Members of the Republican Guards stand in line at a barricade blocking protesters supporting deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi near a Republican Guards headquarters in Cairo, July 9, 2013. (REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah)
In October 1992, Cairo was struck by a devastating earthquake, in which nearly 600 people were killed and several thousand injured. Within hours, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups were out on the streets, clearing the rubble and providing food, blankets and tents to the thousands who had lost their homes. The government of then-President Hosni Mubarak, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen. The quick response by the Brotherhood illustrated for many Egyptians how deeply rooted the Islamist movement had become, its members able to mobilize a vast social service network in Cairo’s poor neighborhoods while Mubarak’s secular, military-backed regime floundered after years of ineptitude and corruption.
This episode is instructive when considering the long-term consequences of the popular uprising turned coup that overthrew Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president and the first Brotherhood leader to assume the presidency of an Arab country. The Egyptian military insisted that by deposing Morsi in early July, it was acting on the will of the Egyptian people, who had grown disenchanted with his clumsy rule and disastrous economic policies. But the army has gone much further: it arrested Morsi along with hundreds of other Brotherhood leaders and activists; it opened fire on Morsi’s supporters; it shut down media outlets sympathetic to the Islamists; and it is threatening to ban the Brotherhood entirely, as Mubarak had done. Many of Egypt’s secular and liberal activists have stood by, and some—blinded by their fear of the Islamists—are actively encouraging the military’s crackdown.
Despite the missteps during its short-lived rule, the Brotherhood still has support among large segments of the population. Over decades, the movement built mosques, schools and clinics that often outperformed the government’s social welfare system. It is foolhardy to think the Brotherhood can be uprooted and cast out of the Egyptian political system. Egypt cannot have a future as a viable, pluralistic democracy without the Brotherhood’s participation. (Unfortunately, the army’s coup, and the Brotherhood’s failure at governing, have lent ammunition to pundits in the West who perpetuate the centuries-old lazy—and racist—trope that Islam is incompatible with democracy and modernity.)
Morsi’s overthrow has dangerous implications far beyond Egypt: it could reshape Islamist politics throughout the region. The Brotherhood is the oldest and most influential Islamist movement, inspiring branches and affiliates, in the Arab and Muslim worlds. In fits and starts over several decades, Islamist parties across the Middle East renounced violence and committed to participating in electoral politics. But now Islamists could view the Egyptian military’s coup as a signal that election results will not be respected and that secular forces, which have often fared poorly at the ballot box, will undermine Islamists before they’ve had a chance to rule. Ultimately, Islamists may conclude that the only way to achieve power is through violence. There are precedents: in 1992, the Islamic Salvation Front was on the verge of winning parliamentary elections in Algeria when the army intervened and canceled the results. That coup set off an eight-year civil war that killed at least 100,000 people.
After a long history of repression, Brotherhood activists are sometimes obsessed with a narrative of martyrdom, one that revolves around the movement’s many leaders who were imprisoned, tortured and executed by the Egyptian state. Founded in 1928, the Brotherhood was initially focused not on politics but on religious outreach through preaching and providing social services. The group soon became politically active in the struggle against British colonial rule, and it called on Egyptians to confront the forces of imperialism and Zionism through a renewed commitment to Islamic piety. Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officers Movement, which overthrew the British-backed monarchy in 1952, were nominally allied with the Brotherhood while keeping the Islamists at arm’s length. But after a member of the group tried to assassinate Nasser in 1954, the new military regime moved to crush them. Nasser arrested thousands of Brotherhood members; those who were not executed or forced into exile were interned in desert camps.