Islamists Under Fire
In stark contrast to the euphoria after elections more than two years ago, Islamist political parties across the Middle East now face escalating challenges to their rule. The main drama is playing out in Egypt between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. But Islamist parties in Tunisia, Libya, Morocco and Gaza are also under pressure from emboldened opposition movements. The question across North Africa particularly is whether political Islam is ebbing.
MORSI SUPPORTERS KILLED: Millions took to the streets on July 26 after army chief Abdel Fattah el Sisi called on Egyptians to give him a mandate to do what is “necessary” to deal with “terrorism.” At least 74 pro-Morsi protestors reportedly died in clashes between security forces and Muslim Brotherhood supporters the following day. Police reportedly used live ammunition and were accompanied by armed men in civilian clothing. “They are not shooting to wound, they are shooting to kill,” Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el Haddad told the press.
MORSI ACCUSED: On July 26, a court reportedly charged former President Mohammed Morsi with espionage and unspecified “aggressive acts in the country,” including links to attacks on police and their security force facilities. The Egyptian press reported that the court ordered Morsi’s detention for 15 days pending an investigation. “The accusations read as if they’re a retaliation from the old regime, signaling ‘We’re back in full force,” el Haddad told AFP. Morsi’s detention period was extended for 30 days on August 15.
CRACKDOWN ON SIT-INS: Riot police used bulldozers to clear two pro-Morsi camps in Cairo, sparking clashes that reportedly left at least 638 dead on August 14. Interim President Adly Mansour declared a month-long state of emergency and imposed a 7 P.M.-to 6 A.M. curfew on Cairo, Alexandria and 12 other provinces. Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei resigned in protest of the crackdown on Morsi’s supporters and warned that extremist groups would benefit from the killings. “It has become hard for me to keep bearing responsibility for decisions that I did not approve of and warned against their consequences,” ElBaradei's wrote in his resignation letter. “I cannot be responsible before God for a single drop of blood.”
‘DAY OF ANGER’ CLASHES: The Brotherhood called for a “march of anger” on August 16 to protest the military coup and crackdowns on sit-ins. “Despite the pain and sorrow over the loss of our martyrs, the latest coup makers' crime has increased our determination to end them,” read a Brotherhood statement. Hundreds of Morsi supporters gathered at a mosque in Cairo’s Ramses square after Friday prayers. They clashed with security forces and armed local residents in violent street battles, leaving at least 173 dead — including eight police officers. More than 1,300 were reportedly injured.
RAID ON MOSQUE: Hundreds of protestors barricaded themselves inside al Fath mosque near Cairo’s Ramses Square after the August 16 clashes. Security forces cleared people out of the mosque the following day after gunmen shot down at them from a minaret.
NEW CHARGES AGAINST MORSI: Egypt’s public prosecutor opened a new case against Morsi for allegedly participating in “violent acts.” On August 19, the court ordered that Morsi be detained for 15 days pending an investigation. The charges were related to clashes between Morsi supporters and opponents outside the presidential palace in December 2012.
BROTHERHOOD SPIRITUAL LEADER ARRESTED: Egypt state media announced on August 20 that Brotherhood spiritual guide Mohamed Badie had been arrested. He was accused of inciting violence. The trial of Badie and two of his deputies opened on August 25 but was adjourned until October 29 for security reasons. Defense lawyer Mohamed Gharib told journalists after the court hearing that “justice has been turned upside down.” The “leaders of the bloody military coup want to get rid of their political foes,” he argued.
BROTHERHOOD BANNED, ASSETS SEIZED: On September 23, an Egyptian court banned the Brotherhood and ordered the seizure of the movement’s assets. The ruling was upheld on November 5 despite a Brotherhood appeal. The court alleged that the movement used Islam “as a cover” while it “violated citizen’s rights” under Morsi’s presidency. On December 26, the Justice Ministry froze the assets of 132 Brotherhood leaders.
GOVERNMENT PROHIBITS PROTESTS: On November 24, the government issued a new law banning unauthorized public gatherings of more than ten people. Demonstrators would risk spending seven years in prison for using violence or one year for covering their faces or protesting outside of a place of worship. Participants would be fined up to $1,500 dollars. The Freedom and Justice Party condemned the new law. The Brotherhood continued to organize large anti-coup demonstrations across Egypt.
— Ikhwanweb (@Ikhwanweb) November 29, 2013
Secular groups like the April 6 Youth Movement and human rights groups also criticized the new law.
RELIGIOUS PARTIES BANNED: On November 30, Egypt’s Constituent Assembly finished amending the suspended 2012 constitution. The amendments enshrined the military’s prominent role in politics and prohibited the formation of political parties founded on “a religious basis.” The “principles of Sharia” remained “the main source of legislation.” But the Supreme Constitutional Court regained the ability to decide if legislation conforms to Islamic law. The 2012 constitution had transferred that power to al Azhar’s clerics.
The Salafi Nour Party, which backed the military coup, announced its support of the constitution despite the amendments. “It is below our expectations, but generally speaking it is acceptable for us to say yes to these amendments, rather than to say no,” Nour spokesman and co-founder Nader Bakkar told Al Jazeera. The draft constitution still “preserves the Islamic identity of Egypt,” Nour member Shaaban Abdul Aleem told Al Arabiya on December 7.
But the National Alliance for Supporting Legitimacy, made up of the Brotherhood and several small Salafi parties, rejected the amendment procedures as illegitimate. “Boycott the null and void referendum which will be carried out under a fascist military coup,” an alliance spokesman said on December 22. The referendum on the constitution is slated for January 14-15, 2014. The Islamist bloc alleged that the 2012 constitution was gutted, not merely amended. “What we have instead, is a whole new document with a different preamble and a different arrangement of articles,” said the spokesman.
BROTHERHOOD DECLARED TERRORIST ORGANIZATION: On December 25, Egypt’s military-backed government designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. The decree criminalized the activities and finances of Egypt’s largest Islamist movement. Egyptian legal experts expected the government to close hundreds of Brotherhood-associated charities and non-governmental organizations. Under Egypt’s penal code, members of terrorist organizations could face five years in prison.
A posting on the Brotherhood’s English-language Twitter account called the move a “worthless decision from an illegal gov’t without any evidence and will not change anything in reality.” Anti-coup “protests are in the streets despite a law restricting them — and killings and prison sentences. All this has not changed the will of the people,” Freedom and Justice Party member Ibrahim Elsayed told the Associated Press.
PROTESTS AGAINST ISLAMISTS: Following the assassination of opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi, thousands of Tunisians demonstrated against the Islamist-led government on July 26. Protesters from diverse secular parties shouted "Down with the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood," referring to Ennahda, the Islamist ruling party in Tunisia. The protests force the closure of banks and stores, while all flights from the capital were canceled.
The killing of Brahmi was aimed at “halting Tunisia’s democratic process and killing the only successful model in the region, especially after the violence in Egypt, Syria and Libya,” Ennahda party leader Rachid Ghannouhchi told Reuters. “Tunisia will not follow the Egyptian scenario. We will hold on.”
ISLAMIST OFFICE BURNED DOWN IN UPRISING’S BIRTHPLACE: Just hours after Brahmi’s death, anti-government protestors burned down the Ennahda party’s headquarters in Sidi Bouzid on July 25.
GOVERNMENT BLAMES SALAFIS FOR ASSASSINATION: Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou told journalists that the chief suspect was a Salafi extremist. “The first elements of the investigation show the implication of Boubaker Hakim… The suspects are radical extremists, and some of them belong to Ansar al Sharia,” he said on July 27.
MORE PROTESTS AGAINST ISLAMISTS: Tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Tunis on August 7 to demand the Islamist-led government’s resignation. The protest also marked the six-month anniversary of the assassination of prominent leftist politician Chokri Belaid. Demonstrators reportedly chanted, “The people want the regime to fall” and “The government will end today.”
Ennahda party leader Sheikh Rachid al Ghannouchi told French daily La Presse that the government would not give into the “excessive demands” of the opposition. “Unfortunately every time a tragedy hits us, we immediately call for the dissolution of the government and parliament,” said Ghannouchi.
Umbrella opposition group the National Salvation Front (NSF) launched a week-long campaign on August 24 to push the government to resign. About 10,000 protestors attended the opening rally, according to police estimates.
ISLAMISTS AGREE TO TECHNOCRAT GOVERNMENT: On August 26, senior Ennahda official Ameur Larayedh told a local radio station that “a government of independents could be formed” after Tunisians reach an agreement on “the constitution, the electoral law, the body charged with overseeing elections and the three dates of the presidential… and legislative elections.”
TAMAROD CALLS FOR EARLY ELECTIONS: By early September, Tunisia’s Tamarod (Rebel) movement collected some 200,000 signatures demanding the immediate dissolution of the National Constituent Assembly, preservation of an amended version of the 1959 constitution and early presidential elections. Ennahda spokesperson Zoubeyer Chhoudi had previously dismissed the possibility that the elected government could fall after an uprising like in Egypt. “We probably will not have the same scenario since we are very much in line with the democratic process, especially if we can set the date of the upcoming elections,” he told Tunisia Live in July. Tamarod “is a test for our elite and we will see how it goes.”
ENNAHDA AGREES TO STEP DOWN: On September 28, Ennahda became the first democratically elected Islamist party to voluntarily accept a plan to relinquish power. Some party members accused their leaders of giving in to the opposition. Ennahda is “being described as the party of concessions,” former Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalam said a news conference. “We are not ashamed of these concessions because they are needed by Tunisia and to secure our democratic experience so that Tunisia can reach a safe shore.”
In early October, Ennahda agreed on a power transfer with the National Salvation Front-led opposition. They agreed that a caretaker government would supervise new elections. The Tunisian General Labor Union mediated the talks. A national dialogue meant to end the political impasse began on October 25. “The train out of this crisis is on the tracks, and we are now on the way to finishing our transition to elections,” Ghannouchi told reporters.
On December 21, businessman Mehdi Jomaa was named caretaker prime minister after months of difficult negotiations between Ennahda and the secular opposition. Ennahda official Lotfi Zitoun warned that if Jomaa takes too long to form a cabinet, Tunisia “will end up back at square one.” Ennahda’s Ali Larayedh will likely retain the premiership until Jomaa forms a cabinet.
ENNAHDA OFFICES ATTACKED: On October 24, funerals were held for six policeman allegedly killed by jihadists the previous day. Funeral attendees shouted anti-Islamist slogans and even called Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi an “assassin,” according to AFP. Protestors who blamed Ennahda for the killings attacked party offices in two cities. In Beja, west of Tunis, hundreds of protestors reportedly attacked the Ennahda office using rocks and petrol bombs. In the northwestern city of Kef, demonstrators lit the local Ennahda office on fire.
ISLAMIST OFFICES BURNED: Following the assassination of prominent political activist Abdulsalam Elmessmary on July 26, hundreds of Benghazi residents protested in the streets. Elmessmary had openly criticized Islamists and militias. So many his supporters blamed the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing, the Justice and Construction Party (JCP), for the assassination. They reportedly set two Brotherhood offices on fire.
ATTEMPTED BOMBING OF ISLAMIST OFFICE : On December 12, a bomb went off outside the Islamist Justice and Construction Party’s office in Derna. A neighboring building and some vehicles were damaged but no one was injured in the early morning blast. Authorities did not name any potential culprits and no group claimed credit.
KEY PARTY QUITS ISLAMIST-LED GOVERNMENT: Istiqlal, a conservative secular party, pulled out the Islamist-led government on July 9. Party leader Hamid Chabat said that he wanted to see “the end of [Prime Minister Abdelilah] Benkirane (left), as was the case for his brother Morsi,” according to the Associated Press. Istiqlal was the second-largest party in parliament after the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD).
The PJD then entered talks to form a new governing coalition. King Mohammed VI approved the resignations of Istiqlal’s ministers, but urged them to manage their affairs until replacements could be found.
PJD INFLUENCE CURTAILED: On October 10, Morocco’s government announced a cabinet reshuffle that weakened Islamist power. Benkirane remained prime minister but the Justice and Construction Party lost the foreign affairs portfolio. Salaheddine Mezouar, a former finance minister and Islamist opponent, was named foreign minister. An independent was named finance minister. And the new economy and education ministers were technocrats instead of party members.
TAMAROD MOVEMENT CALLS FOR PROTESTS: The Tamarod (Rebel) movement in Gaza called for mass protests to be held on November 11, 2013 — the ninth anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s death— to overthrow Hamas. Four Tamarod members wearing black masks issued a six-minute video statement. One member called Hamas a “gang” and accused it of corruption and oppressing Gazans in the name of religion. On August 21, Hamas reportedly arrested four young men who allegedly produced the video. One of the movement’s founders told The Los Angeles Times that the group had collected signatures from some 32,000 supporters.
Hamas official Yahya Mousa told Lebanese paper el Nashra that Tamarod had centers in the West Bank and Gaza and that Egyptian security forces had trained its members. “There is a big difference in reality between Egypt and Gaza. Those traitors don't have any place among the Palestinian people who protect the political system and resistance,” Mousa said. “These groups want to sink the nation in blood to keep Israel as the only power and controller in the area.”
EGYPT CLOSES BORDER: On July 5, Egypt closed the Rafah border crossing with Gaza after Islamist militants attacked security forces in the Sinai. Tensions rose between Hamas and Egypt’s military-backed government. Cairo intermittently closed the border during the remainder of 2013, depending on the security situation in the Sinai and political unrest elsewhere. The government also destroyed hundreds of tunnels used to smuggle goods into Gaza, which reportedly caused severe fuel shortages and a rise in prices. “We have not intervened in internal Egyptian affairs, neither in Sinai nor anywhere else in Egypt,” Ismail Haniyeh said in an October 2013 speech.
-Tunisia protest Img_0450 by Amine Ghrabi on Flickr
-Abdelilah Benkirane by Davos World Economic Forum [CC-BY-SA-2.0] via Flickr and Wikimedia Commons