After the Egyptian Spring Mainstream Islamism and the Move to Radical Movements

After the Egyptian Spring Mainstream Islamism and the Move to Radical Movements

ISPI Dossier
25 January 2021
Commentary by Sherin Gharib

Ten years after the Arab Spring, Egypt has become more authoritarian than ever. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who came to power through a military coup in June 2013, has reconstructed the country into a military-police state. Although Egypt has a long history  of authoritarianism, al-Sisi’s Egypt is carrying out the heaviest crackdowns on dissidents and civil society actors, targeting human rights and pro-democracy activists, journalists and Islamist opponents.[1] After ousting former president Mohamed Morsi in 2013, the al-Sisi regime has banned the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), declaring it a terrorist organisation in 2014 and imprisoning most of its leaders and members or pushing them into exile abroad. Prior to that a crackdown on the MB, known as the Rabaa massacre, led to the death of many MB supporters. Social activities conducted by the Brotherhood were shut down and its funds and property seized. While al-Sisi, similar to his predecessor Mohamed Hosni Mubarak, has successfully framed himself as the only alternative to radical Islamism and an important partner in the international fight against terrorism, and the MB as the main risk to the country’s internal security, the MB’s prosecution was mainly triggered by the military’s fear of losing  control over the political and economic empire it has been building over decades. The military has been involved in almost all sectors of the Egyptian economy, ranging from housing to food production, and the army is part of different joint ventures with foreign companies. Building such a big economic empire has been facilitated by different benefits and advantages the military enjoys such as tax reductions or low labour costs, but also by foreign assistance coming from the US and other (Western) countries benefiting from economic partnerships and arms deals.[2]

However, the MB’s fall was not only triggered by its failure to attain backing from the most important Egyptian institutions since the takeover of the free officers in 1952, namely the military, but also by the increasing mistrust of the MB coming from broader parts of the Egyptian population. In addition, although the Brotherhood and Morsi tried to portray themselves as Western-friendly and were committed to all international treaties, the MB was internationally seen with suspicion, given its Islamist character. In this realm, al-Sisi manged to frame himself as a representative of moderate Islam.[3] Similar to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, close allies of the Egyptian government, went along with banning the MB as they feared the Brotherhood’s influence and provocation of political unrest .[4]

In Egypt, seven years after declaring the MB a terrorist organisation, the Brotherhood has been used as a scapegoat. Those who are not in line with the government are being accused of supporting or having links to the Brotherhood.[5] Recently, two businessmen, Safwat Thabet, the chairman of Juhanya, a big company producing milk and juice products, as well as Sayyid al-Sawirki, , the owner of the Tawhid wa al-Nour department stores, were arrested for financing a terrorist organisation, namely the MB.[6] Even in the case of Giulio Regeni, an Italian graduate student at Cambridge who was tortured and killed by Egyptian security forces while he was researching in Egypt for his  thesis on independent trade unions, his tutor was accused of having strong ties to the Brotherhood and having urged him to choose a sensitive topic for his dissertation.[7] While it remains unclear whether ties between the two businessmen or the professor and the Brotherhood really exist, it seems that this has become a main strategy to eliminate any critics or influential companies competing with the military’s economic interests. Also, the MB was accused of having organised recent protests invoked by former military business partner, Mohamed Ali; however, although some members have in fact supported the protests, this seems to be unlikely given the current weak position of the MB.[8]

The future of Islamism

The MB’s experience in operating underground in the past has secured its survival. As many leaders fled to Turkey or Qatar, they are operating from there, especially supporting their jailed members and their families. Thus, philanthropic activities have been reduced to its own supporters.[9] In Turkey, exiled Brotherhood members run several television stations, such as Rabaa TV, al-Sharq or al-Watan that primarily aim at criticizing the Egyptian government.[10]

While the MB was banned, more conservative Salafist movements that stand for a stricter interpretation of Islam, such as the Noor party, were allowed to run in elections. The Noor party, the most organised Islamist force in Egypt, has supported the government’s dismantling of the MB as there have always been tensions between the two movements.[11] Both differ in their religious as well as political understandings. Salafists consider themselves the only guardians of Islam.[12] However, as the last senate elections show, the Salafist party is losing support. [13]

What we can observe is that libelling mainstream Islamist movements that used to enjoy a certain degree of popularity and support from large parts of society and are – compared to other Islamist movements – more moderate, opens the door for other extremist (violent) Islamist movements to step in. As history shows, oppression often leads to radicalisation, and this has definitely been the case with parts of the Brotherhood. Even though many leaders have distanced themselves from violence and have isolated MB members involved in terrorist acts, the severe oppression has pushed some members, especially the younger ones and those facing violence in jails towards radicalisation. Young people, feeling neither represented by the government nor by any other Islamist or non-Islamist movement and having no opportunity or political format to express themselves, might search for an (Islamist) alternative and might find it in radical movements. At least, they are at risk of being more open towards radical Islamist ideologies. In fact, this is what we can currently observe in the Sinai with the increase of militant jihadi groups, such as Harakat Sawa’id Misr.

Western countries seem to have been infused by the same narrative as the Egyptian government, perceiving the Brotherhood and extremist jihadi groups as a monolithic bloc, and portraying all Islamist movements with no differentiation as radical organisations. However, in order to be able to combat terrorism, differentiating between moderate, extremist and violent (jihadi) Islamist groups is more than necessary. Also, treating al-Sisi as an important partner while ignoring human rights abuses and the repression of civil society is a non-promising approach either for combating radicalisation or for maintaining long-term stability. The ongoing violence towards all different civil society actions, whether Islamist or not, in fact represents a main risk for Egypt’s stability and leads to a move towards radical Islamism.



[1] Al Jazeera, 2020. Egypt releases rights activists after global pressure.

[2] Shana Marshall, 2020. Egypt’s Emerging Ruling Class. Carnegie Middle East Center.

[3] Azzurra Meringolo, 2015. From Morsi to Al-Sisi: Foreign Policy at the Service of Domestic Policy.

[4] Middle East Eye, 2020. UAE’s Fatwa Council denounces Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation.

[5] HRW, 2020. Egypt, Events of 2019.

[6] Osman Nadda, 2020. Egypt’s new crackdown on powerful businessmen sparks criticism. Middle East Eye.

[7] Egypt Today, 2018. Regeni’s tutor deported from Egypt for ties to MB: Italian media.

[8] Tom Allinson, 2019. Muslim Brotherhood or el-Sissi rivals: Who is behind Egypt’s protests?. DW.

[9]Ariane Lavrilleux, 2020. Egypt: ‘The Muslim Brotherhood has never been more disconnected from society’. The Africa Report

[10] Michele Dunne and Amr Hamzawy, 2019. Egypt’s Political Exiles: Going Anywhere but Home. Carnegie.

[11] The Arab Weekly: Why are Egypt Salafist backing Sisi, 2018.

[12] El-Sherif, 2015. Egypt’s Salafists at the crossroads.

[13] Al Monitor, 2020. Uncertain future for Egypt’s Salafists following Senate election defeat.