Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Photo Credit: Associated Press
By: Jordan Abu-Sirriya, Columnist
In October and November of 2018, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi unleashed another crackdown on the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its followers. As usual, this entailed “a mass arrest campaign, rounding up at least 40 political activists, lawyers and human rights workers.”[i] Of those arrests were Hoda Ad al-Moneim—a prominent activist, lawyer, and Brotherhood member—and the daughter of the Brotherhood leader Khairat al-Shater.[ii] Amnesty International said “these measures, more extreme than anything seen in former President Hosni Mubarak’s repressive 30-year rule, have turned Egypt into an open-air prison for critics.”[iii] El-Sisi’s brutual policies are a 70-year continuation of Egyptian governments’ efforts to dismantle the Muslim Brotherhood, yet the Brotherhood continues to maintain broad support in Egypt. For this reason, the U.S. must press el-Sisi to provide the Brotherhood and its members a voice or outlet for expressing its frustrations towards el-Sisi’s regime. This long-term approach will decrease radicalization and terrorism in Egypt.
El-Sisi’s harsh policies towards the Brotherhood since 2013 parallels policies of former Egyptian presidents. Egypt’s secularist second President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-1970) collided with the Muslim Brotherhood as both vied for power. In 1954, the Brotherhood attempted to assassinate Nasser but failed; Nasser viewed the Brotherhood as a threat to his survival and “cracked down violently on the group, jailing thousands of Brothers and dismantling the organization,” and in 1966 Nasser ordered the execution of the Brotherhood founder Sayyid Qutb.[iv] Likewise, Egypt’s third President Anwar Sadat(1970-1981)pursued strict crackdowns on political opponents such as Brotherhood members and religious extremists, while under the fourth President Hosni Mubarak(1981-2011)thousands of Brotherhood members were detained, jailed, and tortured.[v],[vi] Nasser’s, Sadat’s, Mubarak’s, and now Sisi’s intentions were to preclude the Muslim Brotherhood from obtaining influence in parliament and amongst Egyptians and to exterminate the Islamist organization from Egypt.
Each Egyptian leader succeeded in periodically quelling the Brotherhood, but all failed in permanently exterminating the group. To make matters worse, government crackdowns on the Brotherhood played little role in changing Egyptians’ perceptions of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the group has maintained broad support since its inception. For example, in 2005 Mubarak allowed Brotherhood candidates to participate in parliamentary elections while blocking Brotherhood supporters from reaching the polls.[vii] Mubarak assumed that the Brotherhood would not obtain any parliamentary seats, but to his disbelief, the groups had won 47 parliamentary seats giving the Brotherhood nearly 25% control of the parliament.[viii] Additionally, the Egyptian peoples’ fondness for the Brotherhood can also be seen in the results of the 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections where the Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi won 51% of the vote and the Islamist organization won 47% of the parliamentary seats.[ix] Throughout countless attempts to destroy the Islamist organization, it continues to survive due in part to an ineffective U.S. and Egyptian policy for dismantling the Brotherhood.
Since its inception, the U.S. and Egyptian government saw the Brotherhood as a group that could be dismantled by disallowing the Brotherhood to have candidates in elections, subduing the Brotherhood’s Islamist principles—while promoting secular principles—, and jailing extreme members or leaders. Overall, the Egyptian government’s strategy has been to overpower the Brotherhood; for instance, since el-Sisi has taken power through a coup in 2013, he has jailed 60,000 Islamists.[x] Yet, this strategy of overpowering and eliminating the adversary will continue to be unsuccessful against the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, which is different than ephemeral Islamist groups such as ISIS, has been rooted in Egyptian life since 1928 when the group formed; likewise, a significant portion of the Egyptian population supports the group. For instance, when el-Sisi began arresting Islamists in 2013, 63% of Egyptians supported the Brotherhood and 72% of Egyptians were dissatisfied with el-Sisi.[xi],[xii] In a state of 97 million people, the U.S. and Egypt are intending to transform over 50 million peoples’ opinions against the Brotherhood. That aspiration is unachievable with the current methods being used by the Egyptian government, and for this reason, Egypt, with U.S. support, must adopt different policies towards the Muslim Brotherhood and its members if terrorism and radicalization in Egypt are to end.
If the status quo continues, millions of disenfranchised, impoverished, and restless Egyptians and Brotherhood members will result in another revolution within five years. The U.S. must press Egypt to provide the Brotherhood, its members, and all Egyptians a voice or outlet for expressing its frustrations towards el-Sisi’s regime. This outlet could be allowing the Brotherhood to participate in parliamentary elections or allowing Brotherhood journalists to write for Egyptian newspapers without being arrested, jailed, or killed. By creating a formal framework for the Brotherhood to sit at the table with el-Sisi and express their perspective, the Egyptians who support the Brotherhood and the Brotherhood members will likely feel represented. In time, this dialogue between el-Sisi and the Brotherhood would build into a stronger relationship between both parties.
In the past, the Egyptian government has provided an outlet for the Brotherhood, but the government hastily redacted its policy once it began losing power to such groups. In 1976, the Egyptian President Sadat approved multiparty competitive elections which allowed for groups such as the Brotherhood to campaign. However, after the New Wafd party—the Brotherhood’s central party—won numerous seats, Sadat began stripping parliament members of their membership and shortly after “dissolved the People’s Assembly and held new elections.”[xiii]
The objective for the U.S. and Egyptian government must be to bring the government and groups—who represent the vast majority of Egyptians—together, while combating terrorism and radicalization. The current situation which intends to exterminate the Muslim Brotherhood is ineffective and has been for the past 80 years. Exterminating the Muslim Brotherhood will not occur because tens of millions of Egyptians ardently support the cause. The solution at this point in time is to provide the Muslim Brotherhood and its followers an outlet, and overtime decrease radicalization.
[i] Reuters, “Egypt Reveals It Is Holding Daughter of Muslim Brotherhood Leader, Five Others,” The New York Times, November, 22, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2018/11/22/world/middleeast/22reuters-egypt-politics.html.
[iii] Amnesty International, “Egypt: Unprecedented crackdown on freedom of expression under al-Sisi turns Egypt into open-air prison,” Amnesty International, September, 20, 2018. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/09/egypt-unprecedented-crackdown-on-freedom-of-expression-under-alsisi-turns-egypt-into-openair-prison/
[iv] Shadi Hamid, Muslim Brothers: The Rivalry That Shaped Modern Egypt,” Foreign Affairs, October, 2018. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/review-essay/2018-08-14/muslim-brothers.
[v] David Ottaway, “Egypt Arrests Hundreds, Citing Sectarian Strife,” The Washington Post, September, 4, 1981, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1981/09/04/egypt-arrests-hundreds-citing-sectarian-strife/39c6fcaa-644e-4241-9c34-f6b8c3fd2135/?utm_term=.626f852bba38
[vi] Elizabeth Dickinson, “Anatomy of a Dictatorship: Hosni Mubarak,” Foreign Policy, February, 4, 2011. https://foreignpolicy.com/2011/02/04/anatomy-of-a-dictatorship-hosni-mubarak/
[vii] Michael Slackman, “Muslim Brotherhood Wins More Seats in Egyptian Runoff Vote,” The New York Times, November, 5, 2005. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/27/international/africa/muslim-brotherhood-wins-more-seats-in-egyptian-runoff.html
[viii] Sharon Otterman, “Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s Parliamentary Elections,” Council on Foreign Relations, December 1, 2005. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/muslim-brotherhood-and-egypts-parliamentary-elections
[ix] Al Jazeera, “Muslim Brotherhood tops Egyptian poll result,” Al Jazeera, January 22, 2012. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/01/2012121125958580264.html
[x] Jamal Khashoggi, “The U.S. is wrong about the Muslim Brotherhood—and the Arab world is suffering for it,” The Washington Post, August, 28, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/wp/2018/08/28/the-u-s-is-wrong-about-the-muslim-brotherhood-and-the-arab-world-is-suffering-for-it/?utm_term=.0620c7e6131d
[xi] Pew Research Center, “Ratings Decline for Muslim Brotherhood, Military, Courts,” Pew Research Center, May 21, 2014, http://www.pewglobal.org/2014/05/22/one-year-after-morsis-ouster-divides-persist-on-el-sisi-muslim-brotherhood/egypt-report-02/
[xii] Pew Research Center, “Egyptian Dissatisfaction Back to Pre-Revolution Levels,” Pew Research Center, May 21, 2014, http://www.pewglobal.org/2014/05/22/one-year-after-morsis-ouster-divides-persist-on-el-sisi-muslim-brotherhood/egypt-report-03/
[xiii] Baaklini, Abdo and Denoeux, Guilain and Springborg, Robert. Legislative Politics in the Arab World: The Resurgence of Democratic Institutions. Boulder, Co: Lynne Reinner publishers, 1999.