Is Egypt's Brotherhood choosing escalation over peace?

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt today seems weaker and more poised to resort to violence.

al-monitor Pro-Islamist demonstrators shout slogans in favor of former President Mohammed Morsi during a protest at the courtyard of Fatih Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey, May 17, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Yagiz Karahan.
H.A. Hellyer

H.A. Hellyer


Topics covered

nonviolence, muslim brotherhood media, muslim brotherhood, egyptian islamists, cairo, abdel fattah al-sisi

Jun 15, 2015

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has been in a state of crisis for quite some time. Will the Brotherhood emerge from this crisis with a new strategic vision? What effect might that have on the broader Brotherhood movement beyond Egypt?

After the arrest of President Mohammed Morsi following widespread protests against him in the early summer of 2013, the Brotherhood opted to contest the military’s takeover. While there were isolated pro-Morsi elements that engaged in limited political violence, the group itself did not engage in a militant struggle against the state. Instead, it focused on protests and marches and an international lobbying effort with groups like the Turkish-based "Egyptian Revolutionary Council," mostly active in Western capitals.

Today, the demonstrations in the country calling for Morsi’s reinstatement have dwindled and have little political impact. The controlled use of violence that the pro-Morsi protest movement engages in as part of what it considers defensive has made it easier for the Egyptian media apparatus to consider the Brotherhood directly linked to more radical groups like Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. The rhetoric the Brotherhood indulges in, particularly in Arabic, or permits on its platforms, does not help to distinguish the movement from far more extreme groups.

The national Egyptian media apparatus needs few excuses — all Egyptian media channels based in Egypt, whether public or private, are opposed to the Brotherhood. The international lobbying effort led by the "Egyptian Revolutionary Council" likewise has had little political impact for a variety of reasons. The new political dispensation headed by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo has become normalized on the international scene.

The strategy of protest within Egypt and lobbying outside the country nonetheless has persisted until fairly recently, based on an assessment by the Brotherhood that the majority of Egyptians support them, based on the electoral successes it had in 2011 and the narrow election victory of Morsi in 2012. It is an assessment few analysts considered as valid in 2013, and certainly not in 2015, but given that empirical calculation, the strategy seemed to be worthwhile. Yet, today in 2015, the Brotherhood is weaker, not stronger. While Sisi’s political dispensation faces a broad array of challenges, the chances of Morsi being reinstated via prolonged protests are marginal.

The old guard of the Brotherhood, which has controlled the leadership for years, has been attempting to hold the group together around that strategy. The younger ranks have grown impatient. For them, the violent dispersal of the Rabia al-Adawiya sit-in in August 2013, which Human Rights Watch described as "likely crimes against humanity," was probably the defining moment of their political lives. Many of them — if not the majority — are moving to escalate the confrontation with the authorities.

The old guard has prioritized the continued cohesion of the group above all else, but has also tried to reduce the possibility of escalation the younger ranks are seeking. At the same time, it does not have the same sort of command and control over the younger ranks as it once did. Most of the top Brotherhood leaders are in jail or outside the country. The younger ranks are not quite operating as though they were AWOL, but the control structures between the top tier and the fourth tier, which is active on the ground, have been virtually broken.

Moreover, the old guard has permitted, and in some cases encouraged, an intense kind of belligerent rhetoric through Brotherhood media, which only feeds into the sense that confrontation is desirable. That sort of rhetoric began prior to the June 30 protests in 2013 and it has only deepened. The rhetoric on the anti-Brotherhood side has likewise become far removed from the notion of reconciliation.

The "escalationist" tendency is not only in ascendance within the Brotherhood, but also on the ground in Egypt. Recently, a group of 150 Muslim preachers issued a statement noting that the time had come for a far more aggressive posture vis-a-vis the Egyptian authorities — although it is unclear if all signatories actually signed it.

The language could be interpreted as support for the violent targeting of Egyptian officials such as police, army and judicial personnel. The Brotherhood publicly praised the declaration, indicating that the escalationist tendency in the group, at least on the ground in Egypt, has won.

It remains unclear what escalation may actually mean. Rather vague words like "resistance" and "by all means necessary" have been used in the Brotherhood's different statements. Their language may be elastic precisely to ensure that all elements that make up the Brotherhood support base feel included. The English statements are obviously far more directed toward international media and Western capitals, so certain language is to be expected, such as the emphasis on "nonviolence."

Within the Arabic statements, the language is more inflammatory, but the discourse is also aimed at an entirely different audience. It is unlikely that the group intends to become like al-Qaeda or Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, but an even more pliable definition of "violence in self-defense" is likely to take hold. Already, there are signs that isolated members of the Brotherhood have taken it upon themselves to engage in rather unsavory activities without being restrained from the old guard — if that old guard had the capacity, let alone the will, to restrain anyway.

The old guard, however, is not down and out, not by any means — particularly if a new set of elections for a Guidance Bureau and Consultative Council take place, as is most likely. But what happens to the old guard is directly linked to how the Egyptian government will respond, and a cynical strategy in that regard appears to be unfolding.

Shortly after the rift between the old guard and the escalationist tendency became a matter of public knowledge, with opinion pieces and press releases being issued on different platforms sympathetic to the Brotherhood, the security forces arrested several senior Brotherhood old guard leaders in Egypt. It surprised many analysts that anyone from the top level of the Brotherhood was even at large on Egyptian territory, but their arrests appeared difficult to put down to coincidence.

Their detention seems to ensure that the more radical voices in the group are freer to pursue whatever escalation they want, even if it turns out to be violent. That, in turn, is likely to lead to an even harsher crackdown by the Egyptian authorities, and also provide a modicum of validation for Cairo’s argument that the Brotherhood has become a terrorist organization. If that is the strategy, then it is a dangerous and potentially extremely risky one.

There are choices that remain ahead for both the Brotherhood and the Egyptian authorities. Those supporting the escalationist tendency on the ground in Egypt can choose to become vigilantes on some kind of violent revolutionary crusade, but they can also pursue other more reasonable routes. Until now, Western capitals have generally rejected the appellation of "terrorist" for the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization. If the group on the ground embraces a more aggressive posture, that position may be challenged from within Western policy circles.

The April 6 movement, for example, which is facing a crackdown by the Egyptian authorities, did not endorse the aforementioned declaration of the 150 Muslim preachers. Rather, it condemned it as "an incitement to violence, which is destructive to any remaining social peace among Egyptians." April 6’s losses during the last two years have been far less than the Brotherhood's, but its position on the call is still a principled one.

The fundamental responsibility for the stability of the Egyptian state, however, continues to be that of the state authorities. The Egyptian state can, via its policies, make it easier — or harder — for more reasonable voices, or at least less radical voices, to be heard among the Brotherhood’s ranks. Ultimately, it is the individual responsibility of every Brotherhood member to choose his or her own path, but those members are also Egyptian citizens, and they are the responsibility of the Egyptian state. Unfortunately, it does not appear as though wisdom is in particularly high supply in either camp.

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