Photo by Mosa'ab Elshamy.
It's been just over a year since Egyptians, having thrown off the rule of Hosni Mubarak, voted in the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi as their first ever democratically elected president. At the time, it wasn't seen as just a victory for politically minded Islamists, but also for the concept of democracy in the Muslim world. Founded in 1928 to agitate against British colonial rule, the Brotherhood had spent most of the intervening decades as a banned, secretive movement, its membership frequently rounded up by the country’s military rulers in mass arrests that often ended in torture and execution. As the expert on jihadist groups, Aaron Y Zelin, notes, the consequences of this conflict are still being felt: "After the military crackdown in 1954, we saw over the next two and a half decades different breakaway factions either attempt coups and assassinations or outright low-level insurgency campaigns. This led to the rise of what we know as jihadism today."
After 80 years spent operating in the shadows, the Brotherhood’s electoral success seemed to disprove the claims of radical thinkers like Sayyid Qutb, who asserted that Islamism would never be allowed to govern democratically in the Middle East. (This claim is made often, despite the fact that in those few Arab countries that actually hold elections, Islamist parties consistently win the most votes.) Jihadist advocates of armed struggle had always claimed that the concept of democracy was a sham, and that as soon as an Islamist party achieved power, there would be a reoccurrence of the scenario seen in Algeria in 1991 – when the newly-elected Islamist government was overthrown by a military regime, plunging the country into a vicious civil war of almost unimaginable brutality.
So when Egypt’s new military regime overthrew the country’s elected president Mohammed Morsi’s government last month, the celebrity pundits of the jihadist world were quick to say "I told you so." Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri – an Egyptian, and former member of the Muslim Brotherhood – rushed out an audio recording from his secret lair declaring that Egypt’s coup “is the greatest proof of the failure of the democratic path to achieve an Islamic government… the battle isn’t over, it has just begun… the Islamic nation should offer victims and sacrifices to achieve what it wants and restore power from the corrupt authority governing Egypt.” Influential jihadist cleric Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi made a statement claiming that the coup proved the superiority of “the bullet box over the ballot box”, and al-Qaeda-linked social media has recently exploded in calls for jihad in Egypt. So, is civil war inevitable?
If Egypt’s new military ruler General Abdelfateh el-Sisi hopes to keep the Brotherhood’s supporters engaged in the political process, he’s going about it in a strange way. In the past week, over a thousand protesters have been killed and many more injured in the worst spate of political violence in Egypt’s modern history. Now, the new regime are openly discussing the possibility of banning the Muslim Brotherhood altogether. Targeted for dissolution by Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi and demonised by state media as "terrorists", there seems to be a desire from many to send Egypt’s Islamists back into the shadows where, many fear, jihadist violence will seem an increasingly attractive option.
According to Matthew Henman, a senior analyst at Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, “a key concern is what the reaction of the Muslim Brotherhood and its support base will be if the current situation does not resolve itself with the reintegration of the Brotherhood into the political sphere. It is worth emphasising that Morsi was democratically elected and has a substantial base of support in more rural conservative areas of Egypt.” The country has faced this kind of "problem" before – throughout the 1990s, Egypt struggled with a jihadist insurgency in the rural South which wrecked the country’s economy and was used by former dictator Mubarak to justify 30 years of repressive state security. The situation in Egypt now, however, is nothing like the 1990s – it’s far, far worse.
From Libya to Syria, the souring of the Arab Spring has led to an explosion in jihadist violence across the Middle East, and the rallying power of the internet has enabled Islamist insurgent groups to recruit new fighters with a constant stream of bloodcurdling – and it has to be said, viscerally thrilling – YouTube videos combining explosive ultraviolence with stirring music. These have been disseminated on Facebook and Twitter, the virtual shop windows of the jihadist world, in Syria and now in Egypt by new groups that have formed in the two months since Morsi’s fall. Organisations like Ansar al-Sharia in Egypt and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades have used these portals to vow to install Sharia law in the country by arming and training fighters to overthrow the "apostate" regime currently built around the military authority of General al-Sisi. Egypt shares 1,000 miles of poorly-guarded desert border with Libya, a failing state whose stocks of military-grade weaponry looted from Gaddafi’s vast armouries have fuelled insurgencies from Syria to Mali – if civil war comes to Egypt, its proponents won’t have any trouble tooling up.
Already, Egypt’s restive province of Sinai has seen a spike in jihadist violence, with at least 61 members of the security forces killed in increasingly daring attacks (including 25 police recruits ambushed and shot dead at the roadside on Monday morning). According to Henman, “It is not inconceivable that a similar situation could emerge in other areas of the country, fuelled by the military's seeming desire to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood from government, and particularly if they ban the Brotherhood.”
Even in the country’s heartland, an uptick in armed violence has seen security forces killed by unknown assailants. As police and army snipers massacred hundreds of civilian demonstrators in central Cairo, armed Morsi supporters began to appear in protests, firing back with automatic rifles. One British protester at the bloody Ramses Square demonstration – who wishes to remain anonymous – witnessed the crowd cheering as “a small convoy of vehicles, bearing the iconic 'black flag' of Islamists” entered the protest at the height of the clashes. “Inside masked men, armed with assault rifles and shotguns waved to the crowds. Perhaps most telling was the reaction of the crowd. After days of being slaughtered it was difficult to find a person who would argue against fighting back.”
And fight back they have. On Wednesday in the Giza suburb of Kerdasa, while the army crushed the Brotherhood's Rabaa sit-in, a police station was stormed, and 11 officers were executed before the building was burned down. A wave of arson attacks against churches and businesses owned by Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, along with the sudden sprouting of unofficial checkpoints run by armed pro-regime militias, has fuelled fears that the country is slipping into civil war.
Footage of unarmed protesters being gunned down in the street looks disturbingly like that from Syria at the beginning of the revolution two and a half years ago. In Syria, it took almost a year before the repression of demonstrations led to the formation of the Free Syrian Army and the beginning of all-out war – though more protesters have been killed in just one week in Egypt than in the first two months of the Syrian uprising. Syria's bloody civil war isn't just a vision of Egypt's dark potential future, but a training school for a new generation of jihadists. "What happens if Egyptians fighting against the Assad regime in Syria come home?" wonders Zelin. "Will they join the front in the Sinai? Will they attempt actions in the Nile Valley? It's still too early to know, but they are definitely a wild card."
The risk is that with the Brotherhood’s leadership arrested or driven underground, the tightly disciplined organisation may lose control of its supporters, some of whom, angered by the bloody crackdown, could turn towards more radical armed groups for both protection and revenge. "I think we will at the very least see a low-level insurgency in the Sinai," warns Zelin. "But it's difficult to predict if that will transpire in the Nile Valley. The stability that the military seeks will likely not come to fruition in the near or long-term. I suspect we might see assassination attempts and attacks on security services."
In overthrowing Morsi, Egypt’s military and its civilian supporters nudged the country towards the edge of the abyss. But by banning the Muslim Brotherhood entirely, the new regime may plunge Egypt deep into a period of civil conflict that proves impossible for politicians or the international community to resolve for many years to come.
Aaron Y Zelin is Richard Borow Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter: @azelin Matthew Henman is Senior Analyst and Deputy Editor at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (JTIC). Follow him on Twitter: @JTICMattHenman