Egypt Bans the Muslim Brotherhood, but the Islamists Are Not Finished

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Mahmud Khaled / AFP / Getty Images

An Egyptian supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted President Mohamed Morsi joins a protest in Cairo on July 5, 2013

When President Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power in February 2011, it kicked off an extended (and some would argue well-deserved) victory lap for the Muslim Brotherhood. After decades in the shadows — alternately tolerated and oppressed by a string of military-backed rulers — the venerable Islamist group could finally step into the political sunshine.

If it seemed at the time almost Cinderella-like, it was. The Muslim Brotherhood is now facing its witching hour. The group’s return to a fugitive existence accelerated further on Monday with a court ruling that opens the door to a complete purge of the Islamist group.

Given the wave of anti-Islamist sentiment gripping the nation since Egyptian President — and longtime Brotherhood official — Mohamed Morsi was forced from power by the military in early July, the ruling from the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters isn’t much of a surprise. Authorities have been treating the Brotherhood as an illegal organization for two months now; at least 1,000 Brotherhood supporters have been killed in a series of police and military crackdowns, and most of the organization’s senior officials have already been arrested.

But the specific wording of the ruling hints at an impending crackdown the likes of which the Brotherhood hasn’t witnessed since 1954, when it was driven underground by postrevolutionary leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Now, the court banned “all activities” by the Brotherhood and noted that this ban extends to “any institution branching out of it or … receiving financial support from it.” That language suggests a ban that could apply not only to the Brotherhood and its affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, but also to the group’s vast network of charitable organizations, medical clinics and mosque-based educational and outreach programs.

What’s more, the judges ordered the “confiscation of all the group’s money, assets and buildings” belonging to the Brotherhood — treating the institution as if it’s a full-fledged criminal enterprise. That possibility opens the door to a public exploration of the Brotherhood’s true finances and funding streams, something the group’s opponents have been advocating for years.

Brotherhood officials reacted with defiance. “This is a totalitarian decision,” Ibrahim Moneir told al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr TV. Then addressing the military and its chief Major General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi directly, Moneir said, “You are losers, and [the Brotherhood] will remain with God’s help, not by the orders by the judiciary of al-Sisi.”

Opponents of the Brotherhood and backers of Morsi’s ouster see the ban as the inevitable result of Morsi’s disastrous year in power and policies that convinced much of the country that the Islamists were an active threat to Egypt. Mohammed Sherdi, a veteran politician with the Wafd Party and harsh Brotherhood critic, says the group has only themselves to blame and predicts no short-term future in Egyptian politics for the Brotherhood.

“The Brothers have put themselves in a situation — I think their only way out now is a new generation and new image. All their big top leaders of course have to go away. They have to come more into the light. I need to know where their money is coming from. I need to know who’s sending it. I also need those who have blood on their hands punished,” he says. “My problem is no longer to protect Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood. My problem is to protect the Brotherhood from the wrath of the Egyptians.”

The remaining Brotherhood leaders haven’t given many concrete hints about where the organization could go from here. Public sentiment has turned hard against the Brotherhood, and that antipathy was heightened by a recent wave of attacks on Egyptian churches. Most Brotherhood communiqués now simply call for a continuation of the group’s ongoing campaign of public protests and civil disobedience.

But the wave of church attacks — which began in earnest after security forces staged a bloody Aug. 14 raid on a large Brotherhood protest sit-in that may have led to more than 600 deaths in one day — hints at a darker possibility: a shift toward violent militancy either by mainstream Brotherhood cadres or affiliated Islamist groups operating outside the Brotherhood’s control. The group, in its public statements and protests, has sought to prove its nonviolent credentials and has focused on drawing non-Islamist supporters who also oppose the military-backed government.

At a nighttime protest in the Cairo suburb of Maadi on Sunday night, about 500 demonstrators chanted antimilitary slogans, and one man held up a sign that read, “I am not a terrorist and I am against the burning of churches.”