After much pulling and tugging between Egypt’s military-backed government and the Muslim Brotherhood, the state has adopted a highly controversial “anti-terrorism” law that effectively freezes any legal activity from the country’s largest opposition group.
The law, which criminalises any kind of participation linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, intensifies Egypt’s political polarisation. The legislation comes ahead of a nationwide referendum on the country’s constitution set for January 5.
The bill was passed after a bomb blast killed 16 people on December 24 in the Nile Delta city of Al Mansoura. Although the law does not include Ansar Bayt al-Makdis, the an al-Qaeda-linked group who claimed responsibility for the attack, legislation does target the Muslim Brotherhood who condemned the assault and whose supporters have been staging daily peaceful protests since the army-led overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi on July 3.
Despite previous government pledges not to shun any faction from the political scene, the law bolts the lock on the return of a party that has won every vote since the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
Human Rights Watch has said the law banning the Brotherhood is “politically driven”.
Anti-coup protesters, mostly sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood, remain determined to stay on the streets, even if it means risking arrest.
“We will not stop our peaceful struggle,” said Mahmoud, a student at Al-Azhar University, a hotbed of student activism where protests have continued despite a government ban on unauthorised rallies.
Since the so-called “anti-terror law” passed, at least five protesters have been killed, and almost 300 others have been arrested across the country on charges of “promoting terrorist ideologies”.
Rather than bringing stability, security crackdowns on younger marchers could provide radical armed groups with new members seeking revenge, analysts said.
Some fear that Egypt will spiral into a civil war – much like what happened in Algeria when the military-backed government cracked down on the then-popular Islamist Salvation Front (FIS) during the 1990s. The ensuing conflict left about 200,000 people dead.
“The Algerian scenario is likely to happen in Egypt particularly with the lack of communication between the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership and its grassroots whom can be attracted and recruited by radical movements,” Khalil al-Anani, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera.
Although the Brotherhood has been operating as an underground movement for decades and its members repeatedly land in Egyptian prisons, many analysts believe the interim government’s crackdown on the group decreases chances for a political solution.
Most of the movement’s leaders, including Morsi himself, are facing trial on a myriad of charges ranging from inciting violence to espionage. Since July 3, more than 1,000 Morsi supporters have been killed. Critics believe the Egyptian media has spearheaded a smear campaign against Brotherhood members who continue to protest.
“The current oppression is alienating many young Egyptians, particularly Islamists who [have] lost faith in politics and democracy and might adopt violence as the only way to deal with the current government,” Anani said. “I don’t think that the MB leadership will call for bearing arms against the state but many other non-affiliated sympathisers might.”
An example of such a call was made by Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the official spokesman of the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Despite his criticisms of the Brotherhood’s support for non-violence, Adnani has promoted “the rattle of the swords” and the “shedding of blood” to deal with Egypt’s political crisis.
In the Sinai, home to more than a dozen armed groups, analysts fear some residents might abandon peaceful protests in favour of violent tacticts as a result of the new law. “The current confrontation between the regime and MB is driven by revenge and became a zero-sum game,” said Anani.
Bomb attacks were launched in Cairo’s Nasir City district and other parts of the country following the passage of the legislation.
Mohamed Farghali, a security analyst and researcher, said Muslim Brotherhood members are unlikely to join more radical religious groups, citing “ideological differences” between the two.
Farghali said that powerful weapons smuggled from Libya and Sudan are available on Egypt’s black market, and he believes the “anti-terror” legislation could “take these [armed] groups to another level”.
“These groups, which mostly found a foothold in the Sinai amid the security void that followed the January 25 uprising will now dig deeper to avoid the anti-terror law,” he said. “The law does not include them, but it raises the public’s alertness.”
Immediately after the “anti-terror law” was issued, the Ministry of Interior made hotlines available for citizens to report anyone whom they “suspected” of belonging to or having ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is this, rather than the reoccurring blasts reminiscent of the wave of attacks that gripped the country in the 1990s, that worries Mohamed Soffar, a professor of political theory and Director of Civilisations Dialogue Center at Cairo University.
“We are being pulled back to post-state status, where societal and family ties are being abolished and each citizen is being pitted against the other. Violence is now legal as citizens are transformed into vigilantes,” he said.
Following deadly attacks in Al Mansoura, thousands took to the streets demanding all Muslim Brotherhood affiliates be executed. Although the group has renounced violence since the 1970s, their critics believe otherwise, blaming them for the surge in violence immediately following Morsi’s ouster. Brotherhood opponents cite comments made by currently-jailed senior leader Mohamed al-Beltagy in which he said an end to violence in the Sinai hinges on Morsi’s return.
‘The state will win’
Along with worries about peace in the Sinai and bomb attacks, some analysts are concerned that anti-government fighters, or indviduals with sympathies for al-Qaeda, have infiltrated the security forces, complicating the crackdown on the Brotherhood.
We have not yet reached the point of no return
“Even the police institution was not sparred. About 280 officers were detained for links to radical armed groups. Suspects arrested included people from the upper class. Extremism is no longer confined to the poor,” Farghali said. This situation could spell the beginning of a protracted and bloody conflict, according to some observers.
“A real form of dialogue cannot be established amid such severe polarisation, but it is not impossible. We have not yet reached the point of no return,” Soffar said. Egypt and Israel – two historic enemies – were able to establish diplomatic ties, he said, so if they could bridge the gap, Egypt’s feuding population should be able to do the same.
Anani agrees reconciliation is possible, but warned that: “Egypt is heading towards more uncertainty and instability and democracy seems to be buried.”
Despite ongoing attacks and street protests, coupled with an economy in crisis, Farghali believe the interim authorities will be able to keep control.
“At the end of the day, the state will win. It’s a historical fact,” he said. “It even happened in Algeria.”