The possibility of armed militias and vigilante groups run by the Muslim Brotherhood and other hardline Islamist groups has raised the spectre of a possible confrontation between such militias and the military. Already the “power-of-attorney” drive calling on the army to replace the Muslim Brotherhood government, conducted against a backdrop of sharply escalating political tension, police strikes, rioting and angry protest demonstrations in many cities, fuel shortages, rising prices and the clear inability of the current government to cope with ongoing crises have caused strains between the army and Islamist groups.
As the minister of defence headed to the podium to deliver a speech during Military Academy graduation ceremonies several days ago he was visibly surprised by the number of bearded faces and niqabs in the audience. Perhaps this is what prompted General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to speak at length on how difficult it would be to “Brotherhoodise” the military and insist that anyone who entered military service best forget any allegiances they may have other than their primary allegiance to the nation. Conveying a similar message, other military sources insisted that the chances of ideological infiltration are minimal.
Not that it was the first time General Al-Sisi issued such remarks. Two weeks earlier he voiced similar comments, adding that rumours circulating that he would be dismissed as minister of defence were precisely that — rumours.
Military officials also felt compelled to deliver a firm response to a decision made by the office of the prosecutor-general this week — which was later revised — giving a green light to citizens making arrests. Regarded as a trial balloon, the decision was seen by observers as an invitation to vigilante groups to take over police duties.
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, a military source vehemently condemned “attempts to drag the nation into a civil war by promoting the creation of militias working parallel to the official security agencies. The Armed Forces will never permit this. It constitutes a threat to national security and social equilibrium.”
After President Mohamed Morsi assumed office the Muslim Brotherhood was keen to play up the close relationship between Al-Sisi and the presidency, going so far as to circulate a rumour to the effect that Al-Sisi was a member of a Brotherhood “sleeping cell”. The army laid this rumour to rest, as it has other rumours and trial balloons, a case in point being firm statements by military authorities in response to rumours that Qatar was seeking to obtain a franchise for a project to expand and develop a portion of the Suez Canal. The statements confirmed the importance of the canal to Egyptian national security, and that there was no possibility it would be allowed to move beyond Egypt’s control.
Muslim Brotherhood officials, for their part, have strenuously denied there have been any attempts to penetrate the Armed Forces. Observers say the group’s history tells otherwise. They allege that not only has it sought to infiltrate its members into the army, it attempted to create an army within the army, the so-called Units Organisation. According to a Muslim Brotherhood official, former MB supreme guide Mohamed Mahdi Akef was the last commander of these units. Mohamed Habib, a former MB leader and member of the Guidance Bureau puts the end of these units much earlier. In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly he said that General Salah Shadi was the last person responsible for the organisation which was ended in 1954 by Gamal Abdel-Nasser. “There was certainly no attempt to revive the units up to 2010,” he said, adding that the Muslim Brotherhood has no connection with the military establishment whatsoever. Military Intelligence was able to eliminate any Brotherhood member or anyone associated with the Muslim Brotherhood from its ranks, he said.
There have been several phases in the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian security and intelligence agencies. The first ended in the Nasser period, as noted above. The second phase was one that combined containment with political co-optation. The government continued its clampdowns on Muslim Brotherhood members and adopted additional measures to keep the organisation under control without eliminating it entirely. Pacts were concluded with Muslim Brotherhood leaders, the best known being the Sadat government’s deal with supreme guide Omar Al-Telmisani which aimed to eliminate the Egyptian political left. Under Mubarak there were numerous government-Muslim Brotherhood accommodations. Some involved allowing the Brotherhood to expand its influence in professional syndicates in return for curbing its political activism and confining its activities to proselytising and social work. Negotiations in this area were handled by the General Intelligence (GI), headed by Omar Suleiman.
Ahead of the 2005 parliamentary elections negotiations between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood were conducted by then GI chief Hassan Abdel-Rahman and various MB leaders, notably Khairat Al-Shater.
Mohamed Habib stresses that the Muslim Brotherhood had no connection with the Egyptian security services even if there were “understandings” between them from time to time. Yet even if he was a member of the Guidance Bureau he would not have been that well informed on security matters. It was Al-Shater who concluded the deal in 2005 that ceded the parliamentary seats that Habib and his fellow Muslim Brotherhood candidate Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh were contending to the then ruling National Democratic Party, which helps explain why these two eventually turned against Al-Shater and Al-Shater’s protégé, Mohamed Morsi.
There is one person few mention in connection with Muslim Brotherhood military or paramilitary activities. Deputy Supreme Guide Mahmoud Ezzat, sometimes referred to as the MB’s “black box”, is reported to have headed a secret paramilitary wing called the Hawks. The group made its first appearance in 2006 in the form of a military display by MB students at Al-Azhar University.
Ali Bakr, an expert on Islamist groups who spent eight years in prison in the company of MB leaders, told the Weekly that from the knowledge he gained through his meetings with former and current leaders the MB could call on some 5,000 combatants and quickly retrain elements of its “special wing”. Nor would funding be likely to cause a problem as the MB could draw on considerable resources at home and abroad.
The question has also been raised as to whether members of Hamas militias would come to the support of the Muslim Brotherhood in the event of a showdown with the army. In a telephone interview with the Weekly, Hamas official Mahmoud Al-Zahar dismissed the suggestion out of hand, saying it was no more than an attempt to mar Hamas’s image.
Former deputy director of the GI Hossam Khairallah also poured water on the suggestion. “The Armed Forces, GI and the police would not allow this.... The tunnels will be closed. They’ll be shut down. The army will not hesitate to do everything in its power to forestall such a scenario,” he told the Weekly.
But if not Hamas, what about the International Muslim Brotherhood Organisation? Would it step in to help? Kamal Al-Halbawi, a former member of the organisation, thinks not. “The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was not involved in foreign funding or creating militias abroad until the January Revolution, which is when I ended my connection with the organisation, although it might have happened afterwards,” he said.
Meanwhile, the relationship between the MB and the national security agencies is another source of concern. Communications between the MB and the agencies have operated through various channels. Habib describes individuals who act as messengers between security officials in the governorates and the MB Guidance Bureau which, alone, knows the identity of these messengers. Security officials in the countryside treat them as ordinary political party representatives.
More significantly, President Morsi recently called in on the GI. According to General Khairallah it was a long visit during which the president met with many senior intelligence officers. In Khairallah’s opinion the meeting did not leave a good impression, which is typical of meetings between MB and GI officials. Al-Shater has held several meetings with former intelligence director Mourad Mowafi, at the request of the former head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. However, when the Muslim Brotherhood did an about face and began to attack SCAF, Tantawi instructed Mowafi to refuse any further meetings. Khairallah pointed out that while there are MB sympathisers in the intelligence organisation these do not occupy sensitive posts. In addition, he said, the agency has the right to dismiss a staff member on the grounds of a political affiliation, regardless of what this may be.