Following the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood leader and now former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi the Muslim Brotherhood has conducted a propaganda campaign aiming at establishing themselves as the “legitimate” rulers of Egypt, wrongfully overthrown.
Indeed the very word itself, “legitimacy,” has been central in the Brotherhood’s protests and in their media outreach. Pro-Morsi activists have organized around “The National Alliance to Support Legitimacy.”
In the West, this battle of words has been interpreted primarily within the context of U.S. law and the question of whether U.S. aid to Egypt must be severed following the Muslim Brotherhood’s overthrow. Indeed, the American discussion of whether Morsi was “legitimate” has revolved almost entirely around the question of democracy and his election (which may very well not have been as fair or free as advertised). U.S. officials halted a shipment of F-16s to the Egyptian government in July, something they had aggressively refused to do during Morsi’s rule despite reports of attacks on Coptic Christians and secular activists, and the existence of Muslim Brotherhood torture squads. The British government has also halted arms exports.
In an Islamic context, however, the Brotherhood’s insistence that they represent “legitimacy” carries with it a different meaning. As the New York Times notes, the Ikhwan are encouraging their supporters to use “legitimacy” as code language:
A third man said the crisis had been useful in some ways. “It has been a tough test, but it has had benefits — now we know who our true friends are,” he said. “The liberals, the Christian leaders, they stood with the old regime. It was painful to see some fellow Muslims going against us at first, but they have now seen their mistake and returned to us. The Islamic path is clear.”
The Brotherhood has made some effort to restrain that kind of talk. On a recent evening, an older man in traditional dress was angrily shouting to a reporter about a “war against Islam” led by liberals and the military, and the need for all Muslims to fight against it. Several Brotherhood members urged the man to change his tone, telling him to stick to the words “democracy” and “legitimacy,” and then tried to escort the reporter away.
The “Islamic path,” which is to say the Shariah, Islamic jurisprudence, is for the Brotherhood the ultimate evidence of their “legitimacy.” And to oppose their efforts to institute Shariah is interpreted, as the “older man in traditional dress” says, as a “war on Islam.” Brotherhood spiritual leader Yusuf Al-Qaradawi agreed when he issued a fatwa saying it was a religious “obligation” to support Morsi and a crime to oppose him. As reported by the Investigative Project on Terrorism,
"if he, who has disobeyed the ruler, does not repent, then he must be killed," Qaradawi said, citing Quranic passages. "There is a legitimate ruler (in reference to Morsi) and people must obey and listen to him."
In another Qaradawi video, the Egyptian-born scholar called for jihad on behalf of Egypt from across the Muslim world. Nor is this an idle threat. Syrians and Palestinians in Egypt have already proven a security concern for the military as it struggles to maintain control in the midst of street clashes. Just days after Qaradawi’s statement calling for the death of those who opposed “legitimate” rulers, secular politicians in Tunisia, and Libya who were opposed to the Brotherhood were assassinated.
Last week Ayman Al-Zawahiri, leader of Al Qaeda, weighed in on the “legitimacy” question saying to Morsi supporters, "We have to admit first that legitimacy does not mean elections and democracy, but legitimacy is the Shariah ... which is above all the constitutions and laws."
Zawahiri does not believe in code words. And he does take some digs at the MB for its decision to participate in elections in the first place. But even so, Zawahiri condemns Morsi’s ouster, implicitly recognizing Morsi as a legitimate ruler, just as Qaradawi does, and with the same implications (that those who ousted Morsi should be killed).
Understanding the Brotherhood’s “legitimacy” cry in the context of the Islamic movement’s own language is far more useful for predicting the future of Egypt and the rest of the region than is buying into their misleading language. Having squared themselves as being “legitimate” under shariah gives the Islamists no room to negotiate or maneuver even if they were inclined to (and they aren’t.) Thus, efforts by high-ranking U.S. diplomats to propose some kind of middle ground compromise are wasted entirely.
As Qaradawi and Zawahiri have made clear, the battle for “legitimacy” requires blood.
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