Egypt’s Military Devises Strategy to Move Egypt beyond Political Islamism

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 17

Supporters of Egypt’s ousted President Mohammed Morsi clash with security forces in the eastern Nasr City district of Cairo (Source AP)

Many local media channels in Egypt are constantly broadcasting the banner “Egypt Fighting Terrorism” in what seems to be a media campaign to mobilize the masses to support the military and police in their crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood members. One large poster near the state TV building on the Nile depicts General Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi as a hero backed by Egyptians next to a picture of a bearded President Barack Obama. The billboard reads: “Obama, stop supporting terrorism!” 

The scene is a reflection of the Egyptian Army chief’s call for a public mandate to confront “violence and potential terrorism”:  “I call on all Egyptians to take to streets to remind the whole world that you have a will and a resolve of your own… authorize the armed forces to confront violence and terrorism,” al-Sisi said in a speech at a military ceremony on July 24. [1] 

The United States’ reaction to the military’s July 3 return to power and the subsequent repression of the Muslim Brotherhood has been largely negative and has encouraged public perceptions that the U.S. administration supports the Muslim Brotherhood. Shortly after President Muhammad Mursi’s overthrow, the United States announced it was delaying the sale of four F-16 fighter jets to Egypt. Following the violent clearances of Brotherhood protest camps at Raba’a al-Adawiya and al-Nahda on August 14, President Obama strongly condemned Egypt’s interim government and cancelled a planned joint military operation (Operation Brightstar) after bloody clashes left hundreds dead and thousands injured.  

Such moves increased anti-American and anti-Obama sentiments in Egypt and led greater grass-roots support for al-Sisi as a hero who is protecting Egypt from terrorism. Many people in Egypt believe that Obama is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt the same way he is viewed as supporting the al-Qaeda-allied extremists who are fighting the Bashar regime in Syria. One example of such perceptions was recently provided by a Cairo shopkeeper:    

Obama supports Islamists here because they are similar to Mubarak in terms of keeping Egypt subordinate to America. However, he knows they are a failure, but he wants instability in the region as part of the New Middle East plan which aims to redraw the region to small countries for the service of Israel. [2] 

On the other side, Mursi supporters think that the military coup is backed by the United States because Mursi wanted Egypt to be independent in its policy: “If America believes in democracy, Mursi is fairly elected, and this is the will of the people, America is lenient in its position as it was not tougher with the coup-makers who committed massacres against civilians,” said Muhammad Tolba, a Mursi supporter who spent 30 days in the al-Nahda sit-in camp. [3] 

It appears that many if not most of the people who took to the streets to support General al-Sisi believe that the U.S. government is supporting a terrorist group (i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood). In that sense, the Egyptian military is viewed as responding to foreign intervention in Egypt’s affairs as a national emergency. As anti-American feelings rise, the more President Obama denounces the military’s actions, the more he is perceived as demonstrating that the Egyptian military was correct to step in. Similarly, the more Mursi supporters become involved in violence, the more hostility they will face nation-wide, leaving the military as the only winner. 

Military Crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood 

One day before launching the worst crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood since the days of President Gamal Abd al-Nasser (1956-1970), Egyptian Interior Ministry spokesman Hani Abd al-Latif told the Jamestown Foundation: “These people are breaking the law and our role is to stop any one violating the law. In Raba’a, [Mursi supporters] were torturing people to death, blocked vital roads, threatening residents and accumulating weapons, so we have to deal with that regardless of any affiliation.” According to Lieutenant Abd al-Latif, police have, for the first time since the January 2011 revolution, won the trust of the people: “Such trust and bonding gave us all back the strength to deal with outlaws and this is a big responsibility [as] we develop our strategy depending on the situation on the ground.” 

As Egyptian security forces launched a deadly assault on protest sites backing the ousted President Mursi on August 14, several Coptic churches around the country were also burned down and separate attacks by armed men were launched against security forces in a wave of Brotherhood reprisals (al-Arabiya, August 14, 2013). 

In a bid to stem the tide of expected militia attacks by Mursi supporters in other areas of the country, the military-backed transitional government announced a month-long state of emergency and imposed a curfew in Cairo and 14 other governorates. Most of the underground tunnels going from the Sinai border town of Rafah to the neighboring Gaza sector were demolished by the military and operations against militant jihadists in the Sinai were intensified after an escalation in attacks on army checkpoints and police stations in the town of Arish. 

Fearing that Muslim Brotherhood leaders would incite their supporters to further violence, the security forces launched a campaign of wide-ranging round-ups that included the detention of prominent figures in the embattled group, including Supreme Guide Muhammad Badie, and influential cleric Safwat Hegazy. The wanted list still includes more than 200 Brotherhood officials and leaders of other Islamist groups. Charges leveled at them range from inciting violence to conspiring to kill protesters when Mursi was in power and after his ouster. According to sources in the prison authority, some 23 Muslim Brotherhood leaders are in Tora prison, while hundreds of Mursi supporters who were arrested in clashes with security forces have been sent to other prisons. Most recently, prominent leader Muhammad al-Beltagy and the former Minister of Manpower, Khalid al-Azhari, were arrested at their hide-out in Tersa village in Giza, east of Cairo. 

Most of the Muslim Brotherhood leaders who were arrested were fugitives, often disguising themselves to escape across the Egyptian borders to Libya or Gaza. The Brotherhood’s deputy guide, Mahmoud Ezzat, is believed to now be out of reach of Egyptian security in the latter refuge. Ezzat, who is believed ready to replace Muhammad Badie as the movement’s new spiritual leader, has been described in Egyptian media as the Brotherhood’s “iron man,” embodying his reputation for top-down decision making. Ezzat is considered close to deputy supreme guide Khayrat al-Shater and is a key figure in coordinating policy decisions between the Guidance Office and the recently dissolved Freedom and Justice Party. 

Such behavior after the breakup of the protest camps suggests the extent to which the group leaders were panicked and weak: “I do not appreciate the approach of the leadership either to hide or escape; they should never leave the masses. In that sense supporters were disappointed when these leaders fled the battlefield,” said 75-year-old Kamal al-Helbawy in an exclusive interview with The Jamestown Foundation on August 24. Al-Helbawy was the head of the International Muslim Brotherhood before he resigned in response to the Brotherhood’s decision to enter high-level politics (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, August 9). 

Helbawy believes that the military leadership is intent on putting an end to the 84-year-old group and expects that “the group now will tend towards underground work, [including] some violence and is likely to ally with some jihadist groups unless they come to their senses and admit to their supporters that what they did since they came to power is wrong.” 

Some have tried to explain the arrests as a military strategy to disconnect the leaders from their supporters, a strategy that worked well in 1960 during the Nasser era, but the continued campaign against Islamists is likely to radicalize others who have had relatives killed and could similarly make the regime more oppressive in dealing with any criticism of the army. 

The Military Response to the Rafah Attack 

In the worst reprisal for the military crackdown on Mursi supporters, militants in the Sinai killed 25 central security conscripts on August 19 near the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza. The execution-style murder of these soldiers showed the extent of the connection between the radical groups in the Sinai and the Muslim Brotherhood and displayed the rage that the groups had developed after security forces began dismantling the Islamist group. [7] 

Before his arrest, Muhammad al-Beltagy, a Muslim Brotherhood leader said on August 26 in footage aired from his hideout by al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr (an Egyptian affiliate of the Qatar-based broadcaster) that the crime of killing 25 conscripts in cold blood was committed by the army to use it as an excuse to escalate the counter-terrorism campaign targeting Islamists. Al-Beltagy said that authorities were trying to turn a “political crisis” into a security problem by accusing his group of orchestrating a terrorism campaign. [8] 

Al-Beltagy whose 17-year-old daughter was killed during the break-up of the Raba’a al-Adawiya protest camp, insisted that the Rafah attack “was an attempt to distract attention from the unprecedented brutal massacres that exceeded the brutality of Genghis Khan,” boasting that “only five countries recognized this coup regime, however there are more than 170 that did not.” 

Anti-Army Sentiments 

A bearded Salafist imam of a small mosque in the Islamist stronghold of Imbaba in northwestern Cairo who is also a supporter of the Salafist al-Nur Party questioned the motivations and presentation of the army’s anti-Islamist campaign: 

Does it make sense that they just realized now that we are terrorists? They want people to believe that any person growing his beard is a terrorist, the media is inciting people against each other. Did Al-Sisi and the intelligence just find out now that Mursi is a terrorist? So why did al-Sisi gave him a salute? Terrorism is to terrorize you, to put you in jail, to kidnap your son, to oppress you when you want to get your voice heard, what is happening now is a political game. [9] 

The imam, whose son was killed on January 29 by a random bullet fired from a nearby police station as he was on his way home from the mosque, warned that the military was moving too fast to restore security in Egypt: 

Now you broke up Raba’a, those people you oppressed will spread in other places away from security grip. When I say my opinion, is this a radicalization? What about the people who protested for al-Sisi, are they also radicals? You are running the country now, so slow down and bring wise people to make a reconciliation for the country’s stability. 

The fear now is that jihadists who left Egypt to launch Islamist campaigns in neighboring countries like Syria, Iraq and Yemen will return to their homeland to fight against the army and the state. In a 32-minute audio message posted on YouTube on August 31, 2013, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, a spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS – an al-Qaeda affiliated group active in Iraq and Syria) called for Egyptians to take up arms and fight against their military rulers, reiterating that bloody crackdowns on Islamist protesters in Egypt proved armed opposition was the only solution: “The Egyptian army is part and a mere copy of these armies which are seeking in a deadly effort to prevent God’s laws from being adopted and trying hard to consecrate the principles of secularism and man-made laws.” 

Pro-Army Views 

Sayyid Abd al-Latif, a resident of the poor working-class neighborhood of Imbaba, has participated in most of the clashes that broke out after Mubarak’s ouster. After his son Muhammad was killed in the January 25 revolution, he became politically active and was one of millions who took to streets in all of Egypt’s provinces in response to al-Sisi’s call for popular support to “fight terrorism.” Abd al-Latif was disappointed by the performance of the Muslim Brotherhood since they achieved a majority in Parliament in 2011 and blames much of the current political turmoil on the machinations of the Egyptian Army and the United States: 

Al-Sisi today has corrected the mistakes of his predecessor [Field Marshall Muhammad Hussein] Tantawy [Head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that took power after Mubarak’s ouster in 2011 and ruled until June 30, 2012]. Tantawy handed over the country to the Muslim Brotherhood as he implemented the orders of the White House and collaborated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Obama supports terrorists. Since the Muslim Brotherhood rose to [power in] the parliament we figured out that there is a plot to partition Egypt… [The Brotherhood] sold the revolution as soon as they came to the parliament, they collaborated with the Mubarak regime at the expense of our sons’ blood and they are terrorists and traitors… Now they know that they are hated by the people, and this is more dangerous to them than any security crackdown, they are panicked.” [10] 

On the author’s return by tuktuk (three-wheeler taxi) from Imbaba to downtown Cairo, the tuktuk driver related that he had to shave his beard for fear of security hassles, adding that the first time Sayyid Abd al-Latif saw him, he called him a terrorist and kept punching him. 

Conclusion 

The crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists in general is based more on grass-roots level support than the will of the security forces. For the first time in the history of the Egyptian Islamist movement, people are now hostile towards the Islamists. The deadly break-up of the pro-Mursi demonstrations is a reflection of such feelings. An example of this sea-change in attitudes was seen in the July 16 Fatah Mosque incident in Cairo, where hundreds of Mursi backers found themselves trapped inside the mosque. Many were killed or arrested by police, while many others were attacked by hostile civilians outside the mosque, forcing the army to step in to protect the survivors from the angry mob outside. [11] In other parts of Cairo, residents detained people they deemed suspect and turned them over to security forces. 

The military used violence expecting the Muslim Brotherhood to respond violently and escalate their clashes against the army. In this sense, the military has succeeded in manipulating the situation to unify Egyptians against “Islamist terrorism.” 

Such a strategy is meant to exclude the Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, from any political process, as demonstrated by the first draft of the newly amended constitution in which all Islamic-flavored clauses in the 2012 constitution were taken out. 

Despite this, the Muslim Brotherhood as an ideology will remain, but the current Muslim Brotherhood leadership has at least temporarily put an end to the group as an organization through their approach to governance. At this point the focus has shifted to those leaders who have fled the country and will likely attempt to keep underground work going, though these activities could lead to even more oppressive practices from the military-dominated government. 

General al-Sisi understands that the military cannot rule, especially after the Egyptian military’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ bad experience running the country. The military character is based on blind obedience; though this policy can be applied to military soldiers, it is very risky in a civilian context. The military would ultimately prefer to keep its unique status in Egypt rather than jeopardize this status through further attempts to rule. 

Muhammad Mansour is a Cairo-based journalist specializing in security and political affairs. 

Notes 

1. CBC TV [Cairo]. July 24, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYgCk7IYS2s.

2. Interview with Cairo shopkeeper Abd al-Fatah Mustafa, August 25, 2013.

3. Author’s interview with Muhammad Tolba in Cairo, August 11, 2013.

4. Author’s telephone interview with Interior Ministry spokesman Hani Abd al-Latif, August 13, 2013.

5. For Badie, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rEJSLbX-x7k. Safwat Hegazy shaved his hair and beard in a failed attempt to escape to Siwa Oasis in western Egypt. See Akhbar al-Youm TV, August 22, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VQNOZ2RtmUw.

6. For footage of the arrest of Muhammad al-Beltagy, see ONTV [Cairo], August 29, 2013.

7. Cairo daily Al-Masry al-Youm published photos of the conscripts: http://www.almasryalyoum.com/node/2046076.

8. The Beltagy interview is available at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MS5NtSGde-s;

The broadcaster, al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr, was banned in Egypt on August 30 for “spreading lies and rumors damaging national security and unity” (The Peninsula [Doha], August 30).

9. Author’s interview with an Imbaba imam who requested anonymity, Imbaba, August 27, 2013.

10. Author’s interview with Sayyid Abd al-Latif, Imbaba, August 26, 2013.

11. Sky News Arabia, July 17, 2013, http://www.skynewsarabia.com/web/article/393159/.