The darkly funny joke that sums up Egypt’s crisis

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi speaks to reporters. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi speaks to reporters. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Before the joke, the set up: Since the Muslim Brotherhood was first founded in Egypt in 1928, it has been severely persecuted, including by the three Egyptian presidents who ruled from 1956 through the 2011 revolution: Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. After Mubarak fell, Muslim Brotherhood members swept the country's first elections, even taking the presidency, although President Mohamed Morsi's one year in office has been extremely controversial, culminating in mass protests this week, with many calling for him to step down and the military hinting it might step in.

Now the joke, told by a spokesman for Egyptian opposition figure Amr Moussa and relayed by Al Jazeera's Hoda Abdel-Hamid: "Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak tried to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood. Only Morsi succeeded."

Moussa, a former Egyptian minister of foreign affairs and secretary general of the Arab League, has been a critic of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

At the risk of ruining the joke by explaining it, what's so incisive about this is that it captures the degree to which the arc of the past year has been the story of the Muslim Brotherhood struggling in a very new role. For many decades, it was an often-popular political opposition group that managed, amazingly, to survive under three authoritarian regimes that sought to erode or outright destroy it.

But, only a year after taking the political power it has spent generations fighting for, the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have lost much of the popular credibility that helped get it there. Morsi and his allies have made some politically disastrous missteps, cutting corners and excluding opponents, as well as failing to revive the economy or a sense of law-and-order. The Muslim Brotherhood's political base still appears to support it, but the speed at which the organization has isolated itself from Egyptian society, doing itself what three very powerful presidents couldn't, is indeed something.

That doesn't mean that the Muslim Brotherhood is now universally hated in Egypt, has lost all credibility or is going away for good, of course. A March Pew poll found the brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, had a 52 percent approval rating. The Egyptian military, after all, was the subject of fierce public outrage just over a year ago, for its role in violent clashes with protesters that killed dozens. And it remains quite popular according to that same Pew poll.

So Morsi has not really gotten "rid" of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has survived plenty in its time. But he does not appear to have done much for its reputation within Egypt, either.

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