood supporters and non-supporters alike changing their profile picture to Asmaa’s smiling face. The Brotherhood is clearly aware of the symbolic power of such injustices. As al-Beltagui warned “the more people die, the more people take to the streets”7. Even for the ardent Brotherhood critic, it is difficult to justify the force used at Rabaa. For some individuals such as al-Dostour’s spokesman Khaled Dawoud, who had supported Tamarod and initially backed the military, the treatment of the Brotherhood has sent them back-tracking, expressing concern and criticizing the security forces’ actions. In a twist of fate, therefore, the military backed government’s treatment of the Brotherhood is thus serving to empower the movement.

What is particularly concerning, however, is the potential for the crackdown to encourage radicalization within the Brotherhood – a possibility which would pose a serious threat to Egypt’s security.

Far from being a monolithic organisation, the Brotherhood can, if conceptualised simply, be separated into two key currents. There are the older, more ideologically rigid members. But then there are the – often younger – members who have long-promoted democratic engagement, and who have displayed willingness to negotiate with alternative political forces. A sizeable bloc of the group’s youth, for instance, had allied with their secular, liberal and leftist counterparts to help in organising the January 25 protest. The treatment of the Brotherhood in its entirety as a band of radical ideologues, however, risks suppressing the more politically astute wing through demonstrating the futility of democratic participation. The crackdown is an ‘I told you so’ for those members who were wary of the movement’s compatibility with Egyptian democratic engagement. In other words, it has demonstrated to the Brotherhood that when it comes to the rules of the game, the rules are meaningless. They are simply manipulated by those wielding great power.

With the more grounded voices being silenced, it is the more radical voices which will prevail, particularly amongst the youth. Whilst it would be somewhat overly gloomy to suggest that the Brotherhood as a whole will adopt violent jihadist tactics – the group’s ideology is, after all, based on the concept of reform rather than revolution – it seems fair to suggest that continued repression will encourage more radical members to disengage from the Brotherhood, forming their own militant societies or joining with the jihadists currently destabilizing Northern Sinai. With the disappearance of legal avenues to act, young disenfranchised members are particularly vulnerable to radicalization. Generally possessing a weaker grasp of Islamic philosophy and having experienced considerably less repression during their lifetimes than the older cadres, they are particularly susceptible to more militant ambitions.

History has shown that this is, indeed, the case. Consider, for instance, the aftermath of the banning of the Brotherhood under King Farouq in 1948, wherein a young Brother was so angered by Prime Minister Nuqrashi’s attempts to outlaw the group that he assassinated the man. Or the 1950s, when Brotherhood Supreme Guide Hudaybi’s attempts to dismantle the Ikhwan’s armed wing floundered, as Nasser’s regime cracked down on the Brotherhood following an attempt on his life in Alexandria’s Manshiya Square. Or the 1960s, which saw Brothers thrown in jails with lengthy sentences, exposed to horrific torture and which subsequently witnessed the rise of Qutb’s takfiri thinking. Or the Syrian Brotherhood, which witnessed a radicalization amongst its ranks in the early 80s following events such as the massacre of Brotherhood members in Palmyra’s Tadmor prison, and the passing of ‘Law No.49’ whose first article declared that anyone belonging to the Brotherhood would receive a death sentence8.

So what should we be encouraging to take the place of the military’s attempts to crush the Brotherhood? Considering most debates on democratisation and stabilisation, it seems fair to suggest that the military should be working not towards suppressing the group, but towards actively engaging with it. The inclusion-moderation debate may be, well, debated, but there are countless examples of political inclusion encouraging groups to accept the political game. The PLO’s transformation to a political and diplomatic group for instance, is often linked to its invitation to the UN in 19749, whilst the moderation of armed groups such as the IRA is similarly attributed to political inclusion. Or consider the Brotherhood in Jordan, where it has long been granted freedom to engage politically, and as a result has, compared to its Egyptian and Syrian counterparts, remained relatively peaceful, committed to democracy, and generally supportive of the Jordanian state10. Clearly, there therefore needs to be an attempt made in opening up political avenues for everyone within Egypt, regardless of their political and/or religious leanings – something that Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights considers crucial in ensuring future stability for the country, and which revolutionaries such as Khaled Abdalla believe is vital in helping to meet the goals of the revolution11. Of course, conditions must be agreed beforehand – with obvious ones such as the agreement not to resort to violence bearing particular importance at the current stage.

Whilst opening up political space is crucial, it would be rather over-optimistic to assume simply that presenting the Brotherhood with freedom and a role within politics will ensure it plays fairly. The group’s trust of the political system has been severely damaged, and the military must therefore act in providing incentives and inducements to encourage the Brotherhood to accept the political channels provided. It must prove to the Brotherhood, for example, that the movement stands the chance of winning future elections – something that will help to prevent the more moderate wing of the movement from being sidelined by the more truculent voices. Of course, the Brotherhood needs to help too. Crucially, the group must accept that Morsi’s return is all but impossible. This, however, is unlikely to happen without the current government taking considerable steps to assure the Brotherhood of its future stake within Egypt.

Beyond the Brotherhood?

With the military-backed government displaying its clear desire to fully eradicate the Brotherhood as its opposition, one can’t but help wonder ‘what next?’. Does the ‘opposition’ really just encompass ‘radical’ Islamists? Many would conclude not, pointing to signs that the government is now extending its net to include others. In early September, Haitham Mohamedein – a lawyer and key member in Egypt’s revolutionary movement – was briefly detained. Meanwhile, April 6 offices have been raided, and claims that activists such as Wael Abbas are being investigated have gained traction, fueling fears of a broadened crack down. The Mubarak-era police state is well and truly re-emerging – if, indeed, it had ever disappeared.

And after them, who will be next be targeted? The leftists? Trade unionists? Any politically active Egyptian? It seems that Egypt may be entering the territory of Niemöller’s poem – “First they came..”. But whilst in Niemöller’s poem, no-one spoke up, this is not the case in Egypt. Certainly, there are those who actively support the violence. They are the ones whose hatred of the Brotherhood is so extreme that politics is now about retribution, and who remain silent regarding human rights abuses and the need for dialogue. They are the ones who, when the military is out in force to break up Brotherhood protests, gather alongside them, shouting encouragement, even lobbing rocks from behind the lines of soldiers.

But the ‘revolutionaries’ are once again making themselves heard. Literally. Refusing to be slotted into the Brotherhood’s or the military’s camps, there are growing numbers of activists who are rejecting the binaries being imposed upon them. The growth of the Masmou3 campaign is illustrative of this development. Calling on all Egyptians who reject both the Ikhwan and the army, it encourages them to bang their pots and pans from their windows at 9pm each night. Each night, the clamour grows louder. “My #masmou3 experience was my best ever today. A neighbour complained about the noise, so I explained. He said he’d join tomorrow. Success.” tweeted Khaled Abdalla in August. Twitter is abuzz with 9pm recordings. Songs have been released. Ingenuity and vibrancy still reign here.

1 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/egypt/10089564/Cairo-Opera-on-strike-in-protest-at-Muslim-Brotherhood-sacking-of-director.html return to main text
2 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/21/muslim-brotherhood-violence-egypt return to main text
3 http://mbinenglish.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/fjp-helwan-facebook-page-on-church-attacks/ return to main text
4 Prayer of Fear – Mahmoud Ezzat (http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2013/mosireen280913.html) return to main text
5 http://ikhwanweb.com/article.php?id=31329 return to main text
6 http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/09/25/egypt-muslim-brotherhood/2868647/ return to main text
7 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/21/muslim-brotherhood-violence-egypt return to main text
8 Lefèvre, R. (2013) “Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria”, Hurst and Company: London return to main text
9 Tessler, M. (1994), A history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bloomington: Indiana University Press return to main text
10 Moaddel, M. (2005), Islamic modernism, nationalism and fundamentalism: episode and discourse, University of Chicago Press: Chicago return to main text
11 http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/13954/masmou3_audible_-heard_-listened-to return to main text

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Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)