Muslim Brothers back 6th April strike

Oh, Brothers:

“CAIRO (AFP) – Egypt’s opposition Muslim Brotherhood on Thursday called on citizens to join a national strike protesting the policies of President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled the country for nearly three decades.
The Islamist group ‘calls on the people of Egypt on April 6 to express their anger and objection to the policies of the regime which has squandered the country’s riches, neglected its national security and removed Egypt from its role as leader and pioneer (of the region),’ a statement said.
Citizens were called on to strike ‘using all peaceful channels and abiding by constitutional and legal restrictions while safeguarding public and private property from damage during these peaceful activities.’

Does this mark a departure from the ambivalence about the 6 April national strike we had seen in recent weeks? Does it make the 6 April protest likely to be more successful? By what standards do we measure that success? Difficult questions all, but what this indicates to me is that the Brothers’ leadership is taking to heart the writings of fellow traveler and Islamist thinker Tareq al-Bishri on civil disobedience.

I am reminded of a lecture I attended a few days ago by the talented Brothers-watcher Tawfiq Aclimandos, a historian who has unearthed many interesting aspects of the relationship between the Free Officers and the Brothers in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and followed their policies in recent years. Like another Egyptian expert on Islamism, Dia Rashwan, Aclimandos believes current General Guide Mahdi Akef is among the most important leaders the MB have had since founder Hassan al-Banna, taking the movement in a new direction. (Rashwan places only former Guide Omar Telmissany, who rebuilt the MB in the 1970s, ahead of Akef, Aclimandos believes Akef may be even more important.) Their participation in the strike, after the back-and-forth of the last year or two, will be a test of how influential the Brothers really are.

Stacher on the Brothers and the Wars

Friend of the blog and academic Joshua Stacher, who focuses on authoritarianism, Islamist movements and other fun things (and thus knows a lot about Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brothers) has a new piece out in Middle East Report. It’s about the Brothers’ behavior during the Gaza war, and more widely the diverse theories about the divisions that may or may not exist within the group. He argues that the havioc wrought on the region by the Bush administration, and its encouragement of Israeli adventurism such as Operation Cast Lead, has weakened the credibility of “pragmatists” among the Brothers who sought a less confrontational approach with the West than is the usual staple of the movement, which after all was founded as an anti-colonial project:

The Gaza war was an enabler of the anti-engagement trend among the Brothers. It bolstered the credibility of the group’s more conservative leaders when they lobby the base that the pragmatic wing’s participatory spirit has led the Brothers to a dead end, where they are just as powerless to affect Egyptian foreign policy as they were when underground. Instead of contesting the regime in the widest domain possible, the conservatives argue that the Brothers should prioritize peaceful “resistance” to the US-Israeli military order, in solidarity with those who have taken up arms against it.

He also criticizes the generational approach to explaining rifts among the Brothers, taking to task Egyptian analyst Khalil al-Anani who developed in his book “The Muslim Brothers: Gerontocracy Racing Against Time” (loose translation of the Arabic al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun: Shukhukha Tussari3 al-Zaman) a theory of four generations fighting it out. (Personally I think al-Anani deserves more credit – his view is more nuanced than this.)

Instead, Josh says a division according to political orientation, notably pragamatist politicians vs. conservative ideologues, may be more useful. I like his take on the General Guide being a CEO rather than an eminence grise and emphasis on consensus that has kept the group together. He also looks at another rift, that of “peasants vs. city slickers” that helps explain different attitudes and the conservative bent of the mostly Delta-based bulk of the movement, as well as possible class explanations for the divisions, since many of the leaders are after all middle-class professionals.

I have differences with Josh over his analysis – for instance, it’s not clear to me that Essam al-Erian is perennially losing entry into the Guidance Council because he is too “moderate” rather than because he has annoyed many with his dilettantism and frequent media appearances claiming to represent the MB on controversial issues. But this piece shows how complex a movement the Egyptian Muslim Brothers are, and that no single framework of analysis is in itself convincing: the MB is a big tent no less diverse than, say, the Republican Party (and no less likely to shift ideologically over time, as the Republicans have from the party of Lincoln into the current morass). Most importantly, it is another important reminder of the crucial importance regional developments can have in the internal developments of political movements and the role they play within their societies. In this turbulent Middle East of ours, it is good to be reminded that things change – sometimes very fast.

New ARB site, Tammam on recanted jihadis

Be sure to check out the revamped website of the Arab Reform Bulletin, which now aims to be a continuously updated site with news as well as the monthly analysis we’ve come to know and love.

Of particular interest in the current issue is an article by Hossam Tammam, a leading Egyptian analyst of Islamist movements (once close to the Muslim Brothers, he wrote a trenchant book-length critique of the stagnation of the movement in 2004). In this article Tammam discusses the trend in the past decade, for imprisoned Islamists from the Gamaa Islamiya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad to abandon their old belief in the use of violence. While of course the long experience of prison was a determining factor in getting this result, Tammam argues that these ex-prisoners just want to get on with their lives and in many cases regret their youthful activism.

For the 20,000 to 30,000 Islamists who were released over the past decade (there are no clear numbers, it might be less if you consider that a good part of that number could be people who were never involved in any violent incidents or even espoused violence ideologically, since the methods of state security tend to cast a wide net), a return to what remains of their lives is the priority. Some, notably from the Gamaa Islamiya, have revamped their organization’s ideology and are trying to “mainstream” it, making a tentative return to politics and a u-turn on previous political attitudes, notably embracing Nasser and Sadat. But it’s unlikely they will return to violence, despite their lack of opportunities and wasted lives:

Despite the political, economic, and social frustrations they face, Jihadists have not rescinded their repentance or returned to violence. Skeptics question their sincerity and argue that the despair brought on by current political conditions in Egypt will drive jihadists back to violence, but this is extremely unlikely. Most penitent jihadists are over the age of 50. Having spent twenty years or more in prison, they lack the ability to communicate with members of the young generation who would take up arms in any confrontations with the regime.

I am reminded of an anecdote Saad Eddin Ibrahim told me a few years ago. Ibrahim shared a ward of Tora prison with some of these Islamists when he was imprisoned between 2000 and 2002. He said each Islamist group had taken up a profession in the prison — cooking, washing clothes, etc. — through which they earned money from other prisoners, especially from the VIP section where wealthier convicts (such as former officials caught on corruption charges) serve their time. One former Gamaa Islamiya member he knew ran a lucrative fried fish business, using various prisoners’ right to have food delivered by their families to secure daily supply of fresh fish. He earned enough money to take care of several of his fellow prisoners and send money home to his family.

When that prisoner came to repent and was about to be released, around 2004, Ibrahim had already left the prison. One day he received a visit from that prisoner’s mother. She had a dilemma on her hand. She wanted her son to come home, but was worried that outside of jail he would not find the same money-making opportunities. Tacitly, she was asking Ibrahim (who kept in touch with these prisoners) to convince him to stay a little bit longer, at least until some younger siblings of his were married and had a stable job. In the end, the prisoner did as his mother wished (although I recall he later got out and set up his own food cart in Alexandria).

The anecdote is not unlike the experience Morgan Freeman’s character has after being released from prison after several decades in “The Shawshank Redemption”. These prisoners are returning to an Egypt with few opportunities, but also a radically different Islamist environment. They are out of sync in more than one ways, and discredited (in the eyes on younger potential jihadis) because of their very public recantation. Since it’s quite plausible some of them are sincere about their involvement in violent acts, it’s a shame they are not put to good use to dissuade younger Islamists from going down that path.

One important difference Tammam highlights is the lack of large-scale organization among contemporary radical Islamist groups in Egypt:

Beyond the question of violence, the changing nature of religiosity in Egypt also diminishes the jihadists’ current relevance. Until the mid-1990s, belonging to a particular organization was a cornerstone of Islamist activism. Now, religiosity has taken on a remarkably individualized form. This model is based on a sort of free-market of religious ideas, which offers a broader array of choices, none of which is necessarily binding. Unlike the religious commitment (peaceful or violent) of the past, which required organizational affiliation, today’s religious commitment does not require any direct connection with Islamist organizations or a particular ideological framework.

Understanding these dynamics makes clear why there is no reason to fear that released jihadists will reorganize and return to violence. Individual disgruntled activists might resort to violence in response to a certain feeling of despair—despair about social conditions in Egypt and U.S. policies that push religious and nationalist sentiments to the limit. But any such violence would be diffused and limited to small cells linked by social or occupational interests, unlike the organized jihadi violence of the past. That sort of violence also is more likely to be fueled by the desperate social conditions that Egypt is witnessing than by an Islamist ideology.

I’ve long been pretty skeptical on the poverty-breeds-violence explanation of jihadist terrorism. While it certainly makes recruitment easier (as does the current general disgust with the state one hears everywhere in Egypt), the decisive factor is going to be the ability of even loose extremist movements like al-Qaeda to recruit, train and fund. We’ve heard little about this in Egypt, but the experience of other countries suggests that just because we haven’t heard about it does not mean it’s not there.

Stacher report on Egyptian Muslim Brothers

Former Arabist contributor to the blog and all-around smart guy Josh Stacher has penned a report on Egypt’s Muslim Brothers for the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research:

Within and between western governments, a heated policy debate is raging over the question of whether or not to engage with the world’s oldest and most influential political Islamist group: Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

While British analysts have suggested that engagement with the Brotherhood could provide a valuable opportunity for challenging their perceptions of the West, the Bush administration has been far less open to the idea, arguing that it would be inappropriate to enter into formal ties with a group that is not legally recognised by the Egyptian government.

This paper offers the following recommendations for western governments in regard to their specific relations with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood:

1. Western policymakers should press the Egyptian government more firmly on its political reform commitments, and should be more consistent in their criticism when opposition figures, including Islamists, are the arbitrary targets of state repression

2. Representatives of western governments should seek more opportunities for dialogue with political opposition groups in Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood

I think this report — of the many on the group — perhaps most clearly advocates a policy of engagement by Western states towards the MBs, reflecting Josh’s long-held conviction that it’s worth talking to the Brothers. And since it’s put out by a British institution, it’s framed in the introduction by the controversy over the Foreign Office hesitant policy about reaching out to Islamist groups in the region. There’s a lot of interesting stuff there, even if you’re Ikhwanophobic.

25 senior MBs sentenced 3-10 years by military tribunal


Ikhwanonline has special front page for occasion. Some background in English from Ikhwanweb at “Final Session of MB Military Tribunal today” and “Journalists and MB Supporters Harrassed Prior to Military Verdict

Pending detail of who got what sentence, what many will be looking for is what the bigshots — Khairat al-Shater, Hassan Malek, Muhammad Bishr and others — got. Reuters says Khairat al-Shater is among those convicted, which is as expected. I am surprised at the 10-year sentence, most had been expecting sentences of 3-5 years, although it is not clear which charges were actually applied in the end. MB lawyer Abdel Moneim Maksoud is awaiting full details of verdict.

AFP says there is no right of appeal to verdict, but I am not so sure, didn’t Mubarak last year ask for the creation of a military appeals court?

AFP reports Hassan Malek and Khairat al-Shater got 7 years each – definitely worse than expected. Seven members tried in absentia got the maximum 10 years, and 16 others received sentences of between 18 months (which is the amount of time that has elapsed, more or less, since the original arrests in late 2006 and early 2007) and five years.

With Malek and al-Shater likely to serve their full 7-year sentence, the immediate questions will be 1) how does their sentence affect the MB’s fundraising ability, since these are two of the wealthiest members who own a variety of IT and engineering companies, among other things; 2) what does it mean for the succession of the General Guide, since al-Shater was a favorite to head the MB (and for some was already a de facto leader) after current guide Mahdi Akef, 80, should step down in the next few years? Also, who will fill al-Shater and Malek’s positions in the organization as well as in the Guidance Bureau?

Full list of who got what [Arabic]. Ikhwanweb has a summary in English. AFP also has a write-up.

Also, I can confirm that this verdict is appealable according to a law passed in mid-April 2007 that introduces appeals for the court, despite reports to the contrary. The appeal may provide another opportunity for negotiation between the MB and the regime, but is also potentially risky: a new verdict could be worse, particularly considering the uncertainty of the set(s) of charges against the defendants.

Hmmm I can imagine the press will have fun with the fact that the other verdict of the day exonerates a NDP bigwig in the worst public health scandal of last year.

AP report here, Akef reacts with typical vim:

Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the group’s supreme leader, slammed the verdict, describing Egyptian authorities as “corrupt” and a “bunch of gangsters.” Akef said there was “no evidence” against them and that he had “expected the court to acquit them all.”

(The above post has been updated continuously — newest paragraphs at the bottom)

Muslim Brothers to boycott municipal elections

The other fallout from yesterday’s events, and the crackdown on the MB of the last two months:

Egypt Islamists to boycott election

CAIRO (AFP) – Egypt’s main opposition movement the Muslim Brotherhood said on Monday it will boycott Tuesday’s municipal elections after it was allowed to field only 20 candidates for thousands of seats.

“We call on the Egyptian people to boycott the municipal elections because of the executive’s disregard for justice,” the group’s deputy supreme leader Mohammed Habib told AFP.

“We are boycotting” the election, he said. The Brotherhood was set to field just 20 candidates after a wide-ranging government crackdown left many would-be candidates behind bars or blocked from registering.

In contrast, President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party is fielding a candidate for every one of the 52,000 council seats up for grabs.

Ninety percent of its candidates are standing unopposed, according to party members.

Here’s the Ikhwan’s announcement.

Some will ask, why did they bother contesting the elections for the last two months, enduring countless arrests, if it was to pull out at the last minute? In conversations with MB leaders in the last two months, I was told that there was an internal debate as to whether participation was worth the cost. The consensus agreement was that they did not want to be seen as abandoning political work, and that the short-term price of arrests was worth it for the long-term gain of legitimacy they would get from having tried to participate and getting every trick in the book thrown at them by the NDP. Out of 52,000 seats up for grabs, the MB only wanted to contest some 10,000, managed to get nearly 6,000 candidates, only about 500 of which managed to get their papers in. Of these, only 20 made it on the final electoral list. I think they’ve proven that they tried their best, and boycotting the elections sends a clear message that the elections are a farce. Combined with the low participation of the legal opposition and dissent within the NDP, and the general political climate following yesterday’s events, expect record low turnouts tomorrow.

Fawzy – “Copts: Citizens not Clients”

I like Sameh Fawzy, a smart Coptic activist and researcher who has written at length about Islamist groups, the concept of citizenship, and many other issues. In his latest article for the Daily News Egypt he talks about Coptic attitudes towards the municipal elections, the problem with the clergy intervening on behalf of the regime and claiming to speak for all Copts, and the important question that elections are “more negotiations than competition.” We’ve seen this in recent days as Zakariya Azmi, ruling party bigwig and President Mubarak’s chief of staff, entered into talks with the legal opposition to urge it to field more candidates. We see it even at the local level where the Muslim Brothers can occasionally negotiate with local NDP, although those cases are now few and far between. What you have is an election where the results are essentially pre-determined, particularly when the party that refuses to enter negotiations most of the time, or with whom the regime refuses to negotiate, is excluded altogether.

Here obviously I speak of the Muslim Brothers, who still have a long, long way to go before most Copts come to trust them. Essam al-Erian has an op-ed in the Forward, which it seems is fast becoming the favorite Jewish-American magazine for Islamists. It’s pretty boiler plate but covers much of the ground of what has been happening in recent days.

Bin Laden and Palestine

The latest Times Literary Supplement has a review piece on several books about al-Qaeda, notably its ideology. Here’s a passage worth highlighting from Jihadi studies:

“Although his discourse has evolved, there are some constants, one of which is Palestine. For some curious reason, there has emerged a perception – particularly in the US – that Bin Laden did not care about the Palestinian cause until after 9/11, when he found it politically opportune to mention it. This is incorrect. As Bergen has made clear, Bin Laden’s first public speeches in the late 1980s were about Palestine and the need to boycott American goods because of the US support for Israel. In Lawrence’s book, Palestine is mentioned in seven of the eight major pre-9/11 declarations, and thirteen of the sixteen post-9/11 texts. Palestine is the ultimate symbol of Muslim suffering and Bin Laden’s message would be weaker without it. The belief that Palestine is irrelevant for the war on terrorism is arguably the greatest delusion of the post-9/11 era.”

Read the rest of the review — that passage was about Bruce Lawrence’s Bin Laden reader, Messages to the World. Also mentioned are Omar Nasiri’s Inside Jihad and an essay by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Globalization and the Radical Loser.

Turkey’s Supreme Court hears case to ban AKP

From Supreme court threatens Islamic party’s government in Turkey:

Turkey was thrown into crisis yesterday when the country’s supreme court moved to oust the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and close down his political party, the country’s biggest and most successful.

The 11-judge court, a bastion of the secularist establishment, decided unanimously to hear a case calling for the closure of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) as well as banning the prime minister and president from politics for five years on the grounds that they are trying to impose Islamic law in the overwhelmingly Muslim country of 70 million.

The decision followed a failed attempt by the country’s military leaders to mount a coup by stealth last year against the prime minister and to stop Abdullah Gul, the former foreign minister, from becoming president and head of state.

Erdogan, backed by many domestic and international politicians, argues that the court and state prosecution moves are anti-democratic and that his opponents are attempting to overthrow Turkish democracy through the courts because they cannot win at the ballot box.

“History will not forgive this,” he said yesterday. “Those who couldn’t fight the AKP democratically prefer to fight with anti-democratic methods.”

How this case turns out could have wide-ranging ramifications for Islamist movements across the region. Thus far Turkey has been a model for the peaceful and gradual integration of Islamist parties into mainstream politics, and it would be a real shame to see that country thrown into a political crisis if the AKP were banned. I don’t know much about Turkish politics, but one wonders whether this is really motivated by ideological opposition to Islamists or by the fact that the country’s secular establishment now finds itself out of power, and therefore unable to access the resources of the state for their own purpose.

Adam Shatz: Laptop Jihadi

21HZb%2B8aYSL.jpgAdam Shatz reviews a new biography of Abu Musab al-Suri, one of al-Qaeda’s most important theoreticians – Laptop Jihadi:

Al-Suri’s world-view isn’t original, although it is no less chilling for that: a Qutbian brew of political grievances (Israeli atrocities in Palestine, the US sanctions against Iraq), toxic prejudice (non-Muslims, but especially Jews and crusaders) and sexual anxiety (he recommends killing tourists, ‘ambassadors of depravity, corruption, immorality and decadence’). He writes scornfully of moderate Islamists who talk with ‘the other’ and says there is no point in pursuing dialogue with ‘bacteria, epidemics and locusts’: ‘Only insecticides and medicines to kill bacteria’ were required. (Like the Professor in The Secret Agent, al-Suri’s ‘thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction’.) At the same time, he advises jihadis to avoid attacking ‘places of worship for any religion or faith’, including churches and synagogues, and, if possible, to spare women and children. How he reconciles this with his call for ‘inflicting as many human and material losses as possible on the interests of America and her allies’ – or with his regret that the planes on 11 September weren’t armed with weapons of mass destruction – is not something he explains.

But what’s most eerie about al-Suri’s book is not so much its content as its form. The Call is a military manual written in a strikingly secular – at times even avant-garde – idiom. His aim in writing is no different from what it was when he trained mujahedin at camps in Afghanistan: to produce better, smarter fighters, and to defeat the enemy. Most of his arguments, he emphasises, are not drawn from religious ‘doctrines or the laws about what is forbidden (haram) and permitted (halal)’ in Islam, but from ‘individual judgments based on lessons drawn from experience’: ‘Reality,’ not God, ‘is the greatest witness.’ Though he embroiders his arguments with the occasional quote from the Koran, he clearly prefers to discuss the modern literature of guerrilla warfare. Jihadis who fail to learn from Western sources are ridiculed for their inability to ‘think outside the box’. Just as weirdly familiar is al-Suri’s celebration of nomadic fighters, mobile armies, autonomous cells, individual actions and decentralisation, which recalls not only Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille Plateaux, but the idiom of ‘flexible’ capitalism in the age of Google and call centres. His vision of jihadis training themselves in mobile camps and houses, presumably from their laptops, is not so far removed from our own off-site work world. Guerrilla life has rarely seemed so sterile, so anomic, so unlikely to promote esprit de corps. The constraints of the New World Order make jihad a rather grim, lonely crusade, a form of private combat cut off from the movement’s – mostly imagined – following. Al-Suri seems to acknowledge this when he says that the best kind of training occurs on the battlefield, which ‘has a particular fragrance’. On 31 October 2005, after breaking the Ramadan fast with a group of bearded men, he smelled that fragrance for the last time during a gunfight in Quetta with his former allies in Pakistan intelligence. At least one of al-Suri’s dinner companions was killed but he was unharmed. There had been strict orders from above: the Americans wanted to talk to him. He hasn’t been heard from since, and in spite of the objections of prosecutors like the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, who was on to al-Suri long before the Americans had heard of him, the CIA refuses to say where he’s being held.

Read the full review which has some great bits about how al-Suri’s ideology was borne out of contempt for the Syrian Muslim Brothers, who negotiated with the Assad regime after their takeover of Hama in 1982 before being crushed.

Also see this 2006 profile of al-Suri by Lawrence Wright in the New Yorker.