On May 16, an Egyptian court sentenced Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, to death, along with more than 100 co-defendants in an alleged prison break. It was the latest in a series of sham trials and mass death sentences decreed by Egypt’s judiciary since the Egyptian military ousted Morsi in July 2013.
Hanging Morsi, the first leader of the Muslim Brotherhood to assume the presidency of an Arab country, would make him a martyr in Egypt and beyond. Egypt’s grand mufti, the country’s top religious authority, must give a nonbinding opinion on the death sentence by June 2; Morsi may appeal the verdict, but so far he has not recognized the court’s authority.
Beyond his fate, the mass death sentences — part of Egypt’s wider crackdown on the Brotherhood and other opponents of the military regime — send a dangerous signal to Islamists throughout the region: The only way to achieve political power is through violence.
The Brotherhood’s experience over the years 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. Egypt cannot be a viable, pluralistic democracy without the Brotherhood’s participation. Unfortunately, the army’s coup against Morsi — and the Brotherhood’s failure at governing — lent ammunition to pundits in the West who perpetuate the centuries-old lazy and racist trope that Islam is incompatible with democracy and modernity.
Will of the people?
When it deposed Morsi in 2013, the military insisted it was acting on the will of the Egyptian people, who had grown disenchanted with his clumsy rule and disastrous economic policies. But the army didn’t stop there. It arrested Morsi along with thousands of other Brotherhood leaders and activists, shut down media outlets sympathetic to the Islamists and banned the Brotherhood from Egyptian political life. Then in August 2013, the army and security forces opened fire on thousands of Morsi’s supporters who were engaged in a peaceful sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, killing at least 1,000 people. Human Rights Watch called the massacre “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.”
The repression under Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who was Morsi’s defense minister and the coup’s main instigator, has been more intense than under President Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled by a popular uprising in January 2011. Many of Egypt’s secular and liberal activists initially stood by as the military moved to dismantle the Brotherhood, and some — blinded by fear of the Islamists and their perceived threat to democracy — encouraged the crackdown. Predictably, after targeting the Islamists, the military expanded its repression against secularists and anyone else who criticized its actions.
Islamists view the Egyptian military’s coup and subsequent crackdown as a signal that election results will not be respected.
Sisi, who is now president, restored military rule and returned officials from Mubarak’s regime to power. Sisi is the latest in a line of military strongmen to rule Egypt since Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew the British-backed monarchy in 1952.
Sisi’s crackdown is reminiscent of Nasser’s suppression of the Brotherhood in the 1950s and ’60s, which helped lay the ideological foundations for the emergence of violent Islamic movements in Egypt and the rest of the Middle East. This pattern of repression that leads to radicalization is being repeated today.
The Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest and most influential Islamist movement in the Arab and Muslim worlds; it has inspired branches and affiliates throughout the Middle East. In fits and starts over several decades, Islamist parties across the region renounced violence and committed to participating in electoral politics.
But now Islamists view the Egyptian military’s coup and subsequent crackdown as a signal that election results will not be respected. The process can spiral out of control. In 1992 the Islamic Salvation Front was on the verge on winning parliamentary elections in Algeria when the military intervened and canceled the results. That coup set off an eight-year civil war that killed more than 100,000 people.
And that is the danger many in the region and in the West are failing to grasp: While authoritarian rule appears to provide stability over the short term, it breeds discontent and affirms the idea that violence is an acceptable — indeed, the only — way to be heard.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, a schoolteacher. It initially focused on religious outreach and providing social services but soon became politically active in the struggle against Zionism, imperialism and British colonial rule.
When Nasser took power in 1952, his Free Officers Movement was nominally allied with the Brotherhood. But after a member of the group tried to assassinate him in 1954, the military regime moved to crush the Brotherhood. He arrested thousands of Brotherhood members; those who escaped the gallows were imprisoned or forced into exile.
The most radical thinker to emerge from that period was Sayyid Qutb, a Brotherhood ideologue who was swept up in Nasser’s crackdown. After enduring nine years of prison and torture, Qutb published a manifesto in 1964, “Milestones Along the Road,” in which he argued that Nasser’s secular Arab nationalism paved the way for authoritarianism and that a new Muslim vanguard was needed to restore Islam to its role as “the leader of mankind.”
Nasser’s regime executed Qutb in 1966, and he joined the long list of Islamist martyrs. Most of the Brotherhood’s surviving leadership renounced violence in the 1960s and urged accommodation with the secular regime. But Qutb’s disciples abandoned the Brotherhood and splintered into violent factions that would later form the backbone of Al-Qaeda. In the 1980s a wave of Egyptian Islamists were forced into exile, and many ended up joining the CIA-backed war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Demonizing all Islamists as terrorists becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the late ’80s and ’90s, radical Islamists launched intense attacks on police, government officials, tourists and intellectuals throughout Egypt, killing nearly 2,500 people and paralyzing the economy. Mubarak’s regime responded with a severe crackdown, arresting, executing or deporting thousands of suspected Islamists. Egyptians rejected the violent Islamists, while the Brotherhood adhered to nonviolence and ultimately became focused on politics.
Today the Egyptian military can continue its crackdown with impunity because the United States and other Western powers made clear that they favor stability over democracy. Much of the West accepted the coup and has remained largely silent about the sham trials and mass death sentences being handed down by the Egyptian judiciary. (Washington issued a tepid statement expressing its “deep concern” over Morsi’s sentence.) The U.S. provides Egypt with $1.3 billion in military aid each year, but it has been reluctant to use that aid as leverage against the Egyptian regime.
Despite the mistakes during its short-lived rule of Egypt, the Brotherhood still has support among large segments of the population. Since the 1960s, the movement has built mosques, schools and health clinics that often outperformed the government’s social welfare system.
After the sentences against Morsi and his co-defendants were announced, the Brotherhood issued a statement portraying him and the movement as the protectors of Egypt’s nascent democracy. The group called on its supporters “to steel their resolve and stand firm on the path of democratic legitimacy” and “to escalate revolutionary defiance activities every day until together we defeat the junta and topple the illegitimate military coup regime.”
The Brotherhood’s statement can be interpreted as an appeal to continued peaceful protest — although Sisi’s regime has banned most public gatherings — or as a call to arms. A few hours after Morsi was sentenced to death, three judges were gunned down in the Sinai, where a group affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has carried out a series of attacks against the military and security forces.
That is another danger of an authoritarian government’s demonizing all Islamists as terrorists who must be suppressed: It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sisi’s actions prove to those who advocate violence that it is the only path. Ultimately, some Islamists will conclude that the only way to protect themselves and achieve power is by taking up arms.
Today the struggle over Islamism is between two paths: the violence advocated by Qutb and his followers or the commitment to building a social base and participating in electoral politics, as Islamist groups in Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt have done. The United States and others in the West who proclaim to care about democracy must not allow authoritarian regimes such as Sisi’s to malign that history of peaceful political engagement or to breed new resentments with its latest cycle of repression. The West can start by loudly condemning the death sentences against Morsi and so many others convicted by Egypt’s kangaroo courts.