The arrest of Mohammed Badie, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, might signal the intentions of the Egyptian army to dismantle the movement’s leadership without making the movement itself illegal.
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The suspicions directed at Badie are not really important, but when Badie; his deputy, Khairat el-Shater; deposed president Mohammed Morsi; and other leaders of the movement are under arrest, in practical terms it means they will not be able to run for office in the next elections and the Muslim Brotherhood will have to put up second- or third-tier candidates. That will compromise its ability to sweep to a significant victory.
It seems that, at this point, Egypt’s military commander-in-chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and the temporary government do not intend to ban the movement. Their fear is that such a step will present the army as compromising the principles of the first revolution to consider the Muslim Brotherhood a full partner and lifted the prohibition against their political activity - a democratic revolution that removed the remnants of oppression of the Hosni Mubarak regime. Moreover, el-Sissi is aware that liberal movements - the opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood - are against banning the Brotherhood’s activities, and he also knows that any new political leadership will need broad public legitimacy that it cannot attain without the support of the Islamic movements.
The army is, therefore, taking a detour in which it is trying to strike a blow at the political power of the Brotherhood, relying on legal reasoning whose validity will be decided by the courts.
Two assumptions are behind these arrests: One is that they will lead the Brotherhood to give up its resolute stance against cooperating with the new government, so it will not be forced to disappear completely from the political scene; the other is that if the Brotherhood does not retreat, it will at least have suffered a severe political blow due to the absence of its leaders.
Ostensibly, the army and the temporary government can only benefit from these arrests. But the Brotherhood quickly made clear that, despite the arrests, it continues to operate normally. on Tuesday it hastened to appoint Mahmoud Ezzat as interim spiritual leader, and its spokesmen said the Brotherhood would continue the struggle.
The appointment of Ezzat, third in the Brotherhood’s hierarchy (el-Shater, now in jail, is the second), is no coincidence. The 69-year-old Ezzat, a physician, is a conservative, a member of the radical wing of the movement inspired by Islamic theorist Sayyid Qutb. Thus, Ezzat is close in his opinions to Badie. According to figures in the Brotherhood, Ezzat - whose nickname is “the fox” - is considered the brains of the movement. He is connected to the Brotherhood’s worldwide movement and has strong ties to Hamas.
Ezzat’s appointment was criticized by more moderate figures in the movement, who demanded the appointment of a centrist. Its purpose, among other things, is to show the movement’s determination to take a strong stand. There is perhaps also a strategic goal: to be able to move operations underground if it is banned.
Meanwhile, the Brotherhood is also examining the extent of its international support. In light of the hesitation of the American administration, which has not yet officially announced that it is freezing aid to Egypt; the agreement between Saudi Arabia and France to give a chance to the road map formulated by el-Sissi; the promises by some European countries; and the abhorrence for the Brotherhood being shown by some of the Gulf states - it seems that presently the group has only one stable entity on which to rely: Turkey.
This is not the best news, because Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed to rile the Brotherhood when, shortly after the revolution, he suggested they adopt the Turkish model in which a religious head of state presides over a secular state. Turkey, the members of the Brotherhood said, is not a useful model for Egypt. But after Morsi was deposed, and especially since the army’s massacre of demonstrators, Erdogan has spearheaded protests against the military coup, demanding that Morsi be returned to power.
On Tuesday it seemed that Erdogan’s anger over the loss of the most friendly Egyptian regime to Turkey in a decade had driven him crazy. He resorted to Protocols of the Elders of Zion-esque nonsense to try to sully the name of the Egyptian army, declaring that the coup is the result of a conspiracy between the Egyptian military and Israel, citing “proof” from a “Jewish intellectual” (Bernard-Henri Levy) from two years ago. He was thus revealed as a prisoner of concepts typical of anti-Semitic thinkers who laid the groundwork for the despicable idea that Jews control everything and run the world.
Erdogan burns with anger every time it is hinted that he is anti-Semitic, and he quickly presents proof from Turkey’s long history that it helped the Jews. He stresses that his government is doing everything to protect the Jewish community in Turkey. This time, though, it seems he will have trouble persuading even his own supporters that he only meant the political aspect of the conspiracy.
Such statements certainly do not help the Muslim Brotherhood, but Erdogan - whose declarations have already created a deep rift between Egypt and Turkey - seems to think Turkey no longer has anything to lose.
The outcome is that Turkey’s leader, the man who wants to influence the Middle East, is taking Turkey out of the circle of decision makers in the region.