Muslim Brotherhood: From rapid rise to sharp decline

  • Published
Muslim Brotherhood supporter in Cairo (Jan 2015)Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Muslim Brotherhood supporters have faced a prolonged crackdown in Egypt

In the wake of the death sentences confirmed against Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt this weekend, BBC Middle East correspondent Yolande Knell looks at the group's dramatic reversal of fortunes since the 2011 Arab uprisings.

Drive west of Cairo, and finally the noisy, overcrowded Giza slums give way to open, green fields.

Water buffaloes are tethered next to the road and farmers dressed in loose galabiya robes are cultivating wheat and giant cabbages.

I visited the town of Awsim, before Egypt's presidential election nearly three years ago.

At that time, the only banners on display were for the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi and another candidate who was a former member of the Islamist movement.

Women told me how the Brotherhood had won their backing by handing out free canisters of cooking gas.

The rest is history. Mr Morsi went on to become president - only to be ousted from power by the military a year later following huge street protests.

Many people from Awsim joined the counter demonstrations and several were killed when they were brutally crushed by the security forces.

Some locals are among the thousands of Islamists who have been arrested.

'Iron grip'

Now the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is not just banned, as it was for much of its eight decades of history in its country of origin - it is classed as a terrorist group.

That makes life extremely risky for those in Awsim who remain staunch supporters.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The Brotherhood has been designated a terrorist group in Egypt and other countries

After Friday prayers, I meet a band of men who have been to four pro-Brotherhood rallies since the morning.

"The security forces have an iron grip now. When we go to the streets, they fire tear gas, bird shot and sometimes live ammunition," says Sayyid.

Many Brotherhood leaders are on trial, charged with inciting violence.

On Saturday, a court confirmed death sentences on the group's General Guide, Mohammed Badie, and others for planning attacks against the state.

But another man, Ahmed, insists they have done nothing wrong.

"God willing, we'll see the democratic process get back on track soon," he says.

Gains reversed

Yet many in Egypt accept the clampdown on the Brotherhood, believing it failed its test in power, and across the entire region the fate of this relatively moderate Islamist organisation has undergone a dramatic turnaround.

For a long time, its offshoots were the main political opposition in many Arab countries. Their social welfare projects helped them maintain strong grassroots.

Then the uprisings of 2011 enabled them to emerge as key players in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria. That emboldened offshoots in Gulf states and some started to talk of a grand Islamist project.

However such dreams were over quickly.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan has split into two following an internal rift

Revolutions unravelled and ruling families in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia moved to check the Brotherhood's influence. Both nations have classified it as a terrorist organisation.

There have been setbacks even in places where its position seemed most secure.

In his smart villa in Amman, I sit with Abdullatif Arabiyat, as he sips a glass of lemon juice with mint.

He is a veteran member of Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood and former leader of its political party, the Islamic Action Front. He was once speaker of parliament.

Right now, he is deeply worried. After 70 years, his group has just split in two.

A new, officially licensed branch defines itself as strictly Jordanian, saying it has cut ties to the regional movement, so it is not identified as militant.

The legal status of the other, larger faction is less clear, but it is keeping its links to the wider Brotherhood.

Mr Arabiyat, a lightly-bearded, dignified man, suggests that "foreign factors" have stirred up trouble in Jordan and that Jordanian security officials "enhanced the conflict".

Rise of jihadists

Not far away, in the Palestinian territories, Hamas - which is aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood - is also suffering from the organisation's demise.

Its leaders were treated like VIPs in Egypt during the Brotherhood's brief reign.

But in February, a court in Cairo joined Israel, the United States, the European Union and others in pronouncing Hamas a terrorist organisation.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Egypt accuses Hamas of supporting a jihadists in the Sinai peninsula and has sealed its border with Gaza

In Gaza, which is controlled by the political faction, ordinary people feel more isolated than ever.

"After Egypt's military coup the siege on Gaza has been tightened," says a policeman, Abu Zaher Qttawi.

Mustafa, a student from the Islamic University of Gaza, says: "We're saddened by the suffering of our Brothers in Egypt."

"The real terrorists are those who shoot dead peaceful demonstrators."

Across Gaza, the green flags of Hamas still flutter defiantly above the mangled metal and rubble of homes destroyed in last summer's war with Israel.

But throughout much of the Middle East, there is a sense that times are changing.

And what worries many is that just as the Muslim Brotherhood, the grandfather of Islamist groups in the region, is in decline, so fanatical ones - like Islamic State - are gaining momentum.

The danger is that efforts to suppress the Brotherhood could radicalise its younger supporters and help swell the ranks of the extremists.