Thursday, December 26, 2013
Egypt: Muslim Brotherhood Deemed Terrorist Group
CAIRO — Egypt’s military-backed leaders on Wednesday designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, outlawing the country’s most successful political movement and vowing to treat anyone who belongs to it, or even takes part in its activities, as a terrorist.
Egypt’s leaders have been in conflict with the movement since July, when the military deposed Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president and a former Brotherhood leader. State forces have killed hundreds of the group’s supporters during protests against Mr. Morsi’s removal. Most of its leaders and thousands of its members have been imprisoned.
Now, with Wednesday’s decision, the government signaled its determination to cut off any air to the more than 80-year-old Islamist organization.
Analysts said the designation opened the door to the most severe crackdown on the movement in decades, requiring hundreds of thousands of Brotherhood members to abandon the group or face prison, and granting the military and the police new authority to suppress protests. The decision makes it a crime to promote the Brotherhood and could also outlaw hundreds of welfare and charitable organizations affiliated with the movement that help Egyptians with little access to government services.
The move came a day after officials blamed the Brotherhood for a suicide bombing at a police headquarters north of Cairo that killed 16 people, though on Wednesday a separate group — Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which has derided the Brotherhood for its lack of militancy — claimed responsibility for that bombing.
The government was not swayed. In announcing the designation, it again blamed the Brotherhood for bombing the police headquarters, without supplying evidence that the Brotherhood was responsible.
Officials framed their decision as part of a long struggle between the state and a militant movement, making no mention of the Brotherhood’s more recent emergence as the most successful force in democratic elections after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. “The Muslim Brotherhood remains as it has been,” the cabinet said in a statement. “It only knows violence as a tool.”
The designation represented a victory for government hard-liners who have sought to eradicate the Brotherhood since the military’s ouster of Mr. Morsi in July and who cast doubt on the repeated promises by officials of an inclusive, democratic transition. It appeared to set Egypt, which has been in crisis since the military takeover, on an even more precarious course.
Khalil al-Anani, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington who studies the Brotherhood, called the designation “a turning point” and said it could lead Egypt to a civil conflict like the one in Algeria in the 1990s.
“This is a big miscalculation from the government,” he said. “It is a massive social movement, whose supporters might retaliate or fight back.”
With most of the Brotherhood’s senior leaders already imprisoned, he said, “there is a lack of communication between the leadership and young Brotherhood members. And these people can be dragged to the violent path.”
With the decision on Wednesday, the current government moved against the group even more aggressively than had been the case under Mr. Mubarak, who ruled for three decades before being deposed by the uprising in 2011. In the Mubarak era, the Brotherhood was banned and its leaders were imprisoned, but some members could participate in politics, and the group’s social organizations and charities were permitted to operate.
Mr. Anani said that the cabinet decision would not have been announced without the blessing of the military and the powerful defense chief, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi. The military was giving the police “carte blanche,” he said. “They don’t have a political solution,” he said.
In a statement, the cabinet said that the authorities would punish anyone who joined the Brotherhood or remained a member, as well as “those who take part in the activity” of the group or “promotes it by speech, writing or any other means and all those who fund its activities.” The law mandates a maximum five-year sentence for joining a banned group, but allows judges to impose lengthier sentences if terrorism is involved.
Still, Ahmed al-Arainy, a Brotherhood member who has already been arrested once since the ouster of Mr. Morsi, said that after months of killings and arrests by the authorities, the new designation “makes no difference to us.”
“Our problem with them is on the ground and not related to their labels,” he said of Egypt’s current leaders. “They killed us in the street yesterday, and today they’re trying to legalize the crime they had already committed.”
The focus on the Brotherhood appeared to distract the government from Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a militant group inspired by Al Qaeda that has emerged as the face of a potent insurgency growing in sophistication and reach.
On Wednesday, the group claimed responsibility for the bombing of the police building in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura. It has orchestrated several of the most brazen attacks in a wave of assassinations and bombings targeting the security services since July.
The militant attacks have tested Egypt’s poorly trained security forces, stretched thin as the government has sent officers to put down almost daily protests and arrest thousands of people. At least 171 police officers have been killed since August.
It remained possible that a court might reverse the cabinet designation against the Brotherhood, which could threaten the perceived legitimacy of coming elections for Parliament and a president by driving the Islamists further underground. The Brotherhood had already announced its intention to boycott a referendum on a draft constitution that the government views as a crucial measure of its popularity.
Officials underlined the importance of the referendum again on Wednesday, saying in their statement that it “founds this new state and declares once and for all the end of the dark, hated past.”