The Amputation of Egypt’s Islamist Political Arm

Egypt’s Supreme Administrative Court ruling to dissolve the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) hammered yet another nail into the Muslim Brotherhood’s coffin. On Saturday, Judge Fareed Tanago delivered the verdict that would end any formal Brotherhood participation in Egypt’s political life, citing the violation of the “principles required for a popular, democratic, political party” and that the FJP’s membership consisted primarily of banned Muslim Brotherhood members involved in violent criminal activity. The National Alliance to Support Legitimacy reacted predictably, denouncing the decision as “flawed and defective.” The ruling continues a chilling pattern of behavior by the judiciary to abide by the ruling regime’s political will, contributing to the radicalization of Islamists and lessening the chances for a much needed reconciliation agreement between the state and the Muslim Brotherhood.

With a fraught history between the Brotherhood and the judiciary, many judges vigorously supported President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s policy toward the organization, championing his authority in the courtroom. Ousted president Mohamed Morsi faces trial for a number of charges, including collaborating with foreign elements to destabilize the country, for which he could face conviction of high treason and death. A Giza criminal court ruled that fourteen Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including the Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie, would face the death penalty. Only Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam—Egypt’s highest Muslim authority—stands in the way of their execution. In June, a Minya court confirmed 183 of 683 death sentences it handed down in a trial in which the judge prevented defense attorneys from presenting their full case. The Supreme Administrative Court’s ruling to dissolve the FJP represents only the latest in an ongoing dismantling process meant to eliminate the Brotherhood. While Sisi has repeatedly claimed the judiciary’s independence as his reason for refusing to intervene in legal affairs, the pattern of anti-dissident convictions on flimsy legal evidence would lead anyone to question the independence of such a body.

Justice Fareed Tanago’s assignment to such a sensitive case also raises eyebrows with respect to judicial independence. Only three days after the military removed Morsi from office, Justice Tanago swore his oath of office in front of interim-president Adly Mansour as he prepared to take up his position as head of the State Council. Now, with the conclusion of the case on the legality of the FJP, Tanago appeared before Sisi to receive the Order of the Republic First Class in recognition of his distinguished service as he stepped down from his position. Justice Tanago’s history may well be coincidental, but the timing renders his ruling somewhat conspicuous. While direct intervention from the state in this case remains unlikely, the current rejection of all things related to the Muslim Brotherhood and the bad blood between the Morsi government and the judiciary makes one question the objectivity of such proceedings.

Despite another judge’s claims that the court ruling applies only to the FJP as a political entity and not to its members’ right to run in upcoming parliamentary elections, the unsurprising verdict remains consistent with Sisi’s intention to remove the Muslim Brotherhood—and any dissidents who might challenge his new political order—from public life in Egypt. With the majority of its members either behind bars or driven underground, few remain who could possibly exercise this so-called political freedom in the next elections.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood maintains that it will only fight Sisi’s regime through unarmed means, some of its members engaged in violent activity during Morsi’s time in power, and particularly in the weeks after his ouster. Its members also increasingly view peaceful compromise as a kind of surrender—a price too high to pay in light of how much the group has lost. As security forces systematically removed its leaders, command and control structures began to collapse, leading to local groups staging protests that often resulted in bloody confrontations with security forces. Extremist activity also spiked in the months after Morsi’s removal from office. While most attacks focused on state institutions and security personnel in the Sinai Peninsula, a growing trend has seen attacks occurring in more urban areas such as Cairo, Giza, and cities in the Nile Delta. Egyptian authorities stepped up counterterrorism operations in September 2013, greatly reducing—but not eliminating—these incidents.

As the court extinguishes the final vestige of the Muslim Brotherhood’s official political influence, Egyptian authorities will sooner or later have to answer the question: will repressive stability bring about the security and prosperity that Sisi recently promised? While some critics might say that Egypt has suffered a blow to political plurality, the court’s decision to dissolve the FJP represents more of a housekeeping directive—one that formally implements and provides legal cover for a preexisting policy that aims to eliminate dissent (some may even believe that the judiciary had already disbanded the party). But as avenues to express opposing political views dwindle, fewer peaceful options remain and contribute to a growing radicalization of the marginalized. Echoes of jihadist voices that ridicule the Muslim Brotherhood for trying to pursue democratic means, claiming that only violence can achieve their desired goals, begin to ring louder. With no guidance from a decapitated movement, hatred from a bitter majority, and brutality from a determined police force, rage begins to build. While impossible to link the Muslim Brotherhood directly to extremist violence, such rage has undoubtedly burst forth in militant attacks.

Given the chance, the failure of its ideology might have made way for more moderate groups in a peaceful rotation of power. Now, Sisi’s insistence on removing any trace of it will only drive its members deeper underground and in a more violent direction. Sisi has rejected reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, and pro-Brotherhood supporters remain deluded in their insistence that Morsi return to office before any reconciliation take place. Efforts from diplomats and political figures in Egypt to promote the idea have fallen on deaf ears. Nonetheless, such efforts cannot stop. Brutal repression can only buy the illusion of stability, until another revolutionary undercurrent bursts forth. Or a jihadist one.

Tarek Radwan is Associate Director for the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: A view of the damaged entrance of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) headquarters, which is located in front of the Interior Ministry, after it was attacked by people against ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi in Cairo July 4, 2013. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)