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In the three months since the ousting of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s military-backed interim government has lead a crackdown on his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood. Thousands of senior figures in the organization have been arrested and government security forces have raided schools and hospitals affiliated with the group. Now, an Egyptian court has ruled to disband the Muslim Brotherhood and to freeze all of the group’s assets. We discuss what the latest developments mean for democracy in Egypt and for its relations with the U.S.
- Nathan Brown Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University
- Hamza Hendawi Cairo Bureau Chief, Associated Press.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAt the U.N. General Assembly, Egypt's foreign minister is bound to face some diplomatic tension as he assures the assembly that his nation is committed to a democratic state. The interim government in Egypt continues a systematic crackdown on the Islamic party of former President Mohamed Morsi. Since the military ousted Morsi from office last July, government security forces have arrested all of the party's top leaders, killed hundreds of its members in protest and carried out raids on any businesses, hospitals or schools that are affiliated with the group.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThen in a ruling earlier this week, an Egyptian court ordered an official ban on the Muslim Brotherhood and its activities, calling for all of the group's assets to be frozen. A ruling that has since been postponed, according to an Egyptian minister, making the group's status and the prospect of democracy in Egypt all the more uncertain. Joining us to discuss this now is Nathan Brown.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He joins us by phone from the Campus. Nathan Brown, thank you for joining us.
MR. NATHAN BROWNThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone from Cairo is Hamza Hendawi, Cairo bureau chief for the Associated Press. Hamza Hendawi, thank you for joining us.
MR. HAMZA HENDAWIWell, thank you for having me.
NNAMDIHamza, your bureau estimates that 2,000 senior figures in the Muslim Brotherhood are in jail. You reported on security forces storming the group's offices. And just today you wrote that the government shut down a Muslim Brotherhood newspaper. So how does this latest ruling and the cabinet's response to it, essentially saying they won't implement it until it is ruled on by a court. How does this all fit in to what you've seen play out in Egypt in the last few months?
HENDAWIWell, I think it's very obvious that the authorities of this government are casting the net much wider than we expected, say, back in July when the military ousted Mohamed Morsi. They are unconfirmed reports today. And to clarify one point about the position of the government is that they may have reversed the decision not to implement the ruling until a higher court upholds.
HENDAWIAnd they may actually go ahead and implement it. And I think the read on the newspaper offices of the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood is evidence that such a reversal is indeed in effect. You will remember that the Brotherhood has endured crackdowns of significant magnitudes in the past, namely in 1964 and sometime in the mid-1960s.
HENDAWIBut it's obvious to everyone at this point that this one is far wider and it probably aims to crush the Muslim Brotherhood or at least the planners of this crackdown hope to crush the Muslim Brotherhood in a way that may not arise again. Difficult to imagine, but I think this is the end game of the military-backed government of today.
NNAMDIHamza, what justification has the government given for this widespread crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood activities? And how does it compare with the justification that the court gave this week in its ruling?
HENDAWIWell, I think the justification of the court's ruling that was published in today's media today and the rhetoric being used by the government in the past two and a half, almost three months is more or less the same. The Muslim Brotherhood or at least leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have incited (word?). They have incited violence. They have been in contact with foreign powers toward the achievement of goals that are harmful to the country's national security (word?).
HENDAWIOf course more specific charges than the ones I've mentioned, like in the case of the ousted president. His escape from prison during the 2011 uprising and whether he has actually summoned the help of Hamas, being the foreign power, to facilitate. Then there's also that specific charge leveled against Morsi about whether he actually ordered a crackdown on peaceful protestors outside his palace last December.
HENDAWIBut on the whole, I think it's the incitement of violence. It is contacts with foreign powers that are hurtful to national security. But we are yet to see, at least us in the AP, we yet to see detailed legal papers that could tell us what are the exact charges.
NNAMDINathan Brown, the ruling specifies a ban on the group, I'm quoting here, "any institution branching out of it or receiving financial support from it. If this ruling is confirmed by a higher judge, where does that put the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party?
BROWNWell, that's not clear yet. The Freedom and Justice Party is, in one sense and legally speaking, completely independent organization. Of course it was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership sent over some of its top leaders to set up the party and there was a considerable overlap of membership. The Freedom and Justice Party drew a lot of its initial members from the Muslim Brotherhood.
BROWNSo a lot depends on how it is that the authorities decide to implement any court ruling like this when if they decide to implement it ambitiously, they could check out a whole host of charities and organizations and perhaps even the Freedom and Justice Party itself. However, even if the Freedom and Justice Party survives that assault, there's a separate legal challenge to the legal status of the Freedom and Justice Party.
BROWNThere's a committee drafting a constitution right now that is talking about banning religious parties. And that could be used against the Freedom and Justice Party. So my guess is that all the legal maneuvers to try to contain the Brotherhood are a quick tie-up movement for years even if the security apparatus lightens up on them, which at this point does not seem likely.
NNAMDIWell, Hamza Hendawi, the interim government, as we've said earlier, says it will wait to disband the group until it gets word from a higher court. In the meantime, what are the options that are left for the Muslim Brotherhood?
HENDAWII don't think they have many options now. But I will hedge that last statement I just made by saying the Muslim Brotherhood do have a genuine popular support out there and have an elaborate network of social services and medical services that have for years served Egyptians. But now, what options do they have? It is clear that the military-backed government is only paying lip service to issues like political inclusion.
HENDAWIBut the Muslim Brotherhood has perhaps at some point has to come forward with some sort of an initiative about revising its own ideology or maybe a huge faction could break away and divide the ideology and sort of a new party that's suited the Muslim Brotherhood but it's not the Brotherhood that Egypt have experienced all these years.
HENDAWIThere has been talk in the media this week about Muslim Brotherhood members are perhaps trying to contest the next parliamentary election, which is scheduled late this year or early the next. They could actually field candidates under the banner of other parties, sympathetic parties. Whether the authorities will allow them to do that, it's too early to say. But the Muslim Brotherhood has done this since 1985 and until the election of 2010.
HENDAWIThey were an outlawed organization then, but they were able to field candidates ostensibly as independents. But there are a few options there, but the Muslim Brotherhood is still maintaining some sort of presence on the streets. Every day we have many demonstrations by Muslim Brotherhood supporters, university campuses, schools and elsewhere. They are small, maybe, you know, 500 each.
HENDAWIBut their ability to organize under such harsh circumstances is something that we all have to note. And it could be something that go in the direction of how much resilience does the Brotherhood have at this point in time.
NNAMDINathan Brown, Hamza Hendawi has pointed out that Muslim Brotherhood operates a fairly vast network of schools and hospitals and that those schools and hospitals are responsible for a lot of the support that the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood gets. So, Nathan, some have warned that a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood will backfire. A policy analyst at the CATO Institute points to a characterization of terrorism from the economist Alan Krueger.
NNAMDIIt says that, quoting here, "terrorists arise when there are severe political grievances with no alternatives for pursuing those grievances." Do you think excluding the Muslim Brotherhood from the public's fear could have these kinds of negative consequences for Egypt?
BROWNIt could. A lot depends on what it is that the authorities decide to do with the Islamic social service sector. The Brotherhood part of the Islamic social service sector from what we can tell is actually fairly small. I mean, it certainly exists, the Brotherhood has a presence throughout Egypt that way. But there's a whole host of organizations that prevent themselves as being vaguely religious or Islamic.
BROWNBut they may be Salafi, which is not Brotherhood, they may be independent and so on. And the real question for the authority because if they move against the Brotherhood and try to root out the organization, do they move very broadly against the entire Islamic social service sector or do they just target the Brotherhood? We don't really have good indications there. What we do see is that the Ministry of Religious Affairs right now does seem to have fairly broad in mind in terms of ensuring that independent mosques that are too small, that are the ministry control gets shut down.
BROWNAnd that suggests perhaps something broader. If that is the case, then I think we would see a crisis in Egyptian society. Whether it would lead to political violence, I don't know. But the simple fact is that the Egyptian state is unable to provide basic social services for the citizenry. That's why these organizations got created and found the space to begin with. So if the authorities do move comprehensively against them, it's going to be a crisis for all kinds of unfortunate Egyptians.
NNAMDINathan, at the U.N. General Assembly Tuesday President Obama said that future support for Egypt would depend on how well the government move to a democratic state. How is this latest crackdown likely to be interpreted by the U.S.?
BROWNWell, the United States is I think trying to send out a vague message about the necessity for political inclusion. But as Hamza Hendawi explained, this is something that the current government is only rhetorically committed to at least when it comes to the Islamists and especially to the Brotherhood. At the same time, there is this formal process that has been set up. There is this group that's drafting a constitution.
BROWNThey will prevent it for a referendum before the end of the year. You'll probably move towards the presidential elections and parliamentary elections. So there will be a political structure in place that will have some of the mechanical features of democracy. My own anticipation is that the Obama administration does, you know, has doubts about that process, but ultimately, values the relationship with Egypt highly enough that it's likely to criticize it at the margins, but essentially accept as inevitable, the new leadership that is emerging in Egypt.
NNAMDIHamza Hendawi, to Western observers, this massive arrest, violent crackdowns, now a possible legal ban on a political party seem like very negative developments for the prospect of democracy in Egypt. What does the opinion of the Egyptian people seem to be? Is there any way of determining what the majority sentiment is?
HENDAWIIt is difficult to catch the sentiment of the majority in Egypt and you can't really judge the sentiment of the country by looking at the media, both state-owned and private. But the opposition to what's going on now of the reservation that are being expressed about the crackdown, about the state of emergency and all this is expressed by a small number of liberals and pro-democracy leaders who see the danger of what's going on at this point.
HENDAWIAnd they are isolated. And many of them, including Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei who had left the country shortly after he quit his post, he was vilified in the very media that supported him during the Morsi's one year in power. People -- it's difficult to say, but I think a large number of Egyptians seem to think that the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi had it coming. But really that is maybe the sentiment.
HENDAWIBut I think people are also a little bit worried about how far the present government can go in going after the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists without risking a serious backlash. People are not too happy about the curfew. But, again, also there's a group of Egyptians that are happy about the curfew. They would like to do everything they could, they say, to help the government track down Islamists and put them away or at least neutralize them.
HENDAWISo it's quite a confused picture in the media. Like I said, it's not helping much because the media has shifted to the other side of the military and the present government. It's confusing. But at the end of the day, I have not seen any sign of street dissent or what the military is doing or what the government is doing.
NNAMDINathan Brown, this is one thing that I am assuming or concluding complicates it for the United States.
BROWNOh, absolutely. The United States foreign policy in the Middle East has been anchored on a very close working relationship with the Egyptian government, going back to the Nixon administration. And there has been very, very close government to government relations. Right now, however, I think those are in crisis. It's -- they're in crisis for a couple of reasons. One has to do with simply an American fear that what's emerging in Egypt is a little bit of a return to autocracy.
BROWNAnother is the fear in the United States that the political process in underway in Egypt, it's not going to lead to a stable outcome. But there's also a great deal of suspicion in Egypt of the United States of American motives and so on and public atmosphere egged on by Egyptian media in which the United States is cast very much in the villain's role. So the close American-Egyptian relationship between governments seems to continue right now.
BROWNBut I think it's a little bit under threat from public opinion, from -- and from concerns in the United States about Egypt's direction.
NNAMDIHamza Hendawi, final question. How do Egyptian officials view their country's relationship with the U.S. right now?
HENDAWIWell, I think everyone including the foreign minister who is now in New York and the president, they seem to value relations with the United States, coming back 35 years and more and billions and billions of dollars in aid have been pouring into this country from U.S. taxpayers money. But there is suspicion of U.S. motives, as Nathan Brown mentioned. That is certainly manifested in the media.
HENDAWIThere has been a lot of diverse talk about Brotherhood-Washington alliance against Egypt. They speak of plans endorsed by the United States, have given away a bit of Sinai to the Palestinians of Gaza as a way of settling the (unintelligible) is a great deal there. But I think serious politicians and serious members of the cabinet continue to value relations with the United States. Let me give you one example...
NNAMDIWe have about 20 seconds.
HENDAWII mean, the relationship between the U.S. military and the Egyptian military and the U.S. go back decades. It's very difficult to see tension or anything serious happening to that relationship. It's very solid. It's rock solid.
NNAMDIHamza Hendawi is Cairo bureau chief for the Associated Press. He joined us by phone from Cairo. Nathan Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. He joins us by phone from their campus. Thank you both for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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