This piece was initially published in the premium edition of The Globe and Mail
October 6, 1981_____ the distance between my home and the bakery was no more than a few hundred meters, yet it felt like an endless journey. The vibrant streets of Cairo were reduced to a deafening silence, as if everyone has disappeared. My mother and I were totally unaware that president Sadat had been assassinated. In the eerily empty street, I met my first Army officer. He was bemused by my childish determination when I said, “I left home to get bread, I will not go back without it.” Miraculously, I got the bread and went back home with a new word added to my vocabulary, “curfew.” It was a word that I did not fully understand, as the deeper meaning and implications were lost to my childhood mind. I did know, however, that this word made Cairo a spooky place.
Since the forced ending of the Pro-Morsi sit-ins, the terrifying moments of 1981 have come back to haunt me. The current events continue to unfold in Egypt with a tragic loss of life, rage and violence, and the declaration of a state-of-emergency. In addition, the Egyptian government hints that it may declare the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. Egypt’s new constitution (still in deliberations phase) may also outlaw religious political parties.
The ongoing crisis has a different context and narrative, it nonetheless poses the same questions that many Egyptians were asking in 1981, “How will Egypt’s Islamists deal with the leadership’s brutal crackdown?”
In theory, there are two main options being put forth by various observers. These are referred to as the Algerian and the Turkish scenarios. In the Algerian scenario, the forced ending of the sit-ins, the calls for disbandment of the Muslim Brotherhood and the arrest of many Islamist cadres, may tempt the Brotherhood and other groups to revise their stance on violence and revert from low-simmer aggression to a full-fledged violent campaign like their Algerian’ Brothers, which occurred following the cancellation of the 1991/1992 election in Algeria. The hypothesis that violence breeds violence is not just plausible, it also fits in with the Islamist’s defiant ideology.
However, the history of the Islamists in Egypt dismisses the Algerian scenario. Despite Nasser brutal oppression, and banning of the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamism had slowly emerged after years of dormancy. Some groups, mainly the Muslim Brotherhood, had opted to reinforce their social basis, rather than taking arms and focused on gaining popularity in target areas like student unions and syndicates. This was seen as a preparatory phase for full–scale political participation. Meanwhile, some other radical groups opted for violent confrontations with the government, but only in late 70s after Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel. In hindsight, the 1981 emergency law and the assassination of Sadat was a blessing in disguise for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Despite maintaining warm relationship with other radical groups, the Brothers were generally perceived as non-violent victims, oppressed by the regime. Mubarak (who succeeded Sadat) has turned a blind eye to the Brotherhood’s widespread social activities.
In contrast, 2013 has brought completely different challenges to the Brotherhood, as the group has now lost the trust of a wide section of Egyptian society. Now they is relying on other partners in an “ anti-coup coalition” in order to provide a good cover for the embattled, severely weakened Muslim Brotherhood. If the current ruthless crackdown continue, this coalition may decide to engage in a long standoff with the army that makes the violent confrontations of the 80s and 90s look like an elegant tea party, while allowing the Brotherhood as a group to mask itself and claim a “peaceful” stance. Political assassinations should not be dismissed as a possibility in the near future.
The other alternative for the Brotherhood is the Turkish model. Some have drawn comparisons between Turkey’s ex-leader Erbakan and deposed Egyptian president Morsi, while others like to compare General Sisi and General Kenan Evren. Regardless of these mostly hollow comparisons, Turkey is living proof that Islamists can survive military coups and even win post-coup elections. Can Egyptian Islamists emulate the Turkish experience? Can they sideline their old guard and reform the party from within?
It is a possibility that should not be dismissed, but it is still unlikely in the near future. There are two reasons for this. First, the current Turkish’s AKP leadership are openly adopting Brotherhood narratives and refusing to accept that their “Egyptian Brothers” have committed grave errors in judgment. Such a myopic Turkish stance, which contradict their own past non-defiance policy against Turkey’s military coup, does not encourage the Brotherhood to adopt more pragmatic, liberal reforms. Second, and more importantly, the skeleton of the group is inherently authoritarian, and it regards its authoritarianism as an appealing card that wins hearts and mind among their core conservative supporters.
Perhaps, there are other tactics that the Brotherhood may try. There is a possibility that they may try to divide the Egyptian army, and recruit junior cadres to create an Egyptian version of the Free Syrian army. Some Islamists even openly admitted this intention during the sit-ins. This approach may not be successful initially, but a long standoff with the army may challenge the loyalties of middle-ranking officer corps and conscripts. The Egyptian army is stretched and has already called on reserve ranks. I doubt they will succeed; the army chief, General Sisi is still very popular within the army, he is also a very conservative Muslim that has succeeded to a large extent in forging a new national identity that counters the Islamist ideology.
Another important factor that may decide the future of the Muslim Brotherhood is their financial funding. Thus far, the group has had no problems with financing, however, the group’s funds have been frozen inside of Egypt and the rising hostility against the group in many Arab countries may create enough of a financial crisis to severely curtail its activities. Nonetheless, the international wings of the Muslim Brotherhood will not leave the parent group in Egypt to suffocate financially and will make every effort to help them to survive.
Thus, after looking at these two scenarios, it is difficult to predict how the current standoff will end between Egypt’s two major illiberal forces, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. Regardless, Egyptians should not be distracted by those who are trying to pull the country back to the old days of authoritarianism. We should instead focus instead on the goals of our revolution: bread, freedom, and social justice. These demands will not happen without an inclusive constitution that doesn’t exclude any section of the Egyptian society, but prevent the abuse of religion in politics. This delicate balance is crucial for the salvation of Egypt. Since my childhood, our democratic aspirations have proven to be elusive to achieve; we cannot afford to waste another opportunity to grasp at these goals. History will not forgive us if we waste this chance.