This is not the first time it has happened. Since its’ appearance in 1928, the Pan-Islamic religious social movement of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt once again confronts a PR catastrophe.
Banned, outlawed, ostracized, and feared worldwide (as recently demonstrated) the Society of the Muslim Brothers remains as much a mystery upon the global stage as it is considered to be an international threat of terror. To date, the Muslim Brothers’ operations are formally illegal in many states throughout the Middle East and North Africa as well as in Eastern and Central Asia where it is linked most directly to political activism and religious fundamentalism. The United States, The Russian Federation, The Syrian Arab Republic, and various other state powers suspect of the group’s alleged illustrious activities have condemned it outright by linking it’s leadership directly to the known terrorist activities of al-Qaeda and Hamas.
As a principled federation of decentralized authorities functioning within diabolically separate and distinct motivational trajectories, the assumption that the Muslim Brotherhood operates in any sort of uniform fashion is outright foolish. While relevant to consider, such abstractions are not directly comparative or viable across contexts; terrorism is hardly identically relevant in every case. Knowledge of what Brotherhood members are up to in Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, and Syria is as foreign a concept amongst its’ international comrades as it is to the global counter terrorism agencies working to combat what they have assumed to be a cohesive agenda.
What matters is the reality on the ground. Despite the tumult of Egypt’s current political situation alongside what was once considered to be a quasi-charity and service based institution moonlighting as a religious social movement, the motives of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood remain far from terrifying.
Rooted in a history of anti-colonial zealotry, founder Hassan al-Banna’s school of thought birthed from Islamia—the very same location home to those individuals responsible for synthesizing the 1952 revolutionary overthrow of the Farouk monarchy as well the laboring classes active in 2011 Arab Spring uprisings which unseated former President Hosni Mubarak. Originally, and particular to the timeframe of its initiation, the Muslim Brothers’ organization was established by workers affiliated with various Suez Canal companies grieving about the injustices suffered by Arabs and Muslims at the hands of foreign colonial control (sound familiar?) Not ironically, it seems that today we are still facing the very same simple conflict whereby Muslim Brothers and various other secular pro-democracy groups stand in direct opposition to rampant state powers held by military elites.
The most recent event in the saga has evolved around the country’s current military backed government’s response to the bombing on a police headquarters in Mansoura last week. Following the attacks, the interim military-backed government designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. As iterated above, this is not the first time that the Egyptian government has outlawed the formerly populist organization (the tactic was coined perhaps more eloquently by the likes of Abdel el Nassar and Hosni Mumbarak). Officially branding the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist association is a strategic measure to directly clampdown on the Islamist group following the military’s removal of Brotherhood-affiliated President Mohamed Morsi from power last July.
To date, and despite the rhetoric of foreign think tanks, no evidence has surfaced linking the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to the attack at Mansoura. Furthermore, the wide variability of the accounts crediting the Muslim Brotherhood with responsibility for the recent violence are disputed and irregular. The Brotherhood’s officials condemned the Mansoura bombing, while a separate group, the Sinai-based Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, claimed responsibility for it. Nevertheless, it appears that many within Egypt’s imminently fractured institutions remain determined to use this escalation of violence as an opportunity to pursue a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood’s organization.
As a renewed movement that rose to power in national elections last year, many consider their outlaw status an enormous blow to authority. Though military chief Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s forces have increasingly turned their attention to dismantling the Brotherhood’s leadership, one must not forget that it was as recent as 2012 that the movement’s hold over Egyptians was so strong as to allow for the country’s first democratically elected leader to be of Brotherhood-Islamist kin. While the new designation criminalizes membership, organizational activities, and finances, this is not the last we will see of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. By and large it may actually stir growth in its’ support. The declaration by Egypt’s interim cabinet is likely to advance further the seismic divide between Egypt’s Morsi’s supporters and it’s secular backers of the government. Ahead of a referendum on a new constitution scheduled for next month, this action should be read as nothing more than a power play amongst political entities.
“From [the military’s security establishment’s] perspective, they see this as an opportunity to eradicate, once and for all, an organization that they hate. That takes precedence over everything else,” – Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.
Contemporary political Islam in Egypt is not panacea for radical terrorism. While there is no doubt that egregious terrorist tactics themselves are incriminating and destructive toward manifesting sustainable peace, the actions of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are still seen by some as an outlet of true self-rule and a true independence from former governments run by the military and secular authorities.
After decades of operating covertly amidst censorship and illegitimacy, the repercussions of the Arab Spring have left the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt refueled by the power imbalance and a resurgence of self-rule determination. Ostracizing the enemy is a time-honored tactic common in many instances of social transformation regardless of its credibility. Much as it was during the era of early influential 20th century Muslim revivalist organizations, today’s Muslim Brotherhood is growing. This crackdown could actually benefit them in the long term due to shifts in the military-run government.
The international community has a history of blindly following the dark threat of terror. Though desperately in need of international support, the assumption that the weak democratic apparatuses of Egypt need only global recognition of Brotherhood responsibility in executing all Egyptian instances of violence is even more absurd than the misassumption that all Morsi supporters are in cahoots with al Qaeda, or worse, appropriating radicalized Sharia law across the region. What more is there to say about terror than the manifestation of fear onto the Other?
In surmising this series of events, one can easily be consumed in the threat of violence, the proliferation of fear, and the hysteria of paranoia. We shouldn’t confuse regional condemnation as legitimate fact in states with a history of crony democracy. Despite almost a century of condemnation the Brotherhood is as strong as ever, both politically and otherwise. Considering its power and influence, what Egypt needs now is the respect to decide the course of its’ future while acknowledging the variability of authority that the Muslim Brotherhood has at home and all over the region.