The Death of a Leader Could Deepen the Muslim Brotherhood's Divides

3 MINS READOct 5, 2016 | 09:00 GMT
The Death of a Leader Could Deepen the Muslim Brotherhood's Divides
A supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood displays a placard featuring ousted President Mohammed Morsi. The Islamist group has splintered under pressure from the Egyptian government.

The Egyptian government has not abandoned its determined pursuit of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, despite the threat that the campaign poses to the country's security and stability. The death of one of the group's leaders could fracture the Muslim Brotherhood even more and drive some of its members into the arms of extremist recruiters. 

Mohamed Kamal, the leader of the group's youth wing, was targeted for arrest in an Interior Ministry-led raid on Oct. 3. The circumstances surrounding his death are unclear, but he and fellow Muslim Brotherhood member Yasser Shehata were shot to death during the night of the operation. The Interior Ministry claimed that gunfire broke out during the raid, which occurred in the Basateen area of Cairo. The Muslim Brotherhood, however, said the men were killed while in custody. Regardless of how they occurred, the deaths are the result of a high-profile targeting that could stir more unrest among the ranks of the group.

Cairo has listed the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization since December 2013, six months after the country's military council deposed President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood member. Though the apex of the government's brutal use of force against the group — the Rabaa incident on Aug. 14, 2013, in downtown Cairo, which left hundreds dead and injured — came six weeks after Morsi was removed, reports of government raids against Muslim Brotherhood members have become routine over the past three years. Most arrests of its members, however, have resulted in hastily pronounced prison sentences of indeterminate length, not immediate death.

Founded in Egypt nearly a century ago, the Muslim Brotherhood has inspired and spawned dozens of Islamist political groups in other countries, as well as other national branches of the original group. But when Egypt declared war on terrorism and grouped most threats to the state under that umbrella, it cleared the way for harsh punishment in the name of national security. The pressure placed on the Muslim Brotherhood after Morsi's ouster and its branding as a terrorist organization accelerated a splintering process within the group. Many Muslim Brotherhood leaders and prominent members sought refuge in Turkey and Qatar, but many of their younger followers remained in Egypt.

Kamal emerged as a leader of the youth wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, which split from the body of the group comprising older members, led by Mahmoud Ezzat. The younger branch has espoused employing harsher and more violent tactics against the government as a means of re-establishing the Muslim Brotherhood's political control. The older guard has urged caution, counseling a wait-and-see approach until the time was ripe to reassert control. Kamal, a proponent of the more radical option, had been featured in media interviews encouraging action against the state. It was not surprising that he ended up on a government target list.

The disagreement among the Egyptian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood on the direction that the group should take is helping to drive recruitment by extremist groups. The loss of Kamal as the youth wing leader could accelerate that process. The response of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt over the coming weeks will provide an important bellwether of further unrest for the Egyptian state. Though the government is well-equipped to stamp out the threat of extremist violence, fledgling extremist groups have enduring appeal among disaffected Egyptian youths. For instance, the relatively new Hasam Movement, which claimed involvement in the Sept. 29 attempted assassination of an Egyptian assistant attorney general, shares ideology with the Muslim Brotherhood as well as an intense anti-government worldview. As the Muslim Brotherhood has been forced further underground, the more extreme members of its youth wing are likely candidates for recruitment by upstarts such as Hasam or more established groups such as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis or the Islamic State's Wilayat Sinai.

Besides raising concerns about internal security, the fractures in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood have become a warning to other Islamist parties in the Middle East and one of the factors inspiring Muslim Brotherhood factions in countries such as Jordan and Tunisia to remain cohesive as they dodge government pressure. Kamal's death is a further warning to other of Egypt's Islamist leaders that encouraging Muslim Brotherhood ideology is a sure way to get stuck in the government's crosshairs. As it continues to pursue the group in the name of countering terrorist threats, Egypt's government must balance the preservation of its own security against the possibility of inciting more unrest in the process.

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