BEIRUT— Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is facing is facing a stark choice following the military’s violent crackdown on the group and the arrest of its leaders, according to according to Egyptian and American Middle East analysts.
The Brotherhood can either adopt a non-violent approach and bide its time until there are new elections, the analysts say, or it can turn to militant confrontation, possibly even the violent path of al-Qaida and other jihadist groups.
Much of the debate over the future direction of political Islam in Egypt is being played out online. Jihadists, led by al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, argue that violence is the only way to establish a truly Islamic state, while mainstream Islamists counter that Turkey is the better model to follow.
“Eventually, this illegal and illegitimate military regime in Egypt will pass, and the country will, once again, go to the ballots. Then, the Brotherhood, perhaps with a new political party and new faces, will have a chance to compete,” argues Turkish newspaper columnist Mustafa Akyol.
He points out that Turkish Islamists responded this way in 1997 when the army forced out an Islamist government in Ankara. Instead of violent confrontation, Turkey’s Islamists responded with restraint and remade themselves by launching a “renewal movement” and forming a new political party.
But the situation in Egypt is developing along different lines and analysts say the ongoing violence has handed the jihadists an opportunity to advance their agenda. And al-Qaida leaders, they note, have wasted no time in their courting of Egyptian Islamists.
Following the military’s ouster of president Mohammed Morsi last month, Zawahiri posted a 15-minute message on militant websites arguing “the crusaders” in the West and their allies in the Arab world will never allow the establishment of an Islamist state. The Egyptian-born Zawahiri urged “the soldiers of the Qur'an to wage the battle of the Qur'an” in Egypt.
Social media offensive
Since then, a social media offensive has gathered momentum. It included jihadi groups ranging from the Taliban in Afghanistan to al-Qaida affiliates in North Africa and the Horn of Africa Eager to exploit the unrest as a recruiting tool. The online offensive has grown into a powerful chorus on Twitter, Facebook and online forums, condemning Morsi's overthrow and arguing the West has colluded with the Egyptian military in an attack against Islam.
“If ever there's a ripe moment 2 support al-Qaida, it's surely now. Raising the flag in Egypt in now a priority, Insha'Allah!” the Kenyan offshoot of Somalia's al-Qaida affiliate, al Shabaab, declared on its Twitter feed.
Abu Hafs al Maqdisi, the leader of the Gaza-based Jaish al Ummah (Army of the Nation), urged Egyptians to wage “jihad” on General Abdul Fattah el-Sissi, the army chief and Egypt’s de-facto leader.
Morsi’s ouster and military crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has been “without question, a godsend for al-Qaida,” argues Jonathan Schanzer, a Middle East scholar at the Washington, D.C.–based think tank, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“This is perceived as a repression of Muslims -- by the United States, among others -- which is one of al-Qaida’s favorite talking points,” Schanzer said. “Also, let's not forget that there are multiple al-Qaida affiliate groups running around Africa right now, just looking for a cause. I'm particularly intrigued by the jihadi groups in Sinai, who are now looking to open up a front with both Egypt and Israel. This is a dream scenario for jihadists.”
According to U.S. intelligence sources, contacts have increased in recent months between al-Qaida-linked jihadists and more localized Salafist groups in Sinai and the Egyptian Delta region.
Which path Egyptian Islamists eventually choose – the way of jihad or waiting for new elections – isn’t clear yet.
Brotherhood says it will opt for peaceful approach
On Tuesday, a member of the Brotherhood’s political party insisted the group would not take up arms.
“Our only option is the peaceful method,” Khaled Hanafi, secretary-general of the Freedom and Justice Party, told reporters.
Schanzer, however, argues that despite any peaceful declarations, the Muslim Brotherhood has already turned violent.
“Burning churches and firing automatic weaponry at army and civilians alike -- that's violence,” Schanzer said. “The question is whether the Brotherhood launches a systematic campaign of violence. Nobody knows the answer to this.”
One of the biggest fears is that with Brotherhood leaders being jailed and no longer in control, the group will be unable to restrain younger members gravitating toward the jihadists. One militant who is getting a lot of attention these days is Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi, who argued in an online essay recently that events in Egypt “demonstrate the soundness of the jihadi project and the choice of the ammunition box over the ballot box."
Bruce Riedel, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, is pessimistic.
“The coup has validated the al-Qaida narrative, which argues elections are a false path to change, only jihad works,” Riedel said. “Thousands of Ikhwanis [Muslim Brothers] will now move to support violence. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership can either join them or lose their constituency.”