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The political subtext of Egypt's designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a "terrorist" organisation

Human Rights Watch has denounced the Egyptian government's designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a "terrorist" organisation. It has described the move as a means by which the government can expand its attack on peaceful Brotherhood activities and continue to impose harsh sanctions on the movement's supporters. The human rights body has demanded the government to reverse the decision promptly and stop obstructing the Brotherhood's health, education and other peaceful programmes.

The government's designation followed a bomb attack on a police station in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura on 24 December that left 16 people dead and over 130 injured. Without investigating the incident or providing any evidence, the government blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the blast, despite the fact that the movement condemned it and called for the "perpetrators of this crime [to] be brought to justice". Not surprisingly, the Sinai-based Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis released an online statement claiming responsibility for the attack.

People have long-suspected a political motive for the government's moves against the Brotherhood. "The decision about the Muslim Brotherhood follows over five months of government efforts to vilify the group," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "By rushing to point the finger at the Brotherhood without investigations or evidence, the government seems motivated solely by its desire to crush a major opposition movement."

On December 25, Deputy Prime Minister Hossam Eisa read a short statement on state television that officially declared the Muslim Brotherhood to be a "terrorist" organisation. Eisa listed a range of incidents that the government claimed the Brotherhood had carried out, from the assassination of the then Prime Minister Mahmoud Nuqrashi over 60 years ago to the torture of opponents during its demonstrations in Rabaa Al-Adawiyya Square after President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in July, as well as the Mansoura bombing. No evidence of the movement's involvement in any of these incidents was provided by the government.

According to interior ministry spokesman Hani Abdel Latif in a December 26 interview on state television, the "terrorist" designation enables the ministry to "deal" with the Brotherhood under the sections of the Egyptian Penal Code that concern terrorism (articles 86 to 99). He specified that those who participate in demonstrations could face up to five years in prison, while those who lead them risk the death penalty. Thus, said Human Rights Watch, there is no doubt that the government's designation seems intended to end all Muslim Brotherhood activities. Osama Sharabi, a former public administrator, declared on a December 26 television programme on Al-Hayah Channel that anyone posting on Facebook the four-fingered "Rabaa sign" commemorating people killed when the government dispersed the sit-in in Rabaa Al-Adawiyya Square in August will also face criminal charges under the penal code.

Within hours of the government's announcement, the Egyptian authorities strengthened their crackdown against the Brotherhood:

  • Al-Ahram reported that the Central Bank had frozen the bank accounts of over 1,000 non-governmental organisations alleged to be associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, including medical charities. This announcement will affect health services in Egypt so drastically that the health ministry has announced a "state of emergency".
  • The interior ministry blocked the publication of the Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party's daily newspaper on December 26.
  • The police posted an announcement on the official Facebook page inviting citizens to call a hotline with any information on Brotherhood members or activities.
  • The police arrested 27 Brotherhood supporters, including three university students, on December 26 in the Nile Delta province of Sharkiya on charges including membership of a "terrorist organisation". The main evidence against 16 of the accused was the distribution of anti-army and anti-police pamphlets.
  • On 27 December, 19 Brotherhood members were arrested in the province of Gharbiya for membership of a banned organisation. The police announced on Twitter that they had arrested 75 members of the Brotherhood on December 26, on a range of charges.
  • The interior ministry announced that three people had been killed and 265 were arrested at protests throughout Egypt on December 27. Media outlets have since estimated the number of protesters arrested at 304.
  • On the same day, the minister of religious endowments decided to take over all mosques belonging to banned organisations, including the Brotherhood, and to replace the imams therein.
  • The government has also begun procedures to seize over 140 Brotherhood-affiliated schools and to freeze the assets of over 130 of its senior leaders.

Since Morsi's ouster in July, the authorities have killed more than 1,000 pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters; arrested thousands of its supporters, including most of its leadership; and generated a systematic media campaign to demonise the group.

"The government's assault on the Brotherhood has gone beyond clamping down on peaceful political activities to curtailing desperately-needed health services and schools for ordinary Egyptians," said HRW's Whitson. "There seems to be no end to this wave of oppression."

Previous Egyptian governments also attempted to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood. Before President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011, the movement had been banned since 1954 and its members had been jailed by successive Egyptian governments. The Freedom and Justice Party obtained legal status in 2011 and the Brotherhood registered as a non-governmental organisation in 2013.

"Egyptians can and should debate the sincerity and extent of the Muslim Brotherhood's commitment to democracy, but the unrelenting repression of the group flouts fundamental human rights and freedoms," added Whitson.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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