WASHINGTON – Jihadists in the Middle East and beyond are moving to capitalize on the political crisis in Egypt, arguing that the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood vindicates their long-espoused view that democracy is a dangerous proposition.
As blood has poured down Egyptian streets and civilians have clashed with security forces, Islamists have urged Egyptians to embrace violence to further their political goals.
The call to arms has the potential to fuel hard-line military movements that have taken root in Egypt’s Sinai region and could prompt rank-and-file Muslim Brotherhood members to break with their group’s pledge of nonviolence.
The prospect of further radicalization, analysts warn, threatens to undermine a key U.S. goal in the region: drowning out extremist voices by boosting moderate, democratic ones.
Extremists “couldn’t have wished for a better example of how democracy doesn’t work,” said Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks jihadist groups. “Muslim Brotherhood members feel especially vulnerable now. They feel that they have been cheated. Radical rhetoric will likely be more acceptable to them now than before.”
Hours after grisly photos of bloodied Egyptian demonstrators began circulating in social media and jihadist forums, militant groups began calling the crackdown an affront against Islam that must be avenged.
During decades of autocratic rule, pious Egyptians were demonized, persecuted and barred from positions of authority. Bearded men were interrogated at airports and barred from certain resorts; women who wore face veils were ostracized at universities and workplaces.
After the 2011 popular revolt, Egyptian Salafists, who adhere to an ultra-conservative wing of Islam, rushed to form new political parties. The Brotherhood mobilized its electoral base like never before. Together, they won the majority of seats in parliament and succeeded in getting Mohammed Morsi, a relatively obscure Muslim Brotherhood leader, elected as president.
The victories were short-lived. Egypt’s top court dissolved parliament in 2012 on what many saw as a technicality. Last month, with the backing of millions of Egyptians, the country’s powerful military deposed and imprisoned Morsi.
Gehad el-Haddad, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, said Wednesday that the movement — which disavowed violence in the 1970s — remains committed to that pledge.
By locking up Morsi and the group’s top, venerated leaders and keeping them incommunicado, the military could be deliberately pushing the Brotherhood toward behavior that mainstream Egyptians will repudiate, said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute. “You might see individuals turn more to anarchy,” said Zelin, who runs the blog jihadology.net. “You have a bunch of young people full of rage and emotion. The question is whether the military is doing that on purpose.”
Regardless of the motive, the crackdown has been condemned and debated by jihadists of diverse backgrounds. Many greeted Morsi’s election last year with apprehension. The Afghan Taliban was the only major group that issued a congratulatory statement.
Since the coup, virtually all have weighed in. On July 4, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, an extremist group in North Africa, called the coup a Western-backed conspiracy to “tame one of our largest human reservoirs.”
“The righteousness must be achieved by cutting the head of those who corrupt and not reason with them,” it said in a statement included in a SITE Intelligence report that compiled jihadist reaction.
The Somalia-based al-Qaida affiliate, Shabaab al-Mujahideen Movement, echoed that view, saying in a statement, “It’s time to remove those rose-tinted spectacles and see the world as accurately as it is: Change comes by the bullet alone; NOT the ballot.”
Militant leaders had ambivalent reactions toward the Arab Spring, when millions took to the street in early 2011 seeking to overthrow autocratic leaders. Some embraced the movement but warned reform-minded Arabs that democracy would never take root, while others suggested that hard-line groups use the expanding freedoms to proselytize and gain followers.
Al-Qaida’s top leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, an Egyptian physician, was among those who were dismissive of the prospect of democracy in the region. On Aug. 2, he said Egyptians would have been wiser to embrace a push for an Islamic state after autocratic President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.
Syria has become a magnet for jihadists seeking to establish a new Islamic state, or caliphate. The conflict there has spawned new groups and helped resurrect others, principally al-Qaida in Iraq.
Their prominent role in Syria — and the threat posed by affiliated cells in Africa — suggest efforts by the United States to throttle the appeal of al-Qaida in the Muslim world are faltering, said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University.
Hoffman said the use of the Egyptian coup as a rallying cry has an ominous historical parallel: the coup in Algeria in the early 1990s that prevented an Islamic party from taking power.
That move, which was widely seen as having been backed by the West, was among the key geopolitical catalysts that led to the radicalization of the founders of al-Qaida. In an important way, Hoffman said, the Egyptian case could prove more destabilizing.
“You didn’t have the power of mass media to mobilize people that you have today,” he said.