ALEXANDRIA, Egypt: While the Muslim Brotherhood’s old guard doggedly call for peaceful resistance from their Egyptian courtroom cages, some youth members are seriously considering forceful retaliation against a state crackdown on their movement.
Young activists – many of whom are on the run and rarely sleep in one place for long to evade capture – complain that top leaders have lost touch with reality and failed to provide direction since then army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi ousted the Islamist group from power last year.
Faced with the near certainty that Sisi will win a presidential election next week, youths tired of slogans are tempted to break with the Brotherhood’s long-standing policy of rejecting violence, even though the leadership is holding workshops to dissuade them from turning to force.
“The traditional leaders want peaceful action. What did that get us?,” asked one youth leader, sitting in a cafe in Alexandria, a former center of Brotherhood support.
“Even protests are not working. They are getting smaller because security forces attack us. We really have no strategy,” he said, asking not to be named as he is wanted by the authorities.
The Brotherhood has been banned following what its members and some other Egyptians regard as a military coup last July. Established leaders have been under heavy pressure since Sisi toppled President Mohammad Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, after mass protests against his rule.
Many, including Morsi, are on trial. Others fled the country to escape the repression, which included death sentences for the Muslim Brotherhood’s 70-year-old leader, Mohammad Badie, and 682 supporters last month.
Sisi, who has formally quit the military, enjoys cult-like adulation from supporters who hope he can restore stability after a year of often chaotic government by the Brotherhood and the violence following its overthrow in which hundreds died.
He is expected to win the presidency easily on May 26-27, further undermining morale among the Brotherhood, which had triumphed in the vast majority of elections held after a popular uprising ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Several youth activists interviewed by Reuters said that for the first time their comrades are contemplating taking up arms against the security forces – despite repeated warnings from senior Brotherhood officials that this could lead to the movement’s complete destruction.
Believed to have about 1 million members in a country of 85 million, the Brotherhood renounced violence decades ago. Aside from being outgunned by security forces, leaders say it would lose what they call the moral high ground by using force.
But it is becoming increasingly difficult to control the young members. One said associates were considering killing those policemen who they say had blood on their hands.
Another estimated up to 20 percent of youth members think violence may be the only option left, though older leaders put the figure at 10 percent. “Some are speaking of bombings to instill fear in security forces,” the youth leader said.
Islamist militants based in the Sinai have stepped up attacks on the police and army since Morsi’s overthrow. Hundreds have been killed and the insurgency has spread to the cities and towns, including Cairo.
Egyptian authorities call the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, making no distinction between them and the Sinai-based militants, but have yet to offer compelling evidence to back their allegations.
Senior Brotherhood official Mohammad Saleh said the movement had started holding the workshops to rein in young members who have been imprisoned and tortured. “Some youths are of the opinion that violence is a way to confront the regime. We try to get rid of this thinking,” he said.
Saleh argues that the Brotherhood should play the long game peacefully, believing Sisi will fail to tackle Egypt’s huge social and economic problems, prompting the people to rise up against him eventually.
So far, the Brotherhood has had little success in winning over public support following Morsi’s catastrophic year in office, when he was accused of monopolizing power, trying to impose the movement’s views on society and mismanaging the economy – allegations he denies.
A poll last October by Baseera, an Egyptian public opinion research center, found that 19 percent would welcome a return of the Brotherhood to politics while 70 percent would not.
Underscoring the military’s long-standing hostility to the Brotherhood, Sisi told Reuters in an interview last week that the oldest and most powerful Islamist movement in the Middle East had become irrelevant to Egyptian society.
One security official said it had to change fundamentally. “The Muslim Brotherhood group as it stands now is a group that adopted violence and its leaders’ hands are stained with blood,” the official said.
“For them to be accepted in the political and social spectrum they have to find a way to get rid of that, either by new leaders, or a new name. But they certainly have to abide by a new concept and re-emerge as a new political movement.”
Any move toward reconciliation could further fragment the movement. A statement issued recently by one of the old guard had been interpreted as a call for a softer stand against the state, infuriating the new generation, the youth leader said.
If a significant number of young members do take up arms, this would complicate efforts to stabilize Egypt, a strategic Western ally in the heart of the Arab world.
Violent Islamist groups and Egyptian jihadis returning from the Syrian civil war have approached Brotherhood youths, trying to persuade them to take up arms against the state, several members said.
If the state keeps squeezing the group, Islamist hard-liners may win recruits by exploiting divisions.
“The youth are more confrontational and they think that the only way to challenge the coup is by protesting, maybe by attacking police and burning police stations,” said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Islamist movements at Britain’s Durham University.
“This division is expected to grow and to increase, which would affect the ability of the movement to challenge the government.”
Youth leaders say veterans have made some concessions, allowing younger members more say in decision-making. But frustrations are still widespread among youths, who say Brotherhood leaders lack vision.
Lawyer Hoda Abdel-Moneim, who joined the Brotherhood as a teenager, was inspired when Morsi became president following decades of oppression by successive autocrats going back to Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
Abdel-Nasser began the crackdowns in 1954 after the group was blamed for an assassination attempt against him in Alexandria.
These days, Abdel-Moneim sits in her office, flanked by two veiled women, astounded by the extent of the state’s crackdown. She says her daughter was sentenced to five years in jail for making a pro-Morsi hand signal during a protest.
Abdel-Moneim says Brotherhood leaders are scrambling to contain the youth. “Many of them are boiling with anger. We keep trying to calm them down.”