On Friday, November 11, Cairo was eerily quiet. A city known for its commotion and crowdedness, was largely -- and strangely -- still and empty.
Nationwide protests had been called on this day against the government’s ongoing austerity measures, implemented to meet conditions for an IMF loan of $12 billion. Exactly who called the protests remains unclear. However, the protests, which largely failed to materialise, were endorsed by the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood whose members said they would take part.
Their public backing provided a reminder that the Islamist movement still seeks to be a force to be reckoned with in Egypt even though analyst Ahmed Ban, director and researcher at the Nile Centre for Strategic Studies said that the group -- which was founded in 1928 and is one of Egypt’s oldest political movements -- is currently facing “the weakest moment in its history”.
Facing a crackdown
Over three years ago, the Brotherhood's main man Mohammed Morsi -- Egypt’s first democratically elected president -- was unseated from power by the military following mass protests against his rule. Since then, the Muslim Brotherhood, which was in power for just over a year, has faced a crackdown on its activities. It was designated a terrorist organisation, forcing it to go underground. Many of its members have been arrested or killed and others have fled the country.
It’s estimated that around 1400 have been killed to date, including those who were killed in the bloodbath that followed when security forces stormed a sit-in in Cairo on August 14, 2013, by pro-Morsi protesters resulting in the death of over 800.
“Some rights groups estimate that as many as 60,000 people have been detained for political reasons since July 2013,” according to a report by Amnesty International. Though it’s difficult to distinguish how many of them are Muslim Brotherhood and how many other prisoners, detentions of Brotherhood supporters are nevertheless believed to go into the tens of thousands.
Crikey contacted Egypt’s Interior Ministry for figures and comments, but is yet to receive a response.
Morsi’s fate still undecided
Morsi is among the most high-profile of Muslim Brotherhood prisoners-- along with other senior Brotherhood leaders, including general guide Mohammed Badie.
Morsi had been sentenced to death in June 2015 in connection with a mass jailbreak during the 2011 revolution. However, earlier this month Egypt’s highest appeal court, the Court of Cassation, quashed this sentence for Morsi -- and other Brotherhood members including Badie -- meaning he’s no longer at threat of execution.
Some analysts believe this is, in part, owing to fears that executing Brotherhood leaders may provoke violence in Egypt.
A little over a week later, the Court of Cassation overturned a life sentence he was given, along with 16 other Brotherhood members, on charges of espionage with Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas. Another 16 Brotherhood members have had their death sentences cancelled.
In both cases, the court has ordered a retrial.
Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was commander of the armed forces when he deposed Morsi, has always defended the judiciary's independence against accusations of politically motivated prosecutions and show trials.
Mohammed Soudan, Foreign Relations Secretary of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, said that the cancellation of the sentences is "a good sign" because it “proves that the Court of Cassation still has noble judges who do not succumb to military pressures”.
However, Morsi is still likely to remain in prison indefinitely. He is currently serving a 20-year sentence on charges linked to the killing of protesters in December 2012, a ruling that has been upheld by the Court of Cassation. They are yet to give their verdict on another life sentence Morsi was handed on charges of spying.
'Unprecedented' internal divisions
In the 1970s, the Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence and used a combination of social work (running of schools, hospitals and other services) along with political Islam to build support.
However, since their removal from power, and with most of the Brotherhood’s senior leaders imprisoned or in exile, an ideological divide has emerged between the old guard and younger members.
“There are some differences about what is the right way to struggle against the authorities”, admitted senior Brotherhood member Soudan, who is currently living in the UK after fleeing Egypt in August 2013.
Soudan said the younger faction seeks revenge, in opposition to the Brotherhood’s principle of non-violence.
“We try to tell the young people they should calm down and then think very deeply what is the right way. Our strategy as the Muslim Brotherhood movement from a long time ago, is that the right way to struggle is the peaceful struggle 100 hundred per cent.”
However, according to one analyst, the divide between the two factions “are in some ways unprecedented” and goes much deeper than Soudan suggested.
“The split is a bit complicated and I wouldn't characterise it as one faction being pro-violence and the other anti,” said Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World.
“I'd characterise it more as one faction being more ‘revolutionary’ and that faction is also more willing to challenge some of the assumptions of what we might call the old guard, including on the nature of the tanzim, or organisation. The old guard wants to essentially preserve the Brotherhood more or less as is, where the more ‘revolutionary’ faction wants to rethink organisational structures, including the question of the relationship between hizb (party) and haraka (movement).”
Reconciliation on the cards?
Talk of possible reconciliation between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood has been reported from time to time in the press.
The most recent reports in November this year were quashed by the Muslim Brotherhood who in a strongly worded statement called the claims “false, baseless stories” and reiterated their position of “no reconciliation” with the current regime.
However negotiations have been taking place according to academic Ahmed Ban. “It’s not public information. The rule is to pretend that there are no negotiations but secretly there are.”
Egypt’s president el-Sisi himself last year told the BBC, in what was widely interpreted as a possible softening of his position, "This country is big enough to accommodate all of us. They [Muslim Brotherhood] are part of Egypt and so the Egyptian people must decide what role they can play."
Most recently, he told a youth conference in the Red Sea resort city of Sharm El Sheikh on October that "I cannot make a decision on reconciliation by myself, it's the decision of the state".