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With Egypt's Morsi detained, a Muslim Brotherhood in turmoil (+video)

Ousted President Mohamed Morsi is now in military detention along with other senior leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the movement's rank and file fear what could come next.

Egypt gets new interim president
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As Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el Haddad walks through the square where supporters of former President Mohamed Morsi have been gathered for a week now, he pulls a small suitcase behind him.

It bounces along the asphalt, over discarded date pits and the accumulated grime of a demonstration grown weary. Inside the suitcase are clothes and personal belongings. Mr. Haddad can't go home, because he's been told his name is on a list of 300-400 Muslim Brotherhood leaders for whom the authorities have issued arrest warrants. Along with several other leaders, he stays inside the boundaries of the demonstration, whose edges are guarded against attack by hundreds of Brotherhood members armed with sticks and shields.

Just two days ago, former Brotherhood leader Morsi was president of Egypt, and a crackdown on the group that brought him to power would have been unimaginable. But after millions of Egyptians filled the streets around Egypt to demand Morsi's resignation, Egypt's military stepped in yesterday, detaining him and declaring him no longer president. Hours later, security forces began arresting Brotherhood leaders.

For some Brotherhood members it's beginning to look like a flashback to the 1950s, when the military officers the Brothers had supported turned on them, ordering mass arrests and long imprisonments. Amid the current arrest campaign, some wonder if Egypt is headed for another era of Brotherhood repression. 

“It's much more like 1956 now,” says Haddad, sitting in a conference hall connected to the mosque that is the focal point of the pro-Morsi rally, his suitcase nearby. “They're dismantling the Muslim Brotherhood network and slapping charges on them.”

So far, Brotherhood leaders say that the leader of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), Saad El Katatni, has been arrested, along with deputy Brotherhood leader Rashad El Bayoumi and former leader Mahdi Akef. The leader of the organization, Mohamed El Badie, was reportedly arrested today but Haddad says he is unable to confirm that, since he hasn't been able to reach Dr. Badie or his family. He says he's also unable to reach dozens of other leaders, and therefore doesn't know if they have been arrested. The phones of most of them are switched off.

The military has detained Morsi at the Ministry of Defense, says Haddad, while the former president's advisers, including Haddad's father Essam El Haddad, are being held in two separate locations, all incommunicado. All his information about the detained leaders comes from sympathetic military sources, who are leaking the names on an arrest warrant that has between 300 to 400 names, he says.

Those sources say there is a much longer list of Brotherhood members who have been forbidden from leaving Egypt. Security forces took the group's television channel off the air, arresting staff members, and also shut down several other Islamist channels. The Brotherhood said the printing house that prints its newspaper refused to do so last night.

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“I didn't expect it would be that quick of a transition from the revolution, from a democracy, to a military coup, literally overnight, to an oppressive regime,” says Haddad.

The victors

Morsi's opponents disagree wholeheartedly with Haddad's assessment. While the Brotherhood relies on Morsi's June 2012 election as proof of his legitimacy, those who opposed the former president say that an election does not give a ruler carte blanche to act in an undemocratic way. They argue that Morsi did so when he issued a constitutional declaration that increased his power and used it to push a controversial constitution to a vote and to appoint a controversial public prosecutor. And the millions of Egyptians from around the country who demanded his ouster were the final nail in the coffin for Morsi's legitimacy, they say.

Leaders of political parties that opposed Morsi say they didn't want military intervention, but that the alternative was civil strife that would have claimed many lives. They point to rhetoric from Morsi and his supporters about defending the presidency with their lives as evidence the situation would have grown more violent.

And though some in the Tamarod, or “Rebel,” movement, which called for the June 30 protests against Morsi, have spoken of prosecuting Morsi and Brotherhood leaders, the main coalition of political parties who opposed Morsi have stated that they welcome the FJP's continued participation in politics, provided it abides by the law.

But rounding up and possibly prosecuting the group's leaders doesn't send a welcoming message.

Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, says "inclusion" is not in the air. On a recent trip to Egypt, he says, opposition figures “were treating Morsi specifically, and the Brotherhood in general, as public enemy No. 1, as traitors, not Egyptian, doing things for Hamas, put there by the Americans … and every single bad thing that happened in the country was their fault,” he says. “So to turn around from that and say, 'Oh by the way, do you want to run in parliamentary elections?' is going to be tough even if the Muslim Brotherhood were so inclined.”

But he warns that the consequences of repressing the Brotherhood and excluding the organization from political life would be “disastrous.” The Brotherhood renounced violence decades ago, and all of its current leaders believe in changing society peacefully. “However, what could happen is if this organization is dealt a very severe blow, that political space might be occupied by groups that don't have the Brotherhood's organization and commitment to nonviolence,” says Brown.

A return to the 1990s?

Haddad echoes the warning, referring to groups like Gamaa Islamiya, which waged an armed conflict against the Egyptian state in the 90s and only renounced violence a little over a decade ago. “It's very dangerous to tell these groups that the road to change through democracy is closed. We stick to nonviolence and peaceful means. But if that road is closed, what message are you sending to these other groups?”

For the Brotherhood itself, repression risks creating a “counter-society within the broader Egyptian society,” a group that is not well-integrated, says Brown. He argues that steps need to be taken now to ensure that doesn't happen.

“The idea of prosecution just has to be placed off the table as definitively as it can be,” he says, and the Brotherhood and its political party should be retained as legal organizations. “In a sense, I think the Egyptian opposition has to act as they claimed they wanted the Muslim Brotherhood to act” over the past year, he says. “They have to act inclusively -- before they move toward an electoral system they have to consult with the Muslim Brotherhood on what a fair system would be.”

Yet many Egyptians are deeply angry at the Brotherhood, and political parties may not find such moves to be popular. And the Brotherhood itself is not yet clear about whether it will agree to participate in the political system after yesterday's events. A senior cleric in the group read a Brotherhood statement at the sit-in today that said "we refuse to participate in any activities with the usurping authorities.”

But Haddad was more cautious, saying the group had yet to decide whether it would participate in new elections, and would first challenge Morsi's ouster legally.

Outside in the square, the demonstration was at times subdued. With the leaders of a top-down hierarchical organization arrested or incommunicado, the Brotherhood is struggling. Many said they were concerned about a crackdown that could send them to jail as well as their leaders. But they said Morsi's ouster did not make them lose faith in political participation. “We still have trust in democracy,” said one.


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