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As Morsi trial nears in Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood's roots hold tight

Ousted President Mohamed Morsi's trial on charges of incitement to murder is to start Monday. His zealous supporters have sunk quietly back underground.

November 03, 2013|By Laura King
  • An Egyptian police officer arrests rioters at Al Azhar University in Cairo last week after students who support ousted President Mohamed Morsi stormed the administrative offices.
An Egyptian police officer arrests rioters at Al Azhar University in Cairo… (Khaled Elfiqi / European…)

CAIRO — As the Muslim call to prayer rang out from minarets across Egypt's capital, the bearded men entering a nondescript building on a dusty back street were preparing to engage not only in an act of worship, but an act of defiance.

Hole-in-the-wall community prayer rooms like this one, known as zawiyas, are outlawed now, presided over by clerics who have no state sanction to preach. But still the worshipers come — many of them followers of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is itself banned.

Over the last four months, Egyptian authorities have made a sweeping and systematic drive to dismantle the once ascendant Brotherhood. Virtually all of its senior leaders are in jail. Thousands of its supporters are dead or imprisoned. Members of the Islamist group, and even their sympathizers, are vilified as terrorists. Assets have been targeted for seizure. Brotherhood-affiliated media outlets have been shuttered. Followers meet furtively.

And on Monday, the man who personified the high-water mark of the group's power, deposed President Mohamed Morsi, is to be put on trial on charges of incitement to murder — a gesture explicitly aimed at evoking the Brotherhood's humiliation and defeat little more than a year after Morsi became the first democratically elected leader of Egypt.

Yet the Middle East's oldest Islamist movement, founded in 1928, has sunk deep roots through the decades despite being long repressed. And the current drive to eradicate the Brotherhood is proving a sapping endeavor for the country's military-backed interim administration.

Few would contest that Egyptian authorities, at least for the time being, have the upper hand. A nationwide state of emergency, in effect for nearly three months, has given the government broad powers to move against anyone deemed a threat to security. State-run media are packed daily with anti-Brotherhood diatribes, and public opinion is overwhelmingly against the group. Army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, who led the coup that brought Morsi down, has become a kind of Egyptian idol.

But much of the movement's strength lies in small-scale activities that collectively loom large — social services like medical clinics and food kitchens that continue to aid the poorest of the poor; clandestine gatherings by members organized into small cells, or usra; and a persistent street presence that even large-scale police and military deployments have been unable to quash. The movement is nothing if not well schooled in operating underground.

Morsi's year in office was disastrous. The Brotherhood, adept at marshaling opposition sentiment, seemed at a loss once it won power. The economy tanked, and the rigidly authoritarian Morsi alienated nearly all political factions, rebuffing attempts by important players to build alliances and strike compromises. The nationwide uprising against him that preceded the army coup was even bigger than the mass movement that forced out President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Now Morsi's most vehement foes are having their day. Human rights groups and analysts say the scale and scope of punitive actions levied against the Brotherhood in recent months surpass even the tactics employed under Mubarak's police state. The mid-August crackdown on Morsi's followers who had set up sprawling protest camps in Cairo was described by Human Rights Watch as the largest unlawful mass killing in modern Egyptian history. Nearly 1,000 died.

Amid the daily roster of defeats, however, the movement has scored a few symbolic victories. While large-scale street demonstrations have foundered, pro-Morsi forces have managed to spark a significant student protest movement, including one at Al Azhar University, which is affiliated with Sunni Islam's most venerable seat of learning.

Clerics licensed by Al Azhar have largely cooperated with the interim authorities in building calming rhetoric into their mosque sermons. Yet since the school year began, there has been a visible and vocal antigovernment current on the Al Azhar campus.

Groups of demonstrators gather almost daily to wave banners bearing the emblem of the pro-Morsi movement: a yellow, four-fingered hand that alludes to the name of the mosque complex where the August crackdown was centered.

Last week, pro-Morsi protesters overran the university's administration building, smashing windows and breaking furniture. Riot police were called in to quell the disturbance — an extremely rare incursion by security forces into the complex.

Another influencing factor in the Brotherhood's long-term prospects, analysts say, is the group's web of financial and political connections outside Egypt, mainly in the Islamic world but also with offshoots in the West.

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