Egypt’s crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood supporters risks driving the Islamist movement back toward the violent extremism it renounced decades ago, analysts said Thursday as security forces spent a second day fighting protesters who torched government buildings, churches and police stations.
Former CIA officer Bruce Riedel noted that the Brotherhood joined the political process after the overthrow of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and won presidential and legislative elections only to see the military overthrow their leaders last month.
“The largest and oldest Islamic party, the Muslim Brotherhood, tried the path of elections and protests and was met with a coup d’etat by the army and then mass violence,” said Mr. Riedel, who now heads the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution. “It’s leadership will not blame itself. It will either become more radical or lose its base to the radicals.”
He predicted the conflict in Cairo will rock the region.
“The Egyptian drama will shape the course of Middle East history and the direction of political Islam for years, maybe decades,” Mr. Riedel said.
Middle East analyst Mirette F. Mabrouk added that the Brotherhood has a “healthy following,” as shown in last year’s presidential election in which Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi won 51.7 percent of the vote.
“It would be a mistake to think that they are going to disappear off the political landscape,” said Ms. Mabrouk, a deputy director at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “If we shove them out onto the periphery, it is possible that we may be looking to a return of the violence that Egypt saw in the 1990s.”
The Muslim Brotherhood was banned in Egypt in 1954 after a failed attempt to assassinate President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Islamists were blamed for the attempt and many of their leaders were imprisoned, tortured and executed.
In its days underground, the Muslim Brotherhood developed a strong grass-roots network and under its chief ideologue, Sayyid Qutb, turned to terrorism. It later renounced violence.
“The problem is that even though the Brotherhood renounced violence decades ago, there is a possibility that you might get foreigners who are going to try and help the Muslim Brotherhood in their struggle against the state,” Ms. Mabrouk said.
Mr. Morsi’s supporters have waged a violent backlash against his critics since December, when they attacked a sit-in of more than 100,000 protesters angered at his increasingly Islamist policies.
By June 30, millions of demonstrators were protesting Mr. Morsi’s government, and the military responded by removing him from office and arresting him.
On Wednesday, riot police backed by armored vehicles and bulldozers destroyed two large camps of Morsi supporters who began their own sit-ins in Cairo after he was ousted July 3. More than 600 people have died in two days of clashes between police and protesters.
Analysts disagree over whether the Brotherhood will gain any sympathy from the violence.
“The days of the military moving without being held accountable are over. Likewise, the Muslim Brotherhood gaining popularity based on victimhood is also over,” said Manal Omar, associate vice president of the Middle East and North Africa program at the United States Institute of Peace.
Ms. Mabrouk sees a more complex reaction.
“It would take a hard heart not to have sympathy, especially since the Brotherhood did say that they were in the right in the first place, their leader was elected and he was ousted. So it’s not as if they didn’t have a point,” said Ms. Mabrouk.
“However, the country has become increasingly polarized, so the extra sympathy will come from the people who were on the fence. But there are a lot of people who will put that sympathy aside and say, ‘It is horrible. It is regrettable, but we will get through this and it was necessary.’ “
Egyptian Ambassador Mohamed M. Tawfik told CNN on Wednesday he didn’t think the Muslim Brotherhood will get much support in the aftermath of the crackdown.
“After the attacks on police stations, the attacks on churches, beheadings of policemen, I don’t think the Muslim Brotherhood will have a lot support on the Egyptian street,” he said.
The Interior Ministry said 43 policemen died in clashes Wednesday, but Egyptian sources could not corroborate Mr. Tawfik’s claims about the beheading of policemen.
The military, led by Army Chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, remains popular among Egyptians
“I don’t think that anyone is going to be delighted at the loss of life, but on the other hand, they are not going to hate, loathe or despise the military,” Ms. Mabrouk said.
Mr. Morsi’s ouster has served to deepen the rifts in Egyptian society, but the divisions between supporters and opponents of the former president are far from black and white. Many of Mr. Morsi’s opponents, including those who participated in the revolution that led to Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, are worried about a return to military rule.
The military-backed interim government and the Muslim Brotherhood have not been able to bridge their differences, despite international efforts that have involved the U.S. and European diplomats.
“The biggest challenge right now is: What is the incentive for the Muslim Brotherhood to participate? Why would they come to the table?” Ms. Omar said. “A lot people want to introduce laws that will not allow [the Muslim Brotherhood] to run [for political office] that will basically bury any participation [by the Muslim Brotherhood] for a long time.”