Premature Obituaries for Political Islam
Following the Egyptian military’s ouster of the Islamist-led presidency of Mohamed Morsi, commentators have been quick to declare the end of the era of the Islamists. Such hasty conclusions, however, fail to consider deeper questions, such as: Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of religiously-based parties, or is this the failure of Islamists to govern effectively and inclusively? How much harm has the Muslim Brotherhood’s first experience in power inflicted on the Islamist movement throughout the region? What have we learned about the Islamists’ conduct and practice while in office? Does the toppling of the first democratically elected (Islamist) president in Egypt’s modern history undermine the democratic transition?
To begin with, mainstream Islamists of the Brotherhood variety have survived decades of persecution, incarceration, and exile by military-led authoritarian regimes. And they will most likely weather the latest coup that has swept away Morsi. Despite concerted efforts in the last six decades by secular strongmen like late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to weaken and isolate their religious rivals, the Islamists’ close-knit networks and asabiya (group loyalty) have allowed them to withstand the brutal onslaught of secular authorities and grow their organization.
In my interviews with the Islamist rank-and-file over the past 20 years in Egypt and elsewhere, it has become clear to me that religious activists are nourished on a belief in the movement’s divine victory and they are willing to endure sacrifice, hardship, and loss to bring about that desired end. Decades of persecution that drove the Islamists underground have left deep scars on the Islamists’ psychology and imagination. As a result, they often view the wider society as intrinsically hostile to their cause. The Egyptian military’s ouster of Morsi will reinforce this siege mentality and the sense of victimhood and injustice among the Muslim Brothers and their followers.
If history is our guide, in the short and midterm, Islamist leaders will prioritize unity and solidarity of the organization as opposed to critically evaluating their performance in government and drawing out critical lessons. They will bury their heads in the sand and accuse the world of conspiring against them. The Muslim Brothers have already begun to mobilize thousands of followers, a task made easier by a strongly held belief that the Islamists are defending constitutional legitimacy against a “fascist coup” by the military. As one of the most powerfully organized social and political movements in Egypt and the region, the Brotherhood can rely on its power base, which represents between 20 to 30 percent of the electorate, to remain a force to be reckoned with either at the ballot box or in the streets.
Although the Islamists will remain key players in the countries most affected by the large-scale Arab popular uprisings and the Middle East at large, their brand has been damaged. As the former deputy supreme leader of the Brotherhood (second-in-command), Mohammed Habib, put it, the Brotherhood has lost not only the presidency but also its moral case, its claim that it stands above the political fray and that it knows what it takes to resolve the country’s economic and institutional challenges. The Islamists’ yearlong governance experience exposed a conceptual deficit, a poverty of policy programs, and an authoritarian streak reminiscent of their secular counterparts. Political Islam has failed on the level of both theory and practice. In the eyes of a critical segment of the lower and middle class co-opted by the Islamists after the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, Morsi and the Brothers have been tried and found wanting. They have failed to deliver the local public goods.
More than a year after gaining power, the Islamists’ mismanagement of the economy laid bare their celebrated claim that they are skilled managers, administrators, and merchants and that they are better equipped to provide social services and jobs than their secular authoritarian predecessors. They proved to be as incompetent, lacking original ideas and managerial and administrative skills, as those whom they replaced.
Far from improving the economy, the Islamists’ muddled style of governance has actually exacerbated a structural crisis and caused more hardship and suffering among the poor and the dwindling middle class. On the first anniversary of Morsi’s presidency, millions of protesters, some who had voted for the Muslim Brotherhood, filled the streets demanding his resignation. He alienated not only the liberal-leaning opposition but he has also angered millions of Egyptians because of his economic mismanagement. The Muslim Brothers and other Islamists made a catastrophic mistake by not developing a repertoire of ideas about governance, particularly the political economy. In the past decade when I (and others) pressed Islamists about their political-economic programs, they retorted by saying that was a loaded question designed to expose them to public criticism; they would release their programs once they were allowed to participate in the political process. The Islamist movement suffers from a paucity of original ideas, a huge body with a tiny brain.
Public dissatisfaction with Morsi goes beyond poor economic performance and centers on his authoritarian ways and his systemic effort to entrench Islamist rule. The Islamists have not made the transition mentally from an opposition group to a governing party. Although they won a solid majority in the parliamentary and presidential elections, they have acted as if the whole world is pitted against them, a mind-set that caused them to overreach and thus monstrously miscalculate.
Instead of delivering on his promises, such as building a broadly based inclusive government and al-nahda, or renaissance, Morsi went to great lengths to monopolize power and place Muslim Brothers in state institutions. There is a widespread belief among Egyptians of all walks of life that Morsi tried to ikhwanat misr (make Egypt in the Brotherhood’s image) and subordinated the presidency to the Brotherhood, a fatal error, to a proud country that calls Egypt Umm al-Dunya (the mother of the world).
There is no denying that Morsi, a pliant functionary and a safe choice for the Brotherhood, is heavily responsible for the Islamist debacle. Morsi was his own worst enemy, deaf and blind to the gathering storm around him. He mastered the art of making enemies and blunders, and turned millions of Egyptians who voted for him into bitter enemies. He was the wrong man to lead Egypt, the most populous Arab state, at this critical revolutionary juncture.
Morsi’s Islamist-led administration did indeed inherit a country that was politically polarized and financially bankrupt. From the outset, he faced stiff resistance to his presidency from state institutions, including the police and the security forces, and the entrenched interests of the old guard. Similarly, the liberal-leaning opposition never allowed Morsi a honeymoon period. Seculars and liberals deeply mistrusted the Islamists from the outset and they viewed them as an existential threat to the secular identity of Egypt, which motivated them to call on the military to topple a democratically elected president and subsequently embrace it — a non-democratic act. The Islamist-nationalist fault line that emerged in the mid-1950s still exists and the culture wars are still raging. This divide now has been invested with cultural and civilization-based overtones. Writing in Al Hayat, an Arabic-based newspaper, Adonis, a prominent secular poet and a vehement critic of the Islamists, argues that the struggle between Islamists and secular-leaning nationalists is more cultural and civilization-humanist than political or ideological; it is organically linked to the struggle over the future of Arab identity, the Arab future.
Given the odds, Morsi was bound to disappoint and eventually fail. Egypt’s problems grew under his watch; social and economic conditions worsened and political divisions deepened.
Regardless of the criticism leveled against Morsi, there was nothing unique about the Islamists testing the limits of their newfound power, falling into the trap of blind political ambition. The question is not whether Islamists are liberal or born-again democrats (they are neither), even though now they are portraying themselves as the champions of constitutional legitimacy. Their worldview and socialization ensure that they will most likely preside over conservative, illiberal democracies.
Nevertheless, Islamists, including the ultra-conservatives, have stressed a commitment to institutionalize democracy and to accept its parameters and rules. That is good news because liberalism does not precede democracy — it is the other way around. Once institutions and democratic political practices are enshrined, then the debate on individual rights and minorities, and the role of the sacred in the political can be managed through freedom of expression and change of majorities in parliament.
The military’s removal of Morsi undermines Egypt’s fragile democratic experiment because there is a real danger that once again the Islamists will be suppressed and excluded from the political space. The writing is already on the wall with the arrest of Morsi and the targeting of scores of Brotherhood leaders. This does not bode well for the democratic transition because there will be no institutionalization of democracy without the Brotherhood, the biggest and oldest mainstream religiously based Islamist movement in the Middle East.
The fallout and reverberations will transcend Egypt to neighboring Arab and Middle East countries. Throughout the region, Islamists are anxious that the popular tide may have turned against them. After the large-scale Arab uprisings from 2010 to 2012, there was a widespread perception among Arabs that the Islamists were a winning horse, unstoppable. That inevitability has been turned upside down after millions of Egyptians protested against the Islamist-led administration of Morsi and his subsequent ouster. Ikhwan (the Muslim Brothers) is a toxic brand that could contaminate political Islam and debilitate it.
As the central Islamist organization established in 1928, the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood’s first experience in power will likely taint the standing and image of its branches and junior ideological partners in Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and even Tunisia and Morocco. Hamas is already reeling from the violent storm in Cairo and the Muslim Brothers in Jordan are feeling the political heat and pressure at home. The Syrian Islamists are disoriented and fear that the tide has turned against them. The liberal-leaning opposition in Tunisia is energized and plans to go on the offensive against Ennahda. Even the mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Gulen Movement in Turkey are watching unfolding developments in neighboring Egypt with anxiety and disquiet. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to pen the obituary of the Islamist movement.
Fawaz A. Gerges is an ISPU Fellow and a professor of Middle Eastern Politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics; he has been doing field research on Islamists since the late 1980s and has written extensively on the many faces of political Islam. His forthcoming book is The New Middle East: Protest and Revolution in the Arab World.
This article was published by Foreign Policy on July 16, 2013. Read it here.