Is the Egyptian govt. intentionally trying to radicalize the Islamic opposition?

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.

2009 July 30:

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.

2009 October 1:

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.

2009 Februbary 4:

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


Israeli views of Egypt

From the Global Post:

Speaking on Israel Army Radio, the former deputy head of the Israeli security services, Israel Hasson, who is now a lawmaker, said he believed the Egyptian army “is absolutely determined to completely shatter the organization known as the Muslim Brotherhood.” […] Asked how the situation may affect the region, Hasson said, “It’s very simple. Egypt will not permit the existence of an armed branch of the Muslim Brotherhood with 20,000 men carrying weapons to operate on its northern border.” Regarding Hamas, which many view as a subsidiary of the Brotherhood, Hasson added, “And that means that Hamas is also on borrowed time.”

“While Morsi was in power, the order was to not attack Israel. But since he was removed, the Muslim Brotherhood has reversed the order,” said Maj. Eli Avidar, of the Israeli army intelligence reserves, referring to the Egyptian president who was overthrown on July 3. Avidar said he believed the Brotherhood’s principal interest is to drag Israel into military engagement in the Sinai Peninsula, turning the conflict from a war among Egyptians to a war between Egypt and Israel. “It is Israel’s principal interest to avoid that,” he said. “Were Israel to attack in the Sinai, it would only benefit the Muslim Brotherhood.” “The former Israeli generals calling for us to hit hard in Sinai are idiots,” he added. “For the first time, Israel is not an issue here.” Avidar said that instead Israel should cooperate more closely with the Egyptian military, and invest more in its intelligence capabilities and hardware.

Current head of Egyptian military “trained and spent a lot of time in the United States”

DOD News Briefing with Secretary Panetta and Gen. Dempsey from the Pentagon, 14 August 2012:

First of all, I wanted to indicate that earlier today I had a very good conversation with General Al-Sisi, who’s Egypt’s new minister of defense.  He is a highly experienced officer who was trained and spent a lot of time in the United States.  I think he went to Fort Benning and then to the [US Army War College in Carlisle, Pa], as well.

General Al-Sisi expressed his unwavering commitment to the U.S.-Egypt mil-to-mil relationship, which has been really an anchor of stability in the Middle East for more than 30 years.  And I, in turn, indicated to him that I look forward to working with him and to continuing the relationship that we have had with Egypt over those years.

General Al-Sisi stressed that he takes seriously Egypt’s obligations under the Camp David treaty and he’s committed to preventing the Sinai from becoming a staging area for militants.  And, again, I indicated that I look forward to working closely with him to advance our shared goals in the region.

Cold War alliances and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt

Robert Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (New York: Henry Holt, 2006), pp. 147-149:

In the 1970s, guided by Kamal Adham, Saudi Arabia’s chief of intelligence, Anwar Sadat brought the Muslim Brotherhood back to Egypt. The United States, accustomed to working with Saudi Arabia, was untroubled by the rise of Islamism in Egypt. In fact, Washington was so eager to bring Egypt over the US side in the Cold War that policy makers, diplomats, and intelligence officers viewed Sadat’s restoration of the Islamic right benignly or tacitly encouraged it.
Concurrent with the growth of the Islamic right in Egypt, Sadat helped engineer a dramatic expansion of America’s power in the Middle East. Under Nasser, Egypt was a nation at odds with the United States. Twenty thousand Soviet troops, technicians, and advisers backed Egypt’s armed force; a war of attrition was under way along the Egypt-Israel border; and Egypt and the United States lacked even normal diplomatic ties. But Sadat established a covert relationship with Adham, the CIA, and Henry Kissinger, the US national security adviser. In 1971, within a year of assuming control, Sadat ousted the Egyptian left from the government, and in 1972 he stunned Moscow by expelling Soviet forces. After the 1973 Ramadan War–waged in concert with Saudi Arabia and organized around Islamic themes rather than Arab nationalism–Egypt and the United States reestablished ties. […] By 1980, Egypt was America’s leading Arab ally, engaged in supporting the US jihad in Afghanistan and providing a base for US influence in the oil-rich Persian Gulf. For even the most cynical US Middle East specialists, the change in Egypt, from foe to ally, was dizzying.
Sadat consolidated his shaky rule by unleashing the power of the Islamic right as a hammer against the left, with the generous financial assistance of Saudi Arabia. Though Nasser had suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and fought to reduce the power of right-wing Islamism in Egypt, Sadat welcomes the exiled Muslim Brotherhood back to Egypt, reinvigorated the organization, and built its institutional presence within the universities, professional associations, and the media. Before Sadat, the Islamists were for the most part fringe-dwelling, marginalized radicals; after Sadat, the Muslim Brotherhood and its even more radical youth wing were part of mainstream discourse in Egypt.

Egyptian military raids US-funded “civil society” groups

The Egyptian military’s raids of the National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute and Freedom House appears to be an obvious attempt to play the nationalism card against the broad movement for dissent in that country. As I have touched upon previously, these so called “civil society” groups are far from the innocent, pro-democracy actors they are made out to be and suspicions surrounding them are probably justified in any country. It has been established that such organizations have played a large role in undermining democratically elected governments in countries such as Bolivia, Venezuela and especially Haiti. In Egypt, US tax dollars helped promote crooked privatization schemes that benefited Mubarak’s cronies. Generally speaking, these groups are part of “Trojan Horse” strategy of imposing neo-liberal economics and subservience to US interests through the use of soft power.

Regardless of these documented facts, this move by Egypt’s government is almost certainly a cynical attempt to tar any and all opposition to military rule as US financed astroturf. This is especially rich from Egypt’s armed forces, which the Washington Post correctly notes is “by far the country’s largest recipient of U.S. aid, receiving about $1.3 billion a year.” While it is probably the case that the raided groups were backing the Egyptian resistance movement, that does not mean the entire movement should be seen as a puppet of USAID and the NED. Most likely, the case is that the US is backing both sides in this battle (while leaning more towards the military) to preserve its influence no matter who comes out on top.

Suleiman claimed Egypt wants Gaza to go “hungry” and that he would welcome IDF invasion of Philadelphi Route

Meanwhile, the Egyptians continue to offer excuses for the problem they face: the need to “squeeze” Hamas, while avoiding being seen as complicit in Israel’s “siege” of Gaza. Egyptian General Intelligence Chief Omar Soliman told us Egypt wants Gaza to go “hungry” but not “starve.” Minister of Defense Field Marshal Tantawi and the Director of Military Intelligence MG Mowafy both pressed recently for the return of EUBAM monitors to oversee the crossing between Gaza and Egypt of Palestinians with urgent humanitarian circumstances. In their moments of greatest frustration, Tantawi and Soliman each have claimed that the IDF would be “welcome” to re-invade Philadelphi, if the IDF thought that would stop the smuggling.

US Embassy in Cairo, 17 Dec. 2007

It’s like a meeting with a dietitian. We need to make the Palestinians lose weight, but not to starve to death.

Dov Weissglas, adviser to Israeli PM, 2006