Speak to members of the Muslim Brotherhood and you get a sense of just how imperilled they feel. Ever since Mohammed Mursi was overthrown, members of the group have come to believe they’re engaged in a fight for the Muslim Brotherhood’s existence. Indeed, there is a popular perception among Brotherhood members that the entire movement’s trajectory will be determined by what transpires in Egypt now.
Western governments have traditionally indulged themselves with the fantasy of a stratified Brotherhood consisting of ‘extreme’ and ‘moderate’ elements. This view confuses strategic pragmatism with ideology. Focus on the group’s core beliefs and what you’re left with is a unified movement striving for the same Islamist endgame.
Yet, a more stratified and diffuse movement is precisely what is likely to emerge following this morning’s draconian crackdown on pro-Mursi supporters in Cairo. It’s too soon to know how many protesters were killed after the army forcibly dispersed protesters but it’s clear that live rounds were used and that a significant number of people have died.
All this will strengthen elements within the Muslim Brotherhood who advocate a more confrontational approach with the Egyptian army. Ever since Mursi’s ouster, the Brotherhood’s leadership has tried to control their more intemperate supporters but it’s difficult to see how they will be contained now.
There is precedent for this too. Following the Baathist takeover of Syria in 1963, existing tensions within the Muslim Brotherhood caused the group to schism between, broadly speaking, its Damascene intellectuals who favoured engaging with the regime and its more radical rural members led by conservative leaders in Aleppo. By the mid-1970s the intellectuals had fled (mostly to Europe) while the radical faction was effectively at war with Hafez al-Assad before being crushed several years later in Hama.
The Egyptian Brotherhood could fracture along similar lines. While the official language of their leadership continues to counsel against violent opposition, they are finding it increasingly difficult to exert complete control over the movement. 'We will burn everything,' a Brotherhood supporter told CNN this morning. 'We will turn into bombers.'