The December 24 bomb attack in Mansoura didn’t just leave the security directorate building there in rubble. The following day, the government’s decision to brand the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization marked the collapse of any chance of political negotiation between the authorities and the Islamist group.
The attack on the Daqahlia Security Directorate killed 16 and injured over 130 people. The government held the Brotherhood responsible, despite a statement by the Sinai-based jihadist group Ansar Beit al-Maqdes taking credit for the attack. On December 25, the interim Cabinet designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, confirming that negotiations between the government and the group have reached a dead end.
That was welcome news for some.
Ammar Mataweh, a young member of the Islamist group, believes that the government's classification of the Brotherhood as a terrorist group is “a useful escalation for the revolution, even if it harms the Brotherhood.”
Mataweh belongs to the “revolutionary wing” of the Islamist movement: Younger, radical Islamists who have been active in street politics and adopted a more confrontational approach than senior leaders. He was apprehensive of the rumored negotiations between the current regime and Islamist leaders.
“The more the military and the Brotherhood are in disagreement, the more that is in the revolution’s interests,” Mataweh asserts.
Various reconciliation initiatives by third parties have received a lukewarm welcome from the Brotherhood — which for many months insisted on deposed President Mohamed Morsi’s re-instatement — and have been dismissed as naïve, if not traitorous, by the security services and their supporters.
But for months now, political analysts have speculated about behind-the-scenes negotiations taking place between the Muslim Brotherhood and the government. Human rights groups recently revealed that five high-level Brotherhood leaders have been held without charges at an undisclosed location, leading to speculation that they were intermediaries, or pawns, in these negotiations.
But any possibility of a negotiated political settlement seems to have evaporated over the course of this month. On December 14 2013 the government announced a date for the referendum on the amended 2012 Constitution. The Brotherhood-led Alliance to Support Legitimacy and Reject the Coup waited nine days before announcing its official position on the referendum on December 22, in a statement entitled “The Referendum on the Black Coup's Document.” The main thrust of this statement was that the Alliance would boycott the referendum, and that its members do not recognize its legitimacy.
“There was serious talk of the two sides almost reaching an agreement, involving the release of some leaders in return for a reduction in the number of Brotherhood demonstrations in central Cairo,” says Mataweh.
“However, the charges against Morsi and other Islamist leading figures in the espionage case and the announcement that the Brotherhood is a terrorist organization confirms that the negotiations failed.”
The public prosecutor has accused Morsi, Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and other Islamist leaders of sharing intelligence with foreign groups. The prosecutor’s office referred to the trial as the biggest espionage case in Egypt’s history.
“The designation of the group as a terrorist organization is a political move,” says H.A. Hellyer, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the Brookings Institution in Washington DC.
“It essentially suspends any negotiations with all components of the Muslim Brotherhood led Anti-Coup Alliance.
“There are questions about the procedural legality of it, which should become clear in the coming days — but it is certainly not evidence of a government that is looking to engage in a political process with regards to the Muslim Brotherhood. Rather, it has identified it, albeit without providing evidence publicly for its stance, as equivalent to Ansar Beit al-Maqdes,” he adds.
Khalil al-Anani, who teaches Middle East politics at Durham Unviersity’s School of Government and International Affairs, sees matters differently. He believes that by declaring the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, the July 3 regime — the interim government backed by the army, the security services and most of the secular business and political elite — “has played its last card.”
The decision has several objectives, the most important of which is preserving the fragile July 3 alliance by strengthening the idea of a common enemy, an existential threat to the state and society, says Anani.
Another reason for the declaration is to mobilize the public to vote “yes” on the constitution, which the interim government views as a way to solve its lack of legitimacy, Anani asserts.
“It is also an attempt to shake up the Brotherhood,” says Anani, “by forcing lower-level and younger members either towards violence or into accepting the current situation, especially after the attempt to separate the head from the body by detaining Brotherhood leaders failed and demonstrations continued.”
“The closing of public space to any protest action is justified by the claim that it is counter-terrorism,” and designating the Brotherhood as a terrorist group “closes the door to any future rapprochement between the Brotherhood and revolutionary groups,” Anani says.
Mataweh believes that the recent government decision will not change anything on the ground, because violence and repression were already being employed against the Muslim Brotherhood before its official designation as a terrorist group.
“The protests will continue,” Mataweh insists.
But he underlined that the purpose of protests is no longer Morsi's reinstatement. Rather, Islamist protesters are more concerned with civil liberties.
“After the coup we stopped having faith in the political process. Most protesters join protests now because they have been provoked by government practices,” Mataweh explains.
Three people died last Friday when Brotherhood protests took place in several cities across the country in defiance of the terrorism charge. Unrest has also continued at Al-Azhar University, where three students have died and hundreds have been arrested or suspended due to their alleged role in protests and clashes with police. Police have raided classrooms and dorms, and fired teargas and birdshot at students.
Mataweh says that most of the protests nowadays are beyond the control of the Alliance to Support Legitimacy or any other Islamist leaders.
The mass arrests of Brotherhood members have affected communication between leaders and other members of the group. But “protest action is now being controlled by those who have lost friends and relatives in protests. No leader can call on them to stop,” Mataweh asserts.
Anani argues that it is too soon to speak of a collapse of the 80 year-old Islamist group.
“The Brotherhood has the ability to work in this closed climate via underground networks and communications that enable it to avoid security strikes,” he says. “There is an element of non-centralization in the way lower level elements work, making it difficult to prevent mobilization. The Brotherhood will take advantage of the repression in order to establish links and cohesiveness between its members in the face of an existential threat.”
Speaking from Turkey, where he fled after security bodies stormed his home twice, Brotherhood member Abdallah al-Keryouny says that networks are currently being formed between Morsi supporters who left Egypt for Europe and Qatar. Their objective is to document what he refers to as “regime crimes” in preparation for taking cases to an international court.
“Many young Brotherhood members who left Egypt in order to avoid the security forces lying in wait for them preferred to go to countries where they can work to serve Egypt, such as Turkey and Qatar,” Keryouny says.
Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi’s Cabinet is seemingly concerned with just such activities. It has called on other Arab countries to cooperate in facing the alleged terrorist group. It remains to be seen whether countries such as Turkey and Qatar — with whom relations are already strained — will respond to the Egyptian government’s call.
Keryouny says that he turned down an attractive job offer in the Gulf and preferred to go to Turkey after selling his car in order to strive to serve “the Egyptian cause.”
Young Islamists who have decided to leave Egypt have done this of their own initiative, Keryouny continues, but that this may develop into a systematic plan for Brotherhood members if the repression continues.
Anani, however, does not see a promising future for such a plan, given that the majority of the Brotherhood’s influential leaders are in prison.
“Members abroad are directing matters, but the problem is that they do not have the same weight or status as those in prison,” says Anani.
“It is therefore difficult to repeat the experiment of either the Tunisian Ennahda movement or the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria,” Islamist groups that were severely repressed at home and operated in exile for many years.