Radical Islamists see Egypt as proof that violence is only way to power

McClatchy Foreign StaffJuly 5, 2013 

— Whatever signal the Egyptian military wished to send with its reboot of the 2011 revolution, which led to the nation’s first democratically elected president, the decision to remove Mohammed Morsi from power and the subsequent arrest of many of his party officials is resounding throughout the world of political Islam.

The verdict? The proponents of Salafi jihadism and other ideological underpinnings commonly referred to as al Qaida-style have taken pleasure in the failure of their more moderate co-religionists from the Muslim Brotherhood to hold on to power.

The lesson these Islamist groups appear to be drawing from events in Egypt is that democratic engagement with opponents is pointless. And that doesn’t bode well for countries with strong Islamist movements as they push, and often fight, to end autocratic rule by elites in favor of more representative governance.

Sheikh Abu Abdullah Ahmad al Jijali, a noted ideologue in North Africa’s al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, issued a reminder to his followers on the pitfalls of mankind ruling itself on several prominent jihadi Internet forums in the wake of Morsi’s fall.

“The expected happened, and the military turned on the choice of the Muslim Egyptian people, with international collusion,” he said, singling out the United States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates as the nations that wanted Morsi to fall.

He went on to compare what happened in Cairo to what had taken place earlier in Algeria, where an Islamist victory at the polls was overturned by the country’s military, ushering in years of brutal civil war that killed thousands. “The Egyptian military committed the stupidity of turning upon a popular revolution, with a revealed cover, and a symphony that was played in the streets of the Algerian capital 22 years ago,” he wrote.

The comparison will resonate among like-minded Islamists as they note that the Islamist group Hamas also came to power in parliamentary elections in the Gaza Strip in 2006 only to see the region and the world unify to marginalize it.

Those elections had been pushed by the United States, and they were universally declared fair. But when Hamas, a virtual political and military offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that the United States has labeled a terrorist organization, defeated its Fatah Party rivals in a rout, the United States and Israel imposed an economic blockade.

Jijali prescribed patient but violent action to pull the community of Muslims from the Egyptian military’s grasp.

“The youth of Egypt should learn that the price of applying principles on the ground is a mountain of body parts and seas of blood, because evil must be killed and not shown mercy,” he wrote.

Will McCants, an expert on international Sunni Muslim groups and their ideology who teaches at Johns Hopkins University, put it in less bloodthirsty but still dire terms.

"Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, al Qaida and other jihadi groups have argued that the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis are fools to engage in electoral politics because the West and its local proxies in the Middle East will never allow them to govern,” he said. “The events of the past few days in Egypt have made that argument far more persuasive."

Morsi’s sudden fall may have ramifications in Jordan, where Islamists are being pressed by the country’s ruler, King Abdullah, to engage in democratic reforms. Sheikh Hamzeh Mansour, the leader of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood, voiced outrage at what had taken place.

“What happened in Egypt was clearly a military coup with all the meaning of the word,” he told McClatchy from his home in Jordan. Asked whether this might end the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood’s willingness to engage with the king on democratic reforms, Mansour was noncommittal but hardly optimistic.

“The matter requires revision and thought, and it is too early to be given an answer,” he said.

Thomas Hegghammer, a researcher on radical Islam at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, said these deliberations might well lead to somewhat moderate elements taking a violent stand, particularly if the Egyptian military crackdown led to oppression and violence, as it appears from early stages that it might.

“I think a lot of radicals have been sitting on their hands these past two years and wouldn’t mind getting their equipment out,” he said. “The threat can be contained, but at the cost of human rights. I see a distinct risk that the new regime will be drawn into a downward spiral toward Mubarak-style authoritarianism as it tries to manage the security threat.”

Syrian jihadists responded with some smugness, with one follower of the al Qaida-linked Nusra Front pointing out in a forum that “We have never seen a jihadi group finished in 48” hours. Addressing the Muslim Brotherhood, the unidentified posters said it was “your time to rethink. The solution is Islam, not democracy.”

Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero

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