CATF Reports Dec. 2, 2016, 11:20am


Over the past few months the specter of a new Tahrir has floated over Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s head and it had the face of Yasser el Omda, an outspoken Turkey-based critic of Sisi’s regime. Several months ago, Omda founded a Facebook group under the banner of the “Movement of the Poor” or the “Disenfranchised”, “Thawrat al Ghalaba” which called for the reverse of Sisi’s coup and the restoration of the Muslim Brotherhood elected President Mohamed Morsi, who was overthrown by the military in 2013. The protests failed to rally the expected support, mostly due to the comprehensive preemptive plan implemented by the Egyptian armed forces. However, Omda’s call gained considerable, transversal traction in the country, which is plagued by deteriorating economic conditions and by weak political opposition incapable of coalescing against Sisi’s iron fist. There is a strong indication that the Muslim Brotherhood was behind the failed wave of protests, thereby signaling that three years of harsh repression may have fractured its leadership and impoverished its ranks but not weakened the movement’s drive to power.

On November 11, the designated day of the revolt, activists gathered in Tahrir square in Cairo, as well as in Suez, Minya, Daqhlia, Alexandria, and Behiera. For the most part, however, the streets and squares were rather empty due to heavy security presence. Ahead of the protests, the Egyptian Central bank froze the bank accounts of the Nadim Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture in efforts to tighten security measures before the demonstrations were to occur. Armored vehicles with tear gas launchers and riot police disrupted small gatherings in Tahrir square, and according to Reuters and Aljazeera security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters in Behiera. No injuries or deaths were reported, yet 130 people were arrested on that day only for illegally protesting. On Monday, November 28, 11 individuals were sentenced to five years in prison for “protesting without a permit, possessing publications that incite against the state, and promoting false news to discredit the reputation of the state.”

Aside from fear of Sisi’s brutal repression, the protests’ failure can be explained by the lack of cohesion of the movement and by the limited political support its cause attracted. The Muslim Brotherhood emerged as the sole advocate for the Movement of the Poor’s call. From the Brotherhood’s official English website, the movement’s media spokesperson Talaat Fahmy acclaimed the November 11 “new revolutionary wave” in a public statement that sounded as a manifesto of the protests rather than a mere endorsement. “Protesters demanded an end to the coup,” Fahmy wrote, “stressing that the patriotic people's Revolution will not stop until the ouster of this traitorous coup regime, trial of its treasonous top officials, and the recovery of the people's liberty, legitimacy and full rights.” Notably, Fahmy also drew a line of continuity between the November 11 protesters and those who gathered behind the January 2011 revolution: “The men and women of the January 25 (2011) Revolution are capable – with God's help – of fulfilling these demands completely, and of liberating Egypt from the murderous junta.”

Egyptian official sources posited that many of those arrested were suspected to be supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement criminalized as a terrorist entity in Egypt since 2013. Reuters reported that, the day before the protests, the Egyptian Interior Ministry claimed to have confiscated a stash of arms from the Brotherhood that were hidden in the Fayoum province. In addition, it raided five bomb factories across the country on November 9 stating that a militant group was coordinating with the Brotherhood to attack police checkpoints. Several other versions are circulating on who is behind the Movement of the Poor, most of which, however, espouse the hypothesis of a Muslim Brotherhood-backed or sponsored organization.

From the Muslim Brotherhood English official platform, the group’s spokesperson Mohamed Montasser encouraged the Egyptian Muslim Brothers and their supporters to participate in the protests, although other sources state that some of the group’s international branches have distanced themselves from the Movement of the Poor’s call. The head of the Brotherhood’s U.S. bureau, Mohamed Al-Sharqawi, reportedly advised the Islamist group’s members not to participate in “demonstrations that are destined to fail.” Interestingly, Sherif el Roubi, spokesperson from another revolutionary movement called “April 6th movement” that was behind the protests that forced Hosni Mubarak aside, seemed to believe that the Ghalaba campaign was instigated by Egyptian regime opponents residing in Turkey and Qatar.

Omda, who works for a Muslim Brotherhood affiliated satellite TV channel called El Sharq, has denounced Egyptian media claims of his links with the Muslim Brotherhood and has strongly denied that the Brotherhood was behind the protests. Nonetheless, the Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement with the protests remains fully plausible given the group’s enduring vitality. Three years of government crackdown and of harsh verdicts for treason and terrorism have reduced the Muslim Brotherhood to an underground movement and dispersed its cadre around the world. However, since its onset in 1928, when Hassan al-Banna founded the Brotherhood, the movement has remained determined to seek power and to establish an Islamic state in Egypt ruled by the sharia law. The Brotherhood’s commitment to an absolute Islamist agenda was especially nurtured by the continuous financial and political sponsorship of Qatar, which became the privileged destination of Muslim Brothers fleeing Egypt after Morsi was ousted by Sisi’s junta in 2013.

The Egyptian Interior Ministry claimed in a public statement that “the armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood intended to use the weapons in terrorist attacks as they take advantage of economic conditions to incite protests”. And although Sisi’s junta is certainly eager to keep the pressure high amidst growing dissent in the country by any means, including political and media manipulation, there may be some truth to this claim. The Muslim Brotherhood may be anxious to leverage that very growing frustration in the country, which is prime for protest after the most recent economic reforms aimed at stopping the fall of Egypt’s depreciating currency hit the poorest and made the middle and upper middle class financially vulnerable. In fact, the protests seemed to have evolved into ones that were against the austerity measures recently taken in Egypt that floated and devalued the Egyptian pound in order to qualify for an IMF loan to boost the economy, but at the cost of increased prices for citizens.

Egypt is in dire need of that cash infusion as much as it is of political stability in order to be able to turn undivided attention to the country’s economic recovery. As of today, it seems that political stability in Egypt will not pass through a workable compromise between Sisi’s junta and the Muslim Brotherhood. Both Egyptian government officials and Muslim Brotherhood representatives have categorically denied recent rumors that the two parties had reached a settlement agreement brokered by Saudi Arabia. Notably, Mohamed Morsi’s death sentence was overturned and a retrial ordered by the Egyptian Court of Cassation earlier this month, although the court’s decision on Morsi’s previous sentence to 40 years for leaking state secret on Egypt’s military intelligence to Qatar is still awaited. Associated Press reporter Maggie Michael commented that “the rolling back of harsh verdicts could lay the groundwork for reconciliation, but at the moment there's no evidence the government or the Brotherhood are interested.”

At the moment, Egypt’s sole alternative to Sisi’s iron fist appears to be an equally frightening scenario dominated by a new eruption of violence organized and led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the contours of which remain entirely unpredictable. Islamism’s face is changing in Egypt as well as in the broader Middle Eastern region; the Muslim Brotherhood is not exempt from this transformation phase and cannot, therefore, be regarded as a monolithic bloc animated by homogenous political ambitions and strategies. A younger branch of the Brotherhood is reportedly evolving into a militant wing open to violent means and determined to renounce the Brotherhood’s traditional political moderatism. The appeal of hardline Salafism is seemingly on the rise in the country, especially in extremely impoverished areas such as the Sinai Peninsula. After all, a new Muslim Brotherhood-led Tahrir may not be in Egypt’s best interest.

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