They have been branded terrorists by the government and their top leaders have been thrown in jail. Hundreds face mass executions, thousands have been killed at protests or languish in Egyptian prison cells.
One year after Egypt’s military deposed Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first Muslim Brotherhood president, members of the Islamist group say they have shifted their focus to resisting the government of president Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, the former army strongman who led the military coup. And as a bitter, protracted confrontation has caused many to doubt the government’s ability to control the group, it has also raised fears of continual civil strife.
“If you say to the families of those who lost their brothers, sisters, fathers, and friends, if you just tell them that we are going to forget what happened to your families, it will just turn into violence,” a 20-year-old Muslim Brotherhood supporter, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, told DW. “There is no possibility of reconciliation with the government. There is no other choice but to keep on with the struggle.”
The group has always faced repression at the hands of authoritarian regimes in Egypt, but, unlike ever before, analysts say Brotherhood members have taken a conscious decision to fight back.
“What we’ve seen in the past year is this confrontational approach, where their strategy is essentially protest, protest, protest, make Egypt ungovernable, maybe even direct economic sabotage,” Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC and the author of “Temptations of Power,” a new book on Islamists movements, told DW. “They have no incentive to see el-Sissi improve the economy and they stand to gain quite a bit if the economy continues to suffer.”
“I believe that the Egyptian people will remove him (el-Sissi – the ed.) with these kinds of demonstrations every day,” said London-based Mohammed Soudan, the foreign relations secretary of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. “El-Sissi has a lot of challenges, especially the economy and security, and he thinks he can do it with force, but that’s not the way to rule a country with 90 million people.”
Many of the group’s older leaders like Soudan managed to evade arrest and fled Egypt, setting up Brotherhood headquarters in countries like the United Kingdom, Turkey and Qatar, but have failed to provide a viable alternative.
I think that the Brotherhood leadership in exile has really struggled to come up with a coherent strategy or vision beyond protests, beyond confrontation,” said Hamid. “When you ask a Brotherhood leader how they really envision the military to be displaced from power, there isn’t really an answer to that.”
A gap among the older Brotherhood leaders and younger supporters on the ground in Egypt has also begun to emerge.
“Some of the older leaders have lost credibility,” said the 20-year-old supporter who asked to remain unnamed. “Their generation didn’t even dream of a revolution, or freedom, their only prospect was how to live with the corruption, the crackdowns and so on.”
The idea of a revolution has clearly resonated with youth on the ground. “The Brotherhood historically doesn’t do revolution, they do gradualism, the long game and has also been careful about making an enemy out of the state,” said Hamid. “But the language that you hear now, not just opposition to the military, but opposition to all the state institutions, the judiciary, shows a fundamental loss of faith in the very idea that the Egyptian state can play a constructive role anytime in the foreseeable future.”
The group has repeatedly said they are committed to a non-violent struggle, but members admit there are sympathizers and supporters who are not under their control and the ongoing repression could push them toward violence. The threat has become ever more pressing as prospects for reconciliation seem bleak.
Despite the fact that the Brotherhood has staged weekly protests and drawn on support from hundreds of thousands of members and millions of supporters and sympathizers across Egypt, large numbers of Egyptians grew disenchanted with the Islamist group following its tumultuous year in power. At the time of Morsi’s deposal, the former president’s popularity hit an all-time low and army intervention came on the heels of massive street protests with numbers never seen before.
“[The Brotherhood] has become, in the Egyptian’s elite’s view and the general public’s view, the personification of evil,” Amro Ali, a Middle East analyst based between Alexandria and Sydney, Australia, told DW. “So the problem is, when you lose legitimacy to this degree, it makes it really hard to reconstitute yourself.”
Many Egyptians are now cheering the crackdown.“You can compare how the group was viewed by the public during Mubarak, when people were very weary toward the Brotherhood, but people would say that at least they bring social services to the poor,” said Ali. “But now, it’s almost an outright hostility toward the Brotherhood and that’s partly from their own undoing, from breaking promises, from being extremely exclusive during their year in rule.”
Waiting in the wings
And some who opposed Muslim Brotherhood rule but also opposed the military rule now fear the violent crackdown could lead to a whitewashing of the Brotherhood’s failures while in power.
“Until August 14, their situation was that no one wanted them, no one needed them, they had power and lost it,” said Wael Eskandar, an Egyptian independent journalist who opposed both Brotherhood rule and military rule, speaking of the violent dispersals of pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo that left hundreds dead. “Then what happened, the most brutal of all incidents in recent history, where a lot of innocent people were killed, that gave the group a lifeline, and once again they were reborn as victims, which they thrive on.”
Because of this, Eskandar said he believes that the group has a strong chance of coming back to power.
“As the regime continues its brutality, people will eventually forget the year of Brotherhood rule, just like they forgot the year and a half of SCAF’s (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – the ed.) rule, and they will eventually join them as the only organized opposition to the brutality of the military regime,” he said. “Everything in Egypt as we’ve seen has the ability to be washed away, even Mubarak, even the state security crimes.”
“They will just be looking for someone to let them out of this mess.”