During the decades when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was a barely tolerated opposition party, it campaigned against the reigning secular autocrats under the banner “Islam is the solution.”
With the military’s removal on July 3 of the Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, the region’s oldest exemplar of political Islam has lost its best and perhaps only chance to validate that slogan. Indeed, the rise and abrupt fall of the Morsi presidency are a timely comeuppance for a world view that, starting with Iran’s 1979 revolution, seemed to be gaining adherents throughout the Muslim world.
Political Islam has had a long arc, reviving in the modern era with the founding of the Brotherhood by Hassan al Banna in 1928 in opposition to a monarchy largely controlled by Western interests. Over the decades, monarchs and military-run governments of assorted Arab nationalist, socialist and capitalist hues have suppressed the Brotherhood and its various offshoots. Then came spring 2011.
While Islamic movements did not lead the rebellions against aging autocrats, they were well placed to benefit because of superior organization, a history of providing social services to the poor and a record of repression by the state.
Once in power, however, these movements frequently overreached. Nowhere was this more evident than in Egypt, where the Brotherhood reneged on initial promises not to seek a parliamentary majority or the presidency – promises made to avoid provoking a backlash from secular forces.
“Morsi’s removal is a warning that Islamic parties cannot count on religious identity alone to govern successfully and need to work constructively with others.” – Barbara Slavin, Atlantic Council
Then, Morsi – a substitute for a more powerful Brotherhood official, Khairat el-Shater, who was disqualified from running – misinterpreted his narrow victory in a runoff a year ago as a mandate to consolidate power and essentially gut the Arab world’s most important democratic transition.
Given the magnitude of the problems Egypt faced after the removal of Hosni Mubarak, only a government that truly reached out beyond its political base stood a chance of succeeding. Without that broad popular support, the Brotherhood was loathe to implement crucial economic reforms and incapable of concluding a bailout agreement with the International Monetary Fund.
The constitution rammed through by the Brotherhood last spring disappointed those looking for major improvements from the Mubarak era. Morsi was also tone-deaf in many of his appointments, going so far as to name a member of the once-violent Gamaa al-Islamiya that had massacred foreigners in Luxor to govern one of Egypt’s most important tourism hubs.
The Brotherhood mistook the piety and religiosity of ordinary Egyptians for allegiance to a largely one-party religious government. This is a common mistake among Islamists. Many people in the Middle East might like to have a pious Muslim as a president but even more, they want competent leaders who will listen to others and forge constructive relations with the outside world.
Morsi’s removal is a warning that Islamic parties cannot count on religious identity alone to govern successfully and need to work constructively with others. This lesson seems to have been internalized by the Nour party, a nominally more hard-line group that supported Morsi’s ouster and pushed for a consensus choice for prime minister instead of Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate and champion of secular forces.
The fate of the Brotherhood experiment in Egypt has important ramifications throughout the region – for Tunisia, still struggling to write a constitution, and for Syria, whose opposition includes numerous Islamic groups and whose regime is banking on the support of religious minorities terrified by the notion of Islamic rule.
Morsi’s fall is also a sobering lesson for Iran, the world’s only theocracy, and Turkey, whose ruling AK Party has strong Islamist roots. Both initially welcomed the Brotherhood victory but instead of validating an Islamic world view, the events in Egypt have underlined its limitations.
In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan is still reeling from protests in Istanbul and other major cities against his government’s authoritarianism and creeping efforts to legislate Islamic morality. Erdogan’s behavior in recent years has contrasted with the AKP’s tolerance of opposing views when it first came to power a decade ago. Increasingly, Erdogan has come to resemble previous Turkish autocrats with an Islamic veneer.
In Iran, meanwhile, the 1979 Islamic Revolution died years ago. Iran is now one of the least religious countries in the Middle East, a place where Muslim holidays such as Ramadan are barely observed compared to ancient Persian celebrations such as Nowruz.
In urging Iranians to vote in last month’s presidential elections, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had to resort to appealing to the electorate’s patriotism as Iranians, not their religious identity as Shi’ite Muslims – a telling sign that he recognizes how unpopular the system has become. Iranians promptly chose the least hard-line candidate allowed to run, Hassan Rouhani. One of the reasons his victory was surprising is because he is a cleric and clerics are notoriously unpopular among the citizens of the Islamic Republic.
In a speech shortly after his election, Rouhani indicated that he understands that religious ideology is no substitute for competence and accountability. He promised to listen to the “majority of Iranians” who voted for him and added:
“In our region, there were some countries who miscalculated their positions, and you have witnessed what happened to them… The world is in a transitional mood, and a new order has yet to be established. If we miscalculate our national situation, it will be detrimental for us.”
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Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation," and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.