CAIRO — An Egyptian court on Monday banned the Muslim Brotherhood and its vast social services network in what could be a devastating blow to the Islamist organization, which swept Mohamed Morsi to the presidency just last year and has fiercely resisted the military coup that ousted him in July.
The far-reaching ruling appears to apply to any group remotely associated with the world’s oldest Islamist movement, granting temporary legal cover to the military-backed government of Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi to broaden a crackdown that has already left the Brotherhood battered.
Hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters have been killed and thousands have been arrested, including Morsi and other top leaders. Authorities have lately reached inside mosques to bar thousands of Islamist-leaning preachers.
The ban covers “all the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood organization, the groups emerging from it, its associations, and any institution that branches from it or follows the group or receives financial support from it,” according to Egypt’s state media outlet, MENA, which offered the only account of a ruling that has not been made public.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that U.S. officials are seeking further details about the ruling, and she urged all parties to “avoid steps that would undermine” an inclusive political process.
Monday’s ruling is likely to fuel the anger that has begun to erupt in the form of attacks on police and security forces in Egypt’s eastern Sinai region, in its Nile Delta towns and in the heart of Cairo, where a suicide bomber early this month targeted the country’s interior minister, who escaped unhurt.
As a legal matter, however, experts were unsure whether the ruling was indeed part of an orchestrated attempt to target the Brotherhood’s financial and organizational empire. Some speculated that the judge — a low-level jurist at the obscure Court of Urgent Matters — was simply trying to please a regime that has relentlessly demonized the Brotherhood as “terrorists.” Other court cases and decisions may modify or reverse Monday’s ruling.
But at least for now, the ruling gives authorities even more power to pursue a group that had been banned under a series of Egyptian autocrats, only to emerge as the core of the country’s new leadership — if only briefly — after last year’s elections.
“It is giving the government the broadest possible mandate to start sifting through all kinds of organizations and entities and freeze assets belonging to the Brotherhood,” said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “It’s yet another tool in the box of the mastermind behind the current crackdown on the Brotherhood.”
Since the July 3 coup, Egyptian security forces have arrested nearly all of the Brotherhood’s top leaders. They have been charged with murder, inciting violence and other crimes that the group’s supporters contend are fabricated.
Monday’s ruling allows security forces to go still further, targeting the Brotherhood’s network of health clinics, schools and other social services, all of which have made the group enormously popular among millions of poor Egyptians.
Those programs continued to operate even under the long-standing ban enforced by former president Hosni Mubarak, whose ouster in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising brought the group out of the shadows for the first time since it was banned in 1954.
But in the year that Morsi governed, the Brotherhood became deeply unpopular, and opponents carried out mass demonstrations calling for his removal. Since the coup and the subsequent crackdown, Brotherhood-organized street protests have dwindled as the group’s remaining leaders have gone into hiding or fled the country.
“The court ruling issued today concerning the dissolving of the group is a political decision in the form of a judicial ruling,” Ibrahim Moneir, a member of the group’s ruling Guidance Bureau, told the Al Jazeera news network, speaking by phone from London. “The Muslim Brotherhood will continue its work and will continue to protect this country.”
The very concept of banning the Brotherhood is odd, some analysts said, because the organization barely exists as a legal entity in the first place. The Brotherhood survived underground for decades by keeping its finances and network of social service organizations in the names of private individuals, far from the reach of the government and courts.
It was only after much prodding by human rights and civil society groups that the Brotherhood finally registered as a legal entity this spring. But the Association of the Muslim Brotherhood — the formal entity that was banned Monday — does not include any of the group’s top leaders or even recognizable figures, much less any significant money or assets.
It is the only group formally affiliated with the Brotherhood, although the ruling appears to target the empire that has existed in the gray areas of Egyptian society, dictating that any group “derived from” the Brotherhood is also banned.
“What has been dissolved is an organization that doesn’t represent anything,” said Ziad Abdel Tawab, deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “I do not think it will have any effect on the underground existence of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Tawab added that after all the blows absorbed by the Brotherhood in recent weeks, it is difficult to imagine things getting worse for the organization.
“I keep hearing this question about the government cracking down more, but for me this is funny because all the leaders have been arrested,” he said. “There’s no more that can be arrested, so I think this is more of a political, symbolic ruling by an incompetent court to simply say, ‘This is the end.’ ”
Sharaf al-Hourani in Cairo and Ernesto Londoño in Washington contributed to this report.