Eric Trager was the Esther K. Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute.
Articles & Testimony
Young Islamists are using Facebook to organize violent opposition.
After Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's ouster last summer, analysts warned that a disempowered Muslim Brotherhood might embrace jihad. Toppling an elected Islamist government, some argued, would lead the Brotherhood to abandon the democratic procedures that it accepted only belatedly, and advance its theocratic vision through al-Qaeda-like terrorism instead. Nearly eight months later, however, these expectations haven't materialized. While Sinai-based militants have killed over 300 military and police officers since July, there is little evidence that many, if any, Muslim Brothers have joined the jihadis' ranks.
Yet amidst a crackdown that has killed over 1,000 Morsi supporters, Muslim Brothers aren't turning the other cheek. Armed with improvised weapons such as flaming aerosol cans and Molotov cocktails, they are directing a campaign of lower-profile violence against various governmental and civilian targets, aiming to stir chaos and thereby weaken the post-Morsi regime. Ironically, they are embracing the same tactics that anti-Brotherhood activists used to undermine Morsi's authority after his November 2012 power grab.
To promote these violent efforts, Muslim Brothers appeal to their supporters through social media, establishing violent Facebook groups that have attracted thousands of "likes." For example, the "Execution Movement" Facebook page, which was founded in early September to call for the deaths of Egypt's top security officials, urges its roughly 3,000 followers to burn police cars. "There are 34,750 police officers in Egypt...80% of them have cars," reads a January 26 post that spread across pro-Brotherhood Facebook pages. "If we exploit the current situation of chaos and, during the night…burned 1000 [police] vehicles...Either the government will compensate [the officers] with new cars, which will cause imbalance in the budget and popular anger...or leave them without cars like the rest of the population, and this of course will have a big impact on their morale and their performance." Indeed, police vehicles appear to be these groups' most frequent targets.
Technically speaking, the young Muslim Brothers' targets are physical assets, not human lives. It's a rather false distinction, of course, since people can get killed whenever Molotov cocktails go flying, but this is how Muslim Brothers often rationalize their behavior to themselves and others. As young Muslim Brothers who set a police officer's home on fire told McClatchy reporter Nancy Youssef, "We tried not to kill...It's a punch to scare them." Yet in some cases, Brotherhood-affiliated Facebook groups have called for targeting individuals directly, including for assassination.
The "Martyr Brigades" is an even more worrying group. In its first statement, published by the "Molotov Movement" on February 10, the "Martyr Brigades" warned that it would go after "all who were involved in killing martyrs from the beginning of the coup until this day," claiming that it had the addresses of those it intended to target. Six days later, it announced that it had killed an alleged "thug" in Mansoura, and it established its own Facebook page on March 1, promising "retribution" in its first post.
This low-profile violence is likely to continue indefinitely and worsen, because young Muslim Brothers are unlikely to find other, more formal, avenues for advancing their ideology anytime soon. Egypt's military-backed government fears that permitting the Brotherhood to participate politically will enable it to return to power and seek vengeance, and by the same token Muslim Brothers are unwilling to participate in the current transition and thereby accept Morsi's ouster. The most likely outcome, at least in the short-run, is thus a desperately unpleasant stalemate: The Brotherhood cannot beat the post-Morsi regime through its current strategy, nor can the regime achieve anything approximating stability.
Eric Trager is the Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute.