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Death, Peace, Power, or Jihad: What Is the Future of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood?

After last Monday's verdict from the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters, the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is set to face a future that mirrors the majority of its past: once again becoming an illegal organization.
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Κείμενο Adam Ramsay
2.10.13

Anti-Muslim Brotherhood graffiti, directed at ousted president Mohamed Morsi

After last Monday's verdict from the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters, the Egyptian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood is set to face a future that mirrors the majority of its past: once again becoming an illegal organization.

After some deliberation, the presiding judge proclaimed, "The court bans the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and its nongovernmental organization, and all activities that it participates in and any organization derived from it." He also ordered the interim government to freeze the Brotherhood’s assets and establish a panel to administer them until any appeal has been heard.

The court didn't reveal the grounds for the ruling, but it was apparently prompted by the leftist National Progressive Unionist Party—also known as Tagammu—who claim that the Brotherhood have links to terrorists organizations and are guilty of "exploiting religion in political slogans." Whatever the reason for the verdict, it seems that the spectacular fall of the Muslim Brotherhood is now complete.

That alleged link to terrorist organizations would have been bolstered in the eyes of the Egyptian public after the recent failed assassination attempt on Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim. Although Ibrahim escaped unscathed from the apparent suicide bombing, the attack killed one and left at least ten wounded, with voices on the street instantly pinning the blame on the Brotherhood: “Of course it was the Brotherhood—they are terrorists! Who knows what they will do next?” cried a street vendor in downtown Cairo after hearing the news over the radio. Despite the fact that an al Qaeda-inspired group known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis has since claimed responsibility for the attack—and the Brotherhood have vehemently denounced it—they still remain guilty in the eyes of many Egyptians.

After weeks of stringent crackdowns that have resulted in the deaths of more than a thousand civilians and the arrest of most of their leading members and activists, the political potency of the Muslim Brotherhood has completely dissipated.

Muslim Brotherhood supporters

Strength is in numbers, and the latest public display of Brotherhood support only managed to muster around 100 demonstrators. Meanwhile, the interim government and security forces have capitalized on the anti-Brotherhood sentiment and are now capable of drawing tens of thousands to the streets.

"It has been clear since July the third [when Morsi was deposed] that the military and security apparatus are no longer following the crowd, they are leading it," explains Nathan J Brown, a professor at George Washington University and author of When Victory Is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics.

State TV and government-controlled media have launched a relentless and effective campaign to demonize the Brotherhood, and the official line effectively leaves no room for avoiding the issue: it's very much a case of you’re either with us or against us. Those watching state news channels are also presented with a permanent reminder of the Brotherhood's wickedness in the corner of the screen: "Egypt Fighting Terrorism."

However, you could argue that the Brotherhood has faced more cunning attacks in the past and survived. In January of 1954, after they had resisted some of then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s policies, Naser dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood. His military government launched an extremely aggressive press campaign against the the organization and arrested hundreds of their members, sending them into disarray.

Yet, throughout its 85-year history, the Brotherhood has shown tenacity and a will to survive. “It is, by nature, a very cautious organization," Professor Brown told me. "Top leaders feel a tremendous responsibility to maintain the health of the organization and bequeath it to the next generation."

Throughout their history are countless examples of the Brotherhood bending their ideologies and their principles to further promote their influence on the social and—eventually—political stage. This is most obvious in their quiet seizure of the 2011 revolution, the founding of their Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in April of that year and their unabashed decision to field a presidential candidate in the 2012 elections. Now, following the violence against them throughout August and September, their existence has been threatened once again.

Muslim Brotherhood supporters

"This is clearly an attempt to wipe [the Brotherhood’s] existence from the scene—not just the political one, but the civil society network, too," says Gehad el-Haddad, spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood and a senior advisor to the FJP. "Many [Brotherhood] NGOs have been stormed, looted and its heads or trustees arrested." A few days after we spoke, Mr. el-Haddad himself was arrested.

Alison Pargeter, a political analyst of the MENA region, claims that it was precisely this kind of all-encompassing stifling of the Brotherhood during President Nasser's tenure that proved the catalyst for a number within the organization to turn to more radical action.

In her 2012 bookThe Muslim Brotherhood: From Opposition to Power, she writes, "The movement was effectively stymied during the second half of the 1950s and throughout the 1960s due to the fact that so many [Brotherhood members] had been imprisoned. However, rather than diminishing these more militant elements’ appetite for action, their spell in prison only hardened them and made them even more determined to challenge the Nasser regime."

On October 26, 1954—nine months after Nasser had dissolved the Brotherhood—a tinsmith from Imbaba shot at the president eight times and completely missed him with every single shot. To this day, how much the Brotherhood knew about the tinsmith's plan is unclear, but the fierce response of Nasser’s regime to the Brotherhood following the assassination attempt essentially crushed them. Six Brotherhood men were hanged and thousands of their members imprisoned.

Nasser’s repression also aroused more militant ideologies, the most infamous of which were the ideas declared by Sayyid Qutb, whose book Milestoneswritten during incarceration under Nasser—inspired generations in the concepts of fighting against the Jahiliyyah (those of a pre-Islamic ignorance) within the framework of jihad, in both its mental and physical capacities.

The worry of a similar scenario playing out today is the one that abides most stridently in the minds of many Egyptians, especially after the recent rise of Islamist militants in the Sinai. Commentators such as the Washington Institute’s Eric Trager have suggested that the military's ousting of Morsi could be a pyrrhic victory and lead to "an undisciplined Islamist insurgency".

Professor Brown disagrees with regards to an insurgency, at least within the near future, saying, "I think that's unlikely. The top leadership of the Brotherhood has been committed to a different path for a generation; I think it is well internalized." However, he does concede that the "top leaders may not be in control right now."

"Our recorded [Brotherhood] members' arrests have surpassed 6,000, only including leaders and not including many second and third tier leadership killed in [the massacres of Brotherhood supporters by the army in] Rabaa and Nahda," claims el-Haddad.

So, if the crucial chain of command that is so central to propagating Brotherhood instructions is disrupted, how much control does the organization maintain over its members and how much does it know of the actions that some of them may take?

Interestingly, el-Haddad believes that the Brotherhood is still capable of leading its members despite the mass arrests and break in their vital hierarchy. He claims the lack of a visible leadership will not lead to splinter groups breaking away as they did under Nasser, saying, "The world is different now than in the 1950s—social media makes it possible to connect to all youth in Egypt and to all [Brotherhood]. [It] keeps the message consistent and creates a parallel peer leadership momentum on the virtual world."

Despite this, it is still unclear which members would be taking the role of de facto leaders and spreading the Brotherhood's commands.

The possibility of radicals breaking away and acting of their own free will—but under the banner of the Muslim Brotherhood—cannot be completely ruled out, especially as more time passes and frustration increases. The last two components of the Muslim Brotherhood’s motto are "Jihad is our way" and "Death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspiration." The degree to which members adhere or understand these components is what leads to anxious conjecture, at home and abroad, of a wholesale "insurgency" materializing.

When I spoke to him, before he was arrested, Mr. el-Haddad stated that "there are no radicals in the Muslim Brotherhood" and that the only radicals are those who leave, as the Brotherhood is "committed to nonviolence by design." He continued: "That strategy won't change, regardless of coup attempts to spark violence, brutally killing our members and even our women and their sons and daughters."

If one thing is certain, the determination to continue protesting remains. "Nothing has changed with these arrests and killings—we are as determined to bring down this coup whether it takes weeks, months or even years," Mr. el-Haddad asserted. "You can’t kill an idea when its time has come." But the question remains: exactly who will the actors be, and what forms will their actions take?

More stories about the Muslim Brotherhood:

I Toured Cairo's Muslim Brotherhood Protest Camps Just Before the Military Crackdown

I Hung Out with Morsi Supporters at a Muslim Brotherhood Rally in Cairo

More Photos from the Muslim Brotherhood's 'Day of Anger'