This post is part of the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” symposium.
Since the overthrow of former president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, Egyptian political rhetoric has been overheated. But something different seems to be afoot in both camps. Among the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters, subtle excuses for political violence are giving way to more open calls. On the side of the regime of now-President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, there is an attempt to move the religious apparatus of the state from acceptance of the suppression of Islamists to enthusiastic support while using the media to direct anger at jihadists to all Islamists.
Both sides blame the other for the escalation, while each seems to believe that its own moves serve its self-interest. In doing so, the parties show a worrying abandonment of any acceptance of responsibility for their own words and deeds. Their mutual stridency may soon become a self-fulfilling prophecy that ensures the escalation of conflict in a country that is already experiencing some of the worst political violence of its modern history.
The rhetorical escalation has been quite striking. In a broadcast from Istanbul, for example, a slick haired television presenter on the Muslim Brotherhood funded and managed Masr al-An (Egypt Now) channel recently delivered an ominous message, “I say to the wife of every officer…your husband will die, your children will be orphaned…these kids [“revolutionaries”] will kill the officers in Egypt.” This was not an isolated incident of open incitement on Masr al-An. Three other Turkey-based pro-Brotherhood channels (al-Sharq, Mukammilin and Rabaa) echo similar incendiary rhetoric and cheer on the “popular resistance,” hunkering down for confrontation with the regime. Meanwhile, in Cairo, there is a similar level of vitriol, with the regime-driven media linking the Muslim Brotherhood with the Sinai-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis – which refers to itself as the Sinai Province of the Islamic State. The regime has labeled the Brotherhood as an enemy of the Egyptian state, which must be combated, and blames it for various plots against Egyptian interests.
The Islamist and Brotherhood embrace of confrontational rhetoric was evident in a recent “Message to the Ranks of Revolutionaries: ‘and Prepare’” uploaded to an official Web site of the Brotherhood. After a helpful reminder that the group’s logo of two swords and “Prepare” are all “synonyms of strength,” the message continued to remind, “Imam [Hasan] al-Banna [Brotherhood founder] equipped jihad brigades he sent to Palestine to fight the Zionist usurpers. And the second Guide, Hasan al-Hudaybi, restored the ‘secret apparatus’ [paramilitary] formations to attrit the British occupiers.” It concluded, “We are at the beginning of a new phase where we summon our strength and evoke the meaning of jihad, and prepare ourselves, our wives, our sons and daughters and whoever follows our path for relentless jihad where we ask for martyrdom.” While this controversial essay did not directly call for violence, many Egyptians interpreted it as a departure.
This is significant, but the Brotherhood’s embrace of more pugnacious sentiments may not yet amount to a total repudiation of the political track taken since the 1970s and 1980s, when Umar Tilmasani led the group to embrace gradual change and disavow revolution and violence. There are signs that the more confrontational attitude of rank-and-file youth in Egypt is creeping up the hierarchy, however. Since Morsi’s ouster, Brotherhood leaders have insisted that their “strategic” decision was non-violence, but that they were unable to restrain angry youth, especially those outside the movement, or that their own “counter-violence” is an expected reactionary response. Ongoing developments indicate that these are no longer merely rhetorical positions. The recent reported restructuring of the organization – which favors decentralization and a greater role for youth (many of whom urge confrontation) – and embrace of such statements suggests that this is not just a matter of Brothers being angry for the moment but suggests that a substantial reorientation of the Brotherhood may be underway, which could lead back to ideas its leaders had attempted to root out for decades.
The Brotherhood remains a diverse movement with many tendencies. The ideas of Sayyid Qutb and Abd al-Qadir Awda (who rejected the legitimacy of any system not based on the Islamic sharia) have never disappeared from the movement. But they have been interpreted in non-violent ways and kept under tight control by the movement’s rigid hierarchy. In the period since Morsi’s ouster, the top leadership of the movement seems to be losing a bit of its grip as well as some of its will to contain the tougher turn. And it certainly holds no sway over those who used to sympathize with the Brotherhood but never joined the movement’s ranks and subjected them to its discipline or broke off. Neo-Qutbist youths who fully embrace jihad and decry democracy began to emerge shortly after the Rabaa massacre in August 2013 when Egyptian security forces killed hundreds of pro-Morsi demonstrators, but were at first actively sidelined and even ridiculed. Some infamous youth, like Ahmad al-Mughir and Abd al-Rahman Izz, were initially accused of being tools of Egyptian intelligence because of their relentless calls for violence. But now their ideas are taking hold.
This is exacerbated in that the Brotherhood, in its bid to make its cause a pan-Islamist one, has allowed radical former Brothers and other Islamists to join it on the platform. Inflammatory preachers like Wagdy Ghoneim – who virtually beat everyone else to the punch by deeming Sissi an apostate even before the Rabaa massacre – are hosted on the new pro-Brotherhood channels. Following Sissi’s January speech on revolutionizing Islam, charges of apostasy are now standard fare on pro-Brotherhood channels. A Brotherhood-tied cleric who served in the Ministry of Religious Endowments under Morsi, Sheikh Salamah Abd al-Qawi, even gave a fatwa that Sissi’s death is permissible and that whoever kills him and dies in the act is a martyr; he received applause from the studio audience. In another segment, viewers were urged to come out to protest for the “sake of their religion,” a not too surprising refrain after the Brotherhood’s endorsement of the radical call for a “Muslim Youth Intifada” in November 2014. The attempt to make the current conflict one about Islam was casually explained only months following the coup as part of a strategy to rile up quietist Salafis.
Pro-Brotherhood channels also help increase the profile of radical conspiracy theorists like journalist Sabir Mashhur who labels the army as “occupiers” and “crusaders” fighting the “Egyptian Muslims.” He offers such violent advice to the “revolutionaries” that if they hit the first and last tank in the column with rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) the division will melt away. Furthermore, he echoes other increasing calls to follow the path of the Iranian revolution.
Over the past year groups calling themselves “Popular Resistance,” “Execution Movement,” and recently a group called “Revolutionary Punishment,” have carried out everything from drive-by shootings of police officers, sabotage of public utilities and private businesses, to planting small improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that are increasingly deadlier and more sophisticated. In the weeks leading up to January 25, the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, the pro-Brotherhood channels fully embraced these groups and even called on them to execute pro-regime media figures. These groups may be violent but are non-jihadist in ideology and discourse, although this may change.
The somewhat intentionally ambiguous statement on the official Web site, signed by an anonymous “Knight of the Revolution,” and the use of proxy satellite channels may be a still conscious attempt to maintain some distance and deniability with regard to calls for violence, but the feistier statements are becoming thicker and the effort to explain them away is wearing thin. Brotherhood leaders continue to insist that these calls must be put into “context” of inflammatory rhetoric on the pro-government side. In one private conversation, a Brotherhood leader, when confronted about the reality of radical ideas creeping into his organization, seemed resigned to being powerless to push against the tide and engage the base, though he continued to lay the blame on the regime.
The regime, for its part, is hardly trying to quiet things down. Media personalities and religious officials increasingly deny any distinction between the openly jihadist Islamic State-affiliated Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis on the one hand and the wavering and formerly governing Muslim Brotherhood on the other. Some pro-regime media figures have maintained the bloody rhetoric from 2013, such as demanding that the minister of interior become a “killer.” Others called for special forces to intervene in the Matariyya district when it served as the site of a recent attempted Islamist sit in. Amr Adib, a famous television host, used the occasion of the Islamic State burning of the Jordanian pilot to tell viewers that this is what “the children of the Brotherhood look like.” There have not been wide scale instances of vigilantism directed at Islamists mobilized by such rhetoric. But a policeman recently shot dead a Muslim Brotherhood youth charged with planting an IED, saying that he was moved by Sissi’s anti-terror speech. Also, a vigilante group claiming to avenge the dead soldiers in the recent attacks in the Sinai burned the car of Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammad Badie’s son while another in Fayyoum calling itself “The Popular Deterrence Battalion” on Facebook promised to “burn or blow-up” any Brotherhood businesses as revenge for the January Sinai attack.
The authorities seem to revel in the Brotherhood’s now visible embrace of “popular resistance,” seeing it as vindicating proof of their claims of Brotherhood violence rather than a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Brotherhood’s decision to embrace violent elements and radical rhetoric is squarely its responsibility, but the fertile environment for such extremism afforded by the regime’s brutal crackdown and lack of de-escalation cannot be ignored. The radicals will continue to find excuses but prisoner abuse and heavy-handed security measures only fuel those dreaming of confrontation. In an interview, a top security official said his police force has no issue with “law-abiding” Brothers and that his ministry leaves unmolested the many non-violent Brothers that even hold jobs in the state bureaucracy. Yet publicly, the state insists on spreading unproven allegations that the Muslim Brotherhood is behind the deadliest of violence in the Sinai.
In one sense, the level of state vitriol is nothing new after labeling the Brotherhood a terrorist organization in December 2013. Indeed, for a while, this seemed to be a political tactic to justify the crackdown, but the mobilization of the media and imams to denounce the attacks now seems to be a strategic shift that treats all Islamists alike. And it has been repeatedly endorsed by Sissi in stark terms. Immediately after the Sinai attack on Jan. 29, Sissi said: “Those who helped you…we know and see them, and won’t leave them,” meaning the Brotherhood, as he earlier relayed a story he often tells of an unnamed Brotherhood leader who threatened violence if Morsi was removed. In another speech hosted by the Egyptian Armed Forces he said, “I will not restrain your hands to avenge Egypt’s martyrs” it was directed at the Armed Forces and police, but many – especially the Islamists – have interpreted it as a message to all Egyptians, which is something Islamists allege is a call for civil war.
But in its most dramatic, if little noticed, escalation the regime has shown not only an intolerance for dissent and a valorization of the state (and of its security forces) but also an increasing determination to bring the religious establishment into lockstep. After Morsi’s overthrow on July 3, 2013 there was an attempt to police the minbars and mosques – barring unauthorized preachers, giving instructions for anodyne sermons, and subjecting Salafi imams to examination. The effort was to eliminate oppositional politics but allow pro-regime sentiments. But neutrality or an apolitical stance was an option. There are now indications that the effort is changing.
Sissi’s speech at al-Azhar, viewed internationally as a plea for moderation, was nothing new ideologically for the top leadership of al-Azhar, which has been trying to send the same message about the need for a centrist interpretation of Islam that is peaceful and appropriate for the needs of a modern society without abandoning fixed principles. But it was remarkable that a president with a military background was publicly lecturing al-Azhar and its sheikh on their mission. And the sheikh himself has pushed back in an oblique way by saying that those who criticize al-Azhar – both radicals and those who see it as un-modern – do not understand what the institution is saying or what its role is. The mufti has similarly shown some disinclination to involve himself in political support for the regime, occupying himself with foreign travel and scaling back some of the death sentences submitted by courts for his review.
But Minister of Religious Endowments Mukhtar Guma has embraced the new regime without reserve, moving not simply to silence the opposition but to send directions for sermons that are supportive of the regime and its security forces and organizing demonstrations in support of them and against “terrorism” – the term so firmly welded to the Brotherhood in official discourse that there seems to be a mobilization of those parts of the religious establishment in support of the regime and its policies in a manner unseen in decades. In a recent conference the minister directly accused the Brotherhood along with “imperialist powers” of plotting to divide Egypt. There is no telling how pious parts of the public are reacting, but opposition to the regime has always been stronger in specific pockets, such as the Azhar student body, some neighborhoods and some mosques. It is uncertain if these fiery sermons can keep the peace between pro- and anti-Brotherhood worshipers.
Over a year and a half after Morsi’s overthrow, there is no sign that the rhetoric on either the side of Brotherhood’s supporters or that of the regime will de-escalate. In fact both sides seem to be girding for further confrontation. Both deny responsibility over their own rhetoric and actions, explaining that they are only reacting to the other side. And in a sense they are both right: Every escalation in vitriol vindicates the harsh voices on the other side. A growing number of Islamists no longer frame their battle as over Morsi or “legitimacy,” but instead the conflict is about Islam, identity and vengeance for over a thousand killed. It is not uncommon to see ordinary Islamists reveling in the death of officers who are presumed guilty of abuse or atrocities. There is now a troubling warm embrace of “popular resistance,” and some dallying with a move in the direction of armed insurgency. Supporters of the government are at best indifferent to police killings of Islamists, many cheer it on. Cooler heads have not prevailed.
The war of words feeds a cycle of violence that drags on with each side’s refusal to back down only growing stronger, acting as if more blood must be spilled to achieve justice. Some analysts have rhetorically described the fight as “existential,” but these worrying indicators of a shift and mutual escalation of rhetoric signify that Egypt may be upon a new and deadlier phase in which the extremists on each side fulfill their prophecies of a fight to the death between good and evil.
Mokhtar Awad is a research associate with the National Security and International Policy team at The Center for American Progress. Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University, non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author of “When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics” (Cornell University Press, 2012).