By designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a "terrorist organisation" the interim Egyptian government has hammered the final nail in the coffin of any political settlement that could have mended the deep divisions in the Egyptian political scene. The decision was made two days after a bombing that targeted the Mansoura police department in Dakahlia Governorate, killing and injuring dozens of officers.
The Salafist group Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, which is spread across the cities and villages in North Sinai and has popular support there, claimed responsibility for the incident in a statement published online and spread by some media outlets. The group said that the operation was retaliation against "the ruling system that apostates Islamic Sharia". This group is a target for the Egyptian army in Sinai as well as security agents; it was behind the attempted assassination of the Egyptian Minister of Interior, Mohamed Ibrahim, on September 5.
Despite the fact that Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis, which is an ideological enemy of the Muslim Brotherhood and has called President Mohamed Morsi a "disbeliever", took responsibility for the Mansoura attack, the interim government took advantage of the incident and took its radical designation step, which has dangerous implications; it accused the Muslim Brotherhood of the bombing, giving it the excuse needed for the "terrorist" label. The government's intention is to eliminate and exclude the Brotherhood from Egyptian politics altogether.
Conditions under which the decision was issued
The Deputy Prime Minister appointed after the military coup announced the designation on December 25 with some enthusiasm; the Brotherhood has been proscribed by the Egyptian government "locally and abroad". This decision to ban the movement was taken a long time ago; the Mansoura bombing provided the excuse and opportunity to carry out the threat.
After the bombing on December 24, Egyptian and Arab media outlets used, quite deliberately, a fake version of the statement issued by Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis in which the attack is referred to as "a response to the violence in Egypt against members of the Muslim Brotherhood". The original statement, however, did not mention the Brotherhood; it focused on accusing the government of being infidels, attacking Islam and shedding the blood of the Muslims.
The designation is the latest of many measures taken by the military-appointed government against the opposition, of which the Brotherhood is the most vocal, including the introduction of several laws restricting general freedoms. After the Rabaa Al-Adawiyya Square massacre, which is considered to be the most violent and bloody suppression of a peaceful sit-in in modern history, a number of administrative decisions and security measures were taken in order to eliminate those against the military coup, beginning with the decision of the Administrative Court to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood and seize its transferred and non-transferred funds last September. The court also issued a number of rulings against the students, minors, activists and political movements that sparked off the January 25 Revolution, such as the April 6 Youth Movement. They even prosecuted judges who rejected the policies of the military government and are now preparing for their trials. The Egyptian media outlets against the revolution, as well as some in the Arab world, have not only contributed to charging the environment with their neo-fascist discourse against the Islamists, but have also labelled those protesting against the military government as allies of terrorists – that is, the Muslim Brotherhood – after the protest law was passed in November. The media targeted the youth in particular, who had a role in overthrowing the Mubarak regime. This atmosphere of exclusion and anti-democracy reached the point where senior police officers around the country took great delight in spreading the news of the arrests of local Brotherhood leaders and members, no doubt hoping to win government approval.
Media guided by the security forces insist on portraying the protests against the military coup and the interim government as "a struggle between the people and the Muslim Brotherhood", as if those protesting against tyranny are protesting against the popular will. Egypt's television stations are now full of people calling for individuals to be stripped of their citizenship, accusing them of conspiring with foreign parties against the state. Such calls have become official and are used by the government and its corrupt judiciary to imprison members of the opposition on charges of high treason.
The designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group was expected from a tyrannical government managed by the military. The government is made up of a combination of members of the old National Party and the traditional opposition that may be considered part of the old regime. This includes the nationalist, Islamist and left-wing forces which were surprised by the January 25 Revolution and were never convinced of its principles favouring democracy. The current government sources its legitimacy from its hostility towards the Islamists, and has worked on turning affiliation with the Brotherhood into a crime as it alone determines who is a "Brotherhood supporter". The reality is that the government is working on the systematic liquidation of the achievements of the January 25 Revolution, including the role of the young activists of the April 6 Youth Movement, as well as others.
From "emergency" to "terrorism": reimposing security influence
According to the Egyptian Official Gazette, the government labelled the "Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group and terrorist organisation in accordance with Article 86 of the Penal Code". This means that the terrorism law will be applied to the largest political party in the country that won 40 per cent of the seats in the dissolved parliament and over a quarter of the votes in the first round of the presidential elections in May 2012.
The law's first article includes a very general and ambiguous phrase: "the punishments legally prescribed for the crime of terrorism will apply to anyone involved in the Brotherhood's activities or who promotes the group verbally, in writing or in any other way or anyone funding the group's activities." This makes millions of Egyptians who do not approve of suppressive policies against the movement's members and their prosecution, or even those who call for reconciliation with the group, liable to prosecution under draconian legislation. This does not mean that the government will imprison every member of the Muslim Brotherhood and punish them, but it does mean that the government has armed itself with a heavy weapon to intimidate political opponents, whose members can so easily be branded as "Brotherhood supporters" and dealt with by the anti-terrorism law. Such neo-fascist moves have no place in a genuine democracy; anti-terrorism laws were never designed to suppress political parties in any other country, not to mention a party with vast social and political support.
In order to understand the serious implications of this law, we can trace the grave violations that accompanied the issuance of the anti-terrorism laws adopted around the world post-9/11 and the spread of the so-called war on terrorism. It is now possible to arrest citizens on suspicion of being a terrorist, detaining them until it is proven that they are not terrorists. Article 86 of the Egyptian Penal Code is derived from the concepts of that period of the neo-conservatives and their war on terror.
The danger of this law lies in its "exceptionality", in that it is the opposite of the conventional judicial principle that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. It is even more dangerous in Egypt in light of the authoritarian government's ability and willingness to detain any Egyptian citizen until they are proven not to be a Muslim Brotherhood supporter. Hence, the law not only threatens those who are members of the Muslim Brotherhood or their supporters, but also threatens millions of Egyptians who may one day think of protesting against the military-led government. They may be subjected to exceptional trials in the name of the fight against terrorism.
One of the most important results of the January 25 Revolution was the restriction of the emergency law that governed the country for over 30 years, in which thousands of military trials were justified during Mubarak's rule. The revolution made it impossible to extend the state of emergency for over a month without the consent of the majority of the People's Assembly members.
However, the military government insisted on eliminating this achievement by passing two new laws, namely the protest law, which was approved by the interim president Adly Mansour in November, and the activation of the anti-terrorism law with its exceptional nature by declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group. This gives the current government the maximum authority in arresting and prosecuting members of the opposition in military trials. Based on this, it seems that the composition of the new laws not only intend to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, but also aim to reshape the state of emergency, and allow the security government to eliminate any resistance to the dictatorship and the restoration of the pre-revolution security establishment.
Predictions for the next phase
The designation of the Muslim Brotherhood is not only a setback to the principles of dialogue and democracy but also a direct blow to the roadmap announced by Defence Minister Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi following the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi, which he claimed was the key to resolving the political crisis in the country. Although some believe that the measures imposed by the current government aim to force the Brotherhood to accept a political settlement that legitimises the military coup and the new political system it swept in, it has now become clear that the dictatorial tendencies of the military government are stronger. It wants to exclude any opposition and has a strange determination to act alone despite the continued protests and international condemnation of its human rights abuses.
Finally, the government's designation appears to have put an end to the efforts within Arab circles over the past two decades to reconcile the Islamic and secular trends. It will also, without doubt, drive many Egyptian Islamists to go underground, which may also drive some towards extremism and the use of violence, having been deprived of their rights to express themselves through peaceful means. Since the price of peaceful activism has become death or lengthy prison sentences, the state that has labelled many of its own citizens as terrorists is actually pushing them to become terrorists in a bizarre self-fulfilling prophecy.
Azmi Bishara, a former member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament and founder of the Balad Party, is a Palestinian intellectual, academic, politician, and writer. This is a translation of the Arabic text published by Assabeel newspaper on 29 December, 2013.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.