The wretched statements from former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi in a Cairo court this week, and the resignation of Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi from the post of defense minister in order to run for president, mark the contours of the struggle over Egypt’s future.
The country is torn between two camps who refuse to talk to each other and instead choose confrontation, even though it is obvious that, in order to stabilize the economy and heal Egypt’s rifts, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood will be forced at some point to join hands.
In the meantime, Morsi prefers to call the court a garbage dump and shout that he is president of Egypt, and in the upcoming elections, el-Sissi, the general — actually, field marshal, as of this week — is likely to win while championing a hard line against the Brotherhood.
The rejectionist approach to the current government followed by Morsi and those many of his friends in the MB leadership who are also in detention is not surprising. Professor Yoram Meital, an expert on Egypt and chairman of the Herzog Center at the Ben-Gurion University, said that just as the Muslim Brotherhood made every possible mistake when it was in power, it is wrong now to adopt an uncompromising stance; its attitude has led to criticism not only among the general public, but also from within the movement itself.
Meital suggests that the Brotherhood might be on the eve of a historic split. Previous leaders such as Abdul-Munim Abu al-Fotouh, who was once a candidate for president himself, are touting a much more moderate line, one that portrays Morsi and his friends as militant extremists.
In many ways, the current debate within the Brotherhood leadership is reminiscent of the tensions in the 1950s between the supporters of founder Hassan al-Banna, who were considered more pragmatic, and the followers of Sayyid al-Qutb, who took a more extreme line, a line which continues to constitute the intellectual ground from which most of today’s radical Muslim movements grow.
El-Sissi’s regime, however, holds a position that is no less confrontational. In a conversation with The Times of Israel this week, a senior Egyptian official affiliated with the military asserted that the Muslim Brotherhood is in its death throes. He compared it to a lamb in the first seconds after the butcher slits its throat. “The movements that the lamb makes in its last moments… this is where the Muslim Brotherhood is now.”
The official said that those who claim that the participation rate in the recent constitutional referendum was low are sorely mistaken. He said previous referenda attracted a similar or smaller number of voters. For example, in the first referendum on the constitution created by the Muslim Brotherhood, 16 million people participated, compared to 21 million who voted this time. And 23 million voted in the presidential elections.
He claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood failed miserably in its attempts to destabilize Egypt on January 25, the eve of the referendum. “The Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East blames the Egyptian branch for the colossal failure of the movement everywhere,” added the official. “They tried using showcase attacks to prevent people from going to the streets on January 25 to express support for the army, but they failed.”
According to this official, recent attacks by Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a radical organization which the Brotherhood backed during its rule, gave that group’s terrorists a measure of respect. “But they are being hit everywhere. In the Sinai, and elsewhere. And they will lose the campaign.”
The picture is actually not quite so simple. The MB still has a large number of supporters in Egypt who take to the streets on almost every occasion. El-Sissi might be promising to restore security to Egypt’s citizens, but this is no easy task given the high motivation of the Islamist terrorists.
And beyond “restoring order,” it is not clear how el-Sissi plans to extract Egypt from its economic crisis.
He is a military man through and through, and he will enjoy the full support of the armed forces. His children are married to the children of other senior officials in the security establishment; his son married the daughter of the head of military intelligence.
“But the question,” said Meital, “is how he will be received in the political system. There he is likely to be controversial. The public discourse in Egypt has become complicated in recent years. There is an abundance of young groups that drove the first revolution until the MB took over, and helped the army in the second revolution. They are now expecting an inclusive democratic approach, something not necessarily typical of el-Sissi.
“He is already being criticized in certain circles,” continued Meital. “Take, for example, Alaa Al Aswany, the famous writer who was one of the most strident opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood and supported the intervention of the army. He published articles in which he wrote that it would be best for the revolution if el-Sissi does not run for president. The polls show support for el-Sissi, but his candidacy does not herald an imminent end to the internal crisis. It does not spell a reunification of Egypt’s fragmented society.”