Egyptian history shows that heavy crackdowns on Islamists always results in more bloodshed.
Emman El-Badawy is Quilliam’s Middle East analyst
Egyptian Criminal Courts yesterday sentenced 529 outlawed Muslim Brotherhood members to death on charges of violence, inciting murder, storming a police station, attacking persons and damaging public and private property.
Today, a further 683 Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters face trial and potentially similar sentences.
This comes just weeks after Saudi-Qatari relations fractured over policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood.
The decision is pending and has yet to be officially approved by the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Dr Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Allam, who traditionally carries wide influence over legislation and social affairs. The fate of the Brotherhood members will be announced on 28 April, and it is unclear what the verdict may be.
These are not new tactics seen in Egypt, though it is the largest single mass proclamation of the death penalty in the modern era. It is a bold move by the Egyptian government which appears consistent with their non-accommodation policy for Islamists.
Egyptian authorities, on the whole, make no distinction between the Brotherhood and other violent extremist militant groups based in the Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere. This is an approach that goes against the general international consensus with regards to the Muslim Brotherhood and other moderate, non-violent affiliates of their cause.
Internationally, our understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood has evolved over time, much in the same way as the organisation itself has evolved over the 86 years of its existence. However, Egypt’s dysfunctional relationship with this organisation runs far deeper than it does for us in the West.
Despite its current international presence, the Muslim Brotherhood was, before all else, a product of Egypt’s colonial history. Born amidst the national struggle for independence and identity, the Brotherhood became a popular model for political activism through a pan-Islamic lens.
Despite the threat it posed at the time and its clear appeal across the Arab world, the Brothers were sidelined in favour of a nationalist, military-led revolution in 1954, to reclaim Egyptian sovereignty. The pan-Islamic dream of the Brotherhood’s chief ideologue and founder, Hasan Al Banna, would have to wait. And so it did, faced with a turbulent relationship with the authorities for 57 years.
These 57 years would witness the realities of such a rigid dichotomy between the organization’s existence and the regime’s interests. The relationship would forever be managed like an arranged marriage of convenience to a divorce of two warring families; sometimes bloody but always strained.
But, is counter-terrorism not all about avoiding the bloody?
In this latest move, Egypt abuses the rule of law for political point-scoring and risks exacerbating the cycle of violence that it currently faces.
Egyptian history shows that heavy crackdowns on Islamists always lead to a series of bloody spats between the regime and militant Islamist groups. President Nasser’s crackdown on the Brotherhood between the 1950s and 1960s culminated in the execution of the organisation’s leading member and theorist, Sayyid Qutb – today recognised as the ‘man who launched a thousand suicide bombers’.
His legacy remains one of a martyred pioneer for political Islam and there is no doubt that Nasser’s repressive policies toward Islamist activists, violent or not, had repercussions that still manifest today.
Following Nasser’s non-accommodation policy toward Islamists, President Sadat exercised some tolerance for the Brotherhood but would soon crackdown on them heavily as his popularity diminished amid his controversial foreign policies. Again, the Brotherhood was targeted and months before Sadat’s assassination by militant Islamist group Al-Jihad, mass arrests took place, with members later to be released in January 1982 having been cleared of any wrongdoing.
Once again, the Brotherhood enjoyed brief periods of tolerance from the Mubarak regime, but the organisation remained illegal and subject to periodic arrests, though used frequently as mediators between the state and the violently radicalised groups responsible for the 1990s terrorist attacks in Luxor and elsewhere.
In this way, today’s news is nothing new for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
For the regime, at least, this dysfunctional relationship is certainly a functional one. Crackdowns on the Brotherhood have always been a political move to assert authority, and while there is no doubt a current and serious threat to Egypt’s stability and security, addressing it in such a way that only feeds accusations of state oppression is not the solution.
The Muslim Brotherhood, along with other local Islamist groups, adhere to an ideology that feeds off the perceived corruption, oppression and injustice of past and current regimes. Sentencing members of any organisation to death, whether of a terrorist nature or not, will not remove the problem.
More adherents will appear, this time with further perception of injustice. For, whether or not the Grand Mufti approves the sentences, the message is still the same to the Islamists – there is no place for Islam in democracy.
Such conjecture is harmful to the future of the country and the region and it is time we look to incorporate all views to win the battle of ideas through a human rights-based approach.
Reports have already alluded to malpractice during the trials, and it seems unlikely that all 1200 people involved in the trial have received the chance for a full hearing – particularly as many reports have suggested that only 123 defendants were present.
Should this be true, attempting to mask breaches of civil liberties through court procedures undermines the credibility and integrity of the judicial system, which is crucial amidst the country’s current circumstances.
However, it is important to analyse with caution.
Much of the furore around these death sentences was undoubtedly expected among the current Egyptian authorities. Let us not be blinkered into thinking that the controversy surrounding charges facing the country’s largest opposition force is in isolation of the upcoming presidential elections.
As the country’s favourite to win, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi currently looks as though he can do no wrong. Should the sentences go ahead, the responsibility remains in the hands of the Grand Mufti, Allam.
On the other hand, should the case cause such controversy at home and abroad (as it so far has!) el-Sisi has the opportunity to intervene in the court ruling, improving his image and solidifying his authority.
This may be a political point-scoring opportunity for el-Sisi but Islamist extremists already have enough ‘martyrs’ to advocate their cause. We could do with not adding 1200 more to the list.
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