Is Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood ready to fight?

The Islamist movement publicly espouses a nonviolent path to power. But amid a withering crackdown by President Sisi, its followers may be turning to armed struggle, cheered on by allied TV stations.

Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters/File
A supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi holds Morsi's picture, and a copy of the Quran, at Talaat Harb Square, in Cairo, January 25, 2015. A bomb wounded two Egyptian policemen in Cairo on January 25 and security forces moved quickly to disperse small protests on the anniversary of the popular uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, officials said.

Political violence has grown common in Egypt since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power, and he never misses a chance to point the finger at the Muslim Brotherhood. 

An affiliate of Islamic State, a mortal enemy of Egypt's Brotherhood, claims responsibility for a bomb blast? No matter. President Sisi's government knows whom to blame. 

Sisi's laser focus on the Brotherhood, a ninety-year old Islamist social and political movement, reflects his own obsessions and insecurities. In July 2013, he led a coup against President Mohamed Morsi, and his government has since outlawed the group and jailed most of its senior leaders, including Mr. Morsi, who was Egypt's first democratically-elected president.

But the scapegoating also may reflect a disturbing new reality. Since the coup, the Brotherhood's previous commitment to non-violence as a path to power has come under growing fire from some of its cadres. And signs are emerging that senior figures in the movement are taking that groundswell to heart.  

Many of its young supporters in Cairo are already spoiling for a fight. Their memories burn from an Aug. 14, 2013 massacre of Morsi supporters at Rabaa al-Adaweya Square that cemented the military's return to power and the rise of Sisi.

“My dreams ended on that day,” says one young man, a sympathizer of Egypt’s new militants who asked not to be named. “I reach inner peace by knowing the killing can be avenged - and the only way to do that is through arms.”

He's not the only one. A clutch of foreign Brotherhood-linked satellite channels have taken to praising reports of attacks on security posts or businesses linked to the government. 

When a viewer called into the Rabaa television channel studio this week, calling on Egyptians to “strike suddenly and then hide away," the presenter replied: “This is what men of resistance are doing in the Egyptian governorates… you will hear good news in the coming days.” 

In the days that followed, at least a dozen small bombings were reported across the country.

A turn away from violence

The Brotherhood's leaders renounced violent revolution in the 1970s, largely on practical grounds, and directed the mass movement's energies towards preaching, providing social services to the poor, and participating in politics.

The theory held that such efforts would bring about gradual social change, build support, and ultimately propel the group to power through the ballot box, not the sword. The theory appeared to be born out when elections swept Morsi to power in 2012.

Yet just a year later he was in jail on charges of espionage, terrorism, and treason, his movement scattered and on the run. Hundreds of Brotherhood supporters have been sentenced to death in mass trials, and authorities have tried to uproot the movement's network of financiers, businesses, and charities.

A lesson, it would seem, is being delivered on the limits of nonviolent politics – and there are signs that the Brotherhood is listening, and in favor of fighting back.

And while there's no official change of policy, analysts say that the new tone is being tolerated at all is striking. “It’s not just a lack of condemnation of the violence on the ground - it’s an embrace,” says Mokhtar Awad, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for American Progress.

Crackdown backlash

Since Morsi’s overthrow, almost all protests have been banned and demonstrators have been dispersed using tear gas, birdshot, and even live ammunition. Most moderate protesters have left the streets, creating greater space for champions of violence.

A nebulous movement of little known vigilante groups now operates in the shadows, comprising mostly disaffected young supporters of Morsi. Their attacks on security installations and international companies tend to be amateurish and cause few casualties; the aim may be to disrupt and provoke fear, rather than to injure.

Brotherhood official have repeatedly argued that they cannot control their frustrated youth. When the movement tried to popularize the slogan “Our peacefulness is stronger than bullets," some young supporters wrote their own: “Our peacefulness is better with bullets." 

“They tried to escape reality and convince themselves, and others, with something they know it was not true,” says the young sympathizer.

Media echoes

Now there are signs that the Brotherhood's leadership is following suit. Footage of the attacks is aired regularly on satellite channels based in Turkey, including the Brotherhood-owned Masr el-An channel, and sympathetic stations that include al-Sharq, Meklameen and Rabaa. Anchors praise what they see and exhort viewers to do more.

“When the Brotherhood’s media arm is cheering on these attacks, serious questions arise over how genuinely we interpret the message that the leadership cannot control its youth,” says Mr. Awad, at the Center for American Progress. He says the attacks couldn't be sustained "without the involvement of mid-level MB leaders, their networks and their funding." 

In late January, the movement released a statement that many saw as a sharp turn away from nonviolence. “We are are the beginning of a new phase where we summon our strength and evoke the meaning of jihad,” it read. “[We] prepare ourselves, our wives, our sons and daughters and whoever follows our path for relentless jihad where we ask for martyrdom.”

Brotherhood officials later denied that the message had been intended as a call to arms. Still, critics say the movement has long used contradiction and ambiguity as tactics.

Last week, a spokesman for the group used his English-language Twitter account to invite questions from foreign media – while tweeting in Arabic that Morsi supporters would one day behead members of Sisi’s regime.

Could all this lead to a major new front of militancy in Egypt?

“No one is in control of this anymore,” says the young sympathizer. “The situation is worse than anyone believes.”

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