Will Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood return to political violence?

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Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Cairo (21/06/13)

Like most social movements that survived adverse conditions for decades, there are a few constants about the Muslim Brotherhood.

One of them is change. Between 1928 and 2014, the organisation has transformed multiple times -updating its world view, recalculating its objectives, modifying its behaviour, and altering its organisational structures.

Another constant: ideological beliefs are usually marginalised in times of crises and inconveniences. Supporting a foreign invasion, for instance, is an ideological red line for the Brotherhood.

But it was compromised in 2003 by the Iraqi Brotherhood affiliate which backed the US-led invasion, to the disappointment of the Egyptian Brotherhood.

A third constant is that the Brotherhood has had a transnational dimension since the mid-1930s, in a similar way to leftist movements.

But an international hierarchy has not really existed, except for a short period in the late 1930s.

In other words, local affiliates of the Brotherhood do not take orders from one another, and in many cases end up with conflicting policies on major regional crises.

A fourth constant is that in times of democratisation and relative political freedoms, the Brotherhood usually plays by the institutional democratic rules of the game.

They participate in party politics, constitutional crafting and electoral processes. In some cases like in Egypt (2011-2012), they consistently win the largest percentages of votes/seats (but almost never an absolute majority). In other cases, like in Libya (2012) and Algeria (1991), they lose to political rivals.

Between ballots and bullets

But what about the behaviour of the Brotherhood in more common Middle Eastern contexts: authoritarian repression, military coups, civil wars and other forms of political violence and social instability?

In these cases, the behaviour is majorly dependent on the domestic environment. Arms and religion in most of the modern and post-modern Middle East are the most effective means to gain and remain in political power, almost like they were in pre-modern times.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
The Islamist Hamas movement in Gaza is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood

Votes, constitutions, good governance and socio-economic achievements are secondary means and, in many Middle Eastern countries, relegated to cosmetic matters.

In such a context, members, former members and affiliates of the Brotherhood were involved in various types of armed activities in specific timeframes and selected countries.

In Yemen, the Brotherhood and its affiliates took up arms on the side of the former Yemeni President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, during the civil war of 1994.

In Syria, the Brotherhood and some of its offshoots fought against the regime of Hafez al-Assad between 1976 and 1982, with direct logistical support from Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq and some training and financing from the Saudi regime and Anwar al-Sadat in Egypt.

In Gaza, Hamas, an ideological affiliate of the Brotherhood, is currently in its third war in six years with Israel.

In Egypt, the Brotherhood went through a phase of para-militarisation between 1940 and 1965, in which some of its members were involved in various forms of military operations, including assassinations.

But by the late 1960s, the leadership made a final decision to abandon any form of local armed activism.

Status quo politics

After Gamal Abdel Nasser was in power, the Brotherhood in Egypt engaged in status quo politics within the rules laid out by successive authoritarianism regimes.

This brought them the ire of radical Islamists, perhaps best outlined in Ayman al-Zawahiri's 1993 book, The Bitter Harvest of the Muslim Brothers.

In that period, the Brotherhood in Egypt condemned armed attacks against the ruling regimes of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.

In 1981, it declared that President Sadat was killed like Uthman ibn Affan, the third Caliph in Islam widely perceived in Sunni Islamic tradition as a martyr.

This was the behavioural pattern in the 1990s and the 2000s.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Under Anwar Sadat's regime the Brotherhood officially renounced violence

In Algeria, throughout the 1990s, the local Brotherhood affiliate, the Movement for the Society of Peace (MSP) Party, sided with the military junta of 1992 and was strongly critical of the Armed Islamic Group's (GIA) violent tactics and Islamic Salvation Front's (FIS) radical rhetoric.

As a result, the MSP became a partner in several Algerian coalition governments and held several ministerial portfolios in post-coup Algeria.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, local Brotherhood affiliated parties and figures were critical of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein's regime.

Two Brotherhood affiliates became members of the Iraqi Governing Council appointed by the Coalition Provisional Authorities.

In the West, Brotherhood offshoots and once-affiliated organisations were consistently critical of terrorist activists and radical preachers, especially after the 9/11 attacks on the US.

This was welcomed by many Western policy-makers at the time and turned into a form of limited, timid, intermittent and security-focused cooperation in several crises.

Perhaps one of the most notable coordinated counter-extremism efforts was the takeover of the North London Central Mosque (better known as Finsbury Park Mosque) in February 2005 from the supporters of the notorious preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri, by the members of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB) in coordination with Scotland Yard, the Charity Commission and Islington Council.

The takeover was perceived to be an accomplishment by the British authorities at that time, as it turned a base for supporting violence, extremism and criminal activities into a thriving community centre.

Non-violence sustainable?

After July 2013, when the military overthrew Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood in Egypt and their relationship with armed activism emerged as a valid question.

Generally, military takeovers that target democratically elected governments are usually associated with high levels of bloodshed, and given the repression which followed Mohammed Morsi's ousting, the situation in Egypt is violence-engendering.

The logistics, however, are not. The leadership of the Brotherhood in Egypt understands that it can win in electoral processes and in street-mobilisation capacities.

Violence, however, is the domain of the army. And based on earlier experiences with political violence in Egypt, the organisation lost both the power-struggle and the legitimacy, even with paramilitary capabilities and with part of the army on their side in the early 1950s.

The Brotherhood leadership so far stress that non-violent civil resistance tactics are their means for toppling the military-dominated government.

But organisational fractures under heavy repression, offshoots, disaffected members, and mutiny against the leadership have happened in earlier crises and have happened in a limited way during the current one, the worst in modern Egyptian history.

And in a regional context - where bullets keep proving that they are much more effective than ballots and where eradication is more legitimate than compromise - the prospects of sustaining non-violence become gloomier.

Dr Omar Ashour is a senior lecturer in Security Studies at the University of Exeter and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. He is the author of The De-Radicalisation of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements (2009) and Salute and Slaughter: Islamist-Military Relations in Egypt (forthcoming).