By Amin Saikal
August 15, 2013
THE forces of political Islam - expounding an ideology to transform Muslim societies along a variety of Islamic lines, depending on one's interpretation of the Islamic faith - have been dealt a serious blow in Egypt and, as a consequence, in the region. Yet, unless the new rulers of Egypt come up with a viable alternative ideology of nation-building, political Islamism will continue to be a critical variable in shaping Egyptian and regional politics in the years to come.
The Egyptian military has begun a process of systematically weakening the Muslim Brotherhood, which was the publicly sanctioned ruling party until the overthrow of president Mohammed Morsi last month. Not only Morsi and many of his cabinet colleagues, but also most of the Brotherhood leaders are now in detention. They all face charges of sedition and inciting violence in one form or another.
The aim seems to be to ensure that the Brotherhood and its political wing, the Justice and Freedom Party - which won a parliamentary and a presidential election, respectively, last year - will no longer be in a position to achieve electoral triumph. In this, the military has had the support of not only the old authoritarian structures, created under former Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak, but also many pro-democracy and liberalist forces who have acted as the custodians of the February 2011 pro-democracy revolution. They include the ex-chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, and former foreign minister Amr Musa.
Meanwhile, most conservative oil-rich Arab monarchies, led by Saudi Arabia, have been quick to back Egypt's military-installed government under Adly Mahmoud Mansour, with $12 billion of financial aid. They have shared the Syrian regime's congratulatory message to the new rulers, despite vehement opposition to that regime.
As for the major powers, the US, which has a close relationship with the Egyptian military (the main beneficiary of its $1.3bn annual aid to Egypt), has called for the release of Morsi and his colleagues, but has refused to brand the military takeover as a coup and therefore cut off aid to Egypt.
This is all too familiar to the Brotherhood and political Islamists throughout the Arab world, where they are now once again subjected to wider crackdowns. Mubarak's toppling opened the way virtually by default for the Brotherhood to gain electoral victory, inspiring other Arab political Islamists to become more assertive.
The Brotherhood cannot be absolved of responsibility for the sad situation in which it and many other Arab political Islamists now find themselves. Morsi and his Brotherhood supporters, now locked in a bloody power struggle with the military and its civilian backers, proved to be too ideological and less inclusive. They appeared to forget that the revolution against Mubarak had been led by pro-democracy elements, not the Brotherhood, which entered the fray only when it became clear that the days of the old regime were numbered.
They also could not see that most of their electoral support came from the vast impoverished social and economic strata of the Egyptian society, who expected urgent improvements in their living conditions. Nor could they comprehend that the Arab ruling elites had little or no appetite for tolerating a kind of political Islamism that could challenge their political legitimacy. Instead of recognising the changing conditions with a sound plan to address the pressing issues at hand in an inclusive and reformist manner, Morsi and his cohorts showed a closed mentality in pursuit of power.
Concurrently, Morsi and the Brotherhood leaders remained confident of the military's backing. Upon assuming his position as Egypt's first democratically elected president, little more than a year ago, Morsi moved fast to exert his authority over the military. He appointed a relatively unknown but religiously pious General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi as Defence Minister. Sisi, who has a masters degree from the US Army War College, had scored a meteoric rise since 2008. He had gained a reputation as the effective Army Commander of Alexandria and as one defending the military's practice of female virginity testing during the Egyptian revolution. He rapidly replaced a number of ranking officers to shore up his position, and earned the Brotherhood's trust. However, what Morsi and his colleagues could not discern was that Sisi may have also had political ambitions.
The Brotherhood's failure on different fronts caused growing public agitations, spearheaded largely by the very elements that led the February 2011 revolution. This finally provided a unique opportunity for Sisi to side with the protesters, and topple Morsi's government. He instituted a civilian government, with him as the Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister - all in the name of the people and the need for effective democratic transition. He called on the Brotherhood's opponents to come out on the streets to give him public legitimacy to crush the Islamists' resistance.
The general has now arguably become as polarising a figure as Morsi, setting Egyptians against Egyptians and imperilling the country's transition to a democratic set-up. He has indeed come up with his own brand of democratisation, based on a military-centred politics of polarisation of the public, which carries the risk of a widespread bloody confrontation.
The Brotherhood has vowed to resist the military until Morsi is reinstated - something which is unlikely to happen. Meanwhile, it would be an oversight on the part of Sisi and his colleagues to assume they can extinguish or marginalise the Brotherhood. The latter has a sizeable popular base, and professes a political Islamist ideology with whose roots millions of Egyptians have been imbued for centuries.
Egypt is now in a dangerous political, economic and security drift. This is precisely what prevented the Brotherhood from achieving what was needed to help Egypt's transition in a consensual manner. This time it is not just the opposition to the Brotherhood, which has included many liberal and pro-democracy elements, that has driven the military to power. Yet they were the very elements that had opposed the military's seizure of power in the wake of Mubarak's fall and that prompted the Supreme Council of Armed Forces to move down the path of elections that delivered power to the Brotherhood.
As such, the scene is set for Egypt's long-term structural instability and insecurity, unless the military changes course to open the way for the growth of political pluralism and inclusiveness, and national unity.
Amin Saikal is professor of political science and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University.