Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood Loses Grip as Anger Boils

People gather outside a government building after it was set ablaze in Giza's district of Cairo, August 15, 2013. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed
August 15, 2013

By Michael Georgy and Tom Perry

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and its allies suffered a heavy blow from the state security crackdown, their central coordination has been lost and the bloodshed means anger is now "beyond control," the group said on Thursday.

The comments by spokesman Gehad El-Haddad pointed to the depth of the crisis facing the movement that just six weeks ago controlled the presidency but is now struggling to keep a grip over its base with hundreds killed by the police in 24 hours.

Declining to give his location as he spoke to Reuters by Skype, Haddad said he did not know where all of the group's leaders were following the attack on two protest camps that had become hubs of opposition to the army-backed government.

He added that two of them had been shot when the police moved to break up the camps set up by supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, jailed since he was toppled by the military on July 3 following mass protests against his rule.

"After the blows and arrests and killings that we are facing emotions are too high to be guided by anyone," said Haddad.

The remarks signaled the risk of Morsi's Islamist sympathizers, severed from their leadership, turning to more violent methods as anger builds and leaders who have long espoused peaceful activism are rounded up.

The state is hardening its rhetoric by the day, a sign the Brotherhood may get no relief any time soon.

The government on Thursday said it would fight "terrorist acts" by "elements of the Brotherhood organization", invoking language used to describe militant groups such as al Qaeda.

Dismissing such statements as part of a government propaganda campaign, the Brotherhood says it remains committed to peaceful resistance against the military overthrow of Morsi.

However, there has been growing concern that Islamists angered by the failure of democracy would turn to militancy of the type Egypt has witnessed in its recent past.

"The Brotherhood does not have the discipline they used to enjoy, mainly because their rank and file and other Islamists are so riled up, with all the violence," said Yasser El-Shimy, Egypt analyst at the International Crisis Group.

"Whatever remains of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood finds it difficult to do anything."

On Thursday Brotherhood supporters marched in cities across Egypt, torching a government building in Cairo. Outside a mosque where hundreds of dead bodies were piled from the previous day, thousands chanted: "The army and police are a dirty hand!"


The Brotherhood has rallied smaller Islamist parties into an alliance that includes more hardline groups including Gamaa Islamiya, which once led a violent campaign against the state.

But that alliance, always loose, now has little control.

"There's no central plan or coordination," Haddad said, asked when and where the alliance would hold its next protest.

Hundreds of Morsi supporters were killed when the police used bulldozers, teargas and bullets to clear the sit-ins.

Violence spread quickly. The Health Ministry has put the death toll at 525 people, with more than 3,500 injured in fighting in Cairo, Alexandria and numerous towns and cities around the mostly Muslim nation of 84 million.

The Brotherhood puts the death toll much higher. The operation at Rabaa al-Adawiya and Nahda camps marked the third, and by far the worst, mass killing of Morsi supporters by security forces since he was deposed.

While the assault was taking place against the Brotherhood's camps, attackers struck government outposts and torched churches across the country, manifesting the fears of Egypt's Christian minority of an Islamist backlash. The Brotherhood denies responsibility for such violence but it shows the potential for further unrest as Islamists are marginalized.

"It's beyond control now. There was always that worry. With every massacre that increases," Haddad said, describing the anger among opponents of the military.

"The real danger comes when groups of people, angry by the loss of loved ones, start mobilizing on the ground."

Haddad, who said his movement was restricted because of police, army and "thug" checkpoints, could not account for the whereabouts of Brotherhood leaders. Some were arrested before Wednesday's bloodshed. Others went missing after the raids.

"We can't confirm the whereabouts of all of them yet. Two of the top leaders have been shot but are not dead as far as I know. About six of them have lost their sons and daughters," he said. "It's a bad blow, a very strong blow."

Despite the pressure from the state, the Brotherhood shows no sign of caving in. Haddad reiterated its main demand: "a restoration of constitutional legitimacy" - meaning a solution based on the constitution signed into law by Morsi last year, implying his removal by the military be reversed.

"The door to any successful solution to this deadlock is only through dialogue, but dialogue on constitutional legitimacy grounds, not on military coup grounds," he said.

The Brotherhood emerged from decades in the shadows to win every election since the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011. But fears that Morsi was trying to entrench Brotherhood power in the state and his failure to improve the economy fuelled mass protests after only one year in power, and the army stepped in.

Haddad insists the issue has grown way beyond Morsi, who is being detained in an unknown location.

"It's not about Morsi anymore. Are we going to accept a new military tyranny in Egypt or not?" he said.

Asked why security forces were putting so much pressure on the Brotherhood, he said: "I think they are trying to make an example of the movement, being the strongest and biggest political group in the country, they are trying to make an example out of it so that everyone else will stay quiet."

Some of the rank and file Brotherhood members seem determined to carry on with the group's cause, despite the enormous challenges ahead.

At a mosque in northeast Cairo, where about 250 victims of the crackdown were wrapped in white sheets before burial, Hani el-Moghazy said he would resist the "cruel military" until democracy was restored. But the reality is, there are few Brotherhood leaders around to lead that fight.

Farid Ismail, a senior Brotherhood politician, declined to give a face-to-face interview when Reuters reached him by telephone: "I am on the move. I was in Rabaa 47 days," he said, referring to the tented camp that has now been swept away.