Temptations of Power: Islamists & Illiberal Democracy

TEMPTATIONS ISLAMISTAfter a dizzying rise to power in Egypt’s parliament and presidency in 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood faced mass discontent, was ousted by the military, declared a terrorist organization and its followers were arrested and hounded into exile. Egypt is the most extreme case – but from Morocco to Jordan, and nearly everywhere in between, once-ascendant Islamists find themselves facing unprecedented challenges.

In his new book, Temptations of Power: Islamists & Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2014), Brookings Fellow Shadi Hamid steps back from the headlines to examine how and why Islamist movements change over time, what animates their worldview and what their ultimate objectives are for society. Hamid conducted hundreds of interviews with Islamist leaders and activists across the region to develop a bold thesis: that repression compelled Islamists to moderate their politics, work in coalitions, and de-emphasize Islamic law. Ironically, then, democratic openings have tended to push Islamists toward their original conservatism, oftentimes leading them to overreach and confrontation.

On April 9, the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World will launch Hamid’s new book with a discussion of the past and future of political Islam. CBS News Correspondent Margaret Brennan will moderate the discussion, after which Hamid will take audience questions. Copies of the book will also be available for sale at the event.

When: Wednesday, April 9, 2:00 to 3:30 PM

Where: The Brookings Institution, Falk Auditorium, 1775 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20036


Egypt: crackdown on Brotherhood enters new phase

Egypts-Abdul-Fatah-al-Sisi-672x372Egypt is now experiencing violence akin to that of its darkest periods, according to two leading analysts. But compared to previous eras, there is a fundamental difference in the state’s way of dealing with the Brotherhood, the Carnegie Endowment’s Nathan J. Brown and Michele Dunnewrite for Foreign Affairs:

Under Nasser — as well as Sadat and Mubarak — repression was the job of security agencies and special courts. The judiciary sometimes acted as a brake on the government’s most authoritarian impulses. Now, all the instruments of the Egyptian state seem fully on board. Whereas Nasser had to go to the trouble of setting up kangaroo courts, today there is no need. The regular judiciary has led most of the recent crackdown on the Brotherhood, from the Minya convictions to other trials of Brotherhood leaders. Meanwhile, the state media, the religious establishment, civil service, and educational institutions have all joined in the effort. Some political parties and most of the private media have even signed on too, apparently of their own free will.

“As a result, the institutions of the Egyptian state that used to command respect because they were seen as being above the political fray — the judiciary as well as the army — now seem to be very willing participants in the repression,” say Browne and Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Some observers believe the regime’s repression of non-violent Islamists is paving the way for a resurgence of jihadist terrorism.

“Many Egyptians believe that many young people are going to join the forces of terrorism in the near future. As long as there is no open way for political participation, the substitute will be violence,” Cairo political analyst and journalist Mohamed Abdella tells VOA.

EgyptfragmentingReport-COVERIf there is a lesson to be learned from the past three volatile years, it is the negative impact of repressive politics on the capabilities of individuals to articulate political agendas that respond to citizens’ concerns, according to Fragmenting Under Pressure: Egypt’s Islamists Since Morsi’s Ouster, a new report from the Center for American Progress. 

“While some of this expertise exists within Egypt—for example, in universities and civil society—the crackdown makes the realization of its potential impossible,” the authors argue. “The recent detention of journalists and political activists of varying ideological stripes are examples of the type of draconian measures that are shrinking Egypt’s political space.”

Shadi Hamid, an expert at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, said autocrats such as Egypt’s military ruler, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, have been emboldened. “They think they can get away with more than ever,” Hamid said. “And this is tied to a growing sense of weakness under the Obama administration, whether it’s fair or unfair.”

In Egypt, Sisi believes he is fighting an existential threat with the Muslim Brotherhood. In Washington, American officials disagree over whether core American interests are at stake, and the autocrats know it.

“There is a calculation there,” Hamid said. “They know that they want it more than we do.”

According to human rights analyst Bahay Eldin Hasan, even Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi admitted that the state “is run by the security bodies, who control the presidency, cabinet, media and judiciary.”

The path away from the current  impasse is political reconciliation, in which the authorities agree to release detainees, drop the terrorism designation, and reintegrate the Brotherhood into political life in exchange for a pledge from the group of nonviolence and its acceptance that Morsi will not be restored as president, Brown and Dunne write for Foreign Affairs:

It will eventually have to happen if Egypt is to reach some sort of political consensus along the lines of Tunisia’s, which is its best hope for stability. There are simply too many Islamists and non-Islamists (nationalists, liberals, leftists) for any one side to dominate. The other option is continued violence and instability. RTWT

What sort of president will Sisi make? asks Neville Teller, who writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal”:

He often appears alongside images of the late presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat. Some commentators suggest that he will take one or other of these predecessors as his model. He certainly followed both by pursuing the “political track” within the Egyptian military, and in particular the infantry – the corps which produced both Nasser and Sadat….But he has already indicated considerable pragmatism by cooperating with Israel in combating the jihadist terrorism current rampant in Sinai, fostered by the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and threatening both Egypt’s nascent régime and Israel’s security.

And it is on counter-terrorism, according to Professor Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian political scene, that al-Sisi’s pre-presidential campaign has concentrated so far – both in Sinai, and much closer to home. In pursuit of this policy, he has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood within Egypt and maintains a ruthless crackdown on its activists and supporters….

Meanwhile the economic crisis intensifies, reflected in government debt, rising unemployment, poverty, inflation, power outages, and an absence of tourists. “For all of this,” writes Professor Springborg, “Field Marshal Sisi has avoided any direct blame, skilfully shuffling that off onto Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi and his hapless cabinet, which resigned on 24 February.”

Springborg believes al-Sisi wants to project a presidential image of a new, “believing” Nasser (Nasser was somewhat of a secularist), although the profound changes since the 1950s within and beyond Egypt make his aim a near impossibility. ….

 Sadat did not agree with Nasser’s distrust of Islamic influence on government and opposed his socialist inclinations. He succeeded in instituting a “corrective revolution” which purged the government, political and security establishments of the most ardent Nasserists. In addition Sadat actually encouraged the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been suppressed by Nasser. He gave them “considerable cultural and ideological autonomy” (as author Gilles Keppel has it) in exchange for political support, little realizing the viper he was clutching to his bosom. In this, at least, al-Sisi utterly rejects the Sadat approach.

In 2006, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi was sent to the US Army War College to study for a master’s degree. In a research paper he warned that democracy in the Middle East was “not necessarily going to evolve upon a Western template”. He argued that “democracy, as a secular entity, is unlikely to be favourably received by the vast majority of Middle Easterners, who are devout followers of the Islamic faith”.


Five question’s for Egypt’s Sisi

Egyptians are about to hand the keys to their country to Field Marshal and presidential candidate Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, with very little sense of where he plans to take them, says Carnegie Endowment analyst Michele Dunne.

 In fact, they know relatively little about Sisi himself, which is problematic given the mountain of challenges Egypt faces. And in announcing his candidacy on March 26—still in uniform, his last act as a soldier—Sisi gave only a few hints, notes Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

In theory, the presidential candidate will have the chance to clarify his stances in the coming campaign. While 2014 is unlikely to feature a serious presidential debate, there will undoubtedly be plenty of public speaking opportunities for Sisi. If he takes them and begins to define his political persona, his answers to five questions should shed light on how he might address Egypt’s massive challenges:

  1. Does Sisi acknowledge that the country has been through a period of unparalleled internal conflict and polarization and that national healing is now needed? He hinted at this during his March 26 speech but then quickly moved to suggest that unnamed “internal, regional, and foreign” enemies were to blame.
  2. Does Sisi extend olive branches to those who have felt excluded and harassed since July 2013—youth, journalists, civil society, critics of military rule—not to mention supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood? New Egyptian presidents typically are magnanimous and try to show that they are leaders of the entire nation. In his speech, Sisi suggested that any Egyptian not being prosecuted should be considered “a full partner,” but that is hardly comforting with tens of thousands in prison and mass trials of hundreds ongoing.
  3. Does Sisi express a commitment to implementing human rights protections in the constitution? Acknowledging the security services’ excesses and promising to institute a serious transitional justice process (Egypt has already had several unserious ones) would be key. There was no hint of this in his first speech, but rather a promise to “rebuild the state.”
  4. Does Sisi express a commitment to political pluralism and take steps to reopen political space for both secularists and Islamists? He gave only the briefest of nods to democracy in his March 26 speech.
  5. How does Sisi discuss the role of the public sector, and particularly the military, in the economy as opposed to that of the private sector, and does he acknowledge that only a vigorous and free private sector can generate the jobs needed for Egypt’s huge and growing labor force? Sisi did say in his speech that productive capacity in “all sectors” should be revived and hinted that Egypt cannot depend on Gulf donors indefinitely, but he said nothing specific about the roles of public and private industries in generating jobs.


‘Unprecedented instability’: Egyptians fear future darker than Mubarak era


The leader of Egypt’s outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and 682 others went on trial on Tuesday on charges including murder, their lawyer said, a day after more than 500 supporters of deposed president Mohamed Mursi were sentenced to death, Reuters reports:

Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie, 70, and the others were being tried in the same court in Minya Province that condemned 529 members of the Islamist group to death, in what rights groups said was the biggest mass death sentence handed out in Egypt’s modern history.

Egyptians have suffered through the most intense human rights abuses and terrorism in their recent history in the eight months since the military ousted then president Morsi, according to the Carnegie Endowment’s Michele Dunne and Scott Williamson, who detail Egypt’s unprecedented instability by the numbers (above):

The extent of this story has been largely obscured from view due to the lack of hard data, but estimates suggest that more than 2,500 Egyptians have been killed, more than 17,000 have been wounded, and more than 16,000 have been arrested in demonstrations and clashes since July 3. Another several hundred have been killed in terrorist attacks….. Despite Egyptian officials’ statements that the measures they are taking are necessary to stabilize the country, the opposite is true. Egypt is a far more violent and unstable place than it was before July 2013 or indeed has been for decades, as government repression drives an expanding cycle of political violence. And there has been no indication yet that conditions will quiet down anytime soon.

“Instead of bringing about a real substantial change in the character of the government, we are once again battling over human rights, as it was before the revolution,” a senior Egyptian journalist told Haaretz. “Many of us who supported the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood and the seizure of power by the military, realize that the situation today is worse than it was before former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted. Anyone who refuses to join the chorus of supporters of General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi may find himself in the interrogation room. The truth is that it’s not so clear to us what is left of the revolution.”

Nathan Brown, an expert on Arab politics who is a professor of political science at George Washington University, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday he doubts any meaningful negotiations between the two sides are under way, but he admits that it is within the realm of possibility.

“I am extremely doubtful that there will be any deal between the regime and the Brotherhood any time soon. Neither side has a position now that is amenable to compromise,” said Brown.

Asked if the death sentences may have originated with the political leadership, Brown responded that he sees this as unlikely, as he has not seen any evidence to back up this assertion.

“However, the security apparatus is both victim here (it was a police station that was attacked) and the source of the evidence,” he said, pointing out that “it has shown few scruples in marshaling evidence.” In addition, parts of the judiciary seem to be “fully on board with the wave of repression,” though he does not think the sentences will be carried out.

Anger over Morsi’s one year in power remains high among many Egyptians, who blame him and his Brotherhood supporters for their often violent exclusion from Egypt’s political process and attempting to impose a narrowly-based Islamist rule, VOA reports.

“The Brotherhood decided to step out of the process you know; it is they who should be asked to be inclusive,” said democracy activist and political commentator Hisham Kassem.

“The Brotherhood leadership is incapable of cutting a deal even if it wants to, due to the base’s radicalization,” said Samuel Tadros, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.

Also, the regime is in no mood to compromise, said Tadros, adding that the constitutional referendum gave it confidence, and there is no serious international pressure to change its behavior.

Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, sees the verdict as representing a continuation of the crackdown on the Brotherhood.

It “is highly indicative of the deep animosity toward the Brotherhood within state institutions, and particular the judiciary,” he told the Post. 

It is difficult to figure out how many Egyptians have been killed, injured, or imprisoned during the country’s recent turmoil due to the government’s increased opacity since the military takeover, intimidation of international groups tracking developments, and rifts in the Egyptian human rights community, argue the Carnegie Endowment’s Dunne and Williamson:


egyptcarnegie2One organization that has tried to keep track is the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), whose initiative Wiki Thawra has drawn on open source information to compile a statistical database of political violence since the January 25 revolution that led to the overthrow of strongman Hosni Mubarak. 

While Wiki Thawra’s numbers most likely are not perfect—and in fact the authors hope that others can offer more precise figures—they are the most comprehensive currently available. And they offer a compelling sense of the scale of the violence currently afflicting Egypt.

How does the scale of this violence compare to previous periods of repression in Egypt since 1952? As post-coup instability accelerated following Morsi’s ouster, commentators described the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood as the most intense since the 1950s and also asked if Egypt would witness a return of the terrorist violence of the 1990s. But if the above numbers accurately capture the scope of the current troubles, it seems clear that Egypt has already surpassed both of these deadly landmarks.


Egypt’s rulers have already earned two dubious distinctions in less than a year: since 1952, no Egyptian regime has been more repressive, and no regime in more than a generation has confronted a more intense terrorism challenge.

Where the current authorities have not yet caught up to their predecessors in the Nasser and Mubarak years is in duration. Nasser (and his successors) left thousands of Egyptians languishing in jail for years, and the insurgency of the 1990s continued for at least half a decade. But in the end Nasser did not eradicate the Brotherhood, a movement present in Egyptian society and public life since 1928. And while the 1990s insurgency was eventually defeated, the campaign against it brought a heavy legacy of authoritarian laws that sowed the seeds of unrest. Support for the Salafi groups involved in the insurgency later rebounded, too.

The current government’s actions seem to be taking the country down a similarly long path. Egyptian government officials continue to justify the crackdown as needed to quell the terrorist threat, brushing aside the fact that the threat was a fraction of its present size before the crackdown began in the summer of 2013.

Egypt is now preparing to pass yet another landmark in the political road map put into place upon Morsi’s removal—the election of a new president, most likely the very Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who removed him. As the vote approaches, the question to ask is not so much whether a broad campaign of political repression and human rights abuses might, in theory, quiet Egypt down, but whether it actually is quieting Egypt down. The evidence to date shows that it is not.

A different course is needed. Absent an inclusive economic, political, and rights strategy that replaces brutal repression and helps Egyptians become far more invested in the government’s success, a continuation of the cycle of protest, repression, terrorism, and revenge is a more likely outcome than stability.


‘Largest death sentence in modern history’ shows Egypt’s ‘basic state institutions malfunctioning’

The Egyptian government took its crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood to a new level today, when a court sentenced 529 members of the outlawed organization to death — the biggest mass sentence in the modern history of the country, stirred global outrage:

The defendants — supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi, who is also on trial separately — were charged with the murder of one police officer and trying to kill two others during violence that followed anti-coup demonstrations last August. The condemned men were also accused of storming a police station, inciting murder, and damaging property during clashes that flared up in the southern province of Minya following the violent dispersal of two Muslim Brotherhood protests in Cairo, during which up to 1,000 Morsi supporters were killed.

“The sheer level of repression since the coup is really remarkable, it’s unprecedented and not just in the kind of way that people use that word: it actually is unprecedented,” Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center, told VICE News. “First you have what Human Rights Watch called the worst mass killing in modern Egyptian history and now you have the worst mass death sentence in modern Egyptian history.”

Even though the sentences were almost certain to be reduced, “the staggering harshness and speed of the verdict still show how profoundly the basic institutions of the Egyptian state are malfunctioning,” Nathan Brown, an expert on the Egyptian judiciary at George Washington University, wrote in an email. “The fact that cooler heads are likely to weigh in is only limited consolation for the degree to which mindless repression still seems to be the order of the day.”

The judgment can be appealed at the Court of Cassation, which would probably order a new trial or reduce the sentences, legal expert Gamal Eid told AFP.

“This sentencing is a catastrophe and a travesty and a scandal that will affect Egypt for many years,” said Eid, who heads the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

“It sort of defies logic,” said Marie Harf, deputy US State Department spokeswoman, adding that Washington was “deeply concerned” and “shocked”.

“Obviously the defendants can appeal, but it simply does not seem possible that a fair review of evidence and testimony consistent with international standards could be accomplished with over 529 defendants in a two-day trial,” Harf said.

Amnesty International said it was the “largest single batch of simultaneous death sentences we’ve seen in recent years, not just in Egypt but anywhere in the world.”


“We have never heard of anything of this magnitude before, inside or outside of Egypt, that was within a judicial system — not just a mass execution,” said Karim Medhat Ennarah, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.