In a few days, Egyptians will be celebrating the eleventh anniversary of the popular revolution that erupted on January 25th, 2011, and brought down the thirty-year-old dictatorships of the Mubarak regime. However, the glorious momentum of the success of the young liberal activists in breaking the barriers of fear and paving the road of the future for pursuing the dream of democracy was quickly followed by the nightmare of seeing political Islamists exploiting the power vacuum, the then newborn democracy, and even religion to reach the top of power. How the Muslim Brotherhood hijacked the Egyptian revolution is one of the most important stories that is rarely told in Western media.
“If it is not me, it is the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Mubarak in almost every media appearance or official meeting he made. Before the 2011 revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood used to assure the young liberal activists that the group does not seek political power, claiming that the group’s only goal is preaching (Da’wa); i.e., to peacefully educate the general public about their version of Islamic Sharia. Yet, time and experience have proven that they were lying. Although they had never encouraged the revolution against Mubarak, they worked strategically to take advantage of the revolution’s success in a way that allowed them to eventually take over the presidency of the state and the ultimate majority of the parliament, by mid-2012.
The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of the successful integration of their young members into the protests to deceive the international community into believing that Egypt was going through an “Islamic revolution,” similar to Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1978. However, this myth was quickly busted by a poll, which the Washington Institute for Near East Studies conducted in early February 2011, on the nature and motives of the Egyptians protesting against Mubarak. The poll was taken by phone calls amid the upheaval. The final results indicated that the 2011 uprising was not an Islamic revolution.
The survey showed that the Muslim Brotherhood was approved by just fifteen percent of surveyed Egyptians and its leaders got barely one percent of the vote in a presidential straw poll. Asked to pick national priorities, only twelve percent of surveyed Egyptians chose to apply Islamic Sharia over Egypt's regional leadership, democracy, or economic development. When asked to explain the uprising’s motives, the surveyed sample selected economic conditions, corruption, and unemployment (around thirty percent each), which far outpaced the concern that "the regime is not Islamic enough" (only seven percent).
Yet, unfortunately, this did not stop policy-makers in Washington, and other important European capitals, from supporting the Muslim Brotherhood as an alternative to Mubarak. That is perhaps because, at that time, Egypt did not have any well-organized political party that was capable of leading the state after Mubarak’s fall. Mubarak's regime had, purposefully, weakened the political structure of the opposition by cracking down on secular political parties that could act as threats to his rule. Meanwhile, he gave space to the Muslim Brotherhood to influence grass-roots citizens, especially in rural areas to avoid criticism from the West.
Following the removal of Mubarak, in February 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood employed several manipulative tactics against three key parties, in their quest to the mountaintop of political power in Egypt. They are: (1) the liberal activists, who initiated the revolution using nonviolent action and strategies; (2) the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which took over Egypt’s political leadership after the fall of Mubarak; and (3) Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, Ahmed Al-Tayeb, whom they counted as a serious threat to their Islamic Caliphate agenda.
Tactic 1: Neutralizing Liberal Activists
The Muslim Brotherhood did not participate in the nonviolent protests that led to the 2011 revolution. They neither planned nor initiated any of the rallies that called for Mubarak’s removal, during the first week of the revolution. Instead, the leaders of the group spoke publicly against the liberal activists’ calls for protesting on the police anniversary, on January 25th. However, after one week of successful continuous protests, the Muslim Brotherhood leaders decided to send their young members to the streets to join other revolutionists, without declaring their collective identity as members of the Muslim Brotherhood. They did not use any specific Muslim Brotherhood logos or Islamic slogans, but they moved together in blocs. Meanwhile, the leaders of the group started to make media statements praising the revolution and echoing activists' call for ousting Mubarak.
In the beginning, the members of the Muslim Brotherhood were not welcomed by liberal revolutionists, who resented their decline to participate in the January 25th protests from the beginning. However, this resentment vanished when the highly organized youth of the Muslim Brotherhood managed to defend the scattered nonviolent protesters against one of Mubarak’s attempts to disperse the protests in Tahrir Square.
On the eighth day of protesting, on February 2nd, members of Mubarak’s dissolved National Democratic Party (NDP) paid owners of tourist camels and horses around the Pyramids area in Giza, to storm into Tahrir Square riding their camels and horses and walk over the bodies of the sit-in protesters. As helpless as nonviolent liberal activists were, the camel's attack was supposed to succeed in scaring and scattering the activists’ gatherings. However, the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood youth, who recently joined the protests, altered the whole scenario in favor of the revolutionists.
When the camel riders stormed into Tahrir Square, the participating youth of the Muslim Brotherhood, used the martial combat skills they acquired through the group’s secret militia training, to counter the attack. In a matter of seconds, they organized themselves into a “U” shape around the helpless and shocked protesters to protect them. Meanwhile, the front liners pulled the attackers off of their camels and horses and combated them. This specific scene ignited a strong bond of sympathy and trust between the young liberal protesters and the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood.
As their popularity grew among protesters, the Muslim Brotherhood leaders started presenting themselves to foreign media as spokespersons of the revolution. They also stepped up to negotiate, on behalf of the protesters, with Mubarak’s regime and intelligence. The politically inexperienced and naively idealist young liberal activists were too occupied by their anger against the Mubarak regime to plan for the next steps after the fall of the dictator. Their lack of organization and clear long-term vision was a point of weakness, which the highly organized and politically skilled Muslim Brotherhood cleverly manipulated to hijack the fruits of the revolution that they made.
Tactic 2: Discrediting The Military as a Political Leader
After neutralizing the liberal democratic youth, the Muslim Brotherhood’s next challenge was the highly popular military. The Egyptian military was not only popular among the Egyptian people, but also for Egypt’s most powerful ally, the United States. The strong ties between the Egyptian and American military helped shape a lot of vital decisions in Egypt’s domestic policies, regional geopolitics, and diplomatic affairs, since the reign of President Sadat.
After the fall of Mubarak, The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) was assigned as the political transitional ruler of the country. The people, including young liberal revolutionists, did not oppose handing power, temporarily, to SCAF until a new constitution and presidential elections were convened. In general, the military is highly respected and trusted by the public citizens. In addition, the military played a very important role in making the revolution succeed by declining to use violence against the protesters. Yet, the Muslim Brotherhood felt threatened by this increasing popularity of the military. Therefore, their next challenge was to destroy the military’s credibility in the eyes of the Egyptian public and Egypt’s Western allies.
Accordingly, the Muslim Brotherhood built on the momentum of the successful revolution to keep nonviolent protests in the streets going for longer. This way, they managed to keep SCAF busy with trying to control chaos at home, while enhancing the mostly false impression inherited by Egypt’s Western allies, especially the United States of America, that the Egyptian people collectively rejected the military’s political rule. This was necessary so the Muslim Brotherhood could introduce their group to the world as the best, and only, potential alternative to Mubarak’s regime.
In parallel, the ongoing protests were an excellent opportunity for the Muslim Brotherhood leaders to engage with public citizens and promote their Islamic Sharia agenda to them, as an alternative to Mubarak’s secular and corrupt government. While the Muslim Brotherhood's efforts to discredit the military gained momentum at home and abroad, high-profile members of the Muslim Brotherhood, such as the group’s spiritual leader Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, were invited to speak to the public at Tahrir Square about the political applications of Islamic Sharia.
Every Friday, in Tahrir Square, the Muslim Brotherhood organized and led a massive protest. On the first two Friday protests, they were celebrating the success of the revolution alongside liberal activists and ordinary non-politicized citizens. Later on, the Muslim Brotherhood started to invite other social categories into the protests to call for their economic rights, including the members of disadvantaged trade unions.
Gradually, after about two months of regular Friday protests, the Muslim Brotherhood members and leaders started to openly attack the military leadership and criticize almost all SCAF decisions and moves. On one of those protests against the military, the Muslim Brotherhood brought to square some young military officers, in military uniform, who announced their rebellion against SCAF, which is loaded with much older military commanders. The young officers claimed that the army was a corrupt institution and that the people should rebel against it.
Since then, the slogan “down with military rule” became stable in all the Friday protests that happened afterward. This was the first indication of the Muslim Brotherhood’s success in damaging the military’s popularity and reputation among local citizens and Western allies. Soon after, the Muslim Brotherhood officially revealed their plans to run for presidency and parliament.
Tactic 3: Overthrowing Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam
After neutralizing revolutionists, especially the super idealist young liberal activists, and discrediting the military domestically and internationally, the next challenge for the Muslim Brotherhood, in their quest for power, was abolishing Ahmed Al-Tayeb from his position as the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar.
Al-Tayeb has always been a thorn in the back of the Muslim Brotherhood since he was a professor at Al-Azhar University. Muslim Brotherhood leaders knew that they could not promote their extremist agenda of governing through Islamic Sharia, while he continued commanding Al-Azhar. They could not think of dismantling Al-Azhar, as an institution because this should have ignited anger against the group by its religious grassroots supporters. At the same time, they did not want Western allies to see the Muslim Brotherhood as an Islamic group fighting moderate Islam, represented in Al-Tayeb as the Grand Imam, and in Al-Azhar as a worldly renowned centrist Muslim institution.
Therefore, the Muslim Brotherhood resorted to organizing massive protests, once again, to pressure to overthrow Al-Tayeb from the leadership of Al-Azhar. The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated students at Al-Azhar University, instructed by Muslim Brotherhood leaders, organized a series of complaint-based protests inside the university’s campus, about internal administrative policies related to students’ fees, employees’ rights, teachers’ salaries, etc. As the protests inside the campus succeeded in gaining momentum and a higher number of supporters, the Muslim Brotherhood organized much louder and wider protests outside the office of Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb at the headquarters of the Sheikhdom of Al-Azhar. The biggest of those protests took place on the 26th of April, 2011. More than fifteen thousand scholars, employees, teachers, and students from Al-Azhar gathered outside the office of Al-Tayeb calling for Al-Azhar’s legal independence from the state and for electing a new Grand Imam.
In a stubborn response that shocked and confused the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Tayeb refused to resign and decided to fight back. He made a public statement indicating that his resignation would put Al-Azhar in the hands of the “wrong people,” about religiously extremist professors affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist movement. He asserted that “as a servant of Islam and a servant of Al-Azhar,” he would stand strong in the face of the protests while continuing to exert his best efforts to improve Al-Azhar’s governance system and educational curricula. The initiative was widely welcomed by Al-Azhar scholars, as well as political observers, in Egypt and abroad.
Immediately after the launch of the initiative to reform Al-Azhar from within, Al-Tayeb decided to actively participate in managing the political chaos that took place in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution. He was, perhaps, motivated by the fact that this chaos was enabling extremists from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists and, thus, became a threat to Al-Azhar and moderate Islam.
Climbing Power to a Resounding Failure
As the Muslim Brotherhood lost hope in overthrowing Ahmed Al-Tayeb, they focused all their resources on manipulating the religious piety of the grassroots citizens to win the parliament elections. By the end of 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood, and their allies from the radical Salafist movement, won the majority of parliament seats and thus seized control over Egypt’s legislative power.
On the 24th of June 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was announced as the new president of Egypt. He won elections with a very narrow margin (51.7%) against Mubarak’s prime minister and former military aviator general, Ahmed Shafik. Sadly, Morsi’s victory was widely celebrated by Western media, academia, and political observers, as a step towards containing Islamic extremism within an organized political system. However, the general reaction in Egypt was a heightened sense of shock and defeat, especially among the young liberal activists, who initiated the revolution. The majority of the Egyptians, who participated in the revolution against Mubarak’s autocracy, had never wanted or expected to see Egypt turning into an Islamist theocracy governed by the Muslim Brotherhood in the presidency and the Salafists in parliament.
Despite that, the rise of political Islamists to the top of political and legislative powers, in 2012, was not challenged by anyone. The military and the liberal activists had no choice but to swallow their defeat and accept the new statuesque. If the military challenged the ascendance of Islamists to presidential and legislative powers, Egypt would have been exposed to a huge national security threat. Legitimately, the military’s worst fear, during the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, was to see Egypt sliding into the same tragic Arab Spring scenario as Syria, Libya, or Yemen. Likewise, the young liberal activists’ worst fear was to see Egypt returning to being a dictatorship under one of Mubarak’s political associates, in case they opposed or challenged the results of the elections.
Several non-governmental organizations, including a leading human rights organization that I was working for at that time, were monitoring the electoral process and collecting evidence on forgery and fraud that took place in favor of Morsi. In addition, the victory of Islamists in presidential and parliamentary elections, in 2012, was a result of disgraceful manipulation of people’s religious piety and starvation for democratic change. The slogan the Salafists used in parliamentary elections, for example, was: “We are your way to Heaven.” They deceived the religious piteous grassroots citizens into believing that voting to Salafists or the Muslim Brotherhood is a vote to God.
However, within only a few months of Islamists’ disappointing performance in parliament and presidency, the grassroots Egyptians realized the huge mistake they committed and became determined to fix it. Within only one year, Egyptians lost their patience over the Muslim Brotherhood’s discriminative beliefs and actions against women and Coptic Christians, in addition to Morsi’s resounding failure in running state affairs or improving the economy. By June 2013, on the first anniversary of Morsi’s election as president, the Egyptian people, aided by the military, overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood out of the power that they sneaked into, at a critical moment of state weakness.
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