News / Middle East

Egypt Power Struggle Leaves Some Morsi Supporters Vulnerable

FILE - Cairo University students who support the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi shout slogans against the military and Interior Ministry in front of riot police at the main gate of the university, Cairo, Nov. 24, 2013.
FILE - Cairo University students who support the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi shout slogans against the military and Interior Ministry in front of riot police at the main gate of the university, Cairo, Nov. 24, 2013.
Youssof Salhen is much like any other college student. In his third year of studies at Egypt's Al-Azhar University, Youssof is looking forward to graduation, after which he hopes to become an interpreter.
But these days, his future is not so clear. Like many citizens who support deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, the 21 year-old student said he, and others, are fearful of being caught up in the power struggle between the military and Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.
Youssof said dozens of his friends have been detained - and several killed - as a result of their protests against Morsi's ouster by the military.
"My friends are under graves and behind bars," he told VOA by telephone. "And I'm often in search of medicine for some of my friends who have been tortured in coup prisons."
Youssof is not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the military-led government recently declared a terrorist group. But, as a spokesman for the Student Anti-Coup Movement, he believes he could be targeted.
He insists he does not mind.
"It doesn't change anything," he said. "We're doing what we're doing because we believe it's a revolution, and we're not going to stop until we reach freedom, dignity and justice."
The Student Anti-Coup Movement was formed during a weeks-long sit-in that was eventually dispersed by security forces in August.
Up to a thousand people died in the break-up of the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest, which several rights groups described as one of the worst mass killings in Egypt's modern history.
Military seeking to 'preserve privileges'
The power struggle between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood continues as Morsi faces trial in February for allegedly inciting the killing of protesters in 2012.
The military's crackdown on the Brotherhood has been fierce. Many Egyptians who support Morsi are fearful of being caught up in the political violence.
Egypt's army removed him from power in July after opposition protests accusing him of trying to monopolize power. Since then, thousands of Brotherhood members and supporters have been arrested and hundreds have been killed, many during street clashes with police.
Late last month, the Ministry of Interior threatened a prison sentence of five years for anyone who participates in a pro-Brotherhood protest, but also for anyone who supports the group verbally or in writing.
Analysts think such measures are an effort by Egypt's military generals to both preserve their rule and impose stability on a country that has dealt with three years of protests and is now seeing a rising wave of Islamist violence.
"They want to preserve their privileges, their autonomy, to make sure there's no civilian oversight. And the biggest opposition to the military has always been the Brotherhood," said Australia-based Egypt analyst Amro Ali.
One reason the military has been able to come down so hard on the Brotherhood is that many Egyptians see the group as responsible for the country's instability, according to Ali. But Ali doubts that blaming the Brotherhood can be a successful strategy in the long term.
"Imprisoning people just doesn't crush ideas and stop movements. In fact… Morsi's popularity has been rising, even more than when he was in power," Ali told VOA.
Brotherhood denies involvement in terror attacks
Still, anti-Brotherhood sentiment is growing among many Egyptians, particularly after the military blamed the group for last month's attack on a security directorate in the Nile Delta town of Mansoura that killed 16 people.
The Brotherhood strongly denies staging any violent attacks, maintaing that it is committed to peaceful resistance. The military has so far provided no evidence of the group's involvement in the Mansoura bombing.
It is difficult to confirm whether fringe elements of the Brotherhood are bent on violent jihad, but Adel Abdel Ghafar, an Egyptian researcher at the Australian National University, told VOA that the group could eventually turn to violence, as it did in the 1960s.
"The main core of the Muslim Brotherhood still believes in democracy and so on, but there's nothing to say that some of their followers, especially the people who had some of their family killed, would not get more violent," he said. "I would expect that, actually."
Commitment to non-violence appears difficult
Back on the frontline of the protests, Youssof Salhen agreed that it is difficult to convince his fellow activists, many whose friends and family have been killed, to stay committed to non-violence.
"There are [a] few… youth[s] who are about to give up peacefulness," he said. "And we are trying to remind them, and remind ourselves the whole time, that peacefulness is our only powerful weapon."
As analysts point out, both sides now view each other as an existential threat and are thus unlikely to back down, meaning there is no end in sight for Egypt's political deadlock.

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