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It is 15 August 2013, a day after the deadly dispersal of the Rabaa Adwayia Islamist sit-in in Cairo, and the military have sacked Morsi. Two Islamist men in their 30s, Abdallah and his friend Galal, among dozens of others, had taken the fight to the streets against thousands of police and military forces. Right outside Cairo’s historic train station, near al-Fatah mosque, both took cover from the live rounds fired at different groups of protesters and some masked militants armed with shotguns.
The two, believing in the cause of ‘revolting to save Islam and restore the presidency of former President Mohamed Morsi’, repeated the Shehada – a statement of faith in Islam – knowing the end might be near, Abdallah tells The Africa Report.
As both ran for cover from the tear gas and live rounds, the upper part of Abdallah’s grey jalabiya turned red, seconds after Glalal was shot dead in the head. The blood and tear gas prevented Abdullah from carrying Galal’s body. Shortly after, Abdallah was arrested, but later released due to the haphazardness of detentions that week.
Feeling responsible for his friend’s family, Abdallah, already married with two children, married Galal’s widow who had three children. Neither men were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, but both voraciously supported the Islamist rhetoric that the group used to mobilise low and middle-class members.
The Brotherhood as a social power
From the 1970s, the Brotherhood was given room to influence public life. As part of a deal with Anwar al-Sadat’s administration, syndicates, universities, mosques, ministries, schools and businesses were taken over by the Brotherhood, to give them the means to counter the leftist/Marxist control of public space.
In the years before Mubarak, the political and the social sphere were unseparated… the Brotherhood worked on a bottom-up structure, by gaining the respect and trust of the masses throughout the years…
In addition, they were able to establish charity organisations, hospitals, and educational centres, offering themselves as an alternative amid the state’s withdrawal from its public welfare, such as schooling, social solidarity, and hospitalisation. Mosques affiliated with the group organised back-to-school packages to impoverished families, while Islamic hospitals provided cheap treatment and medicine to citizens who could not afford private hospitals or had to pay bribes to enter government hospitals.
Such circles granted the Brotherhood a diverse and loyal political capital of thousands who may not have agreed with the group’s political opinions. However, the brothers depicted themselves as men of honour, men of God, or men who did good deeds.
“In the years before Mubarak, the political and the social sphere were unseparated,” a senior member of the Brotherhood’s bureau in London tells The Africa Report, adding “the Brotherhood worked on a bottom-up structure, by gaining the respect and trust of the masses throughout the years, which led to the landslide victories in the several elections from 2011 to 2012.”
Indeed in 2011, the Brotherhood gained what it had been sowing since the 1970s. In a matter of three months, the group had become the most organised, prepared, and unified political group boosted by the support of millions across the country who had come to depend on their philanthropic activities.
Crash and burn
After Morsi was ousted in 2013, and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi assumed power, the MB was once again banned and deemed a terrorist group.
Nine years after the physical and political defeat of the group, thousands of the group’s members and supporters are either in jail, exile or hiding. Much of the assets belonging to religious, social, and political organisations – controlled by the group – have been dismantled or taken over by the government. Additionally, millions of Egyptian pounds in assets, from different businesses and personal capital belonging to the group and its suspected members, have been confiscated by the Egyptian state.
Politically, the group may have the ability to mobilise minor flash demonstrations, capitalising on unrelated apolitical dissent, such as joining protests related to stopping state-sponsored house demolitions or public anger from price hikes. However, the significant loss was the deep crack that the state inflicted on its social circles after the 2013 coup.
The state replaced the group’s professionals not just in political life and business, but also in syndicates, mosques, and charities, leaving the group’s most important capital stripped of significant material and political support.
Bread and rice and everything nice
In 2011 and 2012, one of the great criticisms of the Brotherhood was directed at their businessmen: a richer segment of the group that in many cases financed their influence by either giving bribes or food rations to the masses in exchange for votes.
During the same period, these same businessmen influenced the direction of the state, when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SACF) ruled the country. Nevertheless, days after the military takeover in 2013, the Egyptian state confiscated hundreds of these businesses, ranging from fast-food chains to currency exchange shops that belonged to, or were suspected of financially supporting the group in its fight against the military.
The state replaced the MB businessmen, and those with Islamist tendencies, with other business persons and influential individuals who were clearly pro-police and pro-military. Top executive posts and legislative seats were offered to prominent families and ex-senior officials. The Nation’s Future Party is an excellent example of this.
Life has to go on, and we have to complete the struggle on our own. The Brotherhood is a phase that ended and now we have to take care of our own.
The state also intervened to fill the gap left by Islamist-affiliated decentralised charity groups, which after 2013, stepped in to collect donations and distribute them to the poor. Since 2013, at least 2.5 million Egyptian families have benefited from the government-run Takaful and Karama (Solidarity and Dignity) programme, designed as a national targeted social safety-net mechanism “to protect the poor through income support”, according to the social solidarity ministry. Benefactors include women and children, poor people living with disabilities, poor orphans and poor widows.
In the professional sphere, the state launched a campaign to take back professional syndicates, enforce coalitions and candidates strictly loyal to the government and all its policies, and ‘deconstruct the Brotherhoodisation’, which left several syndicates as strongholds of the group.
In one incident, the state seized the pharmacist’s syndicate’s assets to enforce an early election and bring the Long Live Egypt list – an electoral register that includes pro-state supporters and individuals known for their vocal support of the military and police. The majority of individuals from these lists are members of the Nation’s Future party.
Such a move cost the group years of lobbying inside the Engineers, Doctors, Lawyers, or Press syndicates. Universities were also not left behind. From 2013 until 2016, security forces continued to clash and arrest university students who protested on campus. After physically taming the campuses, the government presented students loyal to the regime to take over student activities and the brotherhood students’ seat.
The fight over the Minarets
One of the fundamental aspects of the 3 July 2013 state was to advocate ‘renewing the religious discourse’. This entailed a mission to sack all preachers and employees in the three leading religious institutions, Al-Azhar, the ministry of endowments, and Dar Al-Ifta.
Scores of preachers and proselytisers were fired and referred to an investigation, while ‘observers’ were hired to watch the preachers and report any deviation from the published weekly scripted and uniformed Friday sermon. In addition, police presence intensified outside the mosques, as such places of worship are known to be meeting points for Islamist protesters.
In certain cases, the state burned books written by the group’s former influential leaders. Through such actions, the state equated extremist thought with preaching that promotes any of the Brotherhood’s political and social rhetoric, disabling the religious group from accessing a platform to push forward its objectives.
Another group that Sisi’s regime has used to fill in the gap of the Brotherhood preachers is the now tamed and apolitical Salafists, mostly belonging to the conservative Nour Party, which had sided with the military against the MB.
In Alexandria, the stronghold of Salafi mosques continue to operate somewhat freely, but surveillance from the security services is on-going. Salafist preachers who veer off onto a different path either get interrogated or suspended.
Revered or taken to another level
In 2013, when Abdallah married his friend’s widow, he received financial support from the group. Today, he works three jobs and is looking to immigrate to either Qatar or Turkey with the hope of finding a decent way of supporting himself, his two wives, and six children.
He still believes in the cause of the Brotherhood and believes the group will make a comeback like it did in the 1950s and the 1970s, maybe not during his time, but perhaps that of his children.
Abdallah and his circle are very active online, using social media to criticise the government and the state “for raising awareness and convincing people to resist the regime and to counter the false information that the media is publishing about Islam.”
I hope my sons grow up to be like Khatab, a man of his word, fighting the enemies of Islam, and standing up for himself.
“The Brotherhood lifted its hands and gave up on the people inside and outside prisons in Egypt, and now the leadership in Qatar, Turkey, and London are fighting,” says another Brotherhood member who asks to not be named. Two of his brothers are imprisoned in Beni Surf.
“Even support given to families of imprisoned and killed members have stopped or is very little,” he tells The Africa Report. Planning donations for the families of imprisoned members and allies is a tradition among Egyptian Islamist circles ever since the political conflict with the monarchy in the 1930s.
He explains how he has set up a WhatsApp group with other families of prisoners to coordinate the visits and carpool. They even hold a money pool to help each pay lawyers’ fees or leave money for their imprisoned relative. “Life has to go on, and we have to complete the struggle on our own. The Brotherhood is a phase that ended and now we have to take care of our own,” the man says, asserting that several of the country’s Islamists think the same.
He accuses the Brotherhood’s leadership of fighting over power and refusing to make a deal with the government in return for the release of prisoners.
Others have indeed abandoned the Brotherhood’s framework and taken another route. Sarah, a pharmacist from Fayoum, says her brother came back from the Rabaa sit-in as a different person and travelled to North Sinai to fight with the jihadists affiliated with the Islamic State there.
“He was convinced that going to protests to demand justice while the other side [was] carrying machine guns did not make sense. So he decided to travel, and we haven’t heard anything about him since,” she tells The Africa Report. She adds that several of her city’s youth also joined different militant groups, not necessarily Islamists, but sabotage groups.
Hope for future Islamists
In the working-class area of Talbyia in Cairo, Salma, who lost her husband during the Rabaa violence, gathers her children who are sitting to watch a popular YouTube show by Abdallah Al-Sherif, an Islamist satirical internet personality. His videos are watched by millions, and often include criticism of the government by discussing different topics. It is a favourite among the Brotherhood circles. The episode they watch today features the legendary jihadist figure Khatab who is discussing his ‘heroics’ during the conflict with the Soviet army in the 1980s.
“I hope my sons grow up to be like Khatab, a man of his word, fighting the enemies of Islam, and standing up for himself,” she says, adding that what she and the other mothers, who were affected by the massacre, should be responsible for building the new generation who will free the country from the current political regime.
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