On Wednesday, December 18, Egypt’s prosecutor-general issued charges for what it called “the biggest case of conspiracy in the history of Egypt.” The statement of charges wraps deposed president Mohamed Morsi, members of his presidential staff, and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party into a grand international plot of sabotage, espionage and terrorism, beginning in 2005. Simply put, the charges basically blame the Muslim Brotherhood—with help from Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—for all the antistate violence and chaos in Egypt.
The prosecutor-general’s statement announced that a total of thirty-six Islamist leaders were involved in “collaborating with foreign organizations to commit terrorist acts in Egypt, revealing defense secrets to a foreign country, funding terrorists and military training to achieve the purposes of the international organization of the Brotherhood.”
“Conspiracy” is the appropriately descriptive term for these charges. Without the benefit of evidence, which would be expected to be produced during a future trial, these charges rehash many of the anti-Brotherhood conspiracy theories that have circulated in the Egyptian press since the January 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak. In his own trial for crimes committed during the January 25 Revolution, former Egyptian interior minister Habib al-Adly blatantly blamed the Brotherhood and Hamas for violence and terror in Tahrir Square.
The charges stop short of accusing Morsi of calling al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri from the presidential palace, and any good Egyptian conspiracy should involve the United States and Israel, but moving forward with this case suggests the Egyptian military, interior ministry, and interim government still believe they have further to go in stomping out the Brotherhood from Egyptian public life.
In one of his regular phone calls with Egyptian defense minister Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “expressed concern” over these charges. A
If these charges have been circulating for years, the main question for consideration is, why formally make them now? After all, Morsi is already on trial for his involvement in the killing, unlawful detention, and torture of protesters outside the presidential palace in December 2012, and other Brotherhood leaders are concurrently facing charges of inciting violence.
A main reason for the timing is likely the upcoming referendum for a new Egyptian constitution. While urging citizens to take part in the January 14-15 vote, Egyptian prime minister Hazem El-Beblawi warned of attempts by the Brotherhood to undermine the process, calling the referendum the “most dangerous” stage of Egypt’s ongoing transition. Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim announced that the police were prepared to use force against any attempts to disrupt the referendum.
With these formal charges of conspiracy to commit terrorism, Egypt’s interim government is piling on leverage against the Brotherhood in an effort to preempt any actions that would challenge the “road map” process of a constitutional referendum followed by elections for a new parliament and president. On a related legal matter, the State Commissioners Authority has postponed the decision to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization to January 16, one day after the constitutional referendum.
These legal actions combine into a clear message to the Brotherhood: go along quietly, or disappear. Others have pointed to the existential battle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian state; and, indeed, this is how each side presents its situation. But the opposition to opposition has been a defining feature of post-coup Egypt, just as it was of Morsi’s Egypt, of Egypt under interim military rule, and over three decades of the Mubarak regime.
Recent reflections on the life of Nelson Mandela served as a reminder that a stable transition to a prosperous, inclusive state requires that leaders—of government and of the opposition—compromise and work together for the greater good of the country and its people. When Morsi’s movement was on top, his message was “we’re in control: deal with it.” These new charges against the former president and Brotherhood leaders are yet another sign that the new government has the same attitude. As long as this cycle continues, Egypt’s transition will not end in stability.
Zack Gold is a Washington-based Middle East analyst focusing on U.S.-Egyptian relations. Follow him on Twitter: @ZLGold
Image: Flickr/Gigi Ibrahim. CC BY 2.0.