Islamism, the Arab Spring, and the failure of America’s do-nothing policy in the Middle East

Shadi Hamid writes: In the years leading up to the Arab Spring, Islamist parties developed something of an obsession with the role of Western powers in supporting democracy in the Arab world — or, more likely, not supporting it. Islamists were fighting on two fronts: not just repressive regimes, but their international backers as well. The ghosts of Algeria lingered. In January 1992, Algeria’s largest Islamist party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), found itself on the brink of an historic election victory — prompting fears that the military was preparing to move against the Islamists. In the tense days that followed, FIS leader Abdelkader Hachani addressed a crowd of supporters. “Victory is more dangerous than defeat,” he warned, urging them to exercise restraint to avoid giving the army a pretext for intervention. But it was too late. The staunchly secular military aborted the elections, launching a massive crackdown and plunging Algeria into a civil war that would claim more than 100,000 lives.

That authoritarian regimes and activist militaries could count on American and European acquiescence (or even support) — as they did in 1992 — made Arab regimes seem more durable than they actually were, and the task of unseating them more daunting. During the first and forgotten Arab Spring of 2004-5, Algeria repeatedly came up in my interviews with Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt and Jordan. Perhaps over-learning the lessons of the past, Islamist parties across the region, despite their growing popularity, were careful and cautious. They made a habit of losing elections. In fact, they lost them on purpose. This ambivalence and even aversion to power prevented Islamists from playing the role that opposition parties are generally expected to play. It was better to wait, and so they did.

It’s been almost five years since the start of the Arab Spring, but one conversation still stands out to me, despite (or perhaps because of) everything that’s happened since. Just two months before the uprisings began, Egypt was experiencing what, at the time, seemed like an especially hopeless period. I was in the country for November elections that proved to be the most fraudulent in Egyptian history. After winning an unprecedented 88 seats in parliament in 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t permitted by Hosni Mubarak’s regime to claim even one seat. But this movement, the mother of all Islamist movements, accepted its fate in stride. “The regimes won’t let us take power,” Hamdi Hassan, the head of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, told me during that doomed election campaign. What was the solution, then? I asked him. “The solution is in the ‘Brotherhood approach.’ We focus on the individual, then the family, then society.”

“In the lifespan of mankind, 80 years isn’t long,” he reasoned, referring to the time that had passed since the Brotherhood’s founding. “It’s like eight seconds.” [Continue reading…]


What most people get wrong about political Islam

Shadi Hamid writes: Political scientists, myself included, have tended to see religion, ideology, and identity as “epiphenomenal” — products of a given set of material factors. These factors are the things we can touch, grasp, and measure. For example, when explaining why suicide bombers do what they do, we assume that these young men are depressed about their own accumulated failures, frustrated with a dire economic situation, or humiliated by political repression and foreign occupation. While these are all undoubtedly factors, they are not — and cannot be — the whole story.

But the role, and power, of religion in the modern Middle East is more mundane than that (after all, the overwhelming majority of Muslims do not think about becoming suicide bombers). “Islamism” has become a bad word, because the Islamists we hear about most often are those of ISIS and al-Qaeda. Most Islamists, however, are not jihadists or extremists; they are members of mainstream Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood whose distinguishing feature is their gradualism (historically eschewing revolution), acceptance of parliamentary politics, and willingness to work within existing state structures, even secular ones. Contrary to popular imagination, Islamists do not necessarily harken back to seventh century Arabia.

Why do Islamists become Islamists? There are any number of reasons, and each Brotherhood member has his or her own conversion story or “born-again” moment. As one Brotherhood member would often remind me, many join the movement so that they can “get into heaven.” To dismiss such pronouncements as irrational bouts of fancy is tempting. But, if you look at it another way, what could be more rational than wanting eternal salvation?

Islamists aren’t just acting for this world, but also for the next. Muslim Brotherhood and Brotherhood-inspired organizations aim to strengthen the religious character of individuals through a multi-tiered membership system and an educational process with a structured curriculum. Each brother is part of a “family,” usually consisting of 5 to 10 members, which meets on a weekly basis to read and discuss religious texts. For many members, it is quite simple and straightforward. Being a part of the Brotherhood helps them to obey God and become better Muslims, which, in turn, increases the likelihood of entry into paradise. This belief doesn’t mean that these more spiritually-focused members don’t care about politics; but they may see political action — whether running for a municipal council seat or joining a mass protest — as just another way of serving God. [Continue reading…]


Cairo bomb: Sisi’s Egypt is less secure than ever

By Lucia Ardovini, Lancaster University and Simon Mabon, Lancaster University

When a car bomb detonated outside a security building in Cairo on August 20 it marked a new turn in the long-running series of violent attacks on the Egyptian capital. The explosion wounded approximately 27 people, six of whom are policemen, but there appear to have been no deaths.

The attack has been claimed by a group calling itself the Sinai Province (SP) which is affiliated to Islamic State (IS). SP has stated that the bomb was in response to the execution of six of its members accused of a similar attack in Cairo last year. Though there were no deaths this time, the quickening rate of such attacks shows that al-Sisi’s measures against terrorism have been grossly ineffective.

This bomb is in fact the latest of a long series of violent attacks that focus particularly on Egyptian police and security forces, which since 2013 have gradually moved from the Sinai province to the country’s capital.

Most of these recent blasts have been claimed by the Islamist militant group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis based in the Sinai desert, which also identifies itself as a branch of IS under the name Sinai Peninsula (SP).

This unprecedented attack speaks to the explosive growth of Egypt’s array of insurgent forces and their violent opposition to al-Sisi, which the state’s authoritarian security measures have failed to curb.

[Read more…]


Egypt’s Rabaa massacre: The political impact

Omar Ashour writes: “His leg is broken. I cannot leave him here,” said a doctor in makeshift hospital in Rabaa al-Adawiya square to a special forces officer.

“Don’t worry. I will break his heart,” replied the officer before putting a bullet in the injured protester’s chest.

The surreal brutally was just a tiny part of what happened in what Human Rights Watch called the ” worst mass unlawful killings in Egypt’s modern history” and “a likely crime against humanity.”

After several national security meetings in July and August of 2013, a group of military, intelligence, police generals and civilian politicians appointed by the military, decided to storm massive sit-ins in Cairo’s Rabaa and Giza’s Nahda squares protesting against the removal of Egypt’s first-ever freely elected president on July 3, 2013.

The exact death toll of the crackdown is still unknown.

This is partly due to the nature of the current political climate and the hurdles imposed by the ruling regime on collecting data about the massacres.

But this is also due to other factors, such as burned dead bodies and fears of victims’ families of going to the morgues or hospitals.

Following the massacre, the health ministry claimed that over 600 people were killed.

The Muslim Brotherhood maintained the death toll was over 2,500.

Human Rights Watch estimated the death toll to be over 1,000.

And everything happened in less than 10 hours. [Continue reading…]


Younger Muslim Brotherhood members in Egypt bridle at nonviolent stance

The New York Times reports: A veteran leader of the Muslim Brotherhood was so alarmed by the rising calls for violence from the group’s youth that he risked arrest to urge the movement to stay peaceful.

Already hunted by the police for his role in a banned organization when he released his online manifesto in May, the leader, Mahmoud Ghuzlan, conceded that shunning violence in the face of the government crackdown on the Brotherhood was “like grasping a burning coal.” But, he said, history taught that “peacefulness is stronger than weapons, and violence is the reason for defeat and demise.”

It was a losing argument, or so it now appears. The police in Cairo soon found and arrested him. A chorus of Islamists mocked him on social media as naïve, unrealistic and hypocritical.

And his manifesto for “peacefulness” was quickly drowned out by official statements that have come closer to endorsing violence than anything the organization has said or done in more than four decades — an ominous turn for both Egypt and the West. Not only is the Brotherhood Egypt’s largest political organization, its long history gives it unique influence among Islamists beyond the Middle East to Europe, North America and elsewhere. [Continue reading…]


Hamas leader’s visit to Saudi Arabia prompts criticism from Iran

Al Monitor reports: Support for Palestinian groups has been one of the unchanging principles of the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution. Iran’s support for various Palestinian groups and figures has ebbed and flowed with the changing political realities of the region but has never dropped off completely. In his latest speech, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on the country’s foreign policy, said that even with a nuclear deal, Iran’s support of “resistance groups” would continue.

However, it is no secret by now that since the unrest in Syria began in 2011, relations between Hamas and Iran have deteriorated. Iran pushed the Sunni militant group to politically back its ally President Bashar al-Assad, while Hamas was on the defensive, denying accusations of supporting Assad’s armed opposition. Relations between Hamas and Iran have not recovered since Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal left his longtime base in Damascus in 2012 for Qatar, one of the main sponsors of Assad’s armed opposition.

There were rumors in the Iranian media that Meshaal would visit Iran and meet with Khamenei, but those rumors failed to materialize. It is understandable then that when Hamas leaders, including Meshaal, visited Saudi Arabia and met with King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud on July 18, the Iranian reaction was swift. [Continue reading…]

The Times of Israel reports: Iranian aid to the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas has drastically decreased, a senior Hamas official said Monday.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Moussa Abu Marzouk said that Iran’s aid “greatly helped the resistance in Palestine; without this assistance it will be hard for us to cope.”

“The relations between Hamas and Iran are not advancing in a direction in which the organization (Hamas) is interested and aren’t improving to the degree the organization wants in order to help the Palestinian issue,” Abu Marzouk said. [Continue reading…]

Al Jazeera reports: During the past few weeks, Saudi Arabia has hosted a number of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated leaders, including Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda party in Tunisia; Abdul Majeed Zindani, the leader of al-Islah party in Yemen; and Khaled Meshaal, the leader of the Palestinian resistance group Hamas.

Such meetings would have been unthinkable at any other point in the past couple of years, as Saudi rulers threw their weight behind Egypt’s brutal crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters. In March 2014, the kingdom designated the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist” group.

But since Saudi King Salman‘s rise to power following the death of King Abdullah last January, Saudi policy seems to have shifted from a full-on battle against the Brotherhood and their respective offshoots across the region, to a sharper focus on the supposed rise of an Iranian regional threat. [Continue reading…]


Egypt’s extrajudicial killings

Omar Ashour writes: “The hands of justice is chained by laws,” said Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during the funeral of his prosecutor-general, Hisham Barakat. “Courts are not suitable for this moment … laws are not suitable for this moment,” he continued.

A day later, 13 of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leaders and member were killed by the regime’s security forces, which blamed the MB for Barakat’s assassination. The MB claimed that their members were killed after being held, searched, and fingerprinted. The security forces claim that they were killed in a firefight, after resisting arrest. Some of the names of the dead are well known within Egyptian civil society. Nasser al-Hafy was a lawyer and a former member of parliament under the banned Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

“I know him [Hafy] well and I dealt with him. I cannot imagine him being involved in an activity that can possibly lead to violence … forget about resisting authorities. This is an unacceptable lie,” said Dr Ayman Nour, a liberal politician who challenged Mubarak in the 2005 elections.

This was not the only recent blow to the Brotherhood. [Continue reading…]


Egyptian forces kill 13 Muslim Brotherhood members in Cairo

Middle East Eye reports: New evidence has emerged that suggests the 13 members of the Muslim Brotherhood killed by Egyptian security forces in a flat in the Sixth of October area in Cairo on Wednesday were shot to death after being arrested.

Original media reports said that nine men had been killed but pro-Muslim Brotherhood Mekameleen TV said that the number has now increased to 13.

An anonymous security source told the Egyptian daily Watan that Nasser al-Hafi, a former member of parliament, was amongst the dead.

Abdel-Fattah Mohamed Ibrahim, an MB leader in the Giza governate, was also killed.

Another security official called the Muslim Brotherhood members “armed militants” and said that the group were hiding in a den in the flat. The official maintained that the group opened fire first and that the 13 men were killed in the resulting gun battle.

However, Muslim Brotherhood sources said that the men were well known lawyers and belonged to a legal team that represented imprisoned MB supporters, as well as a committee that supported the families of those killed or detained. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: The Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement claiming its leaders who were killed in a Cairo apartment on Wednesday were murdered in “in cold blood,” calling for a rebellion against President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who it calls a “butcher.”

The group “holds the criminal Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and his gang fully responsible for these crimes and their consequences,” it writes. [Continue reading…]


Egypt’s crackdown on Islamists will lead to more violence

Mohamad Bazzi writes: On June 29, Egypt’s top prosecutor was killed in a car bombing as he left his home in Cairo. He was the most senior official to be assassinated since Islamic militants launched an insurgency two years ago after the Egyptian military ousted Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president.

The assassination of the prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, is a tragedy but it’s not surprising. Egypt spiraled into a cycle of state-sanctioned violence, repression and vengeance as soon as the military removed Morsi from power in July 2013. The new military-backed government launched an aggressive campaign to suppress all political opponents, hunt down leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood who fled after the coup and undo many of the gains made during the 2011 uprising that toppled then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

That is the danger many in the Arab world and in the West failed to grasp when they remained silent after Egypt’s coup: while authoritarian rule appears to provide stability over the short term, it breeds discontent and affirms the idea that the only way to achieve political power is through violence.

On June 16, an Egyptian court upheld the death penalty against Morsi, the first Brotherhood leader to assume the presidency of an Arab country. He was initially sentenced to death in May, along with more than 100 co-defendants, for taking part in an alleged prison break. It was the latest in a series of sham trials and mass death sentences decreed by the judiciary since the military coup. If the former president is ultimately hanged, it would be a grave miscarriage of justice that would make Morsi a martyr for millions throughout the Muslim world.

Beyond Morsi’s fate, the mass death sentences send a dangerous signal to Islamists throughout the region: that election results will not be respected. The Brotherhood’s recent experience in Egypt shows that authoritarian and secular forces, which often fare poorly at the ballot box, will mobilize to undermine the Islamists before they have had a chance to rule. Ultimately, Egypt cannot be a viable democracy without the Brotherhood’s participation. [Continue reading…]


The West’s betrayal of Egypt will reap a bitter harvest

Amr Darrag writes: When the former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi was sentenced to 20 years in April, in a trial internationally condemned as unconstitutional, unfair and deeply politicised, many saw it as a test of the international community’s resolve to stand up to the series of show trials currently under way in Egypt. For those who back democracy and human rights, the wall of silence from the international community was as predictable as it was tragic. At that time, I predicted that such silence would be interpreted by the Sisi regime as a green light to a death sentence for Morsi.

Where once politicians from Downing Street to the White House lauded the ideals and actions of the 2011 revolutionaries, now they were rendered mute as Egypt’s first democratically elected president was effectively sentenced to a life behind bars. Many also saw the sentence as a nail in the coffin for the ideals and dreams of the Arab Spring.

This week, the gradual purge of this first democratic government in Egypt took a darker turn. The Sisi regime, buoyed by the clear apathy of its international partners, upheld a death sentence handed down in May to Morsi and more than 100 people. The trial was nothing but a farce. Amnesty International called it a grossly unfair charade, which demonstrated a “complete disregard for human rights”. [Continue reading…]


Egyptian court upholds death sentence against former president Morsi

The Washington Post reports: An Egyptian court upheld Tuesday a death sentence against former President Mohamed Morsi in sweeping judgments against the ousted leader and dozens of his Muslim Brotherhood allies.

The court decisions mark the latest move by prosecutors to punish and discredit Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Islamist-inspired government was ousted by military-led pressures in 2013.

It also showed the increasingly tough stance of Egypt’s current government, led by former army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, against political opponents more than four years after the pro-democracy uprisings of the Arab Spring. [Continue reading…]


The West must end its support of Egyptian ‘tyrant’, says a Muslim Brotherhood leader

Vice News reports: On July 3 it will be one year since the first elected president in the history of Egypt, Mohamed Mursi, was ousted in a coup by the ex-army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The subsequent crackdown on Mursi and his Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood, was severe. Security forces have killed about 1,000 Brotherhood supporters during protests and tens of thousands more have been jailed, along with left-wing activists and other government critics, according to human rights groups.

On Tuesday a court said it would give its final ruling on June 16 regarding a preliminary death sentence recently handed to Mursi and more than 100 Muslim Brotherhood leaders and members, in a case related to a 2011 mass jail break.

Meanwhile Sisi is on a trip to Germany where he has been officially welcomed by Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck, and is set to sign a multi-billion dollar deal with German industrial group Siemens. At a press conference on Wednesday Merkel reiterated her government’s opposition to the death penalty but said working with Sisi was key to ensuring regional security.

VICE News spoke to Yahia Hamed, the Minister of Investment under Mursi, who said the opposite was true — if the West kept supporting Sisi it could destabilize the whole region, playing straight into the hands of the Islamic State, he said. [Continue reading…]


Egypt appoints outspoken Brotherhood critic justice minister

Reuters: Egypt appointed a hardline judge and outspoken critic of the Muslim Brotherhood as justice minister on Wednesday in a move decried by a leading opposition figure as a disaster for justice in the world’s most populous Arab country.

Ahmed el-Zend, a former appeals court judge, has in contrast to his predecessor been publicly outspoken in his criticism of the Islamist movement removed from power in mid-2013 by the army and banned as a terrorist organization.

Some Egyptian judges are seen by critics as hardliners whose rulings are in line with the toughest crackdown on Islamists in the country’s history. The judiciary says it is independent.

Liberal activist Shady el-Ghazaly Harb said the appointment was part of a trend towards empowering opponents of the 2011 uprising that ousted veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak.


U.S. ‘deeply concerned’ by Egypt’s death penalty decision for Mohamed Morsi

Reuters: The US is “deeply concerned” about an Egyptian court decision to seek the death penalty for the former president Mohamed Morsi, a State Department official said on Sunday.

The US criticism follows condemnation from Amnesty International and Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after the court ruling on Saturday against the deposed leader and 106 supporters of his Muslim Brotherhood in connection with a mass jail break in 2011.

The ruling against Morsi is not final until 2 June. All capital sentences are referred to Egypt’s top religious authority, the Grand Mufti, for a non-binding opinion, and are also subject to legal appeal.
Islamists warn of backlash over Mohamed Morsi death sentence
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“We are deeply concerned by yet another mass death sentence handed down by an Egyptian court to more than 100 defendants, including former president Morsi,” the State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.


Egyptian court sentences ousted President Morsi to death

The New York Times reports: An Egyptian court sentenced Mohamed Morsi, the country’s deposed president, to death on Saturday over his involvement in a prison break during Egypt’s 2011 popular uprising.

Mr. Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was the country’s first democratically elected president and came to power following the 2011 revolt that ended the three decades of autocratic rule of Hosni Mubarak. After a divisive and chaotic year in office, Mr. Morsi was ousted from power by the military in July 2013 following another wave of protests.

The jailbreak case was a sign of the sweeping reversal of Egypt’s political tide since the 2011 uprising. The former head of state had been detained in a revolution that many Egyptians hoped would bring about an end to arbitrary detentions and other abuses by the security state. [Continue reading…]


Egypt’s Morsi: jail sentence seals dramatic reversal of fortune

Reuters: Ousted president Mohamed Mursi once dreamed of creating an “Egyptian renaissance with an Islamic foundation”. That seemed more unreachable than ever on Tuesday after a judge sentenced him to 20 years in jail for violence, kidnapping and torture.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief who ousted Mursi in 2013 after mass protests against his rule, has repeatedly portrayed his Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group which poses an existential threat to Egypt.

That message was well received by many Egyptians whose desire for stability made them turn a blind eye to Sisi’s subsequent crackdown on Mursi, his supporters and other Brotherhood leaders. It was the toughest in Egypt’s history and about 800 protestors died.


Egypt sentences Muslim Brotherhood leader, others to death

Reuters reports: An Egyptian court sentenced Mohamed Badie, leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, and 13 other senior members of the group to death for inciting chaos and violence, and gave a life term to a U.S.-Egyptian citizen for ties to the Brotherhood.

The men were among thousands of people detained after freely elected Islamist president Mohamed Mursi was toppled in 2013 by the military under Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is now president.

Sisi describes the Brotherhood as a major security threat. The group says it is committed to peaceful activism and had nothing to do with Islamist militant violence in Egypt since Mursi’s fall following mass protests against his rule.

Egypt’s mass trials of Brotherhood members and people accused of links to the group, as well as its tough crackdown on Islamist and liberal opposition alike, have drawn international criticism of its judicial system and human rights record.

The sentences, pronounced at a televised court session on Saturday, can be appealed before Egypt’s highest civilian court in a process that could take years to reach a final verdict.

U.S.-Egyptian citizen Mohamed Soltan was sentenced to life in jail for supporting the veteran Islamist movement and transmitting false news. He is the son of Brotherhood preacher Salah Soltan, who was among those sentenced to death. [Continue reading…]


Four years after the Egyptian revolution

Thanassis Cambanis writes: In the four years that I’ve been reporting closely on Egypt’s transition from revolution to restoration, I’ve seen young activists go from stunned to euphoric to traumatized and sometimes defeated. I’ve seen stalwarts of the old regime go from arrogant and complacent to frightened and unsure to bullying and triumphalist. And yet, so far, the core grievances that drew frustrated Egyptians to Tahrir Square in the first place remain unaddressed. Police operate with complete impunity and disrespect for citizens, routinely using torture. Courts are whimsical, uneven, at times absurdly unjust and capricious. The military controls a state within a state, removed from any oversight or scrutiny, with authority over a vast portion of the national economy and Egypt’s public land. Poverty and unemployment continue to rise, while crises in housing, education, and health care have grown even worse than the most dire predictions of development experts. Corruption has largely gone unpunished, and [President Abdel Fattah el-]Sisi has begun to roll back an initial wave of prosecutions against Mubarak, his sons, and his oligarchs.

[Basem] Kamel [one of the leaders of the revolution] has abandoned his revolutionary rhetoric of 2011 for a more modest platform of reform, working within the system. He was one of just four revolutionary youth who made it into the short-lived revolutionary parliament of 2012, and he helped found the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, one of the most promising new political parties after the fall of Mubarak.

He expects to run for parliament again with his party, but the odds are longer and the stakes lower. The parliament will have hardly any power under Sisi’s setup. Most of the seats are slated for “independents,” which in practice means well-funded establishment candidates run by the former ruling party network. The Muslim Brotherhood, the nation’s largest opposition group, is now illegal. Existing political parties can only compete for 20 percent of the seats, and most of them, like Kamel’s have dramatically tamed their criticisms.

“I think Sisi is in control of everything,” Kamel said. “Of course I am not with Sisi, but I am not against the state.”

That’s why he’s devoting his efforts to a training program for Social Democratic cadres, a sort of political science-and-organizing academy for activists and operatives that will take years to bear fruit. “It’s long-term work,” he said.

Still, something fundamental changed in January 2011, and no amount of state brutality can reverse it. Many people who before 2011 cowered or kept their ideas to themselves now feel unafraid. [Continue reading…]