- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Muslim Brotherhood — battered in Egypt and losing popularity in some Arab countries — remains a political force across the Middle East and North Africa where the Islamist group is the main beneficiary of Arab Spring protests that have toppled entrenched dictatorships since 2010.

Its affiliates, which promote Islamic law and build strong grass-roots networks by providing social services, play roles of varying significance in several countries: in Algeria as the Movement for the Society of Peace; in Bahrain as the Al Eslah Society and its political wing Al-Menbar Islamic Society; in Jordan as the Islamic Action Front; and in Kuwait as Hadas.

“Although the Brotherhood originated in Egypt, its various offshoots in other Arab countries have long had independent status and have adapted their tactics to their local political situations,” said Paul Pillar, a former CIA national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia.

“The popularity and standing of these other national branches of the Brotherhood will depend more on their roles and performance in their individual countries than on the events in Egypt,” he said.

In Syria, where a civil war has been raging for more than two years, the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as one of the better-organized opponents of embattled President Bashar Assad. The Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, controls the Gaza Strip.

But support for the Brotherhood in Egypt, where it is facing an unprecedented and unrelenting crackdown by security forces, has narrowed to its base, which is “probably a few million people in a country of 80 to 90 million,” said Eric Trager, an Egypt analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

SEE ALSO: Egypt extends crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood

In Libya and Tunisia, the Islamists are facing public anger fueled by the assassinations of prominent critics. They are represented by the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Justice and Construction Party, in Libya, and the ruling Ennahda party, a Brotherhood-inspired group in Tunisia.

“There is a regional anti-Islamist backlash,” said Tarek Radwan, associate director for research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center.

“Many of the regional Brotherhood affiliates are trying to distance themselves from what is happening in Egypt,” he said.

“They are very much looking to their own political survival at this moment and hoping that the reverberations coming out of Egypt don’t handicap them too much in their own countries.”

An unprecedented crackdown by Egyptian security forces has put many Brotherhood leaders behind bars, driven their colleagues underground and claimed the lives of hundreds of supporters.

Egypt’s army chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, toppled the democratically elected government of Brotherhood-backed President Mohammed Morsi on July 3 after four days of protests by millions of Egyptians who accused Mr. Morsi of pursuing an Islamist agenda.

SEE ALSO: Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak ordered to house arrest after jail release

“The real question is whether other Brotherhood groups are taking away any lessons from both the reasons for the Brotherhood’s downfall in Egypt and its current conflict with the military-backed government,” Mr. Trager said.

More than 900 of Mr. Morsi’s supporters have been killed since July 3. Most of them died in a crackdown by security forces on two protest sites in Cairo on Aug. 14. Almost four dozen policemen also have been killed.

Mr. Morsi has been held incommunicado since his ouster. Several other senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders have been arrested in an ongoing crackdown.

Mohamed Badie, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, was arrested Tuesday. He and other top Muslim Brotherhood figures, including deputy guide Khairat el-Shater, are expected to stand trial Sunday on charges of inciting violence.

On Wednesday, Safwat Hegazy, a pro-Brotherhood preacher also sought on charges of instigating violence, was arrested close to the border with Libya. Mr. Hegazy, who was on the run, had shaved his trademark full white beard, leaving only a goatee, which he had dyed black, according to the Egyptian state-run Al-Ahram daily.

At least two other top Muslim Brotherhood leaders, Mohammed el-Beltagy, a former lawmaker, and Essam el-Erian, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, face arrest warrants and are believed to be in hiding.

“The crackdown has essentially decapitated the Muslim Brotherhood,” Mr. Radwan said.

The Muslim Brotherhood is a hierarchical organization.

“Leaders at the very top of the chain communicate commands down through a pyramidal structure,” said Mr. Trager. “So, if you remove the very top layers of that pyramid, it substantially disorganizes the rest of the organization and that is exactly what has happened in Egypt.”

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded by Hassan al-Banna, an Islamic scholar and schoolteacher, in Egypt in 1928. The Brotherhood was banned in 1954 after it was blamed for a failed attempt to assassinate Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser. Many of its leaders were imprisoned, tortured and executed.

The group renounced terrorism in the 1970s, but analysts say the current crackdown could push some Islamists back toward violence.

The Muslim Brotherhood re-emerged on the national scene after Arab Spring protests ended President Hosni Mubarak’s 29-year rule on Feb. 11, 2011.

An Egyptian court Wednesday ordered Mr. Mubarak’s release from prison. Interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi said Mr. Mubarak would be placed under house arrest. Mr. el-Beblawi also has proposed the dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt sent ripples of anxiety across some countries in the region.

Persian Gulf monarchies are particularly worried about the spread of political Islam to their shores.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates have backed the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and have pledged more than $12 billion in aid since Mr. Morsi was ousted.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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