Clampdown and Blowback: How State Repression Has Radicalized Islamist Groups in Egypt

Anti-Morsi poster in Egypt.

Anti-Morsi poster in Egypt, 2013

Editor's Note

With the election of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to the presidency, the pendulum of Egyptian politics has once again taken a dramatic swing. A former military man, al-Sisi helped orchestrate the coup against his predecessor—President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood—followed by a severe crackdown on Islamic groups. As historian Elizabeth Perego details, this is not the first effort to suppress the Brotherhood, and these campaigns have usually radicalized the Islamists.

Read these insightful Origins articles for more on the Middle East: Islam in Egypt; The Sunni-Shi'i Divide; the Alawites and Syria; U.S.-Iranian Relations; U.S.-Iraq Relations; Turkish Politics; and The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict.

Listen to this History Talk podcast on the Syrian Civil War and Arab Spring.

“You have created a new Taliban and a new al-Qaeda in Egypt,” a protestor shook with fury as he shouted at the camera in a message to Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military strongman recently voted President of Egypt.

The footage was shot about a year ago, just after al-Sisi and the Egyptian army forcibly overthrew Mohamed Morsi, then the first democratically elected Egyptian president and leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, on July 3, 2013. The video quickly went viral on news and social media sites and was watched not only by fellow Morsi supporters but by analysts of the region who feared the man might be right.

The protestor wanted al-Sisi to know that efforts on the part of the army ruthlessly to suppress Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and to oust elected Islamists from government would increasingly be met with violence and a shift of Islamic groups to political extremism.

Recent events have suggested that the man’s predictions for the future of Egypt may be coming true.

Since the coup that ousted Morsi, the Egyptian state has launched a vicious campaign to wipe out and suppress the Muslim Brotherhood (Jamā`at al-Ikhwān al-Muslimīn), one of the most important Islamic revivalist organizations of the past century. The Brotherhood has worked since its founding in 1928 towards the creation of an Islamic society through a network of philanthropic organizations, health and social welfare efforts, religious centers, schools, periodicals, political organizations, and extra-legal, at times aggressive, tactics.

Following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in the early days of the Arab Spring in 2011, Morsi and the Brotherhood were elected in Egypt in 2012, much to the military’s disapproval.

Over the year since Morsi’s overthrow, an estimated 1,400 have died as a result of political violence, many of them Ikhwān (Brotherhood) supporters denouncing the military’s overthrow of the president for the coup it was.

Egyptian military and police agents have also arrested and sometimes tortured suspected Brotherhood sympathizers, including women and children.

Meanwhile, Morsi has been charged with provoking violence in the streets of Egypt in the lead-up to the July 3 coup as well as colluding with Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah to plan a terrorist attack on Egypt. He faces the death penalty if convicted of these unfounded charges.

The state has been quick to blame the Ikhwān for any and all attacks carried out against civilians or state agents. The army’s wariness of the Brotherhood led Egypt to outlaw the party and seize of all of their assets in September 2013, and to label them a terrorist organization at the end of December.

And in a move that provoked international condemnation, an Egyptian court sentenced 529 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood to death in a single trial in late March 2014 for having participated in August 2013 riots in the city of al-Minya which left one police officer dead. (A judge later commuted all but 37 of the sentences to time in prison; however, in April of this year an Egyptian court again sentenced a further 683 Ikhwān supporters to death.)

With the election in May of al-Sisi (Morsi’s former defense minister-cum-coup architect), the circumstances are not likely to improve. In a television interview that aired right before the elections, al-Sisi vowed to wipe out the Brotherhood if elected president.

Al-Sisi’s treatment of the Brotherhood and its partisans has not deterred some Egyptians from genuinely supporting the military strongman. In the weeks leading up to the election from which he predictably emerged victorious, journalists did not have a difficult time finding al-Sisi enthusiasts to interview.

Now that the general is receiving praise from large numbers of Egyptians for having supposedly saved the country from the Ikhwān’s clutches, some North African analysts are wondering out loud whether the Egyptian military may have been pushing pro-Islamist Egyptians to the brink of violence in order to swoop in as saviors against supposedly dangerous Islamism.

The military’s actions have not been without consequence.

As the government inflicts more acts of horrendous violence upon Muslim Brotherhood partisans, fringes of the broad Islamist movement are increasingly joining up with hardline groups espousing armed struggle. They hope to inflict revenge upon the state that robbed Morsi and the Brotherhood of the political power the Egyptian people legitimately invested in them through the 2012 elections.

On December 24, 2013, a car bomb set off outside of the Security Directorate in Mansoura killed 16 and left hundreds wounded, echoing an attack by armed agents against military conscripts that left 25 dead in August.

A month later, on January 24, 2014, the eve of the third anniversary of former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s departure from power saw a series of four bomb explosions in public places during morning rush hour in central Cairo. The attacks left six dead and dozens more injured.

These bombings, as well as some attacks on Coptic Christians, reflect how armed associations are harming civilians in their quest for vengeance and justice. As of late May, there have been more than 300 coordinated attacks on civilians and security forces. The gunpowder appears lit for a long, violent struggle over Egypt’s future.

The prediction of a new Taliban and al-Qaeda has precedent in the region’s recent past. Historically speaking, the harder states clamp down on the activities of Islamists, the more likely members of these groups are to counter this aggression, at times espousing ultraconservative views of Islam.

The history of the encounters of the Muslim Brotherhood with various Egyptian leaders and regimes since the birth of the world’s first modern Islamist movement elucidates how state repression of this group has typically culminated in the radicalization of the organization. Three examples in particular serve to illustrate this point: Gamal Abdel Nasser’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s, Anwar Sadat’s “autumn of fury” and subsequent assassination in 1981, and the Mubarak regime’s suppression of the Brotherhood in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Milestones to Radicalization: Nasser and the Suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood

Al-Sisi is currently following a path of violence against the Muslim Brotherhood well-trod by earlier Egyptian military leaders. Attempts by Nasser’s regime from the mid-1950s through the 1960s to weed out the Ikhwān encouraged many among the latter to embrace a more stringent view of Islam and a hardline stance against a secular, nationalist state.

After coming to power, Nasser moved quickly to solidify his power, outlawing political parties and forcing the Brotherhood to transform into more of a social association.

In 1954, Nasser’s government launched a campaign to weed out the Ikhwān organizationafter publicly blaming a Brother for an assassination attempt on Nasser. The military-led regime rounded up Ikhwān members and threw tens of thousands in jail, torturing and executing many of the organization’s leaders, including one of the group’s major thinkers, Sayyid Qutb.

Prior to Nasser’s decision to wipe out the Islamist party, the Ikhwān had by no means been an entirely peaceful movement. They had a paramilitary group that engaged in certain activities in the late 1940s that would qualify as terrorism. Yet some Ikhwān partisans’ use of violence was not out of the ordinary: turmoil and bloodshed marked the period preceding fall of the monarchy in Egypt in 1953. All Egyptians were operating in a context of uncertainty and instability in the 1940s and 1950s as they struggled to free themselves from British colonial control.

While in prison as part of Nasser’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb penned Maʿālim fī al-Ṭarīq, frequently translated in English as Milestones. Experts on Islamist doctrine in the 20th century almost universally agree that the worksignaled an ideological break with Qutb’s earlier doctrine and that the experience of prison weighed heavily on the volume’s content.

Prior to the widespread suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood beginning in 1954, while Qutb had preached against extravagant, materialistic Western lifestyles, he had not yet elaborated the theories that would later prove grist to extremists’ mill.

Indeed, Milestones, which appeared in 1964, brimmed with ire at those Qutb believed were claiming to be Muslims but were, in his view, undermining Islam. He wrote that the world of the mid-20th century had fallen into disarray resembling the world prior to the arrival of the Prophet Muhammad. According to Qutb, they had returned to the pre-Islamic era of jāhiliyya, “a state of ignorance of the guidance from God.”

The Muslims of his day had a duty to rid the world of this ignorance and ensure that all Muslims were only submitting themselves to God’s instruction. He thus envisioned the eventual disappearance of government by men replaced with a system in which individuals subjected themselves to the sharīʿa as the ideal post- jāhiliyya world.

By declaring that the world had returned to jāhiliyya, Qutb opened the door for his followers to lob the charge of kāfir, or unbeliever,at those Muslims who were following governments whose rule was not based on Islamic principles and who, unlike Qutb’s vision of true Muslims, tacitly accepted the rule of men and the nationalist and socialist governments.

According to some interpretations of Milestones, Qutb’s concept of jāhiliyya validated takfīr, or the denunciation of individuals as kāfir, an action that would make these persons ineligible for protection under Muslim law and subject to death according to some understandings of Islamic tenets. Some Muslim Brothers while still in jail in the 1960s even began proclaiming fellow prisoners as kāfir, a status that some believed required death as a punishment.

Qutb’s notion that the world had entered a new age of jāhiliyya went on to become a critical concept at the core of global jihadism, even if there was no way for Qutb at the time of writing to anticipate this consequence of his book.

Qutb’s works from this period espoused such incendiary and dangerous thoughts that Nasser’s regime executed him by hanging in 1966 (although it is interesting to note that Milestones was printed initially with consent of the state, which only later banned the book, rounding up those Brothers in possession of it and throwing them in jail). The Egyptian state thereby rendered him a martyr in the eyes of many Islamists and permitted his doctrine to develop a life of its own.

Had Nasser not unleashed a campaign of torture and terror upon the Ikhwān, Qutb might have never crafted Milestones.

It is worth noting that not all members of the Muslim Brotherhood agreed with the more radical interpretations of Qutb’s theory of jāhiliyya. Some outright renounced the exercising of takfīr. The second guide of the organization, Hasan al-Hudaybi, was among those Ikhwān against declaring apostasy on other Muslims.

His viewsencapsulated moderate positions towards the Egyptian state as well as other Muslims that the Brotherhood’s members overwhelmingly adopted and have continued to uphold over the past few decades.Yet Nasser’s repression of the Ikhwān had already done its damage, planting a vision of the validity of takfīr for generations to come.

Pathways to Peace and Return to the Margins: The Brotherhood under Sadat

If imprisonment, torture, and executions pushed Muslim Brotherhood theorist Qutb to radicalization, then quite the opposite initially occurred under Anwar Sadat (Nasser’s successor) when policies of greater tolerance and acceptance paved the way to peaceful civic participation by the Ikhwān in the 1970s.

Ascending to power in 1970, Sadat lessened pressure on the Ikhwān. The Muslim Brotherhood was still illegal and was occasionally subjected to state-imposed constraints in their activities. However, the Egyptian state closed the concentration camps that had been holding arrested members of the Brotherhood, and the government permitted them to take important positions in students’ and workers’ unions and professional organizations.

Sadat had three main goals in this policy change, however limited, towards the Brotherhood.

Internal power struggles and balancing different political groups were one cause. Sadat aimed to promote the Brothers in order to counter the influence of pro-Nasser, leftist elements who opposed Sadat’s turn to western capitalism.

Further, Sadat incorporated some tenets of sharīʿa into national laws. This move was designed to distance himself from Nasser and present himself as devout at a moment when many Egyptians were turning to religion for solace after the devastating loss to Israel during the Arab-Israeli War of 1967.

Finally, Sadat’s efforts to privatize the economy that had been nationalized under Nasser and to marginalize socialist politicians appealed to members of a religiously conservative bourgeoisie. The latter made ideal allies for the president in his campaign to distance himself from Nasser’s policies, particularly socialism, without losing legitimacy and support.

In the meantime, Muslim Brothers who preferred revolt and refused al-Hudaybi’s call for coexistence had split from the movement to form their own organizations. They broke away from mainstream Ikhwān in light of the leadership’s willingness to negotiate with what they considered an apostate Egyptian regime.

The first of such groups was Takfīr wal-Hijra, born like Qutb’s more radical worldview in Nasser-era prison cells and concentration camps. Its adherents considered Qutb’s plea for a separation of true Muslims from a jāhiliyya society to mean a division in every aspect of life, including politics, between themselves and non-Muslims. Members of this organizationdesired the overthrow of the Egyptian state and the establishment of a state based exclusively on sharīʻa.

Similarly, Al-Jamāʻa al-Islāmīya originated in student groups on Egyptian campuses in the 1970s and supported the use of violence as a means to inaugurate a regime based on their interpretation of Muslim principles.

In 1979, Tanzīm al-Jihād came on the scene as well, another incendiary group that wanted to spark an Islamist revolution in Egypt. They quickly became known as Qutbists due to their adherence to the Qutb’s idea of jāhiliyya, their interpretation of his writings to allow for takfīr, and their belief in the need of men to be subject only to God’s rule.

The mutual tolerance between Sadat and Egypt’s Islamists persisted until the president shifted his stance on Israel with the Camp David Accords and subsequent 1979 Egypt-Israeli Peace Treaty, trading ceasefire/cooperation with the longtime enemy to regain territory lost in the 1967 defeat. The anger many Islamists in the country felt towards Sadat’s recognition of and dealings with Israel unraveled the pact of peaceful coexistence that he had fostered with the Brotherhood and stoked the embers of radicalism among Muslims in Egypt.

That same year, the successful overthrow of the Iranian government and the establishment of the Islamic Republic in Iran lent hope to the radical fringes’ aspirations for overturning the Egyptian regime which only years earlier had so brutally repressed them.

Seething from Sadat’s treaty with Israel and encouraged by Khomeini’s success in Iran, the more extremist elements of Egypt’s Islamist movement calculated that the moment had come for a coup against the state.

In his anger against the Egypt-Israel treaty, the leader of the Jihād group, Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj, condemned Sadat as an apostate and, consequently, an enemy who should be neutralized. He expressed these ideas in a pamphlet, The Neglected Duty, which circulated broadly among Islamists and Islamist sympathizers at the time. Sadat’s government did not fail to take notice.

Aware of the gathering rage against him and his regime, Sadat embarked upon a series of measures intended to suppress Egypt’s broad Islamist movement. For instance, following the treaty with Israel the Sadat regime banned student unions, al-Jamāʻa’smain power base.

During his “autumn of fury” mere weeks before his death, Sadat rounded up and arrested political opponents, including Ikhwān. These missteps and the growing Islamist disapproval of his regime proved fatal for Sadat, who was assassinated by al-Jihād on October 6, 1981.

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.

Check out a lesson plan based on this article: Religions of the Middle East

Suggested Reading

Calvert, John. Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

Carré, Olivier and Gérard Michaud. Les Frères musulmans : Egypte et Syrie (1928–1982). 1983.

Kepel, Gilles. Le Prophète et Pharaon : Les mouvements islamistes dans l'Egypte contemporaine. Paris: La Découverte, 1984.

Lawrence, Bill. “Will Egypt Become the Next Algeria” The Washington Institute. July 17, 2013.

Lia, Brynjar. The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement, 1928-1942. Reading, England: Ithaca Press, 1998.

Mitchell, Richard P. The Society of the Muslim Brothers. London: Oxford University, 1969.

New York Times The Lede Blog (July 3, 2013)

Wickham, Carrie Rosefsky. Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism and Political Change in Egypt. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Zollner, Barbara. 2007. “Prison Talk: the Muslim Brotherhood's Internal Struggle during Gamal Abdel Nasser's Persecution, 1954 to 1971.” International Journal of Middle East Studies. 39, no. 3: 411-433.