Over the past six decades, Arab political and intellectual currents have been involved in wars of exclusion and elimination. The first task for anyone who rose to power—even through tanks and guns—was to eliminate rivals and opponents. Shortly thereafter, the new leader would turn on his allies within his own party or organization. The entire political regime would thus become a family affair. The leader then fabricated a national story that linked his party inextricably to history, and which also irrevocably placed the leader and (usually) his sons at the heart of that exalted party. The intention was that the sons would replace the leader’s political allies when they were old enough. In the Arab world, our political regimes had fallen into an unholy trap.
Nasserites, Ba’athists, pan-Arabists and leftists have all been involved in bloodshed and the exclusion of other currents, and they have all branded the others as “devils.” Political Islam—and especially the Muslim Brotherhood—were often the main victim of such so-called revolutionary regimes. This persecution was enough for political Islamic movements to weave the discourse of victimization into their image, arousing considerable public sympathy for them. This, among other reasons, was one of the factors that led to the immense political and public support for such Islamic movements.
The Arab Spring uprisings meant that countries in the region had the opportunity to choose their leaders through the ballot box for the first time in history. As was expected, in free and transparent parliamentary and presidential elections across the Arab Spring states, the people chose Islamic currents, mainly the Muslim Brotherhood. In a number of states, political Islam was capable of moving from imprisonment to the open corridors of government. For the first time, the Arab region had the chance to see the Muslim Brotherhood in power, having only ever known them through opposition, imprisonment and exile. We can say this happened for the first time with the Arab Spring because many observers and analysts do not consider the experiences of political Islam in Sudan or Gaza as a suitable model for comparison. Islamists argue that the catastrophic failure of these two experiences should be attributed to factors beyond the ruling Islamic regimes’ control.
If we consider the clear differences between the experiences of Islamic currents ruling Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, we can find some common denominators: a tendency to dominate, branding others as “devils,” and an inclination to “Ikhwanize” the state and Islamize laws and constitutions. Egyptian Islamists took these measures more explicitly than their counterparts in Tunisia and Morocco.
The Egyptian Brotherhood’s first year of rule was characterized by excess. Not even artful language could conceal the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood does not see other groups and political movements as partners, or even as equal citizens. It was clear that the Brotherhood viewed democracy as a mere ladder to power that could be pushed away once they were at the top so that others could not use it.
It was also clear that the Brotherhood’s appetite for power—which they only got after 80 years on the sidelines—pushed it to harvest the fruits of that power too early. This led the group to be punished—starved, if you will.
Their inclination to exclusion and marginalization went hand-in-hand with modest experience in managing state affairs and in addressing the needs of a contemporary society (to be blunt, a lack of ability to govern). Egypt under the Brotherhood seemed to be heading towards a revolution within a revolution. This is what happened on June 30, which paved the way for the intervention of the armed forces in the judicial, media, security and civil institutions of the Egyptian state.
The Brotherhood’s fall from power at records speeds as a result of a revolution—not the coup some claim it to be—is the biggest blow it has ever taken since it was established. For the first time, the Brotherhood is facing off with the people, not with the army commanders or rulers to which it is accustomed. The consequences of this will not stop at Egypt’s borders; in fact, they will be felt across the entire region.
It is still too early to say that political Islam has fallen or that the Muslim Brotherhood will never stand on its own two feet again. This is, for some people, just wishful thinking; for others, it is part of a desire to eliminate opponents. For others still, such an opinion comes down to ignorance of the dynamic of Islamic movements in our countries.
But once the dust settles, the Islamic currents—and especially the Muslim Brotherhood—will certainly experience profound internal revisions. They will change their stances, policies, leadership and institutions. For the Brotherhood, this could go one of two ways. Either the Brotherhood will learn its lesson from its failure in governance and embrace equal citizenship, political pluralism, freedom, democracy, human rights and general respect for others—or it will retreat back into its closed, “Takfirist” discourse. Its destiny will depend on how extensively it reforms itself, and on how it balances the tension between embracing open pluralism and sticking to strict Islamism. Even more, the behavior of other political currents and of the state itself towards the Brotherhood will be decisive in determining the extent and direction of these reforms, and will certainly affect the internal balance of power in the group.
But no matter what happens, nobody should think that we have seen the end of the Muslim Brotherhood or of political Islam.
The counterpoint to this piece can be read here.