Egypt Steps Up Total War on Muslim Brotherhood

Branding the group a terrorist organization could deal the Brotherhood a fatal blow.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Muslim Brotherhood's unequivocal denunciation of Tuesday’s bombing of a Mansoura police headquarters impressed neither the Egyptian public nor Cairo’s interim government.

A hasty poll by the liberal newspaper Al-Watan, before the Egyptian government officially declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, found that 79 percent of respondents support such a move, with 21 percent opposed. Many Egyptians interviewed in the media said they had no doubt who was behind the attack which killed 14 members of the security forces and wounded over 100.

The sentiment shared by many Egyptians is that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only group that would have an interest in such an action.

The Brotherhood has been branded as responsible even though several radical organizations in the Sinai peninsula have been dealt blows by the Egyptian military and are also looking to exact revenge by attacking institutions of the regime.

Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi hastened to announce Tuesday morning that the Muslim Brotherhood would be added to Egypt’s list of terrorist organizations. Public figures and even the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights urged the government not to stop there, but to work to get the group added to international lists of terrorist organizations as well. This would make it possible to take action against the Brotherhood’s branches worldwide and, even more importantly, to gain global support for the regime’s battle against the group.

The decision to define the group as a terrorist organization is liable to deal the Brotherhood a fatal blow. Before the Egyptian revolution, when it was defined merely as a banned organization, it suffered restrictions primarily on its political activity. Being defined as a terrorist organization, however, means the battle against it will be no less a national security priority than the battle against terrorist organizations in Sinai. The crackdown begins even though there is not yet proven its operatives were even involved in the attack.

This is a next stage in the total war the regime has been waging against the Brotherhood ever since July, when the military seized power and subsequently sent President Mohammed Morsi and the Brotherhood’s top leadership to detention and trial. About a month ago, the military regime barred the organization and various organs from political and social activity in Egypt, but not did not outlawing it altogether. The military, which dictates domestic policy to the president and prime minister, will likely not hesitate to send the organization back underground.

Whether or not the terror attack was carried out by the Muslim Brotherhood, there does exist some organized group that had no difficulty operating under the nose of Egyptian intelligence and obtaining dozens of kilograms of explosives - all in one of Egypt’s most crowded population centers.

Back in the 1940s, the Muslim Brotherhood, which was then a secret organization, was the main group capable of carrying out such attacks. In the terror-ridden Egypt of the 1990s, it was relatively small, radical organizations, but they were mostly shut down later.

Nowadays, after the revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, the situation is more alarming than ever. With large quantities of arms smuggled from Libya, explosives readily available, and apathetic and weak law enforcement, splinter organizations, gangs and even individuals have many opportunities to carry out terror attacks.

Even though branding the Brotherhood a terrorist organization was a step demanded by the public, it is liable to present the Egyptian security forces with a particularly tough challenge just as Egypt tries to reach a stable political balance. In the first half of January, Egypt is expected to hold a referendum on its new constitution. Sometime between two and three months later, it will hold presidential and then parliamentary elections.

Though the Brotherhood may have perpetrated the Mansoura attack, Egyptian analysts warned on Tuesday, Egypt is still liable to suffer more attacks in the coming weeks and months.

The Brotherhood and other groups aligned with it want to thwart the referendum and disrupt the elections.

Marking the Muslim Brotherhood as a security target, and not just a political rival, puts the military regime in Egypt in line with other regional powers and international tendencies.

Saudi policy, for example, also views the Brotherhood as a serious threat. Globally, there's a sense that radical organizations are a much more threatening enemy than murderous regimes like that of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Another sign of the tide turning in favor the regime is that U.S. President Barack Obama has reportedly backtracked on his plan to appoint Robert Ford, the former American ambassador to Syria, to head the diplomatic mission in Egypt. If Foreign Policy magazine is right, Egypt's military can chalk up another victory because they had opposed Ford over his efforts to hold negotiations with moderate Islamist groups in Syria.

Egyptians carry the coffin of a victim killed from the Mansoura police headquarters attack, Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013.Credit: AP

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