Just after dawn prayers on the morning of 14 August 2013, Egyptian security forces raided a large sit-in based at Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiyya Square and another at al-Nahda Square. Six weeks earlier, military leader and Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah al-Sisi staged a coup to remove Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, from office. In response, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians across the country congregated in public spaces to protest the coup and the perceived reversal of the revolutionary moment that began in early 2011 with the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade long authoritarian rule.
As they opened fire on the encampment, security forces killed over one thousand Egyptians. The exact figure has been difficult to ascertain, in part because officials reportedly burned the bodies of those killed during the course of the twelve-hour operation. Graphic images of the charred interior of the Rabaa al-Adawiyya Mosque began making the rounds on social media within hours of the raid. A recently published investigative report by Human Rights Watch contends that “police and army forces systematically and intentionally used excessive lethal force in their policing, resulting in killings of protesters on a scale unprecedented in Egypt.” The report also asserts that no Egyptian officials have been held accountable for the Rabba massacre, while all state inquiries have essentially justified the army’s actions.
Just as shocking as the new military regime’s repressive clampdown on the Islamist opposition has been the widespread support for such measures across broad swaths of Egyptian society. In addition to the hundreds of thousands who supported Morsi’s overthrow by taking to the streets on 30 June, a month later Sisi called upon Egyptians to rally in Tahrir Square in support of the military’s aim to “fight terrorism”—code for the continued clampdown on Morsi’s supporters. It is under the shroud of this popular support that the state could commit the horrors at Rabaa without batting an eye.
One year later, there is little moral outrage in Egypt over the appalling course of events at Rabaa. Rather than offer up a moment of collective introspection, the passage of time and the newfound political stability under Sisi have only more deeply entrenched the dominant narrative that the protesters got what they deserved. In Egypt’s “new normal,” popular culture has internalized the necessity of extreme state violence against a perceived minority of violent political agitators.
To be sure, the critiques of the Muslim Brotherhood spanned a wide array of issue areas, from the group’s vision for an Islamic government to its contentious interactions with state institutions and revolutionary forces. However, the emphasis on the group’s supposed inclinations toward organized violence is singled out here for its propensity to validate egregious human rights violations by state authorities in the name of security.
The dehumanization of thousands of ordinary men, women, and children, many of whom are not even members of the Muslim Brotherhood, occurred as state officials and media personalities continually utilized the imagery of terrorism and violent extremism to depict the protestors. Footage of police raids was set to the soundtracks of Hollywood action films and televised with large captions reading “Egypt Fights Terrorism” in Arabic as well as English.
Given its enduring quality, however, it would be a mistake to assume that this incitement campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood is a recent incarnation. Far from being a makeshift construct that aided in Sisi’s alarmingly rapid political ascent, the recent application of the “war on terror” motif stems from a historic struggle over the Egyptian national narrative that pits the state against one of the country’s oldest social movement organizations.
In their attempt to overturn a popular mass movement that had made limited revolutionary gains, counter-revolutionary forces constructed a broad narrative that placed the historical trajectory of the Muslim Brotherhood within the state’s struggle to combat terrorism that dated back to the mid-twentieth century. To press its case to a public that is largely ignorant of the historical nuances involved, the anti-Muslim Brotherhood movement made exceptionally anachronistic use of various flashpoints in modern Egyptian history.
Shortly after Morsi’s election in 2012, during a commemorative event for the sixtieth anniversary of the 23 July 1952 revolution, self-declared Nasserists lamented that Egyptians had not learned the lessons of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s experience with the Muslim Brotherhood. “They were never to be trusted,” said one prominent spokesperson for the group. In successive weeks, other writers and commentators referred to the campaign of political violence that dated back to the 1940s, placing the blame squarely on the Muslim Brotherhood and its brand of Islamic activism.
Elsewhere, the chorus of critics recalled the turbulent 1970s and the rise of underground militant groups that they attributed to the Muslim Brotherhood and in particular the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the organization’s leading ideologue until his execution by the Nasser regime in 1966. The rise of an Islamic insurgency culminated with the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. The chronology continues well into the Mubarak era, as prominent media personalities impugned the Muslim Brotherhood for its supposed role in the outbreak of anti-state violence in the mid-1990s.
If one follows this chronology to its logical conclusion, one could reasonably believe that the Muslim Brotherhood was founded with an ideological bent toward violent, anti-state contention, which it pursued through the active development of a military wing and then sustained through successive waves of terrorist acts over the course of eighty-six years.
The problem with the terror metanarrative is that it represents a gross misreading of history and a transparent effort by the state to paint its opposition with the broad brush of extremism. In reality, the Muslim Brotherhood confronted the question of political violence at various stages in the development of its activist mission. The appearance of its militia during the 1940s is well documented and has been examined at length by numerous scholars. Many of the recent references to this research, however, fail to mention that the Muslim Brotherhood’s armed wing existed within the chaotic field of post-war Egyptian politics in which every major political party and social actor was as likely to fight its battles in the streets as much as in the parliament or the newspapers.
The Secret Apparatus, responsible for covert attacks against public officials in the late 1940s, was dismantled following Nasser’s repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954. As it reorganized itself in later years, the remnants of the Muslim Brotherhood’s core leadership internalized many of the elements of this nebulous section of the organization—its strict hierarchical structure, discipline across the ranks, emphasis on secrecy and indoctrination—but notably not its inclinations toward violence. In other words, the proponents of the Secret Apparatus, figures like Mustafa Mashhur and Kamal al-Sananiri, believed in its tenets as a means of enduring state repression, not actively resisting it.
When the Muslim Brotherhood resumed its activism in the mid-1970s after a two-decade absence, it was in the shadow of major developments within the Islamic movement that covered both the ideological and the organizational realms. The pressures of a repressive political climate and the widespread use of torture in Nasser’s prisons threatened to fracture the Islamic movement, leading a small minority of former Muslim Brotherhood members and impressionable young Islamic activists to adopt a militant outlook that found inspiration in Qutb’s impassioned and uncompromising view of the Nasserist state. Qutb’s most fervent supporters believed Egyptian society to have become so corrupted by a secular dictatorship that the gradual reformist mission of the Muslim Brotherhood would simply not suffice. Instead, they argued for the path of violent revolution led by a vanguard of true believers.
For all the attention it has received in recent years, this view never prevailed among the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood leaders, most of whom worked actively to discredit it. In 1969, the group’s imprisoned leader, Hasan al-Hudaybi, authored a tract entitled Preachers, Not Judges, which argued forcefully in favor of a reformist approach to political empowerment that hinged upon popular preaching and mobilization across all segments of Egyptian society. Hudaybi directly repudiated the practice of “takfir,” or declaring fellow Muslims to be unbelievers, limiting the role of Islamic activists to one of “du‘a” or callers to the faith.
In spite of the alarming rise of a number of Islamic militant groups that committed notorious crimes throughout the late 1970s, the more important (and certainly more enduring) story of the decade was the ability of the Muslim Brotherhood to reconstitute itself as the chief representative of the mainstream Islamic movement. Hudaybi’s successor, a lawyer named ‘Umar al-Tilmisani, oversaw the group’s reemergence by constructing an Islamic call, or “da‘wa” that found widespread appeal within a new generation of Islamic activists across Egypt’s colleges and universities. By the end of the Sadat era, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians had found in the Muslim Brotherhood a forum for oppositional politics premised on building a strong social base and gradual engagement with state institutions. In fact, as several student leaders from the era have since argued, were it not for the moderate and gradualist Islamism packaged and distributed by Tilmisani’s Muslim Brotherhood, the spread of militancy among the nation’s disaffected youth would have been far more pervasive.
That sentiment is worth recalling as one unpacks the implications of the coup government’s efforts to eradicate one of the country’s oldest social movements from Egyptian society. In the past year, the organization was declared illegal by judicial decree as well as a cabinet decision. As the state’s campaign of intimidation, indefinite detentions, torture, and mass executions continues to descend upon the nation’s independent activists, Sisi’s pledge to destroy the opposition presents a haunting prospect. “There will be nothing called the Muslim Brotherhood during my tenure,” he told an interviewer last May. Sisi’s aggressive social engineering project is bound to hold grave consequences for a country that is already reeling from several years of social and economic volatility and a regional insurgency that become more potent after the military’s takeover.
Despite its desperate attempts to do so, the Sisi regime has yet to demonstrate that the Muslim Brotherhood has had a hand in any of the militant bombings that have occurred since Morsi’s overthrow. For all of its faults—and they are many—the organization has maintained a consistent record of non-violent contention against successive authoritarian rulers, having reasserted its ideological as well as institutional mission in the 1970s.
As recent events in neighboring states have demonstrated, when the avenues for the legitimate expression of an Islamically oriented political program are closed, extremism prevails. The alarming rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is just one such example. In a recent online video, an ISIS spokesman commenting on events in Egypt reserved the bulk of his condemnation for Morsi, not Sisi. He declared the imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood leader “an apostate” and relished at the prospect of serving as his executioner. The greatest threat to religious militancy is not an equally violent state-sponsored secularism, but rather an open political climate that accommodates competing modes of activism irrespective of their religious, sectarian, or ideological leanings.
By conflating the Muslim Brotherhood’s legacy of oppositional politics with violent incarnations of anti-state contention, the terror metanarrative attempts to establish on a false basis the state’s ability to respond to perceived threats with all means at its disposal. The memory of the massacre at Rabaa will live on as a reminder of the painfully high cost of the abuse of history.