The Islamist Reaction
The manifold responses of Egypt’s Islamists to the military’s ouster of Mursi
Mursi’s defiance until the very end of the military’s deadline may appear surprising, considering the completeness of the political forces arrayed against him—unless you think that Mursi intended to become a martyr for “legitimacy,” the watchword of those who oppose his removal. For them, this is a coup against the constitution, the revolution and the people.
Islamist reactions to the Tamarod (Rebellion) movement—the petition that called for Mursi’s removal and the holding of early elections—have been mixed. Last Tuesday, Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for the Nour Party, the most prominent of the Salafist parties in Egypt, tweeted that the party would be participating in the transitional roadmap. It thus abandoned its broad ideological ally, the Muslim Brotherhood, even before the end of the army’s ultimatum. However, Monday’s events have prompted the Nour Party to weaken its commitment to the roadmap, leaving the party in an ambiguous place between the pro and anti-Mursi camps.
Nonetheless, the Nour Party’s problematic participation in the roadmap has given it greater influence than Mursi’s supporters, who are doggedly backing the ex-president’s legitimacy. The Nour Party seems to have been able to effectively veto Mohamed El-Baradei’s candidacy for prime minister. A tweet from Bakkar on Saturday, July 6, reveals more of the Nour’s equivocal position. Bakkar strongly condemned events following the statement made by armed forces chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. Bakker rounded on the Interior Ministry, condemning what he saw as its practice of giving “practical cover to thugs to murder, intimidate and dominate the street.” However, he fell short of naming the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
The Nour Party’s position marks it out strongly from the Brotherhood and its allies, who vow to continue their sit-in in front of the Rabaa Al-Adawiya mosque until Mursi’s return. Speakers on the stage differentiate between the army and its leadership, and lead chants of “the Egyptian Army is our army!” This rhetoric contends that the army has been used by the usual culprits of the “counter-revolution,” enumerated in a sign in the courtyard of the mosque, including the Interior Ministry, the judiciary, corrupt businessmen, felul (remnants of the Mubarak regime), and the Coptic Church.
Speakers are keen to draw attention to the fact that it is not just members of the Brotherhood who are taking part, nor is it just Islamists. A young member of Baradei’s Al-Dustour Party explained his attendance to me as his duty to protect the system, not the president, and said that if this democratically elected president was toppled, there would be no hope for the next one.
The importance of one particular Islamist group, Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya, and its party, the Building and Development Party (BDP), has been magnified by their loyalty to the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). With only thirteen seats in the last parliament, and despite their May promise to lead a bloc without the FJP, these two parties now consider themselves leaders of a new Islamist umbrella group called the National Alliance in Support of Legitimacy.
After Sisi’s address on Wednesday, Al-Azhar grand sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayyeb, opposition leader Mohamed El-Baradei, and Coptic pope Tawadros II addressed the nation, a line-up that caused consternation. Members of the BDP asked incredulously why the pope should address a majority Muslim country. One Azhari sheikh at the sit-in alleged that Tayyeb’s current participation in the roadmap and his previous membership in Mubarak’s National Democratic Party showed that he was far too interested in his own position to care about the rights of the people.
The participants at the sit-in are adamant on their peacefulness and most vowed that even if they faced state violence, they would not react in kind. The stage at Rabaa Al-Adawiya has hosted a number of eerie and theatrical processions of men dressed in head to toe in white cloth, smeared with red paint to represent gunshot wounds. Protesters contended that these “martyrs” are those willing to lay down their lives peacefully, rather than through violent action. This is the narrative that is being used to explain Monday’s killings.
Because of its violent confrontation with the state in the 1990s, the Gama’a is sometimes considered a weathervane for the prospects of Islamist violence in the face of political frustration. Some say the group’s switch to peaceful politics was only strategic—an admission of the insuperable odds it faced. This is debated, but even if true, it seems unlikely that the group will resort to large-scale violence given the similarities between their strategic position today and in the late 1990s.
Nonetheless, it would be foolish to ignore the civilian-on-civilian violence of the last few days. Both sides claim YouTube videos of deadly violence as evidence of the other side’s contempt for life; only in some of these videos it is possible to identify the assailants. However, it is important to differentiate between these clashes, which are relatively low-scale considering the numbers on the streets, and the size of clashes that would occur if the conflicting groups paramilitarized properly. Much will depend on the army’s willingness to intervene therein, as well as its ability to restrain itself.
Despite the Brotherhood rejection of the roadmap’s plan for elections, a BDP official said on Friday that the party would compete in any future elections, and would aim for thirty percent of votes. It seems unlikely that other Islamist parties would martyr their electoral prospects for the cause of Mursi’s “legitimacy.”
Yet despite the factors militating against a large-scale (re)turn to violence or an Islamist boycott of the political process, the effects of June 30 are potentially very damaging. 2013 is likely to go down in Islamist lore with 1954, Algeria 1992, and 2010, contributing to an Islamist historiography of victimhood and exclusion.
If the roadmap succeeds, much will depend on the success of the Islamists in the next elections. Having become accustomed to a majority, they may consider something significantly less than that a constitutional rip-off. However, this will only determine the degree, rather than the existence, of the increased suspicion and polarization that will be one of the legacies of June 30.