This piece initially published in The Globe and Mail
The designation of the Muslim Brotherhood group as a terrorist organization is the most recent example of a growing political agitation in Egypt, a new climax of an ongoing crisis that has shattered Egyptian society and its political establishment.
For months, since the ousting of president Morsi, there has been an open confrontation between the Brotherhood and the military-backed interim leadership. Both claim legitimacy; the Brotherhood claims electoral legitimacy and the interim leadership claims popular legitimacy after the June 30th uprising against Morsi. The outlawing of the Brotherhood is a bold move, albeit a risky one, by the interim government to assert its authority as the representative of the State and people of Egypt against a defiant group that still thinks it has the means and ability to challenge the State.
The attack on security headquarter in the Egyptian city of Mansoura was humiliating to both Egyptian security and military forces. It proved that the Sinai radicals could reach their core bases and act decisively, despite the army’s claim that it has uprooted terrorism from Sinai. Declaring the Brotherhood to be a terrorist organization was possibly a knee-jerk response to the Mansour bombing, and a cover-up of the failure of security forces themselves.
Although there is no material evidence to link the Muslim Brotherhood with the Sinai-based A-Qaeda’s style Ansar Beit el-Magdis terrorist group (Ansar Jerusalem) that claimed responsibility for the Mansoura bombing and several previous terrorist attacks, many in Egypt view the Brotherhood as bearing political responsibility for the ongoing violence in Egypt, for many reasons:
- The Brotherhood did not disown Ansar Beit Al-Magdis. It is true that the Brotherhood has released statements to condemn violence; however, the tune and the phrasing have varied considerably. For example, the statements printed in English bear a more robust tone, as if they are only aimed at Western ears, rather than to Brotherhood supporters and sympathizers in Egypt.
- More importantly, in all their statements, the Brotherhood has stopped short of demanding the Sinai radical groups to end their use of the political crisis in Egypt as a pretext to their attacks.
- The Brotherhood has turned a blind eye to radicals like Assem Abdel Magid, who used the sit-ins in Rabaa and Nahda as outlets for threats against the army and the interim leadership.
- Ex-president Morsi pardoned many jailed militants, including allegedly a militant leader linked with Ansar Beit el-Magdis, who was imprisoned by Mubarak’s regime, according to an Egyptian report.
All the above does not amount to concrete evidence against the Muslim Brotherhood and does not make every cadre within the Brotherhood vast network a terrorist; however, it indicates that the confrontation between the military-backed government and the Muslim Brotherhood has reached an uncompromising state that will either end with victory or surrender. There will be no third option.
The Egyptian government’s bold move is based on some domestic and regional calculations:
- First, they sense that a substantial section of the Egyptian public is increasingly frustrated by the Brotherhood’s defiance, and yearns for more stability—even with a price tag of some oppressive measures.
- Second, the move is a perfect distraction tactic. Now, both the public and observers are avoiding discussing the details of the new constitution or the government’s economic situation for 2014, and busy instead talking about terrorism.
- Third, Egyptian authorities sense that the Brotherhood is now more vulnerable than ever— particularly as Turkey, its main international backer, is pre-occupied by its own domestic problems; while Gulf States, mainly Saudi Arabia, are openly helping Egypt in their battle against the Brothers.
The crucial test for the government will be the referendum on Egypt’s amended constitution scheduled for mid-January. If the Egyptian authorities succeed in running a free and fair vote without any security incidents, and with high turnout from Egyptian voters, then it can claim victory in its battle against the Brotherhood, who campaigned relentlessly for boycotting the vote. On the other hand, if radical groups managed to disrupt the referendum—or to assassinate high-profile political, Coptic, or military figures—then this could deeply shake the confidence in the Egyptian authorities’ heavy–handed tactics.
A recent poll, following the bombing in Mansoura indicates that about 35% blames the Muslim Brotherhood for the Mansoura bombing, while 46 % are unsure of where to place blame, and only 15% blame other Islamist groups. Although more polls are needed, these results indicate that a substantial section of the Egyptian public are not paranoid worshippers of conspiracy theories, preferring an ‘unsure’ reply rather than a definite ‘yes’; nonetheless, the Brotherhood should take this poll as a warning sign from the public that many Egyptians do not trust them, or at least, are unsure about their intention.
Egypt is witnessing a new and possibly bloody chapter in its post-Mubarak era. It is easy to pontificate ideal solutions, like reconciliation, but Egypt is not in a perfect state to embrace rationalism. There are loud supporters of both the Brotherhood and the army that openly reject any compromise. We can only hope that both sides will learn that stubbornness is futile; the Brotherhood will be foolish to think that the disintegration of the State will help them to relinquish power, and the Egyptian interim leadership must be smart enough not to push the thousands of junior Brotherhood cadres into desperation and radicalism. 2014 will be a crucial and interesting year for Egypt.