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State repression of Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia

State repression of Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia persists writes Louisa Loveluck with Ian Patel

Just four months after their leader, Mohamed Morsi, was removed from office, many of Egypt’s Islamists are facing systematic state repression that aims to uproot them from social and political spheres nationwide. The Muslim Brotherhood and a number of other Islamist groups have long been some of the most important civil society actors in the country, and the crackdown against them has implications that stretch beyond Egypt’s borders.

The crackdown has taken place at unprecedented speed. Until early July, the Brotherhood and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, were one of the most powerful political forces in the country. Today, their ranks have been decimated.

Within hours of a July 3rd military takeover against Brotherhood-affiliated President Morsi, arrest warrants were issued for the majority of the Brotherhood’s leadership and four of Islamist-affiliated television channels were closed. With all conduits for formal political engagement seemingly cut-off, tens of thousands of the president’s supporters answered a call, largely the work of the Brotherhood, to join a sit-in in east Cairo. But this would end in tragedy.

Between July and August, their resolve was hardened by three state-led massacres, all of which began when security forces attempted to clear the area. While the collective death toll remains unknown, it is believed to stand at over one thousand. The forced dispersal of the Rabaa el Adaweya encampment on August 14 has been described by Human Rights Watch as “the most serious incident of mass unlawful killings in modern Egyptian history”.

Collective memory of bloodshed at Rabaa now drives the movement, exacerbating a sense of anger at the state and pushing the prospects for political and social reconciliation further out of reach. In place of Morsi’s photograph, a yellow and black poster is now ubiquitous among protesters. Carrying the image of a hand showing four fingers – the name of the encampment can also be translated as ‘four’ – the poster reinforces the message of the marchers.

Where the cause was once limited to reclaiming the democratic process that many Islamists bought into in 2012, it has now turned into a broader fight against injustice. Some see the fight as existential: “We have to keep coming out every week,” one Brotherhood member told me as he joined protest marches on October 6, “otherwise we’re finished. I lost my father when [Islamists] were persecuted under Mubarak, then I lost my son at Rabaa. If we don’t keep fighting, the state will call me a terrorist and kill my family with the media clapping from the sidelines.”

Islamist protesters find themselves isolated in this perceived fight for justice. For myriad reasons many within Egypt have grown hostile to Morsi, his supporters and the broader Islamist community. These sentiments, fuelled by a state and private media who depict Islamists as terrorists, have encouraged widespread support for the crackdown, problematising the Islamist narrative of injustice in the eyes of the majority of the population.

Not all Islamist groups have been targeted by the government’s crackdown. The hardline salafist Nour Party, for example, has notably remained within the political fold. However, as polarisation has deepened across the nation, Islamists of all shades have complained of discrimination at the level of the street.

In order to understand the crackdown’s success, it is important its roots out in full. Morsi’s downfall was in large part caused by governance failures and popular mistrust, phenomena which, as will be explained later, have also been seen in Tunisia.

Originally elected with 51.7% of the freest national vote in Egyptian history, Morsi’s support ebbed as he failed to meet high expectations raised by the country’s 2011 uprising, or even to achieve more moderate successes in social or economic spheres. Crucially, Egypt’s economy continued to nosedive, precipitating food and fuel crises across the Arab world’s most populous nation. Despite initial signs of a desire to bring the country’s hated interior ministry to heel, it remained unreformed. Protests continued to be crushed by lethal force, while arbitrary arrests and abuse in custody remained frequent.

Rising anger at Morsi and his Brotherhood was exacerbated by widespread mistrust in their pronouncements. Throughout the Mubarak years, the Brotherhood had cultivated a reputation based around morality and a desire to protect the poorest in society through social services. Once in office, the halo slipped, and Morsi and his government were perceived as equally power-hungry as the previous regime.

On June 30th, millions of Egyptians mobilised nationwide demanding Morsi’s ouster. Their call was answered the next day when a military ultimatum gave the president 48 hours to resolve the political crisis.  What followed – Morsi’s deposition and incommunicado detention, sweeping arrests, and three-state led massacres – was condemned by leaders around the world.

Yet the reaction inside Egypt has been muted. This is largely due to the extent of popular anger at the Brotherhood, but the space for censure has also been diminished by the state’s successful ability to cast this as a fight for national security. Describing the fight as a ‘war against terrorism’, successfully illustrated with daily headlines – often difficult to verify – regarding mysterious weapons caches that have been discovered, the repression is being cast as a necessary way to root out both extremists and incompetents, thus setting the country back on the path it began to walk in 2011.

The nature of the crackdown, as well its popular support, has in turn affected the justice claims of Islamist groups in Tunisia. Most obviously, the crackdown on the MB has affected Enahda, which, like the MB, was an illegal organisation under the state’s former regime and saw thousands of its members imprisoned in the 1990s under the banner of a “national security” threat. As a popular Islamist party, Enahda is often conflated with MB. A recent BBC article, for example, erroneously claims that MB “forms part of [Tunisia’s] government. Enahda have made many more ideological and constitutional concessions than the MB however, and are currently in a coalition government with two secular parties. In the wake of the MB’s persecution, vocal leaders of the secular and liberal opposition in Tunisia’s have seized the opportunity to attack their own Islamist-dominated  government. Rather than criticising Enahda’s failure to enact meaningful socio-economic and institutional reforms, these opposition politicians (backed by segments of the media) are rehearsing a more damning condemnation: demanding the dissolution of the Enahda-led government for masking terrorism (see Mullin and Patel).

As in Egypt, segments of the Tunisian public are reverting to a de-humaning narrative about Islamist actors. Chants at recent protests included: “Islamists are vampires,” and “We want to overthrow the government of terrorists.” More broadly, Tunisia’s political discourse has veered away from realising the promise of the revolution towards “national security”. Just as Egypt’s political language becomes one of security amid political violence, Tunisia has witnessed the same, with two politicians assassinated in 2013. Despite real concerns surrounding political violence, the extent to which the deep state in both countries is both managing and capitalising on the reduction of Islamism to terrorism remains to be seen.