CAIRO — With the unprecedented arrests of the top and mid-levels of the Muslim Brotherhood, the secretive organization through which Mohammed Morsi ascended to the presidency before he was ousted this summer, the group’s younger members are forming splinter groups that they promise will revive the embattled organization.
With scores of such spinoff groups emerging, it portends Egypt confronting multiple smaller Islamist groups instead of what was once the most powerful organization here. The youths said the new groups would allow them to rebrand the Muslim Brotherhood from its more militant approach.
Many of those forming the new groups were in Rabaa on Aug. 14 as part of a sit-in protesting Morsi’s ouster, when at least 634 people – estimates run as high as 1,100 – were killed in clashes with security forces, marking one of the deadliest days in Egypt’s history. Many youths had met during the six-week sit-in that led up to the attack and began communicating after the government broke them up. The youths said that salvaging the Islamist message was as much about avenging the deaths of friends as it was about saving Egypt from a return to military dictatorship.
Using social websites such as Facebook, the Brotherhood’s younger members are creating groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood without Violence and Youth Against the Coup to galvanize protests and rebrand the group in the face of its arrested leadership.
They said they weren’t the Brotherhood that had defined the Morsi presidency. Whereas Morsi was divisive and sought to carry out the group’s vision of an Islamic Egypt while working with the military, the youth said they were inclusive and that they rejected working with the armed forces.
Among them is Gihad Khalid, 19, whose husband, an Al Jazeera journalist, was among the thousands rounded up by the security forces.
“The stupidity of the regime is that it doesn’t recognize that they are actually serving the Brotherhood, not hurting it,” Khalid wrote earlier this week on her Facebook page. Now the youth “will not only lead this period, but they also might correct the mistakes that took place and correct the past.”
At their weekly protests Friday, members said they were filling the gap of the missing leadership to organize their demonstrations. They said they wanted to peacefully protest the military-appointed civilian government that was named after Morsi was forced out.
“I am here to oppose the military coup and the return of the deep state. Those are peaceful protests, as you can see. The media want to show that we are coming out in small numbers and that only Brotherhood members are the ones protesting. You can’t deny that today’s protests are big,” Waleed Refaat, 38, a sales manager, said at Friday’s protests. “A lot of youth groups have emerged during Rabaa’s sit-in and after it was cleared. They communicate through social media.”
Since the military ousted Morsi on July 3, Egypt’s armed forces have rounded up every top member of the Muslim Brotherhood and hundreds of midlevel leaders in the provinces, dismantling the group’s hierarchical structure. It’s the biggest shake-up the organization has faced in its 85-year history, as the military and media continually refer to those who side with the Brotherhood as terrorists.
On Tuesday, a military court convicted 11 of the Brotherhood’s supporters of wounding seven soldiers with birdshot and throwing gasoline bombs at military buildings Aug. 14 in the city of Suez. It was swift justice for a country in which court cases notoriously lag. Those convicted were among thousands of Brotherhood members and supporters who’d been rounded up since the Aug. 14 breakup of their sit-ins.
Morsi himself, along with 14 mostly Brotherhood leaders, was referred to the criminal court Monday on charges that he’d incited violence during December demonstrations in front of the presidential palace that killed at least 10 protesters.
Throughout its history, the Brotherhood has been wracked by divisions among its often older and more militant members and its younger, more reformist counterparts, often spurred by government crackdowns or efforts to include them in the political process.
During the 1970s, for example, internal divisions were created when then-President Anwar Sadat tried including Brotherhood members in the political process, as some Brotherhood members thought the secular political process was un-Islamic. A decade later under former President Hosni Mubarak, when key members were rounded up, splits emerged within the group between those who wanted to change its mission and those who wanted to stick to the call for creating an Islamist region that adheres to Shariah, or Islamist law.
At times, such splits have led to key members resigning. Some members only became more militant after the government locked them up among other militants. The most notable example was Sayyid Qutb, who went from being a liberal to a key Islamist thinker after serving in prison. After his 1964 release, Qutb wrote a series of books that have been a keystone of Brotherhood thought, calling for a war against the secular state.
In the last two months, after the arrest of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie, 69, the group named Mahmoud Ezzat, 70, a conservative member of the group, as its temporary leader. Ezzat’s naming drew ire from some members, who feared the Brotherhood wouldn’t evolve enough to win back the support of a public that’s sided with the military crackdown.
Because of that, the new youth groups face an uphill battle, both from the public and a government determined to eliminate the Brotherhood. With no leadership skills themselves, it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to salvage the floundering Brotherhood brand or will simply become the next group of Islamists arrested and charged by the Egyptian military, the group’s historical foe.
But there are also quiet signs that despite the public anger at the Brotherhood – largely because of Morsi’s ineffectual year as president – the group retains support. As Refaat and Khalid and thousands of others protested Friday throughout the country, residents in apartments could be seen waving at them, apparently too frightened in the current political climate to join them.
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report from Cairo.