Radicalise, reform or fragment: these are the options facing the Muslim Brotherhood, writes Dina Ezzat
Most people expect that on 5 June that Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi will be inaugurated as Egypt’s new president. The recently resigned military chief officially announced his candidacy against a backdrop that includes — according to local and international human rights organisations — the detention of more than 20,000 Muslim Brotherhood members who face a raft of charges. Triple that number are thought to be on the run, either in Egypt or abroad.
Within the Brotherhood, say sources, divisions have emerged between those who blame their current predicament on the “leniency” of policies adopted by Mohamed Morsi and the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood during their year in power which allowed state bodies to garner public support and act against the elected president, and others who believe that the Guidance Bureau should have acted “with less intransigence and more openness towards political forces” and so have isolated its hard-core opponents.
This polarisation within the Muslim Brotherhood was already established before Al-Sisi’s announcement he was entering the presidential race. It was exacerbated when Brotherhood member Gamal Heshmat ignited an internal debate by issuing a public statement in which he said the group “could take a few steps back” if the authorities accommodated some of their demands.
“When Khairat [Al-Shater] heard what Heshamat has said he was furious. Others were too and Heshmat was asked to backtrack on his statement,” one source told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Heshmat, who had consulted with some of the group’s leadership in and out of Egypt before making the offer, did get the support of those now arguing that the right tactic is to end confrontation with the state “now that, for the first time in the history, its systematic persecution of the Brotherhood has wide public support”. But those who spoke to Heshmat after he backtracked on his statement say he was forced to bow to the will of Khairat Al-Shater, the group’s imprisoned strongman.
Heshmat, like many of those who believe the time has come to move away from outright confrontation, is said to be concerned about the “negative effect” of statements attributed to “insignificant members of the group such as Ahmed Al-Mogheir” who have argued that political events in Egypt, culminating with Al-Sisi’s presidential nomination, have made anti-state violence is inevitable.
Al-Mogheir may have little if any support base within the Muslim Brotherhood but, say sources, his view that confrontation is now the only option is echoed among the group’s more radical leadership figures and carries weight with some of the Brotherhood’s younger cadres.
The same sources are keen to stress the Brotherhood has no command role in the incidents of violence that have spiked in Sinai and elsewhere.
“These are the independent actions of Jihadi groups who resent the ouster of Morsi who was willing to accommodate them somehow,” says one. “But nobody, including the police, seriously thinks that anyone in the Muslim Brotherhood has any control over these groups. It is a joke to think Khairat Al-Shater or Mahmoud Ezzat [a radical leader on the run] are issuing orders to Al-Qaeda in Sinai”.
The polarisation is such that while defections from the group to both the Strong Egypt Party and the Egyptian Current — established by former Brotherhood members in the immediate wake of the 25 January Revolution — can be expected, there is also momentum in the other direction, towards the ranks of more radical groups.
“The majority of those who have lost faith in the peaceful approach are the people who go out on demonstrations even though they know by doing so they make themselves an easy target for the guns of the police and the slander of the media which has always been opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood,” said one source. “Inevitably some of these now argue that it is pointless to continue unarmed when they are blamed for all sorts of violence anyway”.
On Friday, less than 48 hours after the announcement of Al-Sisi’s candidacy, angry Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations did materialise, though they were less numerous than had been anticipated. Security officials cite the reduced number of participants as proof their iron-fisted approach is working though within the group it is argued that the drop in the number of protestors is a sign of the growing conviction that it is pointless to continue to demonstrate in the face of public opposition that allows the police to blame the group for any violence that occurs.
Five people were killed on Friday, including a journalist and a social worker. The police blamed the “terrorist Muslim Brotherhood” for the deaths. The Brotherhood blamed the “bloody and vindictive police”.
On Monday a new round of student demonstrations broke out at Al-Azhar.
“It is a mistake to assume that the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood hold the same opinions on each and every matter. There are alternative views within the group,” says Brotherhood member Mohamed Al-Hadidi. The chain of command within the organisation, he adds, is “getting weaker though it still functions to some extent”.
“A growing current within the group,” he says, “wants to go back to the basics, to focus on social work and Daawah (preaching) and retreat from any narrow, political partisan approach.”
Al-Hadidi has been brainstorming with others within the group over the possibility of establishing a youth group that would re-embrace the Brotherhood’s “original message”. He insists that this is not about exiting the Muslim Brotherhood but about the creation of a new space for those who joined the group not for the pursuit of power but out of a belief in its original tenets.
Meanwhile, sources within the still operative Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), established as a political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood after the 25 January Revolution, say there are moves within the party to announce a full separation from the Brotherhood. This would allow for the FJP’s re-launch as a political party with an Islamist base to compete in parliamentary elections. But the strength of separatist feelings within the party remains difficult to gauge.
The future of the Muslim Brotherhood — whether it will radicalise, reform or fragment — lies not only in the hands of the group’s leadership but is also subject to the policies of the Egyptian authorities.
Sources close to Al-Sisi’s presidential team — both his campaign managers and advisory groups — say the overwhelming view is that now is the time to capitalise on widespread public resentment of the Muslim Brotherhood and eliminate the group for years to come.
Public disquiet with the Brotherhood has been fanned by trials involving the group’s leaders who face charges ranging from incitement to murder to high treason. The official line is very firm: the authorities do nothing to influence the prosecution in ordering the arrests of Muslim Brotherhood members, and do not interfere in the process of referral to criminal courts. The independence of the judiciary is regularly extolled by both the executive and the judiciary itself, statements that are downplayed by some legal activists.
What calls there were for reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood within official quarters have been roundly defeated. Which is not to say that the hawkish security establishment has won the argument: sources say there is a growing realisation that the confrontation cannot be allowed to go too far. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom of security bodies a consensus is growing that excessive use of force will force many brothers into more radical actions and fuel a wave of anger and violence at a time when Egypt desperately needs to attract foreign investment and tourists. Escalating confrontation will also prompt international condemnation just when the new authorities most require recognition.
And a policy of carrot and stick, argue the advocates of low level confrontation, could eventually turn out to be more effective in defeating the Brotherhood. It will lead to further arguments within the group’s ranks and bring the possibility of fragmentation closer.
Allowing Muslim Brotherhood members who are not facing legal charges to join parliamentary elections and to have some limited presence in parliament would indicate that Al-Sisi has opted for the carrot and stick rather than all out confrontation approach.
“He is undecided. There was a moment when he was willing to make a deal but is now more inclined to pursue a tough approach,” said one of Al-Sisi’s advisors.
In statements last Wednesday Al-Sisi said he plans “no exclusion and no political revenge against anyone”.
Amr Moussa, who some believe will be prime minister under an Al-Sisi presidency, insists that under the constitution all citizens are equal regardless of their political affiliations as long as they are not subject to legal charges and accept the provisions of the constitution.
Within the Brotherhood such statements are interpreted either as an attempt to deflect the “bloody reality of a dictator determined to eradicate all opposition” or else as signalling an end to the iron fist security approach so as to allow for the internal stability and external acceptance required for a successful presidency.
“Reconciliation is not on the agenda as such because it is unlikely that even after the inauguration of Al-Sisi the state will backtrack on its labelling of the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorist organisaiton. What it might do is reduce the security roundups and seek to empower more moderate elements within the group, essentially from the younger ranks,” said a source close to Al-Sisi.