Wikistrat’s Facebook and Twitter followers recently engaged in a 24-hour exclusive Q&A session with one of Wikistrat’s Senior Analysts, Ana Belén Soage. Questions and Ms. Soage’s answers are transcribed below.
Ana Belén Soage holds degrees in Politics and Translation & Interpreting and a European Doctorate in Middle Eastern Studies. She has traveled widely in the Middle East and North Africa and speaks fluent Arabic. She has published a variety of academic articles dealing with issues related to political Islam in the Middle East and Europe.
Sergio Castaño Riaño: I would like to know your opinion about the role the Muslim Brotherhood could play in Egypt in the next few years? Do you think the organization could change its moderate strategy and return to violence to achieve their goals? Are there real links between the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist groups in Egypt? Or are they bidding their time, waiting for new opportunities to emerge again as political alternative?
Answer: After the coup that deposed Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood rejected any responsibility for the turn of events and demanded the “return to legitimacy”, i.e., the restoration of Egypt’s first democratically-elected president, ignoring the huge demonstrations that had demanded his resignation. Together with other Islamist groups, it set up the National Alliance in Support of Legitimacy and Against the Coup and urged its supporters to stage mobilizations. In addition, there is evidence that it has played a role in the terrorist violence that has plagued the country for the last year and a half.
At the same time, the Brotherhood has sought alliances with other forces opposed to the return of military power, both Islamist and secular, ostensibly with an aim to restoring the principles of the 2011 revolution. Last May, it signed the Brussels Declaration, based on a proposal by Liberal politician Ayman Nour, which was ratified by other — mainly Islamist — forces in Egypt as the Cairo Declaration. In August, it co-founded the Istanbul-based Egyptian Revolutionary Council, which includes Islamists but also members of wider civil society and is headed by an unveiled woman, Dr. Maha Azzam of Chatham House. Both initiatives have failed to have any real impact on the situation in Egypt, and the second was quickly dismissed as “Erdogan’s Council”.
The Muslim Brotherhood may be undergoing its worst crisis since it was founded, possibly even worse than its “mihna” (ordeal) under Nasser, because it has never lost so much so quickly. After holding the highest office in the country, it has been declared a terrorist organization, thousands of its members and supporters have been imprisoned and hundreds — including its General Guide — have been condemned to death. Eighteen months of confrontation and repression have radicalized certain sectors within the organization, especially the young. Furthermore, its actions have antagonized most Egyptians, who decided to throw their lot with a new strongman from the army out of fear that their country might become a failed state like Libya.
The failure of the mobilizations has reinforced the hand of those within the organization who believe that compromises will have to be made if it is to regain legality and even return to parliament — possibly through other Islamist parties, such as Hizb al-Wasat or Strong Egypt. Not everybody is willing to concede defeat, though, and more radical members could join the Jihadist groups which many already suspect them of collaborating with. In this scenario, there might be a split within the Muslim Brotherhood.
Andrew K.P. Leung: How will the Sunni-Shia rivalry influence how the threat of the Islamic State (ISIS) plays out in the Middle East?
Answer: The Islamic State (IS) appeared as a result of a longstanding Sunni-Shia conflict that came to the fore due to foreign interference: It grew out of the Sunni insurgency against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from office and the Shiite government which consequently won the elections, reflecting the sectarian makeup of the country. Sunni Muslims resented losing control — and the new authorities did little to reassure them that their interests would be protected.
The leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is said to have spent time in the American detention facility at Camp Bucca in southern Iraq, probably in 2004. He and a number of his lieutenants fought first as part of Jaysh Ahl al-Sunna wa-l-Jamaa and then joined Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidhayn, known as Al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI), which was behind many of the sectarian atrocities perpetrated in the country in the second half of the 2000s. Al-Baghdadi became leader of AQI in mid-2010 and was behind the escalation of violence that started about a year later.
Taking advantage of the civil war in Syria, AQI expanded its radio of action to the neighboring country. It eventually attracted many of the fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s proxy in Syria — although a proposed merger did not go ahead due to the opposition of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had criticised AQI’s methods as early as 2005 — and became the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in April 2013. In June 2014, al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself caliph and the group was renamed Islamic State. Since then, and particularly after the beginning of the U.S.-led aerial bombing campaign in August, several other Syrian-based jihadi groups have sworn allegiance to it.
IS has proved an effective military force and is reportedly the richest terrorist organization in the world. Given the sectarian nature of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, it has gained the support of a significant number of Sunni Muslims in both countries and abroad. However, we should not forget that al-Baghdadi has identified Sunni Arab regimes — first and foremost, Saudi Arabia — as the immediate targets in the expansion of his caliphate.
In addition, it is undeniable that many of the thousands of foreign fighters that have travelled to the territory controlled by IS from Europe and North-America have been inspired by its anti-Western discourse.