Mubarak and the Brotherhood

In the wake of Sadat’s death, the government under a new president, Hosni Mubarak, quickly decided to initiate a national reconciliation with the Islamist groups and other political actors whom Sadat’s crackdown had antagonized.

Mubarak released the political opponents, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide. As the decade went on, laxity allowed for the Brothers to take lead roles again in trade unions and student organizations. Ikhwān were able to run for parliament as independent candidates, successfully winning seats. Coalitions were even built between the Brotherhood and the liberal New Wafd Party, a nationalist liberal party.

The Mubarak regime undoubtedly attempted to use the Brotherhood as a sort of buffer against the rise of more radical Salafist groups. Mubarak’s state in the 1980s proved willing to tolerate the movement as long as the group strove to fulfill their political objectives through non-violent means.

And much like during Sadat’s reign in the early and mid-1970s this period of tolerance coincided with a calming of the Islamist forces in Egypt.

The tides turned for the Ikhwān, however, when they became too powerful for Mubarak and his allies to tolerate any longer. They gradually grew in strength through civic associations and elections, eventually taking control of important organizations such as the Egyptian Bar Association in 1992.

Concurrently, the rise to power of an Islamist party in Algeria—the first then-legal Islamist association in North Africa to assume widespread control of a nation, even if only on a municipal level—caused the Cairo authorities to fear that the Brotherhood could have similar success in Egypt.

As a result of these fears, beginning in the late 1980s and lasting through the 1990s, especially in 1995, Mubarak’s regime repressed the Brotherhood, eventually sentencing hundreds to time in prison in military tribunals. In a foreshadowing of events in Egypt today, the government also began blaming the Muslim Brotherhood for the violent acts that other oppositional groups committed against security agents, civilians, and tourists.

The Egyptian state then entered into an armed conflict with Islamist groups during the 1990s that was certainly fueled by the government’s detainment, imprisonment, and torture of Egypt’s more moderate Islamist forces. An estimated 1,600 people died during this period.

The Al-Sisi Presidency and Islam in Egypt

As al-Sisi begins his term as Egyptian president this month, the situation in Egypt today mirrors earlier moments in which armed forces claiming to stand for secular values and international and domestic security have sought to eliminate Islamist parties through tyrannical means. Al-Sisi, like so many before him, has manipulated negative stereotypes of Islamist parties to justify brutal treatment and stay in power despite a lack of legitimacy.

Liberal elements of Egyptian society as well as current military would do well to remember the reality that state-inflicted violence against once legal Islamist movements begets violence, a vicious cycle that can end in high civilian casualties. That the Muslim Brotherhood, with its leader Morsi, had been freely elected in 2012 and then overthrown a year later in a military coup will certainly not be soon forgotten.

While the warnings of the protestor of “a new Taliban” or “new al-Qaeda” may not entirely come to pass, it seems certain that the recent repression, arrests, mock trials, torture, and killings of the Muslim Brotherhood will only lead to greater instability for Egypt.