For over a week, speculation has been rife about the significance of the recent release of moderate Muslim Brotherhood figures Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maqsoud and Helmy El-Gazzar pending trial.
"There are more questions than answers, really," said a source close to El-Gazzar.
Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maqsoud was the top lawyer for the Brotherhood for years.
El-Gazzar is a medical doctor who was known within political quarters to have advocated the peaceful exit of Morsi from the presidential palace along with the rise of the public's demands for him to leave. A leading figure of the group, El-Gazzar was allowed out of jail on 24 August, some three weeks after a court ruling permitted his release on bail – without having dropped the charges of involvement in the incitement of violence by members of the group.
Arrested in July 2013, El-Gazzar was one of the leaders who were speculated a year ago to be released as part of a political deal that the European Union was trying to strike between the ousted Muslim Brotherhood and the transitional authorities before all diplomatic efforts collapsed with the bloody dispersal of the sit-ins in mid-August 2013.
This week, some who have met El-Gazzar following his release told Ahram Online that the man said he had not made a deal with the authorities to facilitate his release.
"There has been much speculation about a deal between the security bodies and El-Gazzar to let him out and start a revisionist movement within the group or to start a new political party that would bring together the younger generation of the organisation. However, El-Gazzar said that there is no such deal and that he has no clear plans for the future, reported one of those who had met him.
According to another source, El-Gazzar is "simply planning to keep a low profile and to try to restart his business and has no energy to start a revisionist movement or a new party".
This is however not the idea suggested to Ahram Online by political sources close to decision-making quarters.
According to one such source, the release of El-Gazzar that "would be followed by a few other releases, also on bail" is designed to send a message to the "wise ones in this group that the time has come to move on and start a new beginning whereby they would have a share in the public sphere but no hegemony and no claim to regain power".
Before the end of this year, the same source suggested "we might also be seeing the release of Saad El-Katatni and Mahdi Akef.” The first is former speaker of parliament and leader of the recently dissolved Freedom and Justice Party and the second is the elderly and frail former Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both men are facing charges of inciting violence against Brotherhood opposition.
Also speculated to be among the to-be-released Islamist figures, are some of the leaders of Islamist Al-Wasat Party, originally a late 1990s splinter group from the Brotherhood. None-jailed leaders of the Al-Wasat this week decided to abandon the 'Pro-legitimacy coalition' which had been established following the ouster of Morsi essentially by the Muslim Brotherhood along with other Islamist parties with the exception of the Salafist Nour Party and the Strong Egypt Party that is led by former Brotherhood figure Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh.
The suggested objective of the state according to political sources is to give strength to the nonviolent currents within the Islamist camp that had, contrary to the expectations of some security leadership, not been fully dissolved.
"Let us say that the state has made up its mind that there will be no return of the Muslim Brotherhood as it has been before, even under the harsh coercion of Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s or the mix of coercion and cooperation throughout the rule of Hosni Mubarak," said the same political source.
He added that in a recent meeting with editors in chief of the semi-official and the independent dailies, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi reiterated the line he had committed to during his presidential campaign that under his rule "there will be no such thing as the Muslim Brotherhood".
However, the same source added, that this is not to say that the many members of the Muslim Brotherhood organisation would simply dissipate into thin air.
"Those younger members need to find a path whereby they may engage in politics but refrain from violence; someone should help them find this path; already some of the on-the-run leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood are willing to accommodate the need for a new page but they cannot be directly influential; there needs to be someone here on the ground," the source added.
He explained that the ultimate objective is to create a buffer zone between the "radical leadership in jail" and the crowds on the ground who "seem to be still willing to show their anger through demonstrations and violent attacks.”
The release of El-Gazzar and Abdel-Maqsoud was executed as the government decided to delay the beginning of the academic year for a couple of weeks to allow for better security measures in the face of the anticipated Brotherhood demonstrations that had repeatedly disrupted the 2013-2014 academic year.
"This delay might be extended; and there are also new regulations that are being considered for the university dormitories, especially those of Al-Azhar University, which would allow the administration to expel any student who is found to be politically involved in any way," said a government source.
Meanwhile, as the political source said, it has become clear to the decision-making authorities that a year after the ouster of Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s anger and that of their sympathisers, would not be dispelled by security measures only.
This realisation seemed to be coupled with a realisation in some of the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood leaders – whether in or out of jail or on the run – that the time has come to find an alternative path forward.
In a recently issued paper, scholar Ibrahim El-Houdaiby argued that a year after the ouster of Morsi, the oldest political Islamic group needs to rethink its future.
"One year after the massive 30 June demonstrations against the Muslim Brotherhood and the 3 July ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi by the military, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is facing grave challenges that will shape the group’s future and that of political Islam," El-Houdaiby, an expert on political Islam, wrote.
He added that "the arrests of many Brotherhood leaders has weakened the leadership’s grip on the organisation and hence posed threats to its cohesion at a time when the group needs to make critical strategic choices regarding its future and its relations with the new governing order led by El-Sisi.”
According to El-Houdaiby, however, it might not be at all easy for the leaders to order a shift of direction into the otherwise very cohesive and tightly top-down controlled organisation that was first launched in the 1920s.
"Arrests of leaders and fury among the grassroots have weakened top-down controls and have encouraged individual members to take matters into their own hands, hence galvanising organisational splits," El-Houdaiby wrote.
In his paper, El-Houdaiby argued that group members are divided between accommodating the new political reality or continuing to reject it. Each choice, he suggested, comes with a cost.
‘Reconciliation’ with reality and hence with the new regime, El-Houdaiby argued, "seems more in line with the group’s history of pragmatism and is the only path for the reintegration of the politically conservative group into formal politics. However, increasingly radicalised members are balking at moving the organisation in this direction; they view it as surrender in light of the high price they paid over the past year".
According to the scholar, however, a "significant number of MB activists are influenced by the discourses of their jihadist allies, which do not preclude violence". He argued that this "influence challenges the organisation’s long-standing tradition of nonviolent engagement—a principle that shaped and differentiated it from other Islamist groups over the decades."
When all is said and done, argued the well-informed and well-versed El-Houdaiby, the Brotherhood would sooner or later, maybe later rather than sooner, find a path away from violent demonstrations of its anger – if only to cut the popularity losses, keep the receding international support and deny the authorities an excuse to clamp down on financial assets of members of the group.
The political source also added that "with a highly dwindling support for the outbursts of anger from within the Islamist camp, especially with the split of both the Al-Wasat Party and the (salafist) Al-Watan Party,” from the Brotherhood-led National Alliance to Support Legitimacy (NASL), the group, including members who do not want to bow to reality might find no other option but to pursue a new beginning.
What counts most now to give a good push to this possibility, "is to cut off the support that has been coming from Qatar and Turkey to sustain the demonstration of anger,” according to a high-level government source.
He argued that in recent meetings with counterparts from the Gulf Cooperation Council, Qatar had promised to not back Brotherhood activists. "Turkey, however, is still a problem."
The government official, however, acknowledged that the biggest challenge of all is to allow for a new beginning for the Brotherhood "under a new title and new leadership" for the anger to abate "and this would require the release of many of those who had been arrested – not the leadership but at the grassroots level and some compensation for the families of some of those who died either during the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in or other confrontation".
This matter, he said, is not subject to consensus within the ruling authorities. “As much as the Brotherhood would need time to decide their next step, the authorities too would need time to agree on the next move,” he acknowledged.