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Death Knell or New Beginning for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood?

FILE - Egyptian anti-riot soldiers stand guard in front of a destroyed banner of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, March 2013.

FILE - Egyptian anti-riot soldiers stand guard in front of a destroyed banner of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, March 2013.

In 2012, newly elected President Mohamed Morsi promised Egypt had chosen a government that was Islamic, but inclusive. Democratic, yet not slavishly pro-Western.

Now, Morsi, sentenced Tuesday to 20 years in prison, is incarcerated along with thousands of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters. The government that succeeded Morsi's branded the Brotherhood a terrorist group. Security forces killed hundreds of other members in the streets. Hundreds more, including some of the leadership, await the death penalty.

Egyptian authorities say the Brotherhood has allied with terrorist organizations that have killed hundreds of police and soldiers, as well as civilians in the past year and a half.

"Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood who have fled the country are changing their rhetoric and officially abandoning their commitment to peaceful movements," said Interior Ministry spokesman Hany Abdel-Latif, according to the semi-official leading Egyptian daily Al Ahram.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders abroad say the organization is still strong and that a new generation of young leaders is emerging to replace the incarcerated and those killed.

“His trial has been a travesty of justice, which has been scripted and controlled by the government and entirely unsupported by evidence,” said Amr Darrag, a leader of Morsi’s political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, in a statement from Istanbul.

Hours later, he told reporters the Brotherhood would always consider currently jailed leaders their leaders, but new men are coming up because “to run affairs … you have to be outside and at the heart of events.”

Down for now, or forever?

Some analysts, however, see Morsi's sentencing as the beginning of the end for the Brotherhood in Egypt as we know it.

Darrag's claim could be the last gasp of breath for a dying organization, killed by its own ambitions, according to Mohamed Salah, who heads the Cairo bureau for the London-based newspaper Al Hayat.

“Now the Brotherhood has not only lost power politically, but it has lost the public’s trust,” Salah said. “They are good at opposition. But at ruling? They are a complete failure.”

The loss of power and popularity may be temporary, according to other observers. The Brotherhood is not just good at opposition; they are masters, with a particular talent for endurance, said Fahmy Howeidy, a prominent Egyptian columnist.

Using a mix of charity and piety, the Brotherhood has long been popular among the poor in Egypt and is still viewed by many as a persecuted religious group, not a violent extremist movement.

“It is difficult to say that when they were banned by law, that everything would be finished, they would close,” Howeidy said. “For more than 80 years they have been here, and they will continue.”

An emerging power

Technically banned during ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, the Brotherhood nonetheless grew deep roots, emerging as the strongest, most organized and easily the richest party after the 2011 uprising.

That's because Mubarak’s ban wasn’t absolute, Howeidy said. In 2005, Muslim Brotherhood members won 20 percent of the seats in parliament. That show of force prompted a government crackdown.

After Mubarak fell, Brotherhood candidates took half the seats in parliament. The following year, Morsi won a hotly contested — but generally recognized as fair — election by 51 percent of the vote.

But Morsi's rule quickly became unpopular. The president failed to deliver on promised improvements in basic services, in part because he was unable to secure an alliance with members of the "deep state" — an elite group that long held power behind the scenes. Power cuts, fuel shortages and media-fueled false rumors of Morsi's goals put the nation on edge.

Popular protests grew when he overrode the constitution to assume extraordinary powers. One year into his presidency, the streets were packed with hundreds of thousands of people rallying against him, and a military, led by then-Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, ready to step in and remove Morsi from power.

The aftermath

The victors in the drama called it a “second revolution,” but the Muslim Brotherhood did not go quietly. Thousands stayed on the streets in makeshift protest camps. After six weeks, the military said it had had enough, and the camps were razed by government troops and police. Hundreds of protesters died.

The nation seemed polarized, with Sissi heralded by many, loathed by others. Foreign media were demonized, while Egyptian media mostly fell in line with the new government. Those journalists who didn't often faced arrest. Soon, many of the anti-Mubarak protesters of 2011 did, too.

Some liberals who celebrated after successfully toppling two governments were stunned.

“I felt like I just woke up,” said Mohammad, a self-described former activist, deeply disappointed by the outcome of both uprisings.

In his enthusiasm to oust Morsi, Mohammad said he didn’t expect a military takeover. He just wanted an end to what he called “religious dictatorship.”

Looking back, he added, he should have seen it coming: That is what happened after Mubarak fell — the military took over.

“In that time I was brainwashed,” he said, referring to the initial euphoria after Morsi’s fall. The “media did it for me, and others.”

Mohammad has never been a fan of the Brotherhood, but when asked how he feels about Morsi’s conviction, he said of course it was wrong: "People voted for him."

Fate of democracy

Mohammad isn’t alone in his disappointment, wondering about the future of Egypt’s democracy as Mubarak has mostly evaded the hand of justice while Morsi remains in prison.

Complicating matters is a strong government and media effort to conflate the Muslim Brotherhood with jihadist violence sweeping parts of Egypt and the region.

The anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment in Egypt is at an all-time high, said Howeidy, but the national mood could shift again.

“The majority are against the Brotherhood now,” he said. “But this could be changed because the media is playing a great role in changing minds.” If and when the mood changes, he added, some convicted Muslim Brotherhood members may simply go free. “From our experience, they will let them go out after a few years.”

The real test to Egypt’s democracy, said Howeidy, will not be the crackdown conviction rate, but whether enough political space can open up to incorporate what will be the next generation of the Brotherhood.

But is the Muslim Brotherhood a political and religious group that should be incorporated into Egyptian political space, or is it a band of extremists? Recent violence, including street clashes and increasingly frequent bombings, suggest the latter, according to Salah of Al Hayat.

“One opportunity after another came their way to be part of the Egyptian political scene, but the Brotherhood leadership preferred to behave with violence," he said. "Not just against the authorities, but against the people.”

Claim of "self-defense"

The government, while repeatedly blaming the Brotherhood, has offered little evidence linking violence to the group. The Brotherhood denies the claims and says any violence on its part was always "self-defense" against attacks.

The current government’s human rights record has been criticized sharply, with Morsi’s conviction being called a “travesty of justice” by Amnesty International.

For many Egyptians, however, the government’s first job is to stabilize the economy and restore order after four years of chaos, leaving human rights an issue for another, more peaceful day. And since formally taking power nearly a year ago, Sissi has also had more pressing items on the agenda than ensuring rights for his political archenemies, according to Carool Kersten, a senior lecturer on Islam at King’s College in London.

“His main concerns were to establish his credibility, ensure the security situation,” he said. “And at least give some semblance of stability in terms of getting the political process on the rails.”