By Musa Khalil
31 January 2014
The Arab Spring in 2011 ended with once-marginalised Islamist parties in governments in Egypt and Tunisia. It was not long before they stumbled.
In one fell swoop on 3 July, the venerable Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood lost 85 years of patient labour and squandered the chance – at least in the foreseeable future – for political Islam in Egypt.
To the very last, even after the military announced it was taking over, President Mohamed Morsi and his aides remained defiant, hoping they could still face down the army.
It was this same hubris and naivety that had allowed hostility to accumulate to the point where the military could act against Morsi, just one year after his election in the country's first democratic vote.
Now hounded, jailed and killed en masse in protests amid the widespread applause of many of their compatriots, the Muslim Brotherhood is in tatters but convinced that there can be no turning back.
A few hundred kilometres to the west down the Mediterranean coast, Tunisia's Ennahda faced similar problems, albeit with less violence.
Unable to manage the economy, pilloried by the opposition for trying to ram through changes to the constitution and accused of permitting a spike in violence that saw the deaths of two leading oppositionists in 2013, Ennahda eventually lost ground.
Perhaps a more mature political force, it slowly negotiated the end of a transition it lead.
For both movements, it is a far cry from the heady initial days of the revolution. There were dreams of emulating Turkey's Islamist ruling party Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, with both a buoyant economy and a firm grip on the levers of state.
Lone Voices of Caution
Within Egypt's Brotherhood, there were factions aware of the dangers of power.
The decision to name a presidential candidate – first choice Khairat el-Shater was later replaced by Morsi – was a controversial one in the movement, which had insisted it was uninterested in the presidency.
It took three votes within the group to decide to participate in the 2012 presidential election.
One prominent member, Mohammed al-Beltagi, published rare criticism from within the party, warning that the Islamists would be assuming far too much responsibility.
Beltagi is now in jail. Police treated his arrest in August 2013 as a priority after he became one of the most hard-line spokesmen for the Brotherhood following Morsi's overthrow.
His daughter was killed, along with hundreds of others, when police dispersed the Islamist group's main protest camp in Cairo on 14 August.
The son of Mohammed Badie, the Brotherhood's supreme guide, also died that day. Badie himself is in prison.
The crackdown has outdone even the darkest days under President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s.
On the night before police moved in on the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp, the Brotherhood's leadership knew what was coming.
It had been warned by – among others – European Union (EU) envoy Bernardino León that an operation would take place.
One after another, party leaders dismissed conceding defeat as they had done in the past.
"We've come too far," said spokesman Ahmed Aref at the time. "Before, we did not have an elected president. There is too much momentum to stop." Aref is now in prison.
Another leader, perhaps revealing the dead end the Brotherhood had found itself in, explained the battle in stark terms: "This is an existential conflict between democratic Islam and secular militarism."
So what will the Brotherhood do next? Middle East expert Rosemary Hollis of London's City University says: "For some, the logic will be violence. Others will decide to go underground and wait. But none of them will be reconciled."
Initially, the Brotherhood envisaged a prolonged and dogged protest movement that would destabilise the tottering economy enough to turn opinion against the army-installed government.
Blinded By Power
The lesson from Rabaa – that mass killings of Islamists provoked little dismay in Egypt – was lost on the leadership.
Before 14 August and after two separate incidents of mass killings in clashes with police and soldiers, a Brotherhood politician said that he placed his hopes on the military committing "mistakes" that would bring the Islamists more sympathy at home and abroad.
With the domestic media ignoring the Islamist casualties while focusing on their atrocities, the tide turned further against the Islamists.
When Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei quit his post of vice-president on 14 August to protest the bloodshed that day, he was roundly vilified.
Although faced with hostility at every turn, with their protests attacked by passersby, the Islamists do not seem to fully realise their mistakes, especially the failure to reach out to other political groups and the decision by Morsi in November 2012 to grant himself supreme powers and immunity for the Islamist-led parliament.
The party's leaders also believed that they could buy off the army with a line in the constitution protecting the huge slice of the economy that the security services control.
On the other hand, there was perhaps a failure to recognise how much the 'deep state' acted against them; fuel shortages quickly cleared up once the army stepped in.
Internationally, the Brotherhood's advocates in the United States and the EU have now shifted from pressuring the government to accommodate the Islamists, towards advising the few Brotherhood politicians still free to make their peace with the government.
Following Badie's arrest in August 2013, nominal control of the Brotherhood went to the oldest member in the guidance bureau, Gomaa Amin, who had travelled to London for treatment before Morsi's overthrow.
Officials in the group say the real leader is deputy supreme guide Mahmoud Ezzat, who is in hiding.
The London and Cairo groups seem to be pursuing different channels and presenting different demands.
In London, Brotherhood officials told British intermediaries they would settle for guarantees of inclusiveness and trials of officials responsible for killing protesters.
In Cairo, Western diplomats who maintain contact with the Islamists say they have grown increasingly frustrated by the Brotherhood representatives' refusal to budge on their starting demands: the restoration of Morsi and the suspended constitution, and then negotiations with the opposition.
These positions have hardened with Morsi's trial, which began on 4 November.
Politically, many in the government would prefer the Brotherhood to quietly accept the new reality and perhaps run candidates in the upcoming parliamentary election, assuming that their unpopularity would show at the polls.
The security establishment sees an opportunity to mop up the Islamists while public sentiment is on its side.
The security approach is mirrored in some Islamist circles, where some Brotherhood members view it as a zero-sum game with their old arch-foes in the intelligence and national security apparatuses.
There have been cracks in the ruling coalition, mostly over the hard-liners’ overreach.
Liberals and revolutionaries who helped overthrow President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 have pushed back at the proposal for a draconian protest law and at the increasing pro-military intolerance that pushed liberal television comic Bassem Youssef off the air in early November after he mocked the military and its emotive supporters in the media.
But, given their recent history, the revolutionaries and Islamists are unlikely to join forces.