On June 29, Egypt’s top prosecutor was killed in a car bombing as he left his home in Cairo. He was the most senior official to be assassinated since Islamic militants launched an insurgency two years ago after the Egyptian military ousted Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president.
The assassination of the prosecutor, Hisham Barakat, is a tragedy but it’s not surprising. Egypt spiraled into a cycle of state-sanctioned violence, repression and vengeance as soon as the military removed Morsi from power in July 2013. The new military-backed government launched an aggressive campaign to suppress all political opponents, hunt down leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood who fled after the coup and undo many of the gains made during the 2011 uprising that toppled then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
That is the danger many in the Arab world and in the West failed to grasp when they remained silent after Egypt’s coup: while authoritarian rule appears to provide stability over the short term, it breeds discontent and affirms the idea that the only way to achieve political power is through violence.
On June 16, an Egyptian court upheld the death penalty against Morsi, the first Brotherhood leader to assume the presidency of an Arab country. He was initially sentenced to death in May, along with more than 100 co-defendants, for taking part in an alleged prison break. It was the latest in a series of sham trials and mass death sentences decreed by the judiciary since the military coup. If the former president is ultimately hanged, it would be a grave miscarriage of justice that would make Morsi a martyr for millions throughout the Muslim world.
Beyond Morsi’s fate, the mass death sentences send a dangerous signal to Islamists throughout the region: that election results will not be respected. The Brotherhood’s recent experience in Egypt shows that authoritarian and secular forces, which often fare poorly at the ballot box, will mobilize to undermine the Islamists before they have had a chance to rule. Ultimately, Egypt cannot be a viable democracy without the Brotherhood’s participation.
When it deposed Morsi in 2013, the military insisted it was acting on the will of the Egyptian people, who had grown disenchanted with his clumsy rule and disastrous economic policies. But the army didn’t stop there: It arrested Morsi along with thousands of other Brotherhood leaders and activists, shut down media outlets sympathetic to the Islamists and banned the Brotherhood from Egyptian political life entirely. Then, in August 2013, the army and security forces opened fire on thousands of Morsi’s supporters who were engaged in a peaceful sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya square, killing at least 1,000 people. Human Rights Watch called the massacre “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.”
Morsi’s defense minister and the coup’s main instigator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is now president. He has restored many elements of military rule and returned officials from Mubarak’s former regime to power. Sisi is the latest in a line of military strongmen to rule Egypt, since the charismatic Gamal Adel Nasser overthrew the British-backed monarchy in 1952.
The Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest and most influential Islamist movement in the Arab and Muslim worlds; it has inspired branches and affiliates throughout the Middle East. Over several decades, Islamist parties across the region renounced violence and committed to participating in electoral politics.
But now Islamists view the Egyptian military’s coup and subsequent crackdown as a signal that election results will not be respected. The process can spiral out of control: In 1992, the Islamic Salvation Front was on the verge on winning parliamentary elections in Algeria, when the military intervened and cancelled the results. That coup set off an eight-war civil war that killed more than 100,000 people.
Today, the Egyptian military can continue its repression with impunity partly because the United States and other Western powers made clear that they favor stability over democracy. Much of the West accepted the coup and has remained largely silent about the sham trials and mass death sentences being handed down by the Egyptian judiciary. The United States provides Egypt with $1.3 billion in military aid each year, but it has been reluctant to use that aid as leverage against the Egyptian regime.
Founded in 1928 by a school teacher named Hassan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood was initially focused on preaching and providing social services. When Nasser and his Free Officers Movement took power in 1952, they were nominally allied with the Brotherhood. But after a member of the group tried to assassinate Nasser in 1954, the new military regime moved to crush the Islamists by arresting, executing and banishing thousands.
The suppression of the Brotherhood under Nasser in the 1950s and 60s helped lay the ideological foundations for the emergence of violent Islamic movements in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. The most militant thinker of that period was Sayyid Qutb, a Brotherhood ideologue who published a manifesto, Milestones Along the Road, arguing that the secular Arab nationalism of Nasser had led to authoritarianism and a new period of jahiliyya, a term that has particular resonance for Islamists because it refers to the pre-Islamic “dark ages.” Nasser’s regime executed Qutb in 1966, and he joined the pantheon of Islamist martyrs.
Most of the Brotherhood’s surviving leadership renounced violence in the 1960s, and urged accommodation with the secular regime. But Qutb’s ideas flourished, and his disciples abandoned the Brotherhood and splintered into violent factions. The two most important offshoots were the Islamic Group and Egyptian Islamic Jihad. In 1981, members of Islamic Jihad infiltrated the Egyptian army and assassinated President Anwar Sadat. Mubarak succeeded Sadat as president, and he launched a new crackdown on both the violent Islamists and the Brotherhood.
In the 1980s, another wave of Egyptian Islamists were forced into exile, and many ended up joining the CIA-backed jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The Egyptians – many of them followers of Qutb, including Ayman al-Zawahiri (a leader of Islamic Jihad at the time of Sadat’s assassination) – would later form the backbone of al Qaeda.
In the late 80s and 90s, the Islamic Group launched intensive attacks on police, government officials, tourists and intellectuals throughout Egypt, killing nearly 2,500 people and paralyzing the economy. Mubarak’s regime responded with a severe crackdown, arresting, executing or deporting thousands of suspected Islamists. Egyptians rejected the violent Islamists, while the Brotherhood adhered to nonviolence.
Unfortunately, this cycle of state repression that leads to radicalization and violence is being repeated today in Egypt.
For Egyptian Islamists – and indeed Islamists throughout the region – there were two paths after Morsi’s ouster: the jihadism advocated by Qutb and his disciples, or the peaceful choice made by Islamists in Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. These groups committed themselves to the slow work of building a social base, providing services to their constituents and participating in electoral politics.
That is the ultimate danger of an authoritarian government demonizing all Islamists as terrorists who must be suppressed: It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Egypt’s crackdown proves to those who advocate violence that it is the only way to protect themselves and achieve power. We must not allow regimes such as Sisi’s to breed new resentments, or to repeat the pattern of repression that leads to more radicalization.