“I wanted to live through the military coup. Now, after all I’ve seen, I think I must have been mad.” Thus Youssef —not his real name — began our interview. For him, everything changed on the dawn of Wednesday, August 14, 2013, the day the Rabea al-Adaweyya sit-in was dispersed and several hundred people killed.
Youssef did not witness the dispersal. While security forces were raiding the Rabea and Nahda squares where Islamist protesters were demanding the reinstatement of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, Youssef was on his way to surgery.
During the following months as he convalesced, Youssef found the time to think about the many questions that had been in his head of late, ultimately finding answers that led him to leave the Muslim Brotherhood and embrace violence as the sole means to confront the state. And so, one of the groups that would later become known as “special committees” came to being.
How it all started
Youssef’s relationship with the Brotherhood began in his childhood through his father, and it was limited to playing football or attending meetings. The conversations with fellow Brotherhood did not go beyond general ethics and morals. “Apart from election days when they needed young people for propaganda work,” Youssef explains, “there was nothing to tie us to the Brotherhood.”
It was one year before the January 25 revolution when he started university, that Youssef encountered the Brotherhood as an organization for the first time. He recalls details of his activity as a Brotherhood student that did not strike him as all that important at the time. For example there was this one time when a group member advised him to repeatedly visit a common friend, whom they wanted to recruit. “Twenty five times I went to visit him at his remote village, not knowing why I was going again and again.”
“This is how things are inside the group” Youssef says. “You are always on the receiving end.”
Before January 25, 2011, Youssef was not interested in politics except to the extent needed to engage in Muslim Brotherhood student activities.
“I didn’t know anything of what was going on in the world,” he tells me. His time was divided between his studies, fellow Brotherhood students at the university and helping his father out growing their piece of land, one of the few remaining pieces of agricultural land on the outskirts of the city where they lived.
A new realization
Youssef did not participate in the revolution from the start. On the second day, he went with a friend to university to watch security forces disperse the protests. On January 28 — known as the Day of Rage — some Brotherhood youth from among his friends asked to spend the night at his place for security reasons, and he ended up joining them in the demonstrations.
Although he did not receive any organizational order to take part, he met several members of the Brotherhood there. He tells me that by the evening of January 28 , he was completely liberated from the idea of waiting for organizational orders. That day, after prolonged confrontations with the police that resulted in police defeat and withdrawal from the streets, Youssef had learned a new lesson. He now thinks that he can make a difference on his own and that he should not settle for orders.
“The mere idea of the organization kills any individual creativity,” he says.
A few days later, he went to Tahrir Square with his father. He met many young people from different backgrounds. He had long discussions with several of them, encountering diverse political positions.
“In Tahrir, I realized that there are other people in the world who are very different from us,” he recalls. “There were communists and liberals who loved the revolution like me, and they were not as bad as I had imagined.”
Throughout that year, he took part in the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes between security and protesters, followed by the Cabinet sit-in by young revolutionaries — the Brotherhood was opposed to both.
But none of this affected his affiliation and commitment to the organization.
A new role
At the beginning of 2012, Youssef was entrusted with greater organizational responsibility in his university. With the Brotherhood preparing to change from an oppositional movement into a ruling force, his curiosity grew. He wanted to learn more about history and political Islam, areas he had not previously delved into deeply.
“I began to read, but everything of course from an Islamic point of view,” he says.
In April of that year, Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party nominated Khairat al-Shater, the strongman of the movement and deputy to the supreme guide, to run for the presidency.
“A member of the Brotherhood called me that day and told me that I was to work in Shater’s election campaign. That came as a surprise to me. We were completely excluded from the discussion,” Youssef recalls. “I expected the group to at least listen to the opinion of its young members about taking this step, especially as we were responsible for student groups, we would be the organization’s eyes among the youth. The fact that nobody asked me for my opinion means that they don’t really care about the opinion of the youth.”
Youssef also talks about facing several crises when his organizational commitment toward the group that was ruling the country contradicted with his loyalty and love for the revolution.
Despite those crises, he carried out organizational orders and participated with other Brotherhood youth in the dispersion of an anti-Morsi sit-in by the Ettehadiya Presidential Palace in December 2012. But in exchange for his commitment, he expected the group to undertake some measures to protect what the revolution had achieved.
He continued to wait, to no avail. “When Morsi managed to oust field marshal Hussein Tantawi and general Sami Enan from the army’s command and into retirement, I realized that Morsi can achieve something, that he wasn’t as helpless as we were being told.”
The following academic year, Youssef was made deputy to the Brotherhood member responsible for his university and then later was put in charge of private universities in his area. Throughout the final months of Morsi’s rule, Youssef had several doubts about continuing this kind of organizational work inside the Brothehrood, leading to several administrative disputes with his superiors.
A few weeks before Morsi’s ouster by the military, Youssef attended a court session in which officers were accused of killing protesters. He met with families of martyrs who died during the revolution in front of the courthouse. “The officers were sticking their tongues out at the relatives of the martyrs in court,” he recalls.
When the court issued its verdict acquitting all defendants, clashes erupted between the families and the police in front of the courthouse.
“I stood with the families and clashed with the police, unable to believe that those who killed the revolutionaries were acquitted under Morsi’s rule.”
The storm of the ouster
Before the June 30, 2013 demonstrations against the Brotherhood that preceded Morsi’s ouster, the group began to organize preemptive demonstrations to support the president’s rule. In one of them, Youssef and his friend were assaulted.
Youssef explains that a group of “thugs” attacked them, not the police.
“We were used to those attacks by thugs since the revolution. But this time the assault was different.” He explains that attacks by thugs on demonstrations are usually driven by the police, and that these thugs will attack without a political agenda in mind, and only for the money they get from the police. “But this time it was different. For the first time the thugs had a clear political agenda. They were attacking us because they stood against us,” he tells me.
It was at that time that Youssef felt that he and his companions needed a different way of dealing with these attacks. They felt they could not allow repeated attacks to go on ignored and it was necessary to be prepared to confront them.
“That was an individual decision on our part,” he says, “but parallel to that the Brotherhood began to form deterrence committees.”
The deterrence committees were formed after an organizational order from the Brotherhood in response to repeated attacks on their demonstrations. They are common and have historically paralleled public activities by the group. These committees are usually active during student demonstrations on campus, as well as conferences and electoral campaigns. Its members tend to be well built and full of organizational enthusiasm. The committees are concerned primarily with protection, physical defense and coordination of activities during gatherings.
But this time, their job was different. In view of rising anti-Brotherhood sentiment, these committees needed what is more than physical strength to confront attacks by thugs and police during demonstrations by the group.
“Do we need some tools, maybe weapons? Questions like these were raised among the Brotherhood youth,” Youssef says.
On July 3, 2013, the day Morsi was ousted, Youssef went to the Rabea al- Adaweyya sit-in.
“Rabea was like a utopia,” Youssef recalls. “It was more of a social religious gathering than a political one.” Despite his appreciation of “knowing you can leave your belongings anywhere knowing that they won’t be stolen,” he did not like the overall guiding of the sit-in as a religious festival with little political alignment beyond a call for Morsi’s return.
A source close to the Guidance Bureau of the Brotherhood who prefers to remain anonymous says that the Brotherhood’s Shura Council had two meetings during the sit-in to discuss possible scenarios if the sit-in was dispersed and the leadership of the group arrested. The two meetings concluded with the formation of a crisis management committee.
The killing of 51 Islamist protesters following clashes in front of the Presidential Guards headquarters on July 8, 2013 prompted discussions among the higher and middle-ranking leaders of the Brotherhood on the use of violence. These discussions remained faint and did not develop into organizational decisions, the source close to the Guidance Bureau says.
The Brotherhood was not the only group at the Rabea sit-in, however. In addition to some of the Salafi movement and other Islamists, there was a large group of Islamist militants who had spent many years in prison and who had been released during the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) after the revolution. Youssef says that he spent a lot of his time at Rabea in meetings with these former prisoners who had different affiliations and told stories of their incarceration.
“They were the ones who were most ready to die in the sit-in. They had no political objectives or ambitions. All I heard from them was that they did not want to return to prison. What they all agreed on was that they could die here but not return to prison,” Youssef describes.
The end of the Rabea utopia came with its forcible dispersal by military and police forces while Youssef was in surgery.
In the following weeks as he convalesced Youssef explored questions he had on organizing and armed resistance. He read Che Guevara’s “Guerilla Warfare,” “The Dirty War” about the experience of Islamists in Algeria at the end of the 1980s, and came to know more about Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.
As he recovered, he returned to his organizational responsibilities and began to prepare for the first academic year that was to follow Morsi’s ouster. But he was not satisfied with the role. He came to know several groups of young people through repeated confrontations between students and security forces. They were reaching the same realization: that peaceful marches will only lead to their assault, that confronting the police is not possible without violence.
This was the beginning of a new phase for Youssef.
A new beginning
By the start of 2014, Youssef had decided to leave the Brotherhood and with his comrades began a new group engaged in activities they deemed more befitting to the times. They used code names, coded messages and alternative mobile lines. They learned the Morris code, probably inspired by Guevara’s book.
They began with a phase focused entirely on information gathering, mainly about police officers and leaders of thug groups that collaborated with security forces to attack Brotherhood demonstrations.
Then they produced fake IDs after paying some bribes. They learned about surveillance cameras and ways to work around them. Youssef began to learn about different types of weapons, places to buy them and their cost. When they needed training on how to use them, they went to the Fayoum desert.
They learnt how to make explosives and to make use of different kinds of weapons. “All that you need to know you can find on Youtube,” Youssef tells me. He remembers for example a problem they faced with the tungsten wire in an explosive circuit they were putting together, and how they solved it. That time they read online about acetone peroxide and how to put fertilizers through a chemical process in order to produce it.
After a period of training, the group put together a list of people they wanted to recruit. These included angry Islamist youth, young fighters returning from Syria and those who failed to travel there in the first place. This is similar to the make-up of other militant cells, such as the Arab Sharkas group.
With the expansion of their membership, the group broke into smaller specialized committees. They began to plant explosives. With time, their knowhow developed and they were able to cause bigger explosions. Youssef says that on one day, they planted more than 25 explosives in different places.
According to an annual report produced by the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy on the security situation in Egypt, the number of operations against security forces from July 2013 to December 2014 constituted 71 percent of all operations. More than half of these attacks were carried out with guns, while bombs and homemade explosives make up around a fifth.
But attacking the police was not the only objective for Youssef and his group. “At times, I was just having fun,” he says. “One time I planted a pack of explosives then called the police and told them where it was and went to a nearby restaurant to have dinner while I watched the security forces trying to dismantle it.”
The group depended for its finances mostly on its members’ personal money. Youssef says that many of those who were university students decided not to pay their tuitions fees and to use the money to buy weapons.
“They believed that they were doomed to be killed or go to prison, so not paying university fees was not such a big issue,” he explains.
Youssef also says that sometimes they received anonymous donations through groups of intermediaries and that there was sometimes conditions on how they should be used.
They also carried out revenge operations against thugs who had attacked their protests. Youssef tells me that one time they set a trap on a highway for a thug “who sexually and physically assaulted our sisters at protests.”
“We attacked him with knives,” Youssef describes. “We were careful not to kill him, but we didn’t leave a part of him uninjured. When we were done with him, we left him by the road and went our way.”
Other similar small militant groups were formed on the basis of individual initiative and unrelated to one another. “There are other active committees — we don’t know who they are, but we know they exist,” Youssef tells me, adding that his group provided logistic support and training to some other groups of young people.
“This is why when someone in the police force is killed or anything like that happens, all of us disappear,” he says.
The divided Brotherhood leadership
In an interview with Al-Araby television in August, Amr Darrag, minister of planning and international cooperation during Morsi’s presidency and the person responsible for the negotiations after the dispersal of the Rabea sit-in, said that the youth are driven to violence by the fluidity of the situation. He said that while it is not possible to prevent violence because the youth are taking up their legitimate right to self-defense, this is not a position that can be officially adopted by the Brotherhood, committed to a peaceful path.
The group’s leadership tried to keep the deterrence committees under its control when they were first formed, especially when some of their members hinted at the need to be prepared with weapons to confront thugs and security. But soon, members of these groups were carrying arms on their own initiative.
Youssef tells me that the leadership of the Brotherhood did not tolerate members of the deterrence committees whose anger and enthusiasm drove them to actions that were more violent than what the group’s political condition could endure at the time. The leadership, he says, expelled those members.
But their organizational control did not last long.
With a political resolution involving the Brotherhood looking increasingly unlikely and with the loss of the traditional leadership’s central control, the discussion on violence extended to include the crisis management committee.
Early signs of disagreement inside the committee appeared in mid 2014, according to different sources close to the leadership of the group. The disagreement about the “peacefulness of the revolutionary path” line conventionally taken by the Brotherhood developed until the following year it threatened to split the movement as a whole.
A group known to represent the traditional leadership of the Brotherhood insisted on a complete commitment to nonviolence, while another group — advocating the “the creative revolutionary path” — settled for a definition of peaceful as anything short of killing. Taking this line, all attacks on facilities, burning of cars and destruction of infrastructure became acceptable.
As the conflict with the Brotherhood developed, the term “special committees” began to emerge in Interior Ministry statements as well as the Egyptian press to describe violent groups operating outside of Sinai.
The special committees became a feature of everyday news.
By the end of the year, the disagreement in the crisis management committee became a split and local media were reporting on it.
The group that advocated developing the deterrence committees further managed to impose its views on followers in Upper Egypt, according to a source close to the Brotherhood leadership. This is why committees began to be active in Fayoum, Beni Suef and, to a lesser extent, Giza, he says.
In January 2015, three members of the crisis management committee called for a meeting to discuss the possible scenarios for the fourth anniversary of the January 25 revolution. According to a former youth leader in the group, the meeting endorsed the turn toward violence as a strategic choice. The committee approved the formation of two new committees: the Committee for Revolutionary Punishment and the Front for Popular resistance. The former youth leader says that the three members calling for the meeting deliberately did not invite other figures known to be opposed to violence.
While Mada Masr was unable to confirm the details of this meeting, the annual Tahrir Institute report documents an acute rise in the rate of attacks in the governorates of Fayoum and Beni Suef at the beginning of the year.
Migration, not jihad
By now, the Brotherhood’s decisions concerning violence no longer interested Youssef. Before the end of 2014, his group took the decision to cease all activities except the targeting and killing of a list of police officers. Youssef says that when they began to discuss turning toward the elimination of police personnel, they decided they must search for a jurisprudential basis for it.
“No bearer of burdens shall bear another’s burden,” he says, quoting the Quran. He says they depended on a group of four religious scholars — one was a Brotherhood member, another Salafi, the third an Azhar scholar and the fourth a Sufi. All four helped the group set general criteria for the identification of targets in compliance with Sharia.
But the group did not have the chance to implement their plan.
Two months later, a security mistake by one of the group’s members let to the arrest of Youssef and several of his comrades.
Youssef recounts being subjected to severe torture for the first three days after his arrest, starting with electric tasers, and moving on to wires and handles suspended in different places. He points to a burn covering most of the surface of his arm, telling me that it is the result of covering his arm with quicklime then sprinkling it with water, which produces heat at high temperatures. He describes also the heating of metal plates on his skin.
“All methods of torture are painful, but there is nothing like suspension.” He says he was suspended with his arms behind his back, which resulted in a shoulder dislocation. “It was then that I was about to lose consciousness. I have never in my life felt anything that painful.”
Youssef says that he felt that the point of the torture was not to make him confess so much as much as to drain him. “It was a marathon that made me see another world I did not think existed despite all what I have done,” he tells me.
Youssef spent a short time in prison before his release alongside some others for lack of sufficient evidence. Although he is relieved, he is worried about his comrades who remain behind bars yet to stand trial.
He hates the terrorism label and insists on replacing it with the term “resistance.” The difference between the two, as he sees it, lies in the way that resistance is a reaction, while terrorism is an initiative. For him, a resistance fighter does not take “spilling blood lightly, and only kills those he knows for sure deserve to be killed.”
“That is why there is a big difference between the resistance and terrorism discourses,” he says. “The terrorist discourse describes the police as apostates and atheists, while resistance fighters describe them as Camp David police or Ministry of Interior dogs. We can’t say they are apostates.”
I ask him if he thinks those differences are enough to spill more blood. He ponders for a while before responding, “Of course it is not easy. Everything changes when you stain your hands with the blood of another person.”
Shortly after, he retorts, “By the way, I am a normal young man. I wish I could take courses, buy brand clothes, and go on safari trips.”
I remembered when he told me about how he challenged one of the “sisters” about the rules of gender segregation within the Brotherhood. He had told me that those “delusory conservative rules obstruct our activities.” He didn’t sound like a brother with an organizational responsibility toward a sister. I suspected having found a desire and passion for a normal conversation between a male and a female.
Youssef says that he never felt this amount of violence inside him before. “The jihadi has become a jihadi because nobody was listening. He begins on a small scale and then the violence develops.”
“More torture will only produce people who are dead on the inside,” he adds. “They only take from religion the inspiration of the heroic stories of the prophet’s companions fighting the apostates. Afterwards, they are filled with blackness.”
Today, Youssef believes that a political solution must be found and that this will not be possible without an organization on the scale of the Brotherhood taking up “resistance.”
When I ask him, what’s next for him, he tells me that he intends to travel to Syria, explaining that he does not intend to join the Islamic State, but rather the Free Men of the Levant group, one of the largest groups fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Why Syria, I ask. “It is more migration than jihad, he says. “I am good for nothing but that. I could live happily there.”