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Letter from the Editor

John L. Esposito, Editor in Chief

One of the most renowned scholars in the field of Islamic studies in the United States, Editor in Chief John L. Esposito provides a regular commentary for visitors to the site. These letters discuss topics pertaining to this resource and the Islamic world, developments on the site and other issues.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the Future of Egypt

John L. Esposito

For more than thirty years—despite provocation, arrest, detention, rigged elections, and state sponsored violence during Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian presidency—the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) did not engage in political or religious violence. One year after the MB's Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, took office, the military overthrew him, and the subsequent government under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has declared the MB a terrorist organization. Gulf allies such as the authoritarian monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who were complicit in the 2013 coup against Morsi and are major financial supporters of el-Sisi, have lobbied and pressured other governments, including the United States and European governments such as Great Britain, to recognize the regime as legitimate.

This scenario, as I discussed in a previous column, reflects and exceeds the fears expressed by Egyptian and Tunisian activists at a workshop in Istanbul in October 2011. Titled "The Arab Awakening: Transitioning from Dictatorship to Democracy", this conference attempted to address the aftermath of the uprisings and overthrow of the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes. Despite the upbeat and constructive discussions, the activists raised concerns about two major obstacles to a full democratic transition. First, the Egyptian revolution was peaceful. That is to say, whereas successful revolutions often end with the oppressors overthrown, killed, or imprisoned, in Egypt as in Tunisia, remnants of the old regime and entrenched elites remained in the military, judiciary, bureaucracy, interior, and police, where they could work to undermine the revolution and the democratically-elected government. Second, despite the Obama administration's assurances of support for self-determination and democratization, Egyptian and Tunisian participants questioned whether the US would be influenced by its longstanding ties with former authoritarian allies and elites. This concern was also reflected in a major Gallup poll that reported that two-thirds of Egyptians surveyed disagreed that the US is serious about encouraging democratic systems of government in their region.

Today, we are witnessing an attempt to return to military-backed authoritarian rule and to systematically eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, which represents the most effective opposition movement in modern Egyptian history. The unrestrained use of lethal force, mass killings, arrests, and torture (not only of MB members but also April 6 leaders, journalists, and others who oppose the return to another Pharaoh), are justified as a war against terrorism and a terrorist movement (MB). A review of the history of the Brotherhood demonstrates that nothing could be further from the truth. The Muslim Brotherhood refrained from violent retaliation for decades. Indeed, militant Egyptian Islamist organizations, as well as Ayman Al-Zawahiri, the current Egyptian-born leader of al-Qaeda, have long opposed the Brotherhood because of its gradualism and willingness to compromise even during the Morsi presidency.

The Fall of Mubarak and the Election of Mohammed Morsi

The MB did not officially participate (though individual members did) in the popular uprising that toppled Mubarak in February 2011. However, in June 2012, its political wing, The Freedom and Justice party and its candidate, Mohammed Morsi, won in Egypt's first free and fair democratic election after six decades of authoritarian rule. Morsi became Egypt's first civilian and Islamist president.

After only one year, however, the political tide turned dramatically. Mass mobilization and demonstrations across Egypt provided the military under General el-Sisi with an excuse on 30 June to lead a successful coup in the guise of restoring a safe, secure, and secular future. A widespread movement that had begun with and included many discontented sectors of society with genuine concerns and grievances was transformed not by Egyptian reformers but by the military and illiberal "democrats", who cared little for democracy and much for their own power and privilege. Many were individuals and institutions, including the military and judiciary, part of the deep state legacy of the Mubarak regime that sought to topple a democratically elected government.

Morsi and his government indeed made mistakes, mishandled opportunities to build a more representative coalition government, implemented policies that outraged their opponents, and marginalized or alienated sectors of society. But the military's response was not a recourse to the rule of law, but a violent coup that contradicted the original aims of the 2011 revolution.

Lost in the fog of this culture war—what some have called rebellion—are the accomplishments, even if sometimes imperfect, of a new government in the face of formidable obstacles inherited from the Mubarak era, including a failed economy, the army's disproportionate political power, and the anti-democratic elements remaining in the state institutions, judiciary, interior ministry, police security forces, and the media. The justice system in particular was guilty of conducting a "soft coup." Rather than serving as an institution of checks and balances, its judges asserted power over Morsi, the government, and the electoral process, using its authority to nullify elections, the constituent assembly, and the process of drafting the constitution.

Retreat from Democracy: Violence and Terror in the Name of State Security

Despite post-coup claims by el-Sisi and his appointed interim president of Egypt, Adly Mansour, that they would support an inclusive democratic process, from the very beginning el-Sisi and the unelected government demonized the Muslim Brotherhood as terrorists and sought to eradicate them. The historical record and facts on the ground show that the military's excesses stand in stark contrast to the record of the Muslim Brotherhood. Whatever their shortcomings, Mohamed Morsi and the Freedom and Justice Party came to power through ballots, not bullets. The el-Sisi-led government, on the other hand, put itself beyond the rule of law, starting with a coup, and moving on to massacres of civilian demonstrators (including many women and children), the mass arrest and illegal detention of tens of thousands of Brotherhood leaders members and supporters, a restoration of the dreaded Emergency Law, and trials that resulted in mass death sentences by a discredited court system.

The first six weeks after the coup signaled the nature of this "democratic transition" with three massacres of Muslim Brothers and supporters as well as other political opponents on July 7 and 27, and August 14, 2013. The third and largest occurred at al-Nahda and Rabba al-Adawiya Squares, where some 1,400 people (other estimates were as high as 2,600), the vast majority unarmed civilians including women and children, were slaughtered and thousands injured at two pro-Morsi sit-in camps. Human Rights Watch described it as the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history. Astonishingly, the Interior Minister had initially claimed that live ammunition wasn't used, only tear gas. Just two weeks earlier, Secretary of State John Kerry publicly stated that Egypt's military had in fact "restored democracy in Egypt" through this coup!

The mass arrest of political activists across the ideological spectrum

An estimated 43,000 opponents have been arrested, including 23,000 still in prison, with many members of the MB as well as other dissenters, and critics among those arrested between July 3 and December 2013.

The abuses of power have been well documented by multiple news sources and international organizations. By 23 January 2014, Amnesty International, in the briefing Roadmap to repression: No end in sight to human rights violations reported,

On the eve of the third anniversary of the "25 January Revolution", the human rights outlook in Egypt remains grim. Chief among the triggers of the uprising in 2011 were growing levels of poverty and inequality, soaring unemployment, endemic corruption, police brutality and other human rights violations…wide-scale repression continues unabated…The Egyptian authorities are using every resource at their disposal to quash dissent and trample on human rights…
Across the board the Egyptian authorities have tightened the noose on freedom of expression and assembly. Repressive legislation has been introduced making it easier for the government to silence its critics and crack down on protests. Security forces have been given free rein to act above the law and with no prospect of being held to account for abuses.

Similarly, HRW on February 20, 2014 reported that Egyptian authorities "demonstrated almost zero tolerance for any form of dissent, arresting and prosecuting journalists, demonstrators, and academics for peacefully expressing their views."

The coopting of the judiciary and eviscerating of the rule of law was starkly and shockingly evident in March and April 2014, when Justice Said Youssef issued a pair of rulings sentencing more than 1,200 people to death after two mass trials lasting less than an hour each. Applauded by Egypt's pro-government media, they were condemned by human rights advocates in Egypt and abroad.

Since the military-led coup, thousands of MB members have been killed, injured, arrested, tortured, and exiled, and yet they insist on the peaceful tactics in opposing the coup and its aftermath. While the evidence against the regime is overwhelming, there is absolutely no evidence that the MB or its affiliated party (FJP) have advocated violence. In fact, their official position has been stated clearly by their Supreme Guide, Dr. Muhammad Badie, who has consistently declared publicly that their peacefulness is stronger than bullets.


The manner of Morsi's overthrow reflected the degree to which Egypt's decades-long political culture and values of authoritarianism continued to influence politics and undermine the democratic process. This turn to the army and a coup was a retreat to the past, following in the footsteps of Egypt's previous regimes of Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, and falls into a pattern common in a number of Arab countries.

At the heart of democracy is a commitment to the democratic process and an acceptance of the notion of a loyal opposition. Political leaders are elected to office and turned out of office through recourse to the ballot box. The opposition can oppose, even despise incumbents, and employ every legal means to turn them out of office, but they remain loyal to the nation and the democratic process or else the entire system has no basis of legitimacy. As Mohamed Adel Ismail, a 26-year-old Egyptian social worker put it: "He [Morsi] made some catastrophic mistakes, that must be said, but my understanding of democracy is you allow him to rule and fail and then vote him out."

John L. Esposito
Editor in Chief
Oxford Islamic Studies Online
June 2014

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