The Trap of Friendly Fire

The recent release of two Muslim Brotherhood figures from prison in Egypt, the first since the army’s removal of former President, Mohamed Morsi, fourteen months ago, increased speculation that secret reconciliation talks were taking place between the two sides. While any negotiations were firmly denied in official statements by the government and the Muslim Brotherhood, the rumors have led to a division in the ranks of the country’s largest political group, and the Brotherhood-led National Alliance to Support Legitimacy (NASL).

Helmy al-Gazzar, a leading Brotherhood member and former parliamentarian and Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maqsoud, a lawyer for the group, were each released on bail pending trial in late August after spending a year in prison. They both face charges of leading violent protests following Morsi’s removal by then Defense Minister, and now President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi. Mohamed al-Omda, also a former member of parliament involved in the same case, was released. While not a member of the Brotherhood, he was known as being sympathetic to the group, and came to the limelight only after Morsi’s election as president.

A few days after his release, Omda held a news conference in his hometown of Aswan in which he announced an initiative. While he still dubbed Morsi’s removal on July 3, 2013 an army-led coup, Omda called upon the Brotherhood to accept Sisi as de facto president for a transitional period during which the group’s leaders would be released from prison, and could resume their role in politics. He also called for a reversal on the Brotherhood ban. In December, the government declared the Brotherhood a “terrorist organization,” and police have engaged in a concerted crackdown on the group’s leaders and members. This has included freezing their financial assets, which were crucial for many years in maintaining their network of social services and funding their many activities. In August, a Cairo court also banned the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, with Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab ordering the execution of the court order a month later.

While most leading Brotherhood leaders are in prison, including Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and his first deputy, Khairat al-Shater, prominent exiled figures were quick to reject Omda’s initiative. Yehia Hamed, the former Minister of Investment under Morsi and a Brotherhood leader, currently in Qatar, wrote on his Twitter account: “One word: No initiatives.” Gamal Heshmat, another Brotherhood former member of parliament who resides in Turkey thanked Omda for his resilience during the year he spent in prison, and for the initiative he launched, “But we will act like we have heard nothing.”

The Brotherhood’s Secretary-General, Mohamed Hussein, also issued a harshly-worded statement from his hideout in exile reportedly in Turkey, saying the group “remains committed to continuing its peaceful revolutionary struggle until we get rid of the coup.” He added that the Brotherhood, “is not concerned with ongoing campaigns aimed at letting those who carried out the coup get away without being held justly accountable. We will not provide those in power now with a safe exit, and will not allow any criminal to escape from justice.” The Brotherhood’s insistence on restoring the pre-July 3 order, reinstating Morsi and holding Sisi accountable for leading a “coup” against a democratically elected president and the death of hundreds of  the group’s members, have been the key stumbling blocks making it impossible to reach a compromise with the government.

However, these firm statements insisting that Brotherhood members and supporters do not plan to change course, did not hide obvious cracks within the group itself, and among NASL members as well. The pro-Morsi Wasat Party, led by Abul-Ela Madi, who has been in prison for past 14 months, was the first to officially announce the suspension of its NASL membership. Differences existed for months within the party’s leadership over its continued participation in the alliance. Three members of its executive board resigned because they disagreed with the NASL’s strategy of depending on street protests alone with an increasing level of violence. As in the Brotherhood’s case, however, the Wasat Party leaders abroad in Qatar, Hatem Azzam and former Parliament Affairs Minister, Mohamed Mahsoub, rejected the party’s decision in Cairo, and insisted they would not accept any compromises hinged on recognizing the legitimacy of the current regime and Sisi.

Several private daily newspapers, including Al-Shorouk and Al-Masry Al-Youm, have reported that Wasat Party president, Abu Ela Madi, known as a moderate who split from the Brotherhood nearly 20 years ago, and former Parliament Speaker and Brotherhood leader, Saad al-Katatni, top the list of those expected to be released next from prison in order to conduct reconciliation talks with the government. According to these reports, they would also become the liaison between the government and the hardline leadership abroad. Reports also add that Mohamed Ali Beshr, former Minister of Local Development under Morsi and the only key Brotherhood leader who has not been arrested, might consider forming a new political party that would allow moderate Brotherhood members to run in upcoming parliament elections. Beshr, who was involved in several negotiation rounds with European, US and Qatari envoys shortly after Morsi’s removal, denied such reports, saying, “The coup’s government circulated these reports on the new party to give the impression that there’s been a split in our ranks. I totally deny and denounce this.”

However, Beshr and the Brotherhood leadership cannot deny that two influential leaders in the group, Ragheb al-Sergani and Mohamed al-Serougi, have openly called on the group to reconsider its strategy in opposing Sisi, and to give priority to maintaining the group and preventing the country from descending into more chaos. Sergani, an Islamist scholar who toured the country with Morsi during his election campaign in 2012, wrote an article for an Islamist website saying it was wrong to equate fighting against a Muslim and a non-Muslim or “infidel” leader. He quoted sayings of Prophet Mohamed implying that enduring the injustice inflicted by a tyrant Muslim ruler was a must in case there was a danger facing the unity of the nation as a whole.

Serougi, another influential Brotherhood figure, also leaked a letter from his prison cell that was published on several Islamist websites criticizing the group’s leadership, saying they should all resign and give the younger generation a chance, after they failed to run the group. He added that mistakes committed by the group’s leadership isolated the Brotherhood, and led to the loss of major victories it achieved for the first time in its history following the 25 January Revolution.

An informed source close to the Brotherhood said that a key reason the group’s leadership is wary of taking any steps towards reconciliation is an increased expectation among younger members who have borne the devastating consequences of the ongoing confrontation against the government, with countless deaths, injuries and arrests within their ranks. Ahmed al-Mogheer, a young Brotherhood leader in hiding, has been openly critical of the group’s older leaders for allegedly being soft in their fight against the government and stopping short of supporting violent attacks against police. He added in a recent Facebook post that while official Brotherhood statements, such as that of the secretary general, Hussein, continued to claim that no compromises were to be accepted short of Morsi’s return to power, “They were conducting secret negotiations with US, European and British officials in different world capitals to work on a compromise with Sisi.”

The reports on splits and breakaways from the Brotherhood-led alliance have clearly alarmed the group. The weekly address the Brotherhood produces, the latest published on September 5, was titled “Warning from the trap of friendly fire.” The article stated that developments Arab countries have witnessed over the past four years, referring to the so-called ‘Arab Spring,’ could lead to differences in views among supporters of political Islamic groups. “But what we reject is that the differences in views could lead to splits, the exchange of accusations, or listening to the allegations of those who support the coup inside and outside,” Egypt, the address stated. It added, “More dangerous as we get close to victory is to lend our ears to hypocrites who support the coup, or to fall into the sins of exchanging charges of treason and illegitimate competition. We don’t want the term (former US President George W.) Bush used in his war against Iraq in 2003, friendly fire, to leak to our front.”

Khaled Dawoud is currently Assistant Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram Weekly, an English language weekly published by Egypt’s oldest news establishment, Al-Ahram. He is also the official spokesman of social-liberal Al-Dostour Party established by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei. 

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)