Egypt’s Islamists are out but not down

Fouad Ajami, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is the author of “The Syrian Rebellion” and “Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey.”

Egyptians had taken pride that the furies of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq were alien to them. Now they have been robbed of that consolation.

Those magical 18 days in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, when Egyptians of all stripes came together to demand the ouster of their tyrant, Hosni Mubarak, seem like light years away. Egyptians were of one mind then — secular and religious, Muslims and Copts, people of affluence and those without wealth converged on the great city to take part in an ennobling drama.

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Now the crowds have divided: Tahrir Square is claimed by the secularists celebrating the end of the Muslim Brotherhood’s reign. Across town, in Nasr City, in Rabaa al-Adawiya, the adherents of the Brotherhood stand defiant, convinced that they were robbed of the political gains they secured at the ballot box.

If democracy had erred and gone the way of the Brotherhood, the judiciary, business interests and the army were ready to overrule the ballot’s verdict. The elitism animating this sentiment is unmistakable. Two fundamentalisms have clashed: the Brotherhood’s religious calling and the secularists’ belief in the supremacy of their social order.

That great stalemate, a schism, opened after the fall of the Mubarak despotism. On one side are those who want to live by Islamic sharia law. On the other are those who want to keep faith at bay, play soccer in the streets, watch racy television shows, give their children a secular education and smoke hookahs in peace at coffeehouses late into the night. The secularists, now given a reprieve by a military coup d’etat, seem hell-bent on extirpating the roots of the Muslim Brotherhood. Self-styled democrats wink at the arrests of Brotherhood leaders and the shutting down of their media; they are not troubled that a duly elected president was taken into “protective custody” and denied freedom of movement. Nor do they seem concerned that the upheaval of the past 30 months ended in military rule.

But the army, and those who hail its intervention as a gift of deliverance, can’t wish the Brotherhood away. The dream of banishing political Islam from public life is illusory.

The commanding leader Gamal Abdel Nasser waged a brutal campaign against the Brotherhood from 1954 until his death in 1970. The Brotherhood was proscribed, thousands were sent to prison. And in 1966, the seminal figure of Islamism, the writer Sayyid Qutb, was sent to the gallows. But the Brotherhood survived.

The leader of this month’s coup, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the army chief and defense minister, can’t succeed where the charismatic Nasser failed. Sissi can’t solve the age-old troubles of Egypt that nourish political Islam. He can’t heal the crushing poverty or herd into some modern utopia a country driven by a Darwinism that leaves the vulnerable without support.

There is no doubt that the Brotherhood has suffered a devastating setback. Its leaders may attribute their political troubles to a military class eager to reclaim its dominion over the country. But they would have to be blind and willful not to see the numbers that sought an end to their hegemony. The Tamarod or rebel movement’s claims that 22 million people signed its petition calling for an end to Mohamed Morsi’s presidency may be exaggerated, but they have to be heeded. There is no denying the disaffection with the Brotherhood. The group has always been somewhat mistrusted by Egyptians who don’t feel the need to have their faith confirmed — or denied — by a religious and political movement that intrudes on domains best left to individual believers.

Egyptians are a river people who wear their faith lightly; when Islam came to them from Arabia in the 7th century, the new faith had to coexist with many practices from the past. Islam never had the public space all to itself. The Brotherhood’s strident version of the faith never carried the day; it remained the allegiance of a militant minority. Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, a plotter who was assassinated in 1949, bequeathed to his followers a tradition of insularity and paranoia. He divided society into four kinds of people: the believers, the undecided, the opportunists and the enemies. It was no wonder that Morsi could not find his way out of the cocoon of his movement.

Beginning in the 1980s, religious militancy and zeal made deep inroads into Egyptian life, and modernity was thrown on its heels. In the public space were now more bearded men and veiled women; more alarming still were assaults on noted secular modernists. In 1992, Farag Foda, a fearless secularist who had been a relentless critic of the Islamists, was killed by two masked men on motorcycles in front of his teenage son. Two years later, an electrician who had never read a word of the fiction of the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz stabbed the great Cairene in the neck and paralyzed his writing hand. It had grown dangerous to offend the zealous, and Mahfouz had intuited the change in the country’s temperament. For example, in his 1983 novella “The Day the Leader Was Killed,” a fictionalized account of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s assassination, an older character laments what had befallen Egypt: “The land, the land is full of bigotry. They wish to drag us back 14 centuries.” The reference here is to the belief of the Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamists, that Islam had a golden age in the opening decades of the 7th century that modern Muslims should regard as an example of just rule.

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s political bureau should have seen their demise when a curfew was imposed on the cities of Ismailia, Port Said and Suez late last year. The curfew was defied, and the multitudes went into the streets to sing and dance and play soccer in the night. Ordinary human desires were at war with the Brotherhood’s zeal.

Those victories at the ballot box had not reconciled the secularists to the Brotherhood’s legitimacy, or counseled them to prepare for the next election. The protests were the street’s version of impeachment. In the secularists’ logic, there was urgency to their campaign to overthrow Morsi. The impatience was odd, as Morsi had not imposed his will on the political order. But the state that Mubarak had left behind was still intact; the dominion of 30 years could not be wiped out in a matter of months.

Morsi did not even take on the most dreaded elements of the old regime: the police. Instead, he gave them greater authority, new equipment and paid tribute to them. No one was brought to justice for the hundreds who had perished in the rebellion against Mubarak. Much was made of the “constitutional declaration” of last November in which Morsi put his decisions beyond judicial review. But that decree was set aside by Morsi himself. He owned up to that mistake — a rarity in modern Egyptian history where the rulers have presented themselves as infallible deities.

In his year at the helm, Morsi had deferred to the officer corps, kept peace with Israel, brokered a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel in November, and was unduly solicitous of the United States. All this was to no avail; the forces arrayed against him were determined to upend his presidency. The recent protests that sealed Morsi’s fate weren’t the work of young, disaffected elements. An economic titan, Naguib Sawiris, a billionaire with tentacles that run through the economic and political spheres, now unapologetically owns up to the fact that he lent his coattails, and his media outlets, to Morsi’s opponents. The old order was not ready to relinquish its power.

Six decades ago, when the monarchy was overthrown, there were two forces in the arena: the army and the Brotherhood. The secular political parties were feeble and bankrupt. Beyond the noise and demonstrations, there is the unmistakable feeling that Egypt today is where it was the last time it was at a crossroads.

outlook@washpost.com

Read more Outlook essays by Fouad Ajami:

In Syria’s war, the lines that matter aren’t red

Why is the Arab world so easily offended?

Five myths about the Arab Spring

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