U.S. Strategy in Syria Has Failed
Washington Must Acknowledge That It Can’t Build a State
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 mismanaging the subsequent power struggle. Although the Brotherhood 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.”
In the months that followed, Brotherhood youths within Egypt started taking up arms. As Hudson Institute scholar Samuel Tadros notes in his study of the post-Rabaa Brotherhood, the youths created “protection units” to defend the organization’s ongoing but increasingly weak protests from the security forces. Before long, however, these protection units went on the offensive, and a number of militant offshoots emerged that targeted police stations, military personnel, electricity towers, roads, and other infrastructure. These actions were supported and encouraged by certain senior leaders, most notably Brotherhood executive bureau member Mohamed Kamal, who remained in hiding within Egypt and formed “special operations committees” that aimed to destabilize the regime.
The Brotherhood’s so-called old guard leaders, however, tried to rein in the “revolutionary” Kamal faction. They worried that the formation of “special operations committees” without their approval was further eroding their already tenuous command and control of the organization, and warned that Brotherhood violence would legitimize the state’s violence against the organization. But these efforts failed: the “revolutionary” wing claimed victory in the group’s early 2014 internal elections, and the rift between the two factions spilled out into the open in mid-2015 when prominent Brotherhood youths and multiple provincial offices publicly distanced themselves from the “old guard.”
It was around this time that Kamal, the Brotherhood leader supporting violent action, tasked a “Sharia Committee of the Muslim Brotherhood” with formulating a sharia-based defense of “revolutionary activity.” As George Washington University’s Mokhtar Awad notes in his detailed report on the organization’s turn toward violence, the Sharia Committee’s final product, titled The Jurisprudence of Popular Resistance to the Coup, ultimately endorsed a wide range of violent actions, including killing police officers, soldiers, and those deemed “collaborators” with the Egyptian government. The Brotherhood’s Sharia Committee further alleged that Christians are “besieging mosques, killing worshippers, [and] arresting free [Islamist] women,” and condoned violence against them.
Egyptian security forces killed Kamal in an October 2016 raid, and the “old guard” has since regained control over the organization’s official communications outlets, including its website, ikhwanonline.com. But the Brotherhood’s more aggressive, “revolutionary” trend has persisted through various offshoots and initiatives.
For example, the Istanbul-based Egyptian Revolutionary Council, which senior Muslim Brothers co-founded with other exiled oppositionists in 2014, recently published a series of web-based videos directing its followers to confront the country’s military during the next revolution, whenever that might come. In one installment, the Council instructs its supporters to identify all military units’ locations and to halt their advance by pouring oil on the roads. In another, it calls on its adherents to “encircle the military so they don’t resist the revolution,” “besiege the army’s food sources,” and neutralize the military’s airports at the outset of the next uprising, the purpose of which will be restoring Morsi to power.
“Revolutionary” Muslim Brothers have also likely joined various militant groups that emerged following Morsi’s ouster, such as Liwaa al-Thawra and Hasm, which have conducted deadly attacks on security personnel and installations since mid-2016. Although these groups’ relationship with the Brotherhood can only be established circumstantially (at least for the time being), their actions and arguments strongly resemble those of Kamal’s faction, and the social media pages that publicize their attacks often promote Brotherhood slogans and historical figures.
Meanwhile, the Brotherhood’s “revolutionary” wing has escalated its confrontation with the “old guard.” In a pamphlet series titled Vision 28, which was issued earlier this year, the “revolutionary” wing lambasted the Morsi-era leaders for their many failures, including their tendency to mix politics and preaching; their inability to build common ground with other political forces; their total unpreparedness for governing once in power; and their acceptance of the military’s role in managing the political transition that followed the 2011 uprising. To be sure, it’s a self-serving argument: the Brotherhood’s “revolutionary” wing is effectively criticizing the “old guard” for being insufficiently revolutionary. But the document concludes by calling for the establishment of new “means and devices” to confront the Egyptian government, implying a new Brotherhood organization or approach that is dedicated to regaining power in Cairo.
Indeed, “revolutionary” Brothers are prepared to move forward without the “old guard,” which they increasingly regard as dead weight. In a Facebook post earlier this month, “revolutionary” leader Magdy Shalash, an acolyte of Mohamed Kamal, reminded his colleagues that the Brotherhood’s primary purpose was to reestablish the caliphate and warned that this could not be achieved so long as the division persisted. He therefore called for new internal elections, bluntly noting that “the term of the previous leadership has certainly ended.”
Of course, this isn’t how the “old guard” leadership—which utterly rejects the “revolutionary” wing’s authority—sees things. For this reason, the split within the Brotherhood that widened after the Rabaa massacre will likely persist, with a vocal segment of Muslim Brothers continuing to advocate, and perhaps orchestrate, violent attacks within Egypt. All of this will ensure that the Brotherhood remains politically weak. An organization that is at war with both itself and its government has no way forward.