Since the July 2013 overthrow of President Morsi of Egypt, Islamic movements and organizations have been the focus of sustained research. A total of eighteen reports were published on the topic in 2018 by seventeen think tanks. In comparison, twenty-one reports by nine think tanks were published in the first few months of 2019. This analysis examines the papers published about the Islamic movements and institutions in Egypt from April 2018 to May 2019. The papers focused on three major topics: the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Azhar, and militancy in Egypt (particularly in Sinai).
The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) was the main focus of attention for various think tanks. The CBS: 60 Minutes interview of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi provided expository analyses by Human Rights Watch and The Egyptian Institute for Studies (EIS) about Sisi’s actions once he took power. Human Rights Watch concluded that the mass trial of over seven-hundred thirty Rab’a protesters and MB leaders were unfair (1). EIS focused on Sisi’s denial of responsibility for the Rab’a dispersal, insisting that “the maintenance of peace after this period required some measures to restore security.” (2)
According to the Washington Institute, the ouster of Morsi was followed by one of the most severe periods of repression against the MB encompassing mass detentions, mass trials, and ongoing imprisonment of Morsi, his presidential team and high-ranking MB officials (3). Finally, Sisi’s designation of the MB as a terrorist group means that membership or even support of any type can lead to imprisonment (4). The repression has resulted in waves of exile. Anecdotal evidence reported by a Carnegie paper suggests that many of those who went into exile since 2011 have been members of both Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups (5).
In spite of the December 2013 designation of the MB as a terrorist organization by the Egyptian government (after the military coup) and the seizure of its assets, The Carnegie Middle East Center’s analysis reports that the MB has been consistent in its calls for nonviolent resistance (6). Barbara Zoller, lecturer in Middle East politics in the Department of Politics, Birkbeck College, London, argues that although gradualism is debated within the camp, “there is no evidence of an imminent ideological shift that will turn the Brotherhood toward violence.” (7) The same publication concludes that given the organization resiliency, Egypt’s political destiny will continue to be shaped by rivalry between the regime and Islamists (8).
A number of think tanks have focused their attention on the relationship between the MB in Egypt and neighboring countries. For example, The Egyptian Institute for Studies posed three likely scenarios regarding the Egyptian MB’s relationship with Saudi Arabia (9). The first is the deterioration of these relations. The second is characterized by an anticipated downfall of the political regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the wider Arab world. The third scenario is characterized by improved relations between Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s MB. The paper also explained that the so-called “transitional phase” in Egypt has significantly affected the relationship between MB and Saudi Arabia (10). Correspondingly, the electoral success of Brotherhood-affiliated political parties in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco has fueled Sisi’s fears that they may take control of the Arab world. To illustrate, Sisi seeks to control the situation in Libya through his support of the Libyan National Army headed by Field Marshall Kalifa Haftar in order to weaken the Islamists both internationally and domestically (11).
In regards to American relations with the MB, The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) emphasized in its policy recommendations that The Trump administration should communicate a clear message that the MB remains a breeding ground for extremism (12). Furthermore, FDD suggested the administration should continue sanctioning Egyptian organizations that meet the criteria for terrorism, which includes ties to MB (13). In response to the White House’s consideration of designating the MB as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, a number of experts have weighed in on the challenges such a label would create. Aside from a consensus that the MB does not meet the criteria for a terrorist group (14), Michele Dunne and Andrew Miller, have pointed that the MB is not a single organisation but rather various affiliated groups (15). Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, sums up the effect of Trump’s policy as the “designation would remove any pretense that the United States has even a passing interest in supporting Arab democracy.” (16) Thus, Trump’s designation will prevent any change in the political landscape and enshrine autocracy (17) (18). In addition, those who are suspected to have any ties to the MB in the United States could be subjected to their assets being frozen or even deported if they are not American citizens (19) (20). Marc Lynch, nonresident fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program, argues that the direction of this policy “serve[s] President Donald Trump’s domestic political interests, pandering to the anti-Islamic biases of the American right and pressuring Muslim civil society organizations.” (21) Hence, this approach by Trump could be seen as a continuation of anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Al-Azhar was another hot topic for a number of think tanks. Article 7 of the Egyptian Constitution states that al-Azhar is “the main reference of religious sciences and Islamic affairs.” (22) However, the role played by al-Azhar is not limited to the practice of Islam and extends to moral leadership in society. Consequently, there is a religious and political conflict between Sisi and Tayyib (Grand Imam of Al-Azhar) on the leadership roles of civil authorities that lead the political system and religious scholars trained in textual interpretation (23). For its part, the regime has many tools to influence public opinion without pushing directly against a widely venerated institution in Egyptian society. For instance, since the regime controls all media, it can severely curtail reporting on Al-Azhar scholars’ opinions and statements not to the regime’s liking (24). Furthermore, The Ministry of Religious Endowments is pushing an initiative in which imams will be trained at the National Academy, which is attached to the Presidency, rather than at Al-Azhar. Ultimately, the regime seeks to subordinate Al-Azhar through subtle means and tools (25).
Lastly, militant groups that affiliate themselves with Islam play a direct role in shaping the image of Islamic groups in general. Militants in the Sinai Peninsula who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014 have posed a challenge to Egypt (26). The “Ansar al-Bayt al-Maqdis” (Supporters of Jerusalem) group is one of the most prominent jihadist groups that appeared on the Egyptian scene. It pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and changed its name to become “Sinai Province.” In their paper, ‘Islamic State After Syria: A Dangerous New Stronghold in the Sinai’, Tobias Burgers and Scott Romaniuk contend that locating in Sinai “offers IS a position of strategic significance, with more territorial opportunities, contending at present only with the Egyptian state, rather than external intervention or coalition airstrikes.” (27) The group adopted a policy of maintaining a gradual escalation of attacks to weaken and demoralize the army and police forces as well as targeting the economic interests of the regime by creating a state of security confusion. Most of the ‘Sinai Province’ affiliated groups pledged allegiance to the Islamic State while other groups outside Sinai were against this move. The internal disagreement of the jihadist organizations in Egypt reflects the conflict between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State inspired groups around the world, particularly in the Levant (28).
Egypt’s response towards militancy in its borders has been to conduct counter-terrorism operations and declare a state of emergency while also adopting The Terrorist Entities Law. Sisi’s attempt to wipe out terrorism in Egypt in the coveted ‘Operation Sinai 2018’ was accompanied by heavy presence of the military in the region resulting in a humanitarian crisis (29). Although some progress has been made in fighting the militants, the insurgents remain resilient despite their losses (30). The Terrorist Entities Law set forth an official process through which an individual or entity can be designated as a terrorist or terrorist entity via public prosecution. This vaguely worded legislation raises serious questions of the breadth and scope of discretion given to authorities to restrict civil liberties, arrest and imprison citizens (31).
The international discussions about the Islamic movements and institutions in Egypt revolve around the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic Institutions (Al-Azhar) and extremist militant groups. Ultimately, the discussion revolves around the relationship of all three Islamic movements and institutions with the Egyptian regime.
(14), (16), (17), (21) https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/79067
(23), (24), (25) https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/77928