Not your average crackdown
Hossam Tammam detects a major shift in the regime's attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood
At first glance, the crackdown by the Egyptian authorities on the Muslim Brotherhood closely resembles earlier security campaigns. Examine it more carefully, though, and the differences become apparent, so much so, in fact, that it may mark the beginning of a paradigm shift in relations between the regime and one of its oldest foes.
The 2010 clampdown has many of the traits seen in 2007. It has been the habit of the regime, since 1995, to repress the MB every three years or so.
The MB's strongman, Mahmoud Ezzat, is now in detention. Ezzat, the group's first deputy supreme guide, was arrested along with several MB officials, including Essam El-Erian and two other members of the Guidance Bureau.
Three years ago a similar clampdown took place. The then MB strongman Khairat El-Shater, second deputy of the supreme guide, was rounded up along with prominent MB businessmen and a member of the Guidance Bureau. They were tried by a military court and received prison sentences ranging from three to 10 years.
The recent crackdown might appear to be just another episode in a consistent policy of repressing the MB at regular intervals. The aim of the policy is to weaken the group, disrupt its organisational structure, sap its financial resources, confuse its political message, and isolate it from other political parties as well as from society at large.
The regime is not trying to destroy the MB once and for all. Such a goal would have been too costly for the regime to consider given local and international conditions. The regime cannot afford to repeat what Gamal Abdel-Nasser did when he arrested more than 30,000 MB members in a single night.
In some other ways, though, the current crackdown is a new departure. It is a punishment for the MB's political bravado. The MB has made its internal elections a public affair, defying the official ban on its activities. It allowed the media to cover the poll and then invited journalists to attend the bayaah (allegiance pledge) and the tansib (taking office) of the new supreme guide. The MB later backtracked and withdrew the invitation to the bayaah, though journalists were still allowed to attend the tansib. But the damage had been done. The regime was livid at the high profile the MB has assumed despite its legal ban. It was only a matter of time before the axe fell.
The crackdown can be viewed as a pre- emptive measure by the regime before a decisive year of parliamentary elections. The MB promised to take part in the elections regardless of the cost it may incur in challenging the regime. Meanwhile, the regime was determined to banish the MB from political life. The last thing it wanted was a repetition of the 2005 elections, when the MB garnered 88, nearly a fifth, of all parliamentary seats.
Parliamentary elections this year are crucial for the regime because they can impact on the presidential elections of 2011. The regime is determined to ensure that the MB cannot influence the outcome of the presidential elections. We must keep in mind that in a country where the president has near absolute power it is the presidential elections that will measure the regime's staying power.
Let me turn to the type of charges levelled at MB members. I will argue that these charges illustrate the fact that the regime is determined to banish the MB from politics and cast it as a threat to Egypt's political and public life, marking a major shift in President Hosni Mubarak's way of dealing with the MB.
The regime now claims that there is a "special outfit" within the MB which is different in its ideals, leaders, and political programme from the rest of the group. To the shock of MB members, the prosecutor- general presented an unprecedented list of charges, accusing the defendants of "forming an organisation that follows the teaching of Sayed Qotb, that accuses Muslims of apostasy, and that has attempted to set up military camps and conduct hostile acts in the country".
The choice of the term "special outfit" is interesting. It brings to mind that period in MB history, before the 1952 Revolution, when it made a habit of assassinating its political opponents. It is a period that the MB has been trying to live down ever since.
The mention of Qotb's name is also interesting. It is intended to associate the current MB with a man whose ideas are believed to inspire political violence. Qotb is known to have denounced society as apostate and called for the overthrow of impious regimes.
The investigation memorandum suggests that the MB has two leaderships, one public, the other clandestine. This claim recalls an episode that took place after the death of Supreme Guide Hassan El-Hodeibi in the 1970s. The memorandum insinuates that Ezzat is the MB's clandestine chief as well as the head of the international organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood. MB members abroad swore fealty to Ezzat only two weeks before the official announcement that Mohamed Badei was to take over as supreme guide according to the memorandum.
Through such accusations the regime hopes to capitalise on the group's elections. The elections, as has been widely reported, ended with the total exclusion of the moderate current and the marginalising of reformist members such as Mohamed Habib and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh. It brought hardline conservatives to the top, most of them members of the 1965 MB that was dominated by Qotb.
The elections not only disappointed the group's moderates but also alarmed outsiders who were appalled at what they considered the hi-jacking of the MB by the conservatives. The supreme guide and two of his three deputies are known for their affinity to Qotb's doctrine.
Mahmoud Ezzat engineered the shift in the group's leadership. He is therefore blamed for the elimination of moderates from the leadership. By making him first defendant in the case the regime hopes to deepen divisions within the MB and appeal to the mood of frustration outside it. Such accusations against MB members wouldn't have been possible without the recent shift in the composition of the group's leadership.
The current case against the MB is an attempt by the regime to end its status as a major player on the political scene that the group had enjoyed for three decades. The MB was tolerated in public life but denied legal status. Now the MB is being demoted from a political group from which legitimacy has been withheld to an illegitimate group that threatens Egypt's political system. There is a world of difference between being deprived of legitimacy, a situation that can be changed, and being denounced as a threat to public order.
Another interesting note is that the defendants "formed and led a special women's organisation within the group, similar to the one Zeinab El-Ghazali led [in the 1960s], the aim being to recruit women and use them to convey orders between the special outfit and group members with a view to evading police surveillance".
This regime is clearly changing its rules of engagement with the MB. Previously, the regime spared MB women members detention and prosecution in return for the MB keeping its women away from the public scene.
The regime is concerned over the increasing presence of women in MB political activities in recent years. In 2000 the MB named Jihan El-Halafawi as a parliamentary candidate. In 2005 it nominated both El-Halafawi and Makarem El-Diri as candidates. The group was rumoured to be considering fielding far more female candidates in the coming elections in order to benefit from the recently introduced parliamentary quota for women.
The main message the regime is sending is that women cannot be spared reprisals if they enter the political arena. The regime is also letting the MB know that it is willing to repeat what the Nasserist regime did, when it arrested over 50 MB female members, including Zeinab El-Ghazali.
The shift in the regime's policy is likely to prove devastating for the group which has yet to recover from its inability to form a coalition with the country's opposition or reach an understanding with other political groups. The MB could have formed part of a critical mass pressing for change. Now, though, the elite and the public are wary of the MB and tired of its conflicting messages. The recent changes in the MB leadership's structure, promoting conservatives over moderates, have not helped the MB's image.
The MB has been hurt by its political aloofness. It has failed to stay at the centre of political and intellectual life, and now it is being left to stand alone in an unequal confrontation with the regime. As for the country's political elite, vulnerable and weak as it is, it has reacted as if the crackdown on the MB was none of its business. Or perhaps the elite hopes the confrontation will weaken each of the adversaries, both the regime and the MB.