There was uproar in Egypt last month when a small number of students at al-Azhar University, supporters of the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, wore black uniforms and balaclavas, and performed martial arts exercises, during a protest against the university authorities. The government immediately condemned what they said was evidence that the Ikhwan has a secret military wing. The Ikhwan leadership were also shocked, condemning the move as irresponsible and inappropriate for Ikhwan members. The students responsible were obliged to apologise for their misjudgement, but some within the Ikhwan were critical of the leadership for reacting as they did, saying that they should have defended the students rather than joining in the condemnation of them.
The incident, relatively minor though it may be the larger scale of things, is telling in a number of ways. First, from the government’s point of view, it was an ideal opportunity to legitimise its current crackdown on the Ikhwan, which it has justified by voicing suspicions of the Ikhwan’s commitment to peaceful politics and suggestions that they are linked to militant groups. This line of attack on the Ikhwan was itself encouraged by the widespread support for Hizbullah and Hamas in Egypt. The Ikhwan’s rallies in support of both movements are among the few public political rallies that the government tolerates. However, the Mubarak regime is clearly becoming nervous about the levels of support for such jihad movements, and the possible implications in Egypt, hence their current crackdown on the Ikhwan.
The speed with which the Ikhwan leadership responded to the students’ impetuosity shows also their sensitivitiy on the issue. Since the Egyptian parliamentary elections in November 2005, when Ikhwan candidates (running as independents) confirmed the party as Egypt’s most popular political force, the regime has been gradually increasing the restrictions on it by arresting members and restricting the activities of senior figures. Any move that encourages or justifies the government’s repression is clearly dangerous for the party. However, this is only part of the reason for the Ikhwan leadership’s displeasure. What they fear most of all is a return to the cycle of repression that characterised relations between the state and the Islamic movement in the 1980s and 1990s.
This was a period when the Ikhwan was effectively replaced as Egypt’s Islamic movement by the Gama’a al-Islamiyya group. This started out as a cultural and political group, but was pushed into armed insurrection by Anwar Sadat’s crackdown on opposition groups in 1981 and Mubarak’s “autumn of fury” that followed Sadat’s assasination in October 1981. As the repression was eased in the mid-1980s, the Gama’a re-emerged as a popular community-oriented movement, to the extent that it replaced the state as the main provider of services to Egypt’s people by the late 1980s. This provoked another ruthless crackdown, that drove the Gama’a back to armed struggle in 1991. In the early 1990s, the situation in Egypt was little better than the civil war in Algeria. Islamic activists ended up being responsible for appalling atrocities, while achieving little more than alienating many Egyptians. Muslims also grew increasingly aware of the embittering and dehumanising effect that the military struggle was having on some of their best young people, pushing them to acts that could only be condemned by right-thinking people and endanger the akhirah of those responsible for them. The Egyptian experience, like that in Algeria, contributed to an understanding that armed jihad is not an effective method of striving for the removal of un-Islamic regimes and their replacement by Islamic governance in Muslim countries.
The sort of popularity that the Ikhwan has achieved in the last few years is reminiscent in many ways of the popularity that the Gama’a had in the late 1980s; the difference is that they have a political role within the system. What Ikhwan leaders fear is that the Mubarak regime’s increasing political pressure on it will result in a similar cycle of repression and violence. The Mubarak regime’s accusation that the Ikhwan is establishing militant units could well be the precursor of accusations that the Ikhwan -- or some elements of it -- are associated with “terrorist” groups elsewhere. However, it could also be part of a more subtle strategy to weaken Hamas’s oppositional effectiveness.
The problem for the Ikhwan is that its approach of reforming the system from within shows little sign of weakening the regime. This is why some Egyptian Muslims, within and outside the Ikhwan, are looking for alternative approaches, harder-line than the Ikhwan, but not necessarily militant. The question is how the Ikhwan will react if the regime cracks down harder on such activism. The regime clearly hopes that by raising accusations of militancy against the Ikhwan, it will force the Ikhwan to defend the system, as it now has interests and a position to protect. If this happens, the Ikhwan could end up as a conservative force defending the status quo against more radical and effective Islamic movements.