Egypt, with its population of 94.7 million, is by far the biggest Arabic-speaking country in the region. Although it may not play a similar political or military role in the Arab world as it previously had, Egypt may hold soft influential power by uprightness of its history, its attractive media, and its charming culture.
The Arab League is headquartered in Egypt’s capital Cairo, as is the al-Azhar University, the most established continuously working educational institute in the region with emblematic significance as the main wellspring of Islamic scholarship.
Furthermore, Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel, concluded with the help of the United States, an important ally, stands out amongst the most noteworthy conciliatory accomplishments for the advancement of Arab-Israeli peace.
As a result, nowadays, Israel and Egypt have expanded their cooperation against Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip. In 1979, the U.S. had provided a total of $7.3 billion to both parties. The Special International Security Assistance Act of 1979 (P.L. 96-35) provided both military and economic grants to Israel and Egypt at a ratio of 3 to 2, respectively; the Egyptian military aid was $1.3 billion, for example. In his letter to Egypt, Harold Brown, U.S. Secretary of Defense under the Carter Administration, wrote the following:
“In the context of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the United States is prepared to enter into an expanded security relationship with Egypt with regard to the sales of military equipment and services and the financing of, at least a portion of those sales, subject to such Congressional review and approvals as may be required.”
Aid Based on Three Essentials
Egypt receives its aid based on three essentials: Foreign Military Financing, Economic Support Funds, and International Military Education and Training. The U.S. offers Egypt military education and training with the aim of long-term military collaboration to reach security goals in the region. Egypt has utilized the U.S.’s military guide through Foreign Military Financing (in addition to other things) to buy F-16 fighter aircraft, the M1A1 Abrams battle tank, and the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter.
After the military coup of 1952, all presidents – except Mohammed Morsi – came from the military, as this is considered to be the most respected institution in the country. The main opposition has always originated from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, who refused the single party military-backed rule.
After the 2011 revolution and the outset of Hosni Mubarak, who was in power in 1981-2011, tensions gradually began to surface between the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a body of military officers that took political control in Egypt after the 1952 coup.
Struggle for Power
In the absence of a shared national agenda agreed upon by political forces, leading members of the revolutionary partnership, including liberals, Revolutionary Socialists, the April 6 Group, political activists, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, sought to acquire individual power and exclude potential rivals.
Between November 28, 2011, and January 11, 2012, a parliamentary election for the People’s Assembly (Egypt’s lower house) was held. The Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood came in first with a clear majority of 47.2 percent of the seats. This could, if wanted and with the use of a few other parliamentary blocs or even independents, have led to the formation of the next government. This would have been satisfying enough for the Muslim Brotherhood who were aiming at reforming the political system in Egypt by implementing radical changes through the parliament.
A double blow for the Muslim Brotherhood occurred two days before the second round of presidential elections, when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had dissolved the Islamist dominated parliament. After the dissolution, the only chance for the Muslim Brotherhood to change the political system was by winning the presidential elections with the help of Morsi who was competing against the army-backed candidate Marshal Ahmed Shafik.
Morsi won the first honest national election since the overthrow of the monarchy in Egypt in 1952. The voter turnout on June 24, 2012, was 52 percent. He won by a narrow margin over Shafik, who was the final prime minister under deposed President Mubarak.
Military Reasserts Control
Morsi’s administration was dominated by doubt, political gridlock, and public disappointment, giving Egypt’s military, driven by then-Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, an opportunity to reassert political control.
On July 3, 2013, after a few days of massive protests against Morsi’s administration, the military singularly overthrew Morsi, kidnapped the elected president, and suspended the Constitution that had been passed.
At that point, it was not possible for Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to reach understanding to pursue the democratic project; it was too late, because the military had already decided to crush the Muslim Brotherhood.
The country was placed under martial law, and a few days later, the military began imprisoning, killing, or forcing into exile Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders. The national police propelled a brutal crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, as it fired live ammunition against demonstrators encamped in several public squares such as Rabae’a and Nahda, resulting in the killing of at least 1,150 demonstrators.
The Egyptian military justified these actions by declaring the encampments a threat to national security. From their new bases in the U.S., Europe, South Asia, Qatar, and Turkey, members of the Muslim Brotherhood tried to find a protective shell that would enable them to organize against the illegitimate regime that came to power through the military coup. While their circumstances remain unclear, their initiative in the U.S. might have a long-term impact on Washington’s policy towards Egypt. It might be in the interest of the U.S. to reconsider the rise of political Islam to power and to accept their existence through the democratic process in Egypt.
Does Muslim Brotherhood Have Serious Presence in US?
After the revolution of 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces collaborated with all political forces, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, as it wielded a great deal of influence at that time. The Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood was established and, after opening a branch office in each of the country’s 28 governorates and an additional 50 sub-branches, it could not be ignored. A branch would be opened immediately after issuing a call for members.
Interestingly, 55 percent of the members were not Muslim Brothers. For instance, the party’s current acting head of operations is Rafiq Habib, a Coptic Christian who used to rank third in the administrative hierarchy of the organization. He became the president of the Muslim Brotherhood party after those who occupied the first and second positions were imprisoned.
Many non-Muslim Brotherhood members, whether in Egypt or overseas, whether Copts and/or non-Egyptians, adhere to the movement’s ideology. Those who fled abroad seek to work through existing local political institutions that defend human rights and justice.
The nature of this exodus forced individuals to make their own way abroad and then adapt to their new surroundings based upon values in which they believe. But it is different with the Muslim Brotherhood in the U.S.: they have many sympathizers among various Muslim and Arab communities as the movement’s ideology is dominant among the Turks, Algerians, Palestinians, Tunisians, Moroccans, Pakistanis, Central Asians, Arabs in the former Soviet Union, Yemeni, Africans and other Muslim communities.
The commiseration with Muslim Brotherhood is deep and natural. It rooted gradually in the modern history of the U.S., when the first generation that was forced into exile under President Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s oppression in the 60s fled from Egypt. Those who landed in the U.S. established the Muslim Student Association in 1963. In general, there are more than 100 million sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood over the world, according to Yousef Nida, who is responsible for the U.K.-based International Relations of the Muslim Brotherhood International Association.
In the U.S., the Muslim Brotherhood is focusing on politics, human rights, and legal issues. In terms of politics, the Muslim Brotherhood has achieved some of their goals as they have communicated with a large number of members of the American Congress and with think tanks, including the Working Group on Egypt, to make their voice heard.
In terms of human rights, the Muslim Brotherhood has made some progress too. They connected with a number of human rights organizations, among them Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, through the distribution of reports on violations and abuses in prisons by the military regime under President Sisi.
However, the Muslim Brotherhood has a long way to go when it comes to legal achievements. They are trying to file cases of abuse, mistreatment, and torture of Egyptians with U.S. citizenship. They tried to criminalize the military regime’s massacres and cruelty through the American courts; there is an ongoing (so far unsuccessful) attempt to open a case on the abuse of prisoners in the Scorpion Prison in Cairo.
In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood has made some efforts to sue former regime officials who now live in the U.S., such as former Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi, who lives in Washington D.C. According to Human Rights Watch, Al-Beblawi should be held responsible for crimes against humanity due to his leadership role in the massacre of Raba’ae, led by the military in August 2013, in which hundreds of Morsi supporters were killed in one of the worst massacres of modern history.
Also, in an attempt to turn political activism into institutional activism, the Muslim Brothers try to connect with secular Egyptian-American foundations for democracy including the American-Egyptian Dialogue in Maryland and The Center of Egyptian Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Virginia. The main goal of these growing organizations is to advance dialogue and common understanding between Americans and Egyptians on a diplomatic, political, and person-to-person level.
Views on Maintaining Stability in the Middle East
Two American views co-exist regarding maintaining stability in the Middle East. The right-wing contends that such stability, especially for Egypt, relies on the military’s continued governance. They call the Egyptian military a Camp David generation, referring to the 1979 peace treaty with Israel; they believe that Egypt’s military leaders were educated and trained in the U.S. and that this investment should guarantee their loyalty to American interests.
Right after the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, Egypt started receiving $19 billion annually in U.S. military aid. It continued through 2003, when minor alterations were made. This amount makes Egypt the second-largest non-NATO recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel.
On the other hand, the left wing – consisting of Democrats, liberals and a few Republicans – argues that stability is based on such American values like democracy, human rights, and the rule of law and that an oppressive regime cannot be trusted because it violates these American ethics. They also acknowledge that the Islamists are an evolving case and that the traditional policy of securitizing Islamism should be terminated.
The U.S.- Egypt relations had been strained under former President Barack Obama when President Sisi was not invited to the White House during Obama’s second term.
However, some chemistry exists between Sisi and new American President Donald J. Trump, who praised his Egyptian counterpart as a leader. For instance, in 2017, the U.S. said it was willing to resume its participation in Exercise Bright Star, a biennial multinational military training exercise co-hosted by the U.S. and Egypt that helps foster interoperability of the two countries’ forces and provides specialized training opportunities in the Middle East.
In September 2017, some 200 U.S. soldiers participated in Bright Star 17 at the Mohamed Naguib Military Base in Egypt, where the two forces conducted battle simulations involving U.S.-made defense equipment, such as Egyptian F-16s and M1A1 tanks.
This was the first such run since October 2009, after Bright Star was put on hold in 2011 because of the revolution. Former President Obama had suspended the exercise in 2013, a day after the Egyptian military and police propelled a crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood.
On a different note, the continuous abuses by the ruling regime in Egypt made the American Congress put on hold a portion of the military aid. These abuses include routine torture of opponents of the regime and forced disappearances that have been used with near impunity against both criminal suspects and perceived political opponents.
The 2017 annual report on Egypt by Human Rights Watch and follow-up reports document various cases of abuse. For instance, in its military campaign against an affiliate of the Islamic State, whose fighters have targeted suspected civilian collaborators and Christians, the Egyptian military has continuously conducted extrajudicial killings in north Sinai.
Prosecutions, travel bans and asset freezes of human rights defenders, in addition to new repressive legislation adopted by the regime, seriously endangered independent civil society. The oppression extended to independent unions whose members participated in strikes asking for valid rights.
So, in August 2017, the U.S. government decided to deny Egypt $95.7 million in aid and to delay $195 million over human rights concerns. After a meeting between President Sisi and President Trump, the latter announced that the status of the on-hold aid would be reconsidered. Trump’s stance on the Egyptian regime, which is different from previous U.S. administrations, does not guarantee that human rights organizations and democracy supporters will have a similar opinion.
Muslim Brotherhood May Rise to Power Again
One must differentiate between the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, including Morsi, Speaker of the House Saad El Katatni, and members of the government, and the Muslim Brotherhood as a political movement.
The party, which is separate from the Muslim Brotherhood, used to pursue a political mission before its ban on December 2013. As an organization in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has 2 to 2.5 million members. However, as an ideology, it is hard to give an accurate number of its adherents – the number of members could be doubled. After all the murders, arrests and many fleeing the country, numerous Muslim Brothers remain temporarily inactive in Egypt.
The Muslim Brotherhood in the U.S. has suffered no collateral damage. In Egypt, however, both members and the movement as a whole have experienced substantial losses due to the confiscation of their fortunes and community projects, including schools, factories, stores, medical centers, and NGOs.
The psychological harm caused by imprisonment, torture, physical liquidation, forced disappearance, and a politically driven legal system have also been significant. Those who endured similar challenges during the 1960s and 1970s nurtured the ideology of violence against the state.
For instance, al-Qaeda’s second man under Osama Bin Laden, the orthopedic surgeon Ayman al-Zawahiri, was a product of a concentration-torture camp run by Egypt’s State Security Investigations Service. Al-Zawahiri entered the camp as a Muslim Brother but ended up abandoning the Muslim Brotherhood to adhere to militant jihad and endorse radicalism as a result of his painful struggle. Torture’s malignant effect does not only affect those who experience it, but also their family members, friends, and neighbors.
In July 1952, the Free Officers Movement deposed King Farouk and turned Egypt into a republic. This regime has remained in power ever since, except for President Morsi’s one-year rule.
In the 1952 and the 2013 coups, the Muslim Brotherhood opposed the military and its anti-democracy stances. As reformists, they inclined toward popular participation in politics and thus rebuffed the military’s domination.
However, there is an alarming sign in terms of the latest coup about the general Egyptian awareness that military rule always causes social catastrophes such as the absence of human rights, the decline of objective journalism and free media, and the inexistence of free speech, as well as the prevalence of negative realities of omnipresent censorship, economic collapse, pervasive corruption, limited citizenship, and restrictions on individual freedoms and dignity. In addition, the digital revolution has helped raise popular awareness, especially among the youth.
Given the above points, the Muslim Brotherhood’s return to power in a stronger position is possible. Having learned from their failures that they must deal with other political forces and seek partnerships instead of exclusion, they are more insistent on ensuring that the military loses any opportunity to continue its rule.
This is part one of a two-part series.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.