Friday, July 05, 2013

The backlash against Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and its (temporary?) political debacle

A good political joke from Egypt was reported by the Washington Post 's Max Fisher on Tuesday, just before the military coup that removed President Morsi and his government:
Before the joke, the set up:  Since the Muslim Brotherhood was first founded in Egypt in 1928, it has been severely persecuted, including by the three Egyptian presidents who ruled from 1956 through the 2011 revolution: Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. After Mubarak fell, Muslim Brotherhood members swept the country’s first elections, even taking the presidency, although President Mohamed Morsi’s one year in office has been extremely controversial, culminating in mass protests this week, with many calling for him to step down and the military hinting it might step in.

Now the joke, told by a spokesman for Egyptian opposition figure Amr Moussa and relayed by Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid:   “Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak tried to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood. Only Morsi succeeded.”

Moussa, a former Egyptian minister of foreign affairs and secretary general of the Arab League, has been a critic of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. [....]
Before proceeding, we should note that this description of Moussa is a bit too bland and uninformative.  Moussa is a quintessential figure of the now-discredited system headed sequentially by Nasser and Sadat and Mubarak, and ideologically he might almost be described as a fossilized fragment from the lost world of Nasserist pan-Arabism.  So it's not surprising that Moussa is "a critic" of the Muslim Brotherhood.  And there is undoubtedly a fair amount of wishful thinking in Moussa's joke. I would guess that the Muslim Brotherhood still has more popular support and a more effective organization than any other political grouping in Egypt. I doubt that it's headed for the dustbin of history any time soon. (I would be delighted to be proved wrong about that, but I'm not holding my breath.)

On the other hand, there's more than a grain of truth in Moussa's joke, too.  In its brief period of power since the fall of Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood has apparently managed to unite all the other social and political forces in Egypt against itself—from left-over elements of the old order to groups that led the mobilization against Mubarak.  The millions of Egyptians who demonstrated against Morsi are just one indication of this backlash.  What is also striking is the wide range of forces that have endorsed the military's post-Morsi political "road map", which includes new elections and a rewriting of the constitution that was largely drafted by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies in the Salafist Nour Party.

Perhaps it's not surprising that the figures endorsing the ouster of Morsi included representatives of the non-Islamist opposition parties, such as Mohammed El-Baradei; organizers of the Tamarod ("rebellion") youth movement whose anti-Morsi petition campaign helped galvanize the recent mass protests; and the leadership of the Coptic Church (whose flock constitutes around 9-10% of the Egyptian population, depending on which estimates one follows).  But they also included the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque and University, one of the premier religious authorities of Sunni Islam in Egypt.  And I notice that even the Nour Party—which won the second-largest bloc of seats in the parliamentary elections, and whose criticisms of the Muslim Brotherhood's Islamist agenda were basically that the MB was too moderate and gradualist in ramming it through—has publicly accepted the "road map".

=> A nice piece by J. Dana Stutster in Foreign Policy on Wednesday helped illustrate the extent of this convergence.  Stuster offered a (neo-Kremlinological?) analysis of this photograph titled "Who's Who in Egypt's Coup".  Check out the cast of characters:

When Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the ouster of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy on Wednesday, he did so with the support of a carefully selected collection of Egyptian officers, politicians, clerics, and academics. They represent a broad swath of the Egyptian population and are clearly meant to give political and religious credibility to the new interim government. Here's a who's who.

1) Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi: The minister of defense and commander-in-chief of the Egyptian military, Sisi was appointed in August 2012 by Morsy to succeed Gen. Mohamed Tantawi, who oversaw the transition from the Mubarak regime to a democratically elected government.

2) Mohamed ElBaradei: An opposition politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his work as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, he served as an intermediary between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Tamarod ("rebellion") youth campaign, which organized the protests that began this past weekend.

3) Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb: The grand imam of Al-Azhar Mosque and University, he is an authority on Sunni Islam, the most common faith in Egypt.

4) Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria: The leader of the Coptic Church, the most popular sect of Christianity in Egypt with approximately 12 million adherents, or about 9 percent of the population of Egypt.

5) Mohamed Badr: The organizer of the Tamarod campaign that started in April and culminated with the protests that began last weekend.

6) Sekina Fouad: A journalist by training and a former member of Morsy's presidential advisory committee, Fouad resigned from her advisory role in response to the Egyptian president's November 2012 decree that placed his actions above judicial review.
=>  At the moment I don't want to get too involved in speculating about what happens next. But here are a few quick passing remarks, with an emphasis on the more pessimistic elements in my current reflections. (Sorry if that's a downer, but I think it makes sense to be cautiously ambivalent about Egypt's political prospects right now.)  In the present situation, the military coup against Morsi may well have been better than the realistically available alternatives, but the main point is that all the existing options were, and remain, so lousy and unpromising.

It seems clear that the military does not want to take on the responsibilities and liabilities of ruling Egypt directly. Instead, they would like to manage a fairly quick transition to another civilian government (while maintaining their own autonomous power and privileges). Essentially, they are giving the opposition forces a second chance to put together a coherent and effective political alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood that can actually win elections and govern the country successfully.

The problem, as Trudy Rubin pointed out in a column on Wednesday, is that so far the various opposition forces have proved incapable of doing that, and the prospects that they will do better this time around are not encouraging. Aside from their general fecklessness and political incompetence, they don't really agree on much except their dislike for the Muslim Brotherhood. And they face a whole range of urgent and challenging problems, including an economy in free fall and an increasing crime, sectarian violence, and insecurity. If they blow it again, and conspicuously fail to solve Egypt's problems, then in the long run it may be the opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood that winds up being most discredited, rather than the Muslim Brotherhood itself.

And what if the Islamist Parties (e.g., some combination of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists) actually win the next elections? The country is deeply split, so that outcome is not impossible.  Then the fat will really be in the fire. And I haven't even begun to spin out the worst-case long-run scenarios ...

On the other hand, perhaps these forebodings will turn out to be excessively gloomy and pessimistic. We can always hope for the best (or, at least, for something less bad than the worst-case scenarios). Stay tuned ...

—Jeff Weintraub