International reaction to the military coup in Egypt has focused on ending the violence that has taken nearly a thousand lives, and prodding the interim government to meet with the deposed Muslim Brotherhood to hash out a deal for national reconciliation. Diplomats see this as not just a goal, but a viable, comprehensive solution to the violence and instability that has consumed Egypt.
However, by focusing exclusively on the period since the coup on July 3rd, foreign offices around the world have failed to see the bigger picture which informs the current crisis.
What is playing out on Egyptian streets was certainly triggered by the rank incompetence and ideological zealotry of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership over the past year, which alienated so many facets of Egyptian society.
But what is shaping up next is not a tactical solution to a political crisis within some agreed upon framework. Rather it is a much broader, strategic decision – a fundamental reordering of Egyptian society – that will settle the question of what kind of country Egypt wants to be. For 85 years, two dramatically different, dueling narratives have fought for primacy in Egypt. Now, in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, Egypt has reached a point where these two narratives can no longer co-exist. One is going to prevail so that the nation can move forward.
This is not a historical novelty.
Consider that England had its “Glorious Revolution” in 1688, which finally settled sectarian tensions by deposing a Catholic king, forever making England a Protestant nation. In the United States, 70 years of political compromise could not peacefully answer the question of how a nation could be half free and half slave. Other national examples of social, economic or cultural arrangements that could no longer accommodate their citizenry, abound.
And so it is the case today in Egypt.
Now, Egyptians are affirmatively deciding on the proper role of Islam in their government and society.
For 85 years, that debate has been framed by the Muslim Brotherhood, founded as a reaction to contemporary Western secularism and energized by a vision of Egypt as a Sunni theocracy, governed in all aspects of life by strict Sharia law. Unlike traditional political interests that ultimately form parties and compete for power, the Brotherhood was/is first and foremost a social movement, setting it apart in Egyptian polity. Their vision for a pure Islamic state found voice and influence in day-to-day affairs through grass-roots activism that created and managed an extensive network of charitable programs to serve the poor. These programs not only provided badly needed services to Egypt’s neglected underclass, but also provided the Brotherhood with an army of grateful followers.
As a movement, the Brotherhood has stood apart from the Egyptian state – almost a state within a state – and was often in violent conflict with it. The Brotherhood supported the Nazis in WWII. Before independence in 1952, the Brotherhood was responsible for the assassination of an Egyptian prime minister, multiple bombings and other assassination attempts against government officials. The Brotherhood was also linked to the “great arson” that destroyed more than 750 buildings in Cairo, representing the heart of Egypt’s cosmopolitan society – theaters, restaurants, hotels, cafes – all associated with “immoral” Western culture.
After independence, Brotherhood violence met with harsh measures by succeeding Egyptian governments, a level of harassment and intimidation that ebbed and flowed through the ensuing decades. Violently suppressed by Gamal Abdul Nasser in the ’50s, the Brotherhood reached a point of societal integration where they actually endorsed Hosni Mubarak’s re-election in 1987. Relations subsequently reverted to form in the last decades of Mubarak’s reign as the Brotherhood retreated to its founding Islamic principles and Mubarak, concerned about growing Islamic radicalism, moved in the opposite direction, toward a more secular Egypt.
It is clear now that the 2011 Egyptian revolution, which overthrew Mubarak, was the point of no return for the crisis that grips Egypt today.
Contrary to its early assurances, the Brotherhood jumped into post-revolution Egyptian politics, fielding parliamentary and presidential candidates. With decades of experience in organizing and with a legion of followers, the Brotherhood’s political arm was the best positioned party to capitalize on democratic elections, and their representative, Mohammed Morsi prevailed in the presidential election.
It was a spectacular achievement. An outlawed group at the end of 2010, the Brotherhood and other Islamic parties took 63 percent of the parliamentary vote in 2011 and held the presidency of Egypt in 2012. It represented a startling break with the past, as well as a once in a generation opportunity for national reconciliation, fresh priorities and opportunity for all Egyptians.
And the Brotherhood blew it. Big time.
Egypt needed a Mandela, but instead they got a Mugabe. The reason has everything to do with the structure of the Brotherhood.
Ideological or sectarian movements are rarely successful unless they supplant former political/legal structures. Taking over an existing apparatus is an entirely different matter. For Morsi and the Brotherhood, sitting at the apex of Egyptian political power was not about solving the multiple and severe problems of the Egyptian state, of which they had never truly been apart, but rather using the power of the state to transition Egypt to the Brotherhood’s vision of an Islamic state. What else, after all, would you expect from a movement that had remained true to its founding vision through harassment, persecution and torture? In a first-things-first situation, the priority would of course have to be the creation of an Islamic state. The challenges of the secular state could wai for the Islamic solution. The flaws inherent in this strategy were realized almost immediately.
Instead of constructing a broad-based and inclusive coalition, Morsi stacked the government with fellow Islamists, a process called “Brotherhoodering” by critics. A newly drafted constitution provided unequal treatment for religious minorities in a Sunni state. Morsi himself sacked the head of the judiciary for getting in his way. The Islamic upper house of parliament passed a law that would require up to 3,000 Egyptian judges to resign, opening positions for Islamists. Ultimately, Morsi issued a decree stating that his decisions as president were immune from judicial review, consolidating his hold on power, and reflecting a more authoritarian strain of leadership wholly at odds with the promises of inclusion and democracy that the Brotherhood had parroted during the campaign.
While the Brotherhood was focused on consolidating power and laying the building blocks of an Islamic state, the Egyptian economy spiraled out of control. Lack of power, gas shortages and rising food prices continued unabated. Egyptian foreign reserves dropped by half. Security deteriorated as crime rates increased across the country. By taking their eye off the ball, the Brotherhood lost its best opportunity to establish credibility and eventual, long-term dominance of the Egyptian state, and in the process, laying bare their real agenda. The people of Egypt, faced with the reality, took to the streets again, leading to the July 3rd coup.
This is what makes the second Egyptian revolution so critical to today’s face off.
After the fall of Mubarak, all parties to the revolution in Egypt enjoyed a status of equals in the opportunity to bring energy and talent to solve Egypt’s problems. And despite early unease, there was a hope that Morsi and his brethren, despite their history, could be that agent of change. But the events of the last year has proven the hollowness of that argument.
We now have two, fundamentally different factions. The interim government and protestors believe that the Brotherhood has utterly disqualified itself from participating in Egyptian polity by their record of authoritarianism, sectarian zeal, epic mismanagement and badly confused priorities. The Brotherhood, by contrast, feels that they won overwhelmingly by the rules established by the state, and were robbed by the state anyway, confirming that the governing apparatus is corrupt, designed to be impervious to the changes that the Brotherhood believe they were overwhelming elected to implement.
These two visions cannot be reconciled. And only one can prevail.
As a result, further violence, sadly, seems all but certain. No paper agreement can bridge the differences between the two camps. A solution outside diplomacy seems to be the only real path that will allow Egypt to unite and move on. F
or the US and the West, the historical stakes of the coming conflict pose difficult moral, legal and ethical challenges. Yet the sooner these powers realize the coming reality, the sooner the West can orient its policy in a manner that best serves their respective national interests.
Picking sides, no matter how distasteful, is also inevitable.