CAIRO — An Egyptian court on Monday ordered the Muslim Brotherhood to be banned and its assets confiscated in a dramatic escalation of a crackdown by the military-backed government against supporters of the ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.
The ruling opens the door for a wider crackdown on the vast network of the Brotherhood, which includes social organizations that have been key for building the group's grassroots support and helping its election victories. The verdict banned the group itself — including the official association it registered earlier this year — as well as "any institution branching out of it or ... receiving financial support from it," according to the court ruling, made public on Egypt's state official news agency MENA.
The judge at the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters also ordered the "confiscation of all the group's money, assets, and buildings" and said that an independent committee should be formed by the Cabinet to manage the money until final court orders are issued. The verdict can be appealed.
The Brotherhood was outlawed for most of its 85 years in existence. After the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, it emerged to work openly, opening a formal headquarters and forming a political party for the first time, and rose to power in a string of post-Mubarak elections. Still, its legal status remained hazy. In March, it registered as a non-governmental organization, but its entire network was not brought under the association's aegis.
"This is totalitarian decision," a leading Brotherhood member, Ibrahim Moneir, said in an interview with Qatari-based Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr TV. "You are losers, and it (the Brotherhood) will remain with God's help, not by the orders by the judiciary of el-Sissi," he added, referring to military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the overthrow of Morsi on July 3.
The military removed Morsi after mass protests by millions demanding he step down, accusing him of power abuse and allowing the Brotherhood and other Islamists to monopolize rule.
Since Morsi's ouster, security forces have arrested some 2,000 of the group's members, including many of its senior figures and a large swath of its middle ranks. Morsi, held in secret military detention, faces trial on charges of inciting the killing of protesters during his year in office. The Brotherhood's top leader and his deputies are also on trial, and figures are expected to be referred to courts soon, and already assets of many senior figures' assets have been ordered frozen. Officials and sympathetic media accuse the group of fomenting a wave of violence in retaliation for the coup.
The Brotherhood and its Islamist allies have continued protests demanding Morsi's reinstatement — but the rallies have grown weaker under the heavy crackdown. The group insists its protests are non-violent. However, dozens of churches and police stations came under attack by suspected supporters of Morsi and armed Morsi supporters exchanged gunfire and clashed with security forces in two Islamists' strongholds.
"This time, the group will return to darkness but much weaker than before after losing popular support," said Abdullah el-Moghazi, a former lawmaker who sat on a consultative body that advised the military generals who ruled Egypt for more than a year after Mubarak's fall and before Morsi's election.
He said that after Mubarak's ouster, the Brotherhood was not formally unbanned, but that the military leaders "turned a blind eye" allowing it to create a political party without formalizing its legal status.
Essam el-Islambouli, a legal expert, said the ruling would likely mean the disbanding of the Brotherhood's political party, Freedom and Justice, banning its official mouthpiece though the verdict did not specifically mention the party. Already the group's television network Misr 25 has been closed the day Morsi was ousted along with ultraconservative newtworks.
Perhaps most importantly, the ruling — if upheld in later stages — would give authorities a legal basis for moving against the Brotherhood's network of businesses, school, hospitals and charities that have been the foundation of its political power. That network provided it with financing and recruiting and built popular grassroots support. Built while the group was underground, the links throughout the network are often unclear, with individual Brotherhood members holding ownership.
Explaining its verdict, the court issued a broad denunciation of the group. It said that since its founding, the Brotherhood group used Islam as "a cover to activities that violate Islam and its rulings. It violated the rights of citizens." It said that while Morsi was in power, "citizens lost their basic rights for social justice and security" and that under it "Egyptians found only repression and arrogance."
The ruling came in a suit raised by lawyers from the leftist party Tagammu party, accusing the Brotherhood of being a "terrorist" and "exploiting religion in political slogans." The court did not address the terrorism accusation, beyond calling on al-Azhar, the Sunni world's premier religious authority, to confront "extremist thought that supports terrorism."
Several other courts are looking into similar suits. Egypt's Administrative Court is looking into legality of the group's registered non-governmental organization. A non-binding panel of judges recommended the NGO be dissolved and that the Brotherhood headquarters be closed on the grounds that it is operating outside law. The court is holding its next session on Nov. 12.
In the past, all orders to disband the group have been issued by executive authorities. In 1948, it was outlawed under the monarchy, then once again in 1954 by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who imprisoned and executed several of its top leaders.
Still, the group was able to build up its organization, working in semi-shadow. Under Mubarak, the group won nearly 20 percent of parliament seats in mid. 2000s.
"The group exists either with state ban or without," said former Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki, who served under Morsi. "It is like Israel for some Arab countries. It exists though some Arabs don't recognize it. Does this affect Israel? The answer is no."
He said that successive regimes have tried uprooting the group, "but none worked."
Interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi has warned against driving the Brotherhood completely underground, saying monitoring of political parties is a more reasonable alternative.
Ahmed Darrag, leader of liberal al-Dustour party, said the group's network was already largely underground. He argued that court rulings are not the way to confront the group.
"You can only confront ideas by ideas," he said.