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Egypt Unwrapped

Banishing the Brotherhood

Egyptian protesters and police clash during a demonstration  in Cairo against the government's decision to label the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization on December 27, 2013. (Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Egyptian protesters and police clash during a demonstration in Cairo against the government’s decision to label the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization on December 27, 2013. (Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The past two weeks have seen an intense escalation of violence and political tension in Egypt, with three bomb attacks in major urban centers, and the designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization by the interim government. The administration of interim Prime Minister Hazem Al-Beblawi also froze the assets of more than 1,000 Islamic charitable organizations. It seems likely that not all of those charities have connections to the Brotherhood. As Egypt prepares for the referendum on the 2013 draft constitution—a moment that is meant to be a step out of Egypt’s deepening polarization—the cabinet’s decision to label the group a terrorist organization seems curiously rash and has provoked a range of responses from across Egypt’s political spectrum.

The welcoming of the cabinet’s decision by many of Egypt’s liberal groups should come as no surprise. The only complaint of the Wafd and Tagammu parties, both allies of the interim government, was that it had not happened sooner. The April 6 movement, which provided strong leadership in the 2011 revolution, was a lonely critical voice in the liberal crowd.

The response of the coalition led by the Brotherhood and its close allies, Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya, is similarly unsurprising. Rejecting the decision as political, the Gama’a construes the repressive strategy as an admission of failure by the government in its dealing with the opposition. Ashraf Badr Al-Din, a member of the Freedom and Justice Party’s High Commission, has vowed that the Brotherhood will continue its work on the ground, and has pleaded for Egyptians to resist the work of an “agent provocateur” government that seeks civil war in order to cement its authority.

Some Brotherhood responses blame the government as the sole cause of the recent bombings, arguing that by targeting the charities, the government is quite simply attacking Islam, and is thus responsible for the ensuing violence. The Brotherhood’s attempts to forestall sectarian war are perhaps not aided by the warnings they give about the opportunity for proselytism available to the Christian charities filling the gap left by the Islamic ones.

Al-Nour Party, a one-time ally of the Brotherhood and the major Islamist participant in the interim government’s roadmap, has responded in a variety of ways, speaking both to the considerable animosity between the party and its ideological cousins and to the unease felt over the heavy blows dealt to Egypt’s original Islamist group. Talking after the cabinet’s decision, Sharif Taha, an official spokesman for Al-Nour Party, argued that the onus to engage is on the Brotherhood. He added, somewhat ambiguously, that since the group had lost the battle with Egypt’s security apparatus on the streets, it should shift away from street politics and engage with the official political process. Quite how the Brotherhood is supposed to do this given its current status as a banned organization is unclear.

Conversely, Nader Bakkar, the magnetic and youthful star of Al-Nour Party, expressed concern over the cabinet’s decision. He questioned the authority of the government, as an interim administration, to take such a move, and highlighted the plight of the supplicants to the hundreds of ruined charities. The head of Al-Nour Party’s legal commission, Talat Marzuq, raised another important doubt about the effects of the proclamation by asking how the cabinet’s decision was supposed to incline the Brotherhood towards participation in the coming referendum.

It is these two questions, raised by Bakkar and Marzuq, that make the cabinet’s decision appear rash. The Brotherhood has suffered tremendous public opposition during 2013, much to the advantage of the interim government, but in seeking to land the death blow on the Muslim Brotherhood, the cabinet may well be re-inflating the Brotherhood’s public appeal. By forcing the closure of their charities, the government is highlighting exactly how much the Brotherhood does for the Egyptian people in terms of healthcare, education and hardship support—exactly those services the government itself has not been able to provide. Whether or not one agrees with the concept of an organization leveraging its charitable work for political purposes, stories such as those of parents having to remove their newborns from incubators at the Brotherhood’s free clinics are likely to proliferate, and they do the interim government harm while burnishing the Brotherhood’s popular image.

Calls for the Brotherhood to get off the streets and engage with the Beblawi administration’s road map—however sincere or designed to create the illusion of inclusivity—are also undermined somewhat by the blunt proscription of the group. As such, what exactly the government is attempting to achieve with this move is unclear. It is unlikely to succeed as an attempt to banish the Brotherhood from political life forever, given the group’s successful history of operating beyond the bounds of legality under the Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak governments. As a ploy to pressure the Brotherhood into finally engaging, it is a perversely provocative move. The deep enmity between the security apparatus and the Brotherhood is well known, but on the other hand the political ineptitude of the decision is very clear.

Many commentators have pointed out the fragility of the legal framework surrounding the decision, which will in any case be challengeable in the administrative courts. This fragility may point to the process behind the decision: seeing the bombings as an opportunity to justify such a move, the cabinet did not want to miss the chance, and so rushed the decision. Even this is the favorable version of events. Many critics consider the bombings over the past few days a deadly charade orchestrated by the government to garner support for just such a move.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.

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Alex Walsh
Alex Walsh is a postgraduate student at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge. His research concerns political Islam and Egyptian constitutional politics, with a special focus on the politics and history of the Gamaa Al-Islamiya.

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