The Brotherhood, which claims democratic legitimacy, could now develop a form of Islamism that is more openly responsive to public discourse
The July 3 military coup which overthrew Mohamed Morsy, Egypt’s only civilian President since Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser deposed King Farouk in 1952, and the army’s brutal response to protests — at least 650, including about 50 soldiers, have been killed and thousands more injured — have been called the end of the Arab Awakening. Those Egyptians who led their country’s contribution to that phenomenon had already been deeply disturbed by Mr. Morsy’s election victory in June 2012, which showed the strength of public support for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist parent body to Mr. Morsy’s Freedom and Justice Party, and they then received other shocks such as the President’s decree of November 22 giving himself sweeping powers including immunity to any decisions he made thenceforth.
Mr. Morsy rescinded the decree after protests in which at least seven people died and 350 were injured, but the Brotherhood’s methods were already clear. The senior leadership, after decades under bans imposed by Nasser and savage repression by the 30-year regime of Hosni Mubarak, seemed to have developed a siege mentality; they looked unable to acknowledge other groupings and attitudes, let alone accept the existence of the secularists and moderate Islamists who had had the courage to challenge and overthrow Mr. Mubarak early in 2011.
The attitudes Mr. Morsy showed are not uncommon among political groups which have spent long periods under oppression or near-oblivion, even in relatively open democracies, but in Egypt the consequences were deadly. The police and the judiciary, both utterly entrenched under the ancien régime, see the Brotherhood as their major rivals. On June 14 the constitutional court, acting on a narrow interpretation of the eligibility rules for candidates, abolished the 508-seat constituent assembly, in which the Brotherhood and its allies had won 235 seats on a 37.5 per cent vote share, in contrast to the second-placed Islamist Bloc’s 123 seats. The assembly could not even start its task of writing a constitution, and in the same week the interim military government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawy, awarded itself powers to veto changes in the constitution, to propose legislation, and to detain civilians and deploy the military at times of what it called internal unrest; it would also retain control over the armed forces and could veto declarations of war.
Many Egyptians called these events a constitutional obscenity, but the military had no intention of relinquishing control. The senior officers, despite the fact that half the 440,000-strong army are conscripts and include large proportions of Brotherhood sympathisers from rural areas, are extremely wary of any threats to their dominance — and wealth — and feared the political power the Brotherhood could now wield. Those Egyptians who had been as troubled about a Brotherhood government as they had been about the Mubarak regime started by welcoming the coup but soon realised what awaited them; Mohamed ElBaradei, whom the coup leaders had named as acting vice president, resigned, and the coup leader General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has steadily intensified his rule since.
As for the international reactions, they could not have been weaker. The United States, which provides $1.5 billion a year in aid, has expressed regret over the violence, but is yet to call the coup a coup, because that would trigger an immediate suspension of aid and could hurt U.S. arms manufacturers; in addition, promises of compensatory aid from Saudi Arabia and Qatar are probably less certain than Washington’s help, which dates back to the early 1980s, and a reduced U.S. presence in Egypt could lead to increased Russian and Chinese influence there. The European Union, for its part, has stated its “deep concern” and hopes that democratic elections will occur “in the shortest possible time,” but the contrast with several western countries’ strident calls for an invasion of Syria is obvious.
The western reactions also amount to tacit support for the regime’s view of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohamed Badie, is under arrest, as are hundreds of other senior members. The organisation itself was banned on September 23, and its funds have been frozen. Mr. Morsy is being held in a secret location; although an African Union delegation has met him, visitors are helicoptered in at night, with the aircraft flying in confusing patterns to preserve secrecy. Furthermore, Al Jazeera TV has released footage showing the military planning to “terrorise” the media; the station’s Cairo offices have been raided several times. Two of their staff are in detention, and at least 10 Egyptian journalists are being held without trial. The army has even arrested a farmer for putting a military-style hat on a donkey, naming it after a general, and riding it around.
The regime clearly aims to close down all political space. Yet it could thereby sow the seeds of its own collapse. The Brotherhood rightly claims democratic legitimacy; furthermore, as some of its younger members have said, absent or arrested seniors cannot dominate or stifle internal debate; the organisation could now develop a form of Islamism which is more openly responsive to public discourse. That could be more than a focal point for mobilisation, because on the evidence neither the senior military nor the Brotherhood’s old guard are likely to have political responses to genuine political argument emerging from within the Brotherhood itself; the Arab Awakening may be far from over yet.