Egypt’s scorched earth

In the midst of the tragedy that Egypt is living through, Mariz Tadros looks at the future scenarios for the Muslim Brothers

Mariz Tadros
15 August 2013

Thursday was a day of funerals in Egypt. Most international actors have rightly condemned the ruthless violence witnessed against the pro-Morsi protestors, but with the exception of Catherine Ashton of the EU, they have turned a blind eye to the violence witnessed across the country over the course of the same day.

In reprisal for the assault on the protestors, pro-Morsi factions have literally set the country on fire. Just to give you a sense of the scope of devastation, this is a quick list of some of the targets:

Six police stations were attacked in Minya, some torched, and one in Fayoum

There were attacks on property belonging to the Coptic Christians who account for about 10 percent of the population in 9 governorates across Egypt, in what amounts to one of the largest assaults in contemporary history. 

40 places of worship were attacked and 19 were completely destroyed. Other reports have listed 64 places of worship attacked.

Several schools, an orphanage, shops and other property were burnt in Minya, Luxor and Qena.

Homes were also attacked. It is unclear yet what the full scale of fatalities/injuries are.  One Coptic citizen was tied to a tractor and dragged in the streets until he died. 

And this is all in one day.

The Muslim Brotherhood claim that they are not implicated in the attacks on Christian places of worship, property or homes. The evidence suggests otherwise. First, the mobs who have undertaken all of these assaults were making pro-Morsi chants, and the fact that some of them were affiliated to the Salafis, gama’at Islamiyya and other jihadi groups does not suggest their independence from the Brothers.  These Islamist forces have publicly announced their support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Second, Muslim Brotherhood  figures have been openly blaming the Christians for their predicament in a campaign that has been systematically geared towards inciting violence against them for several weeks now. Coptic citizens in several communities in Upper Egypt have been, and continue to live in complete terror. Informants told me there are families that are now too scared to step into the street. The attacks have been happening since the 3rd of July when Morsi was ousted from the presidency.

What is suggested here is that these assaults comprise an orchestrated plan to avenge by and for the Brothers. While the attacks on the Christians do not in any way justify or vindicate the security’s ruthless dispersal of the pro-Morsi supporters in Egypt yesterday, it does, however, challenge the image of a non-violent Islamist movement whose only method of expressing its resistance is peaceful protest. What scholars refer to as scorched earth, a defeated force’s destruction, often by fire of everything that may be useful to its enemy, as it withdraws or is forced to retreat, is exactly the policy that the pro-Morsi factions have implemented in Egypt since Wednesday. Roads are blocked, railway lines are occupied, public buildings have been torchedand Egyptians are truly fearful of reprisals from the Brothers. Vigilante groups were set up in several districts across Egypt to protect public and private property.

This is a repeat of the scorched earth scenario that was witnessed on the 28th of January, 2011 when citizens also had to set up vigilante groups to fend for themselves against increasing violence in public space. Yet the western mainstream media made hardly any mention of the scale of devastation instigated by the Islamists across the country that was happening outside Rab’a Square. The fear and terror that citizens have been living in the past fifty days (since the ousting of Morsi on the 3rd July) in many parts of the county would perhaps explain why non-pro-Morsi supporters have not responded to the Brothers’ plea for Egyptians to now take to the street to endorse them.

At this instance, violent reprisals from pro-Morsi supporters continue across the country.

So where does this leave us? Western actors will play a crucial role in the upcoming period. The failure of western powers to capture the extent to which the vast scope of the citizenry sees the Brotherhood as a perpetrator of violence - not only a victim of violence, may lead to some fatal mistakes being made in foreign policy.

As for the Muslim Brothers, there are several scenarios possible;

The first is that the Muslim Brotherhood steps up violent reprisals in Egypt in a continued scorched earth strategy, made possible through the network of relations with other Islamist movements.

Another scenario is a repeat of 1954 when President Nasser and the Muslim Brothers fell out and followers were subjected to repression, which led to the movement going underground and many of its members leaving overseas. This is likely to be the fate of the senior leaders running the Brotherhood concurrently. 

It is possible that the Muslim Brothers channel their political activism through the other existing Islamist parties (most notably the Nour Salafi party) while another faction turns exclusive to da’wa work (propagation of the faith) through its mosques and other establishments.  This is likely to be the fate of the rank and file of the Muslim Brothers who have had an ideological (not organizational) affinity with the Salafis anyway.

Another scenario is that the Brothers assume opposition from overseas via setting up political office in the Diasporas. In view of the fact that the international bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood is based overseas and plays an instrumental role in strategizing, this is a viable option. How effective the opposition from overseas will also greatly dependent on how much western endorsement they receive.

An optimum scenario is that the Muslim Brotherhood reinvents itself such as that a generation of politically astute young people assume leadership of the movement reconfigure power from within, and becomes an active political actor. The strength of their ties with the rank and file is unknown and much will depend on it.

In the midst of this tragedy that Egypt is living through, it is possible that the current situation opens inroads for the internal reform of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ultimately, it is not just the internal forces that will influence what happens next. The worst scenario for the country and the movement is the current violent impasse. The fact that there has been minimal condemnation from the West of the Islamists’ scorched earth policy is being perceived by many Egyptian citizens as an endorsement of the Brothers’ bid to reclaim power. That can only hurt the Brothers and the country as well, and serve to deepen the widening rift between the West and the citizenry.

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