Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters A torn poster of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is pictured as riot police clear the area of his supporters at Rabaa Adawiya square, where the protesters had been camping, in Cairo, August 14, 2013.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Fatal Mistake

The Miscalculation That Tore the Group in Two

On August 14, 2013, in what came to be known as the Rabaa massacre, Egyptian security forces stormed Muslim Brotherhood-led sit-ins at public squares in Cairo and Giza, killing hundreds of people protesting the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood’s leader and Egypt’s first elected president. The death toll, which Human Rights Watch later placed at over 800 civilians, shocked the international community, but the bloodshed didn’t surprise the Brotherhood. 

Indeed, from the moment of Morsi’s July 3 overthrow, the Brotherhood’s leaders understood that they were in a kill-or-be-killed struggle with the new military-backed government. Only five days after the coup, security forces opened fire at a rally for Morsi supporters, killing at least 51 and injuring hundreds more. But the Brotherhood’s leaders believed that their notoriously hierarchical organization, whose motto includes the phrase “death for the sake of Allah is the highest of our aspirations,” possessed the manpower to outlast any assault. “If they want to disperse the [Cairo] sit-in, they’ll have to kill 100,000 protesters,” Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el-Haddad told journalist Maged Atef two weeks before the massacre. “And they can’t do it [because] we’re willing to offer one hundred thousand martyrs.” 

Of the many strategic misjudgments that the Brotherhood made during Egypt’s short-lived “Arab Spring,” the Brotherhood’s belief that it could out-mobilize the regime’s repression, was its costliest. The Rabaa massacre and the arrests of Brotherhood leaders that followed decapitated the group nationally and also within Egypt’s provinces, rendering it ineffective on the ground. Within months, an organization that had won a series of elections and referenda during the previous two-and-a-half years was barely visible throughout much of the country. Four years later, the Brotherhood is a deeply divided organization, and its leaders’ pre-massacre decision-making is at the center of that rift.

The split within the Brotherhood emerged soon after the massacre. Younger cadres lashed out at senior leaders for misanalyzing the political situation leading up to Morsi’s overthrow and mobilized violence against its opponents multiple times during Morsi’s presidency, its leaders called for nonviolence following Morsi’s overthrow, with Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie infamously proclaiming, “Our peacefulness is stronger than bullets.” From the younger Brothers’ perspective, this was a dangerously naïve strategy, leaving them and their comrades defenseless during the assault that followed. “Our dear brothers were saying, ‘we are peaceful,’” Amr Farrag, a prominent Brotherhood youth based in Istanbul, later lamented in a Facebook post. “‘Our peacefulness is stronger than bullets.’ Fine, so we got smacked on our necks.” Another prominent Brotherhood youth, Ahmed El Moghir, later revealed that the Cairo demonstration site was “sufficiently armed to repel the Interior Ministry and possibly the army as well,” but that most of these arms were removed only days before the massacre due to senior Brotherhood leaders’ “betrayal.”

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