The new president sees the Muslim Brotherhood a direct threat to both army and state.
As Egypt’s newly-elected president Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi prepares to take on his responsibilities of office, the future of the Muslim Brotherhood and that of political Islam in Egypt occupies centre-fold. The sharp U-turn effected by the removal of the former MB-affiliated president Mohamed Morsi from his position on 3 July 2013, on the back of massive popular protests, is expected to spell, for the foreseeable future at least, a sharp constriction on the Muslim Brotherhood’s activities and presence inside Egypt.
In an interview with the Egyptian satellite channel CBC during his presidential election campaign, Al-Sisi had stressed that “all those who do not carry arms or perpetrate violence” will be welcome to operate in the political arena. But in response to a question as to whether the Muslim Brotherhood will be allowed to continue to exist as an organisation, in the event of his becoming president Al-Sisi asserted unequivocally: “There will be no entity known as the MB”.
The Egyptian constitution approved in February 2014 prohibits the formation of religion-based political parties. The ban is bound to ultimately extend to the Salafist Nour Party as well as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). The FJP has not been dissolved to date despite the Egyptian government’s having branded its mother organisation the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.
Islamist rally in Cairo (photo: newyorktimes)
Egypt’s Minister of Endowments (Awqaf) Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa has also been forthright in his criticism of what he terms the “extremist discourse” disseminated by self-designated preachers who have not graduated from the University of Al-Azhar and are not employed by the Ministry of Endowments. It is a discourse, he has asserted, that largely deviates from the “moderate spirit of Al-Azhar — Islam’s conclusive reference”.
Gomaa’s iron-fisted approach which began to be implemented in March this year has now extended to even informal side-street praying areas.
The Ministry of Endowments’ current policy marks a notable departure from that adopted in the past three decades and more, and which originated in the days of former president Anwar Al-Sadat. As the latter increasingly encouraged the activities of religious groups with the aim of countering the “secular communist left”, the state turned a blind eye to the increasing control of mosques by extremist groups and in some cases, that of Al-Jamaa Al-Islamiyya in the Upper Egyptian governorates. The ‘blind eye policy’ and tacit encouragement of the non-ideological Salafis in particular, continued under former president Mubarak on the premise that they would help the state counter the Muslim Brotherhood’s political activism.
This having been said, the Egyptian state’s confrontation with politically active religious groups is also being complemented, by the Egyptian army’s current engagement with armed militant groups in the Sinai.
Seen from the perspective of the fluctuating fortunes of the Muslim Brotherhood over the past six decades, the current phase in which Al-Sisi has acceded to power might promise to resonate more with that of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who saw in the Muslim Brotherhood a direct threat to both army and state.
Mahmoud Farghali arrested after attempting to assassinate President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in Alexandria, 1954
Al-Sisi’s declared, and implemented policy when he was Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces was to confront any armed expression by militant jihadi groups in the Sinai, and to pronounce zero-tolerance for any violence that may be perpetrated by Muslim Brotherhood supporters on the ground. While this non-conciliatory approach may be rooted in his military background, it can also be seen to have been triggered by the political events preceding 30 June 2013.
In August 2012 the then president Mohamed Morsi literally shelved the Egyptian army’s two top commanders Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and Chief-of-Staff Sami Anan, while asserting that he was “supreme commander” of the Egyptian army. The step came in the wake of lethal attacks on Egyptian army and police personnel in the Sinai, propagated by militant groups some of whose members had been granted reprieve from prison by Morsi.
In the current phase, and given the regional outreach of militant armed groups still operating in the Sinai, it is not expected that the state’s outright confrontation with armed extremist Islamists will abate any time soon.
Al-Sisi’s personal inclinations and world view are also bound to play a role in the manner in which the presence of political Islam in Egypt will be charted. He is reputed to be a devoutly religious man who introduced himself during his presidential campaign as “an Egyptian and a Muslim”. This having been said, Al-Sisi has nevertheless been extremely forthright in his critical rejection of the “exploitation of religion” in political life.
An MB supporter shouts slogans in Cairo, August 2013 (photo: Reuters)
Hailing from the old popular Cairo district of Gammaliya, he has time and again evoked the all-embracing spirit of the Egypt in which he grew up. In his interview with CBC he said, “In our neighbourhood, Muslims, Copts and — Jews — for that matter lived peacefully together. Every day I would pass by the synagogue at the end of the street. It was was never attacked or defiled, a vastly different (story) from what (happened in later eras)”.
In an interview with the Arabic-speaking daily Al-Masry Al-Youm in October 2013, Al-Sisi expressed his aversion to the exploitation of Islamic shari’a as a conduit to political power by “groups which want to enforce their particular interpretation of religion on society at large”.
In his candid denunciation of the use of religion in the public sphere and his repeated criticism of groups using shari’a to gain power, and his expression that “we, (Muslims) have stripped Islam of its humanity” Al-Sisi has certainly gone further — verbally — than any of his predecessors, including even Nasser.
This being said, multiple factors are bound to influence the manner in which the Egyptian state under Al-Sisi’s presidency will deal with the presence of political Islam in Egypt. Al-Sisi’s presidency comes in the wake of two massive and unprecedented expressions of popular revolt on 25 January 2011 and 30 June 2013.
Protesters attack the logo of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Alexandria, November 2012 (photo: Reuters)
Both were essentially a response to oppressive rule and non-inclusiveness. As he is poised to take on the challenges of Egypt’s presidency, Al-Sisi is backed by an unprecedented wave of popular support again not witnessed since the days of Nasser.
In his first brief address given immediately after the formal ballot was announced, showing him riding the wave of 96.91 percent of the votes, Al-Sisi promised to realise the objectives of the Revolution of 25 January 2011: “bread, freedom and human dignity”. He invoked Egyptians to work to realise the challenges at hand, of “stability and progress”.
The challenges comprise in no small part, treading the fine line of promoting democracy and safeguarding human rights, while confronting religious militance and armed terrorism.