On the 3rd of July 2013, the Egyptian military, supported by a large part of the Egyptian population as well as the judiciary, political opposition, and prominent religious representatives, ended the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood after only one year in power. Supporters of the Muslims Brothers refused this decision and insisted they would remain in the streets to protest these measures. However, after 40 days, the Egyptian security forces intervened and ended these sit-ins in Cairo and Giza. Feeling angry, humiliated, and defeated, some of these youngsters would leave these sit-ins to establish and/or join violent groups, while others would not. How to explain these different attitudes? Why have some youngsters decided to take up arms, while others decided not to?
The experience of the ouster of Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 left many young Islamists feeling frustrated. Most of them underwent a process of radicalization during and after leaving their sit-ins: indeed, they adopted more radical attitudes regarding political change in Egypt and how to achieve it. The same individuals who in January 2011 believed in nonviolent action to bring about political change, now openly call their own position as naïve. They now believe that without radical measures to eradicate the old networks of power, no political change is possible. To achieve this aim, most of them believe that all means are allowed, including using violence.
However, despite this radical shift in their political attitudes, including their approval of the use of violence to achieve political goals, very few of them have taken up arms.
The cases of more than 50 young Islamists from different organizational backgrounds show that three main factors have shaped their decision to take up arms or not: ideas, cost/benefit calculations, and the presence of legitimate voices supporting or rejecting this decision.
First, ideas. Youngsters who have already been through this wave of political radicalization look for an ideational frame that could explain the political struggle they are facing, indicate the final goal they should struggle for, as well as the legitimate means to be employed in this struggle. To some youngsters, the Jihadi ideological frame offered a powerful answer to these questions. For example, the writings of Islamist writers, such as Sayyid Qutb, has offered an inspiring frame for many young people to make sense of the post-2013 political environment. According to Qutb’s famous book Milestones (1964), the struggle against the post-independence political regimes is neither political nor economic, but it’s about Islam itself. According to Qutb, state authorities – albeit claiming to be Muslim -- do not apply the rules of Islam, and hence are not true believers. He framed the options as/He gave to options: either struggling to live according to the rules of Islam or accepting to live in the pre-Islamic era of ignorance, called Jahiliyyah. In this context, the final aim is to build what he deems a truly Islamic society, and the tool to achieve such aim is Jihad (a term which he interprets as signifying “armed struggle”). However, religious ideas can also play the opposite role, serving as an obstacle to violence among those who have a religious education, who reject ideas such as the excommunication of fellow believers. This is the case of many among the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth. Others who followed a religious education at al-Azhar religious institute possess this very same ideational barrier. In their case, their religious ideas play a decisive role in preventing them from taking up arms against other Muslims, as it could not be justified from a religious point of view. One Islamist observed: “I believe violence is a legitimate mean in our revolutionary struggle, however unfortunately Islam doesn’t allow it, and hence I cannot use it”.
The second aspect is the cost/benefit calculation. Based on the ideational frame adopted to make sense of the political crisis they are facing, youth are likely to weigh the costs versus the benefits of taking up arms against state institutions. The decision to take up arms is not an easy one. It comes with a wide range of sacrifices, including personal sacrifices related to the individual practicing violence himself, but also his family members. The radical Islamist youth who seeks taking up arms has two main concerns that lead them to renounce such an option based on their cost/benefit calculation. The first factor is the power imbalances between oneself and the security forces one faces,making it impossible to win a military battle against them. The second factor is the lack of support from Egyptian society. However, those who follow the Jihadi doctrine are not deterred by the sacrifices they have to offer and not even by the likely defeat against the Egyptian security forces. The Jihadi doctrine frames the struggle against the political regime as that of believers against non-believers, where Jihad is a religious duty regardless of the outcome of the struggle. In Qutb words, life with all its gains and losses is not the major criterion when weighing the cost and benefits and does not determine who wins and who loses.
Third, legitimate religious voices play a decisive role in this moment of transition from radicalization to violence, by either facilitating or hindering it. In the case of youth affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, the legitimate voices from within the movement that reject the use of violence have had a strong impact on the Muslim Brotherhood youth’s decision to reject this option or to at least be skeptical about it. On the other hand, those who choose the violent path also look for legitimate voices to follow. Interestingly, many of those who make this decision are inspired by the personal experiences with those who advocate these Jihadi ideas, such as Sayyid Qutb, Abdallah Azzam, and Osama Bin Laden. Youth are often fascinated by their experience in changing their societies, and their decision to leave everything behind them to follow the ideas they believe in. As such, the personal experience of these voices carries equal weight as their ideas.
When addressing the challenge of violence, policymakers need to distinguish between radicalization and violence. While many Islamists youth have been radicalized, few have taken the decision to take up arms. The factors shaping each of these phenomena are different; hence, the policies designed to prevent each of them should be different too. While political and socio-economic grievances lead to political radicalization, individuals’ religious ideas, the cost/benefit analysis of this violent path, as well the role of legitimate voices shape radical youth’s decision to take arms or not. Thus, successful policies aiming at preventing violence should seek to address these three elements.