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Egypt: Competing for Corpses

The Muslim Brotherhood seems to be willing to sacrifice any number of its supporters to regain the upper hand in Egypt’s standoff.
Religious scholars and supporters of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi take part in an anti-army rally that started from their sit-in area around Raba' al-Adawya mosque, east of Cairo, July 30, 2013. Europe's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, shuttled between Egypt's rulers and the Muslim Brotherhood on Monday in a mission to pull the country back from more bloodshed, but both sides were unyielding after 80 Islamist supporters were gunned down. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

More than a month has passed since the supporters of deposed Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi began their sit-in at Rabia al-Adawiya mosque. The Muslim Brotherhood succeeded in repositioning themselves once again as victims in the international public eye. They have also managed to infect the Western media ironically with the “conspiracy theory” virus to explain the popular movement that overthrew Morsi and ended the Brotherhood’s rule.

These are skills that the organization has mastered for decades, but the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership has begun realizing that it is fighting a losing battle. They realized that it was necessary for them to resort to yet another skill in which they excel: their ability to make deals to get themselves out of this existential dilemma with the least possible amount of damage and save what remains of the Muslim Brotherhood’s prospects in Egypt and the world. At the same time, these leaderships are careful to hide from their supporters the frustration caused by this defeat. Toward this end, they are infusing them with bravado and bluster meant to ensure the continuity of their sit-ins and marches, harassing the new regime, and disrupting the lives of ordinary citizens. The more disruption and damage the better their negotiating power would be.

In Egyptian villages, women generally wear black, a fitting color when offering condolences for the loss of loved ones. If the deceased is particularly young, the visiting mourner may even participate in group wailing in a show of compassion and affection. Many of former President Mohammed Morsi’s supporters taking part in the rally at Rabia al-Adawiya come from distant provinces. They are semi-isolated from the outside world and only receive messages that reach them from the podium which resounds with talk about the divine support and imminent victory for Islam. They are told of the throngs arriving from all over the world — by sea and land — to reinstate their president. Their leaders tell them that millions of Egyptian are rising in support of their cause, and about the anger felt by the vast majority against the army’s generals and “coup” leaders.

Most importantly, these messages talk about the apparition of prophets, messengers and angels descending upon the sit-in. The divine messengers promise that the imminent defeat of the “coup” is near for those who show patience and willingness to sacrifice. They also speak of Morsi — the awaited caliph — returning to establish an Islamic caliphate that would spread God’s word to the whole world. It would dominate both the East and West, restoring the glory of Andalusia, thus fulfilling the promise made by Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of those supporters have remained unaware that tens of millions of people took to the streets demanding removal of Morsi and to sanction Army commander Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s fight against terrorism. They are not warned that a large swath of Egyptians would no longer tolerate their sit-in, seeing the presence of armed sit-ins and demonstrations in the heart of the country’s capital to be an imminent threat to national security.

This month was witness to changes and transformations in the Brotherhood’s strategy to deal with the situation. In the beginning, they were keen on attracting Islamist, Salafist and jihadist movements to their side, thus filling the demonstration square with Islamic flags and banners resembling those of al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, speeches blared from the podium by Islamist factions threatening to unleash a “pure Islamist revolution.” This strategy’s failure and its lack of popular support soon became apparent. This is when Ahmad Mansour — a broadcaster at Al-Jazeera — held a strategic briefing inside the mosque and instructed  Muslim Brotherhood youth leaders on the strategy that they should espouse. [This strategy] stated that Morsi’s return must not be at the core of their demands, which must focus on the January revolution's being arrogated, that the military’s rule must be terminated, that Egyptian (not al-Qaeda) flags must be raised, and that English-language banners must be drawn demanding from the world the return of democracy and the condemnation of the coup. They must ask: “What happened to my vote?” and cry for democracy rather than Morsi. As a result, and for the first time, the podium at Rabia al-Adawiya began broadcasting Egyptian patriotic songs by Shadia and Sheikh Imam, instead of the usual religious hymns. Regardless of the Muslim Brotherhood’s mastery of “Takkia,” the doctrine of hiding true intentions, maintaining this diversity of faces and ideals at Rabia al-Adawiya, proved to be difficult. It was inevitable that messages of extremist incitement aimed at the hard-liners would reach an audience that was supposed to hear messages of moderation and see peaceful demonstrations.

Along with carefully prepared media messages aimed at the outside world, the plan drawn by Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie and meticulously executed by Mohammed el-Baltagy and Safwat Hijazi seems obvious: Prepare the youth for martyrdom. “We will all die, but the death that we seek is an honorable one,” as Essam al-Erian said in an internal message aimed at supporters during the early phases of the demonstration. This is a message that remains unchanged to this day, despite contradicting external messages aimed by Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad towards the Western media that portray the Brotherhood as the embodiment of moderation and peacefulness, who fell victims to the treacherous plot of evil generals whom they had trusted.

But the victim strategy necessitates a steady flow of blood and a constant supply of victims. Towards that end — and to spread chaos, fear and paralyze normal life — the Brotherhood’s leadership continues to emotionally polarize the protesters. They glorify death and characterize it not as suicide for the organization’s pursuit of power, but as martyrdom in the service of God. In that quest, they see no problem in professing that angels, prophets and revelations have descended unto the demonstration square, to promise the mujahedeen (Holy warriors) heavenly gardens filled with rivers, bounties, beauties and eternal youth. They followed their visions with highly dangerous orders to block bridges, erect roadblocks and barricades over kilometers of vital roads — such as the airport concourse — and besiege or overrun train stations, airports, military installations, security directorates and key state institutions.

These sorts of acts put protesters in situations that often lead to casualties whose blood is instantly exploited by another of the Brotherhood’s branches, and used to further emotionally mobilize and incite the remaining protesters and supporters. Thus, it invites them to avenge their comrades and gather new volunteers for martyrdom to complete a bloody spiral.

There is something different about death in the Middle East. During the past 60 years, it has become a familiar face, perhaps even a welcomed friend by the inhabitants of the Arab world. A sense of defeat, frustration and resentment to being caged in what appears a prison of fate itself, has caused what resembles a national depression. For many decades, Islamist movements have succeeded in exploiting these ingredients, transforming angry despondent youth into potential martyrs (the code name for suicidal combatants), ready to give their lives for the group, movement or organization. Some call that jihad, while others call it terrorism. The name might be different, but death is the common denominator.

A novelty of the plan was to let women take the lead during demonstrations, so that the first victims would be female. This actually transpired during the al-Mansourah march, when residents of a certain neighborhood clashed with the Brotherhood supporters, resulting in a deadly fight that left three women dead. The novelty also lies in the use of small children wearing white death shrouds and carrying signs that read “future martyr.” They walk along with the demonstrating crowds, in which peaceful participants mingled with armed insurgents and militants. The leadership, all the while, stand far behind them all, buried behind the crowds, protected by these human shields making the mere contemplation of using force in dispersing the sit-in a bloody nightmare of epic proportions.

“Our dead lie in heaven, while theirs burn in hell,” is a credo that assumes that the truth is absolute and always is on the side of the speaker. God will be pleased with our dead and will include them among his martyrs, while others are misguided infidels and their fate will be eternal fire because they have unjustly stood against us.

It would be unfair to cast all the blame upon the Brotherhood, for its control over the Islamist alliance has waned and more important players have appeared on the scene. These new players possess heavy weapons, which they are not in the least embarrassed to use. Furthermore, organizers of the Nahda Square sit-in have announced that al-Qaeda has joined the ranks of its protestors.

Some observers have long noticed a division of roles between the different factions of the Islamist movement. Some might wear the clean-shaven face of moderation, while others only grow a beard and shave their mustaches, while the jihadists would remain aggressively unshaven and armed. Yet, as many Egyptians have discovered, all these masks fall by the wayside and Islamists adopt a unified stance during fateful times. As an example, during the presidential elections and when the Tamarod campaign was collecting signatures, leaders of the Islamist factions threatened Egyptians that they would “set the country on fire” if they dared to choose a non-Islamist candidate or signed the Tamarod petition asking for early presidential elections.

The Islamist movement has for decades been composed of strong, disciplined and well-funded factions that always boasted about their ability to mobilize people. But, as social networks emerged and started being used in politics — as the Jan. 25 revolution erupted and the principle of “crowd democracy” took hold — the Muslim Brotherhood lost the distinction it had, and tried to compensate by assembling supporters from various provinces in one location at an exorbitant cost. An early example of that was the "Kandahar" Friday demonstration of July 29, 2011. But the spread of the revolutionary “connect mind” or collective mindset that permeated Egyptian society, exposed the limited support that Egyptians had for the Brotherhood and the Islamic movement in general. On June 30, the anti-Morsi and anti-Brotherhood crowds that gathered in Egypt’s various provinces were many folds those of pro-Brotherhood supporters and members.

“Victory or martyrdom” is another credo that only accepts triumph, because martyrdom in itself is a form of triumph: triumph over humankind’s most powerful instinct, that of survival, self-preservation and the desire to live. It is a victory because it guarantees the martyr entry into the gardens of immortality, where prophets and saints reside. It is a victory because it guarantees that no one dares back away from the desired goal until success is achieved or everyone dies. Such a philosophy may have been effective in times of war against foreign enemies or occupiers, but its use to solve internal political disagreements is highly suspect.

The Muslim Brotherhood has lost its mobilization advantage, which drove it to search for a new one. It would seem that their new adopted advantage is predicated on them competing from atop the bodies of their supporters. In my Al-Monitor article titled “Egypt’s Moral Test” on July 9, I asserted: “The last man standing will be the one who has the least blood on his hand, yet stood his ground.” It would seem that the Brotherhood took this idea literally, thought that the opposite would also be true so that, and so inverted it into: “The victorious party in this confrontation will be the one that stains the other party’s hands with the greatest amount of blood.”

During a month of political violence, 310 people have been killed — including 50 in the Sinai — and 3,000 wounded. It's difficult and inhumane to classify the victims according to their political affiliation, but in any case, not all of those dead were Brotherhood members. Dozens of members of the army and police forces, as well as civilians, were killed and wounded in jihadist attacks. This is in addition to dozens of other ordinary citizens who were victims of the clashes with Brotherhood marches and sit-ins, and residents of areas they passed through, such as Manial and Bain al-Sarayat.

Thus, the quarrel over legitimacy has been transformed into a race for corpses. The political battle has shifted from an electoral competition through the ballot box, into a competition between crowds filling the squares and, finally, a competition over the count of different types of boxes: coffins. If the players think that the winner shall be the party with the greatest number of corpses, it is not hard to see the bloody outcome of this deadly march. 

Wael Nawara is an Egyptian writer and activist. He is also the co-founder of Al Dostor Party, the National Association for Change and El Ghad Party. Formerly president of  the Arab Alliance for Freedom and Democracy, he was a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. On Twitter: @WaelNawara

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