The recent massacres in Egypt of Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators are not only cruel violations of human dignity, but appear to actively undermine the legitimacy of the military regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and provoke the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups into taking up violent resistance. In short, it is not clear how such murderous crowd control tactics could possibly be in the interest of the current Egyptian government. Of course, it is also possible that the Egyptian military sees a radicalized MB as a good bogeyman to keep Islamists marginalized and scare the international community into giving the regime more assistance. There is a precedent for this under the Mubarak regime, as multiple Wikileaks cables from the US Embassy in Cairo can show.
As the 2010 parliamentary and 2011 presidential elections draw near, the [Egyptian Government] is ratcheting up pressure on the MB. The strategy of targeting those that Egyptian analysts consider “moderate” [Muslim Brotherood members] like [Dr. Abdel-Moneim Abou] El-Fotouh could push the MB in a more hardline direction, moving it away from the political engagement strategy favored by moderates. Radicalization might also serve the GoE’s short-term interest in relieving outside pressure to reform.
Many of these new MB detainees, and El-Fotouh in particular, are widely viewed as the moderate members of the Guidance Council. Al-Ahram Center analyst and MB expert Khalil Al Anany called the arrests a “grave escalation” of GOE efforts against the MB. Al Anany warns that the political isolation of the MB could leave room for new and more radical Islamist movements. Anany and his colleague at Al-Ahram, fellow specialist on Islamist movements in Egypt Amr Choubaki, both believe the arrests of moderates are part of a carefully planned regime effort to radicalize and thus marginalize the MB.
Embassy contacts who follow MB issues believe the focus of GoE pressure will continue to be moderates like Aboul Fotouh. They see this as an effort to radicalize the MB’s message, and thus further marginalize them from the mainstream.
Perhaps one of the most potent factors in facilitating the spread of Salafism has been the GOE’s largely passive approach to it. As one contact commented, “the government is consumed with the political threat posed by the MB. In contrast, while not encouraging non-violent Salafi groups, it is not actively opposing them.” He cited the oppressive limitations imposed on the MB and opposition political parties, as contrasted with the relatively free operating environment that Salafists enjoy. A frustrated leader of the opposition Tagammu party complained that “Salafis are allowed to broadcast programming on over ten channels in Egypt, but I and my opposition colleagues are not allowed to run a TV station, or produce political party programming!” Some oppositionists speculate that the GOE is happy to allow the unfettered spread of Salafi ideology, viewing it as drawing popular support away from the MB. Two analysts on Islamist movements caution that the regime “is playing a very dangerous and foolhardy game”: by allowing numerous Salafi TV channels to broadcast, and not restraining the activities of Salafi groups, they fear the GOE is making the same mistake Sadat did in the 1970’s when he encouraged the activities of Islamist groups as a counter-balance to the then-powerful leftist opposition, and ended up opening a Pandora’s box of violent Islamism that resulted in his assassination.
Another expert on political Islam lamented the GOE’s “huge mistake” in fighting the MB, “which espouses moderate Islam, political participation, and gradual political change through democratic means,” rather than challenging Salafis, “who view democracy as an infidel idea, do not believe in gradual change or political participation, but rather a wholesale shift in political systems and religious attitudes.” He posited that the Salafi creed of “obedience to the ruler” resonates more with the GOE than the MB’s message of political change. Some contacts fretted that the GOE’s decreasing tolerance for the MB, an organization which they view as serving as a “fairly responsible, non-violent, and organized” release valve for some of the societal and political pressures in Egypt, will back-fire, driving frustrated MB members towards the less centralized, and therefore less controllable, and more extreme Salafis, and also possibly accelerating the rise of a Salafi-wing of the MB.
See also Inter Press Service, 2011 March 3:
Analysts say there is growing evidence that Egyptian security forces planned attacks on Christian churches and clergy, or allowed them to happen. The apparent purpose of the attacks was to reinforce the idea to sympathetic Western governments that without Mubarak, radical Islamist groups would gain a foothold in Egypt and wage a holy war on its Christian community.
The encouragement of or desire for a scary radicalized opposition has been seen in other conflicts as well.
In June 2007, the Israeli military intelligence general Amos Yadlin said that Hamas gaining full control over Gaza “would please Israel since it would enable the IDF to treat Gaza as a hostile country rather than having to deal with Hamas as a non-state actor.”
During the Algerian Civil War in the 1990s, there were widespread suspicions that the Algerian government was utilizing false flag attacks under the banner of an ultra-extreme organization known as Islamic Armed Group (GIA) to discredit any opposition. From Human Rights Watch’s World Report 1999:
There was overwhelming evidence, including the testimony of survivors, that Islamist armed groups had since 1992 carried out the murder of thousands of individuals singled out for opposing or defying Islamist demands.
Domestic and international outrage at the massacres was directed both at the shadowy perpetrators—initially identified as the Islamic Armed Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, GIA)— and at the security forces’ failure to protect civilians. In some instances, massacres occurred within a few hundred meters of security force barracks and posts. Even though the slaughter lasted for hours, generating fire, smoke, explosions, and cries for help, no effort was made by the authorities to intervene to halt the attack or to apprehend the attackers as they withdrew, according to interviews with survivors.
The succession of massacres between August 1997 and January 1998 were concentrated near the heavily militarized outskirts of Algiers and in the province of Relizane near the western oil port of Arzew. The precinct of Beni Massous on the outskirts of Algiers, where about eighty persons were killed, according to press reports, on September 5, 1997, was virtually surrounded by military installations. Survivors told Algerian reporters the day after the Chouardia massacre that even though a paramilitary gendarme post was located only one kilometer away, security forces did not arrive until four and one-half hours after the killing ended.
Doubts that all of the killings attributed to the GIA were the responsibility of a single organization acting alone were fueled by the posture of the security forces towards the perpetrators of the massacres in 1997 and 1998 and by a series of statements by former security officials in exile claiming Algeria’s military intelligence apparatus, the Securité Militaire, had both deployed forces masquerading as Islamists and manipulated GIA groups through infiltration.
The suspicions, however, were reinforced by interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch outside of Algeria and by others on the ground with survivors, witnesses from neighboring communities, rescue workers, journalists, and former security personnel. The attackers, numbering sometimes 200 or more, were found to have moved in and killed and departed freely through militarized areas, without any effort on the spot by the security forces to protect civilians or make arrests.
Related assertions concerning Algeria can be found at the History Commons.
Update: It appears that the New York Times had much the same idea I had: “Attacks on Protesters in Cairo Were Calculated to Provoke, Some Say“