The crowd that gathered at the bombed Cairo Security Directorate on Friday January 24 chanted anti-Muslim Brotherhood slogans, calling for the execution of former President Mohamed Morsi.
But the Brotherhood, whose supporters also came out in large demonstrations later that same day, insists it is not behind this or any other attacks.
Media sources and government officials have held the group responsible for the wave of “terrorism” that has crested since Morsi’s ouster, and to many Egyptians the connection between the former ruling Islamist party and every new terrorist attack is self-evident.
Is the Brotherhood — whose leaders are in jail and whose members have been arrested by the thousands — coordinating the attacks, which have been claimed by the little-known Sinai-based jihadist group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdes? Or is the charge of terrorism largely a way to justify the widespread repression of the Islamist group, and others?
While human rights groups claim that there are grounds for some of the charges against the Muslim Brotherhood leaders, they also believe that the heightened atmosphere of paranoia has allowed the interim government to exploit Egyptians’ fears for their own political purposes.
“The fight against terrorism does not open the way to indiscriminately crackdown on dissent,” says Stephanie David, Middle East and North Africa director for the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH). “It cannot be taken as an excuse to not respect basic rights and freedoms.”
“The rule of law and respect for human rights should be the top priority in a democratic transition,” she stresses.
Estimates put the number of those arrested since July 4 2013 — the day after the Armed Forces removed Morsi from power following mass protests — at over 20,000. The Islamist group’s leaders are on trial for charges ranging from inciting violence to espionage to insulting the judiciary. The decision to freeze Brotherhood assets has affected 1,055 charities which the government alleges have links to the Brotherhood. The Forensic Authority says nearly 1,000 people — most of them Morsi supporters — were killed in the greater Cairo area in August and September. Just last weekend, at least 49 protesters were killed and over 1,000 arrested on the third anniversary of the January 25 revolution, a day after five others died in the Cairo bombings.
The crackdown on the Brotherhood has been framed by the media and the authorities as a war on terrorism. Since Morsi fell, the bombings and attacks on security bodies that had previously been restricted to the restive North Sinai have spread to the mainland.
On September 5, an assassination attempt against Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim seconds after he left his home in Cairo left him unscathed, but injured 11 civilians. An even more serious attack on the Mansoura Security Directorate on December 24 killed 16 people and injured 130; the attack led the government to officially designate the Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.
A missing definition
Terrorism has dominated the world stage and shaped foreign policy for over a decade, but its exact definition remains nebulous and deeply politicized.
Negotiations on a United Nations draft Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism have been deadlocked since 2002. Individual nations have their own working definitions of the term.
The United Kingdom’s 2000 Terrorism Act states that terrorism is designed to “influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public,” and “is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.”
The United States Code of Laws defines domestic terrorism as acts “dangerous to human life” that “appear intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion or affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping.”
Terrorism’s watershed moment, particularly in human rights terms, was the September 11 attacks and the measures taken by American and European governments in its wake to respond to actual and perceived threats. The tone was set by former President George W. Bush when he declared, “You are either with us or against us in the fight against terror.”
“Terrorism may well be the most politicized term in the political vocabulary these days,” Alex P. Schmid writes in the “Routledge Handbook of Terrorism Research.”
“Used as a label for a certain form of political violence, it reflects, if it ‘sticks,’ negatively on a political opponent, demonizing him and de-legitimizing his conduct.”
The media declares a war on terrorism
Banners on all of Egypt’s television channels declared that the country was “against extremism” immediately after Morsi’s removal. After the deadly breakup of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in on August 14, these banners announced that Egypt was “against terrorism.”
Youssef al-Hosseiny, a presenter on the privately owned satellite channel ONtv, spent much of the summer lambasting Brotherhood members. He described the Rabea sit-in as a “source of terrorism and violence” in Egypt, and alleged that the sit-in had been infiltrated by Syrians on the basis of a video showing men dancing to a song popular with sit in participants, “Masr Islameyya” (“Egypt is a Muslim country”).
Over the summer, Egypt’s State Information Service and many of the country’s television channels disseminated a video mixing images of Hitler and Morsi, declaring that “Egypt Save’s [sic] the World from Terrorism.” A voice-over avowed that “Egyptians refuse what happened to Europe from Hitler and Nazis to happen in Egypt from Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood.”
On the day of the Mansoura bombing, Amany al-Khayat — another ONtv presenter — declared that she and her team were “absolutely convinced that the Brotherhood is a terrorist organization … whether or not [Prime Minister Hazem al-] Beblawi announces this or not.”
Making it official
Beblawi had previously suggested that it wasn’t the government’s place to designate the group as terrorist, saying accusations of terrorism should go through the courts. But the prime minister quickly back-tracked.
The interior minister almost immediately ascribed the Mansoura attack to the Islamist group. The following day, deputy Prime Minister for Social Justice Hossam Eissa condemned the “horrific crime” committed by the Brotherhood, which he described as “a clear announcement by the group that it only knows violence as a means of realizing its objectives.”
The government dug into the Brotherhood’s past. Eissa made reference to the assassinations of then-Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmy al-Nokrashy and Judge Ahmed al-Khazandar. Nokrashy was killed by a Brotherhood member in 1948 shortly after outlawing the group. Khazandar was killed in the same year after he handed down guilty verdicts and harsh sentences to Brotherhood members.
Eissa linked these events — as well as the attempted assassination of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser and former President Anwar al-Sadat’s assassination — with the December 2013 clashes at the Ettehadiya Presidential Palace, in which members of the Brotherhood attacked and unlawfully detained anti-Morsi protesters. He also made ties to human rights groups’ allegations of torture at the Rabea sit-in and recent attacks on churches.
The Brotherhood, which in statements since July has rejected violence and called for peaceful protests, condemned the Mansoura attack and held the military responsible. The Ansar Beit al-Maqdes group ultimately claimed the bombing. The authorities have reportedly arrested eight people in connection with the attack but have so far failed to produce any evidence linking the Brotherhood to the incident.
What’s in a word?
Muslim Brotherhood lawyer Mohamed al-Damaty dismisses the effect of the terrorism designation on the prosecution of Brotherhood members and supporters, saying that it was made after the fact. He says police had already begun leveling terrorism charges against detainees as early as July 4 2013.
Damaty asserts that the terrorist designation reflects poorly on the judiciary, which has allowed the executive branch to take its place.
Some experts have suggested that because the terrorism designation was issued by the Cabinet, it has no legal effect.
Nabil Medhat, an Ain Shams University professor of criminal law, told the news portal Vetogate that is “meaningless legally.”
The legislator defines the meaning of terrorism in the Penal Code, as well as the elements that must exist for a group to be defined as terrorist, Medhat explained, suggesting that the designation is unnecessary.
Heba Morayef, Egypt director of the Middle East and North Africa division of the Human Rights Watch (HRW), says that the designation is more political than legal, and that terrorist charges “can and are” leveled by the prosecution entirely independently of executive announcements.
“It’s political, because what it does do is close the door to the 2 percent likelihood of political negotiations,” Morayef contends.
Beblawi has suggested that the government’s decision would inspire other states to follow suit and declare the Brotherhood a terrorist organization — something that has yet to happen.
A US Department of State spokesperson expressed “concern” about the designation, saying that it and the ongoing arrests “raise questions about the rule of law being applied impartially and equitably, and do not move Egypt’s transition forward.”
HRW has said that the designation appears to be “aimed at expanding the crackdown on peaceful Brotherhood activities and imposing harsh sanctions on its supporters.”
Whatever its legal status, the designation seems to be having consequences for Brotherhood members. There have been media reports of individuals arrested simply for being members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including a pharmacy owner arrested in Daqahlia in December after he attempted to file a complaint with the police about an attack on his pharmacy.
According to the privately owned Al-Watan newspaper, which reported the incident, the police filed a charge of belonging to a terrorist organization against the man.
Bearded men of an “Islamist” appearance have been arrested at random, says Ahmed Osman, a lawyer with the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) NGO. If they cannot pay bail, they are often charged immediately, Osman alleges.
The Brotherhood’s troubled past
Historically, the Muslim Brotherhood has oscillated between violent and non-violent strategies. Its prominent members advocate a range of ideologies, including the non-violent strategies of former Supreme Guide Hassan al-Hudaybi, appointed to the position in 1951 two years after the assassination of the group’s founder; to Sayed Qutb’s extremist takfiri school of thought, which became a source of inspiration for more violent groups such as Al-Qaeda and Tanzim al-Jihad, which is accused of organizing Sadat’s assassination in 1981.
Morsi did nothing to allay fears about the Brotherhood’s violent tendencies when he appointed a former member of the hardline conservative Jama’a al-Islamiya group as governor of Luxor. While the post-2011 incarnation of the group has renounced violence, back in 1997 it gunned down 58 tourists in the Upper Egyptian city.
One of Morsi’s final acts as president was to attend a pro-Syria rally held by hardline clerics during which he expressed support for the Syrian opposition, and announced that Egypt was cutting ties with the Bashar al-Assad government. Some observers interpreted the move as support for jihad in Syria.
Unguarded statements made by the Brotherhood’s more outspoken members and sympathizers intensified suspicions surrounding the group’s links with violence.
Senior Brotherhood member Mohamed al-Beltagy said in a televised interview in July that the Brotherhood was not behind attacks in Sinai, but that such attacks would “stop the second President Mohamed Morsi is reinstated.”
Over 213 militants and over 129 police officers and military conscripts have been killed in constant battles in Sinai since January 2011. The most infamous incident was the attack on the Rafah checkpoint on August 19, when 25 conscripts were assassinated execution-style by unknown assailants.
In mid-June, preacher and former presidential hopeful Safwat Hegazy, who made regular appearances at the Rabea sit in, said that Morsi was a “red line,” warning June 30 protesters that anyone who “sprays Morsi with water, I’ll spray him with blood.”
Osama Heikal, information minister from 2011 to 2012, says that he believes the decision to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization should have taken place after the Al-Fath Mosque clashes in July 2013, when an exchange of gunfire took place between security forces and protesters.
“The Muslim Brotherhood does have ideological diversity, but at best they have used violent thought and put themselves above all other Egyptians and called the rest infidels; or at worst, acted upon this violence through terrorism,” Heikal contends.
A flawed anti-terrorism law
Article 86 of the Egyptian Penal Code is a vaguely worded and expansive provision. Terrorism, it says, includes “any threat or intimidation” aimed at “disturbing the peace or jeopardizing the safety and security of society.”
The article lists the objectives of a terrorist group as seeking to “prevent or impede the public authorities in the performance of their work or thwart the application of the Constitution or of laws or regulations.”
In his 2009 mission report on Egypt, Martin Scheinin — the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism — said that Article 86 fails to conform to the three-step characterization of terrorism laid out by the UN, which stipulates that for an act to be considered terrorist it should, firstly, be committed against members of the general public with the aim of causing death or serious injury; secondly, be committed for the purpose of provoking a state of terror, and finally, correspond to all elements of a serious crime as defined by the law.
The special rapporteur held that the provisions of Article 86 are much broader than this definition, and that the article “runs the risk of including acts that do not comprise a sufficient relation to violent terrorist crimes.”
This is of particular concern because some offenses listed under Article 86 carry the death penalty, he added.
H.A. Hellyer, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London, is pessimistic about the effect the terrorist designation will have.
“The designation is likely to reinforce the feeling within the group that they are up against a wall, and have nowhere to go,” Hellyer says.
“I suspect the bulk of the group will stay on the same strategy of trying to disrupt the government road-map via protests. It is entirely likely some will leave the group, and join up with other political movements, considering that the MB’s strategy is a dead end. Others may go in the other direction, and turn to radical violence after leaving the group.
Under the present conditions, it seems unlikely the group will engage in any sort of rethinking,” he warns.
There is now a general clamor for the passing of an anti-terrorism law, and media leaks suggest it may be on its way soon. There was last talk about such a law in November 2013, when the government put forward a bill that Egyptian rights groups warned would “serve as the legal basis for the re-establishment of the police state seen in Egypt prior to January 25 2011, when numerous exceptional policies and laws had given free rein to the security apparatus to violate the rights and freedoms of citizens in the name of ‘countering terrorism’.”
The groups were critical of the broad definition of terrorism contained in the draft, which they argued would allow it to be applied to “crimes and even legal activities that do not relate to terrorism.”