Egyptian judges call for Muslim Brotherhood to be dissolved

Non-binding ruling a futher setback for Islamist group that has suffered army-led crackdown since Mohamed Morsi’s overthrow

An Egyptian judicial panel has recommended the legal dissolution of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, the latest setback for the Islamist group that was Egypt’s most powerful civil organisation until Morsi was overthrown in July, and which has since been driven all but underground by an army-led crackdown.

The group is in its worst crisis since a similar attempt to suppress it in the 1950s, with the turmoil even destabilising the Brotherhood’s affiliate organisations in other countries across the Middle East.

On Monday a panel of Egyptian judges recommended the Brotherhood’s dissolution as a legally registered non-governmental organisation. It was a non-binding decision but one that – with the new prime minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, already considering a possible ban on the group – will further hinder the organisation’s fight to remain anything more than a clandestine organisation. Hundreds of its members have been killed by state officials during protests since July, and thousands arrested.

All but two of the Brotherhood’s most senior officials are now either in hiding or under arrest and its command structures are severely curbed. In news emblematic of the group’s predicament, the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohamed Badie, has suffered a heart attack in prison, while Morsi himself – prosecutors announced on Sunday – will face charges for allegedly inciting murder during his presidency.

“Most of the senior leaders are either in jail or on the run. It is almost impossible to get in touch with any of them,” said Amr Darrag, a senior official from the Brotherhood’s political wing, and one of only two Brotherhood officials who now dare to roam freely in public. The other is Mohamed Bishr. When asked by phone who was now in charge of the group, Bishr said: “I don’t know … I can’t contact anyone.”

The crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood started almost as soon as the head of Egypt’s army, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, announced Morsi’s removal in a televised statement on 3 July.

“As soon as the statement ended there were security forces everywhere,” said Asma Ali, a presenter for Misr 25, a television channel run by the Brotherhood that was shut down that night. “One of our presenters was just about to go on air to talk about the statement. They arrested everyone, even the technicians and assistants. The other channels in the building knew. They came in to film and humiliate us.”

Arrest warrants for hundreds of Brotherhood officials were issued hours later – though several of the group’s key organisers remained at large until after the brutal breakup of two pro-Morsi protest camps on 14 August.

The ripple effects of the Brotherhood’s fall from grace have been felt by the group’s allies and spin-offs in neighbouring countries. The Brotherhood’s Libyan incarnation won only 10% of the vote in last year’s congressional elections, but gained support with its campaign to mandate wholesale purges of Gaddafi-era officials. But then came Morsi’s overthrow in Egypt.

Amid a general upsurge in violence, militias in western Libya stormed and looted an army base. The country’s parliament speaker, a Brotherhood ally, used emergency powers to summon the pro-Brotherhood Libya Shield militias to Tripoli, saying he feared a coup.

One party opposed to the Brotherhood withdrew from parliament amid hotly disputed claims that the Shield would become a parallel army in Libya. Striking regular army units in eastern Libya blockaded the oil ports, starving the government of revenue.

In Gaza, the ruling Hamas party is in a state of shock over the swift and bloody demise of its ideological soulmates across the border in Egypt.

Since the military coup, Hamas has kept its head down, saying little publicly except that it does not get involved in the internal matters of other countries.

But there is little doubt the organisation is facing a crisis. On top of the bleak prospect of renewed and intensified political isolation, Hamas is also dealing with increasing geographical isolation as Egyptian authorities impose strict limits on the Rafah crossing to Gaza.

It has taken a further serious financial blow from the closure of most of the smuggling tunnels to Egypt, which had provided Hamas with significant revenue from taxes and levies.

In the face of a weakened and isolated Hamas, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas – from the rival party Fatah – has revived talk of holding the first elections in Gaza and the West Bank for almost eight years.

Meanwhile, a Gaza youth group, Tamarod, named after the Egyptian movement that led anti-Morsi protesters, has called for an uprising on 11 November and for the overthrow of Hamas. At least 50 of its supporters have been detained by the Hamas authorities.

In Tunisia, the country whose revolt sparked the uprisings of 2011, the ruling Islamist party, Ennahda, has been independent of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood for decades. But Ennahda leaders watched the ousting of Morsi with dismay. The three-party coalition government that Ennahda heads is battling for survival. An opposition movement demanding the government’s immediate resignation was initially encouraged by the Egyptian example – and succeeded in mobilising large crowds in early August.

However, the killing of hundreds of demonstrators on the streets of Cairo in mid-August by the new military-backed government added weight to arguments that Tunisia must avoid “the Egyptian scenario” at all costs. And the Tunisian army, in contrast to Egypt’s, is showing little inclination to intervene in the political scene.

Back in Egypt, Brotherhood members argue the group has survived worse. “This is simply the latest crisis to add to the list,” said Kotb al-Araby. “We have been through this before. In 1948, in 1954. In ’65. We are strong enough to survive.”

The author Tarek Osman, writing last month in Foreign Affairs, agreed the Brotherhood would ultimately continue. “No matter how much blood is shed on the streets of Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will neither be eradicated nor opt for exile,” Osman wrote. “Sooner or later, the pillars of the Egyptian state, led by the military and the Brotherhood, and with it large sections of the country’s Islamist movement, will reach some sort of modus operandi.”

But if few doubt that an organisation that has been so deeply embedded in Egyptian society since 1928 can survive, a more pertinent question is whether it is capable of adapting and responding to what many members see as a failed experiment in power.

The Brotherhood’s inability to reach out and build a wider coalition in its brief time in office alienated the revolutionaries who brought down the former president Hosni Mubarak by being too cosy with the generals in the post-revolutionary period.

As Mohamed Habib, the former deputy general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood – and now fierce critic of it – wrote last month: “They lost everything due to their failure to understand what was happening around them. The Brotherhood’s mistakes were their downfall. They failed to achieve political stability and security. They failed to find solutions to the dire economic crisis and their fateful Constitutional Declaration led to division, fragmentation, civil strife, and violence, as well as the collapse of the rule of law.”

Egyptian polls would appear to indicate that during the year Morsi was in power, support and approval for the Brotherhood declined sharply – with one suggesting that some 67% of Egyptians agreed with the way the pro-Morsi sit-ins were cleared.

Some believe the Brotherhood’s autocratic ideology renders it inherently incapable of the kind of self-criticism necessary to reinvent itself and expand its appeal again to a wider circle of Egyptians.

Kotb al-Araby disputes this. “Of course what happened will be reviewed and revised. There were mistakes. A lot of mistakes, but good things too. We will build on the good things. In my personal opinion one of the biggest mistakes that we made was running for the presidency [which nearly half of the Brotherhood’s leadership council advised against]. We should have fought our battles more gradually.”

Other Brotherhood members fear that a small minority of members disaffected by recent events may take the future in their own hands. “My concern is that we don’t finish with an Algerian scenario,” said Sherief Abuel Magd, a middle-ranking member, referring to the 1990s Algerian civil war that pitted Islamists against the army.

“Of course, 500,000 people will not carry weapons. But you can’t control everyone. And if maybe 500 started carrying guns and killed policemen, that’s bad enough. But if you carry on killing and arresting, what do you expect?”

Additional reporting by Chris Stephen, Harriet Sherwood and Eileen Byrne © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds