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Reports of 'Islamism's' demise are greatly exaggerated

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Hussein Malla/AP

(Read caption) A supporter of Egypt's ousted President Mohamed Morsi stands in the shadow as he reads Islam's holy book Quran in Nasr city, Cairo, Friday, July 12, 2013. Thousands of supporters of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood group rallied in a Cairo city square, waving pictures of the ousted president and chanting anti-military slogans.

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When the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was elected president in June 2012, many wondered if it heralded a transformational shift for Egypt, and perhaps for the whole region. After all, Egypt is the Arab world’s most populous country and is home to the Muslim Brotherhood, the granddaddy of the modern Islamist movements that emerged in the early 20th century.

The Brothers' victory, amid a time when old secular dictatorships seemed consigned to extinction, could prove that 'Islam is the solution' (the Brotherhood's slogan) after all, and many articles and commentators predicted their brand of political Islam would come to the fore across the Arab Middle East.

A little more than a year later, of course, Mr. Morsi is under house arrest, senior Brotherhood leaders are being hounded by the Egyptian military and court system, and millions of Egyptians who voted for Morsi appear to have turned on him. The coup was prompted by street protests against the Brotherhood that dwarfed the ones that convinced the top brass to dump President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, and the speed with which support bled from the Brotherhood was indeed stunning.

A headline in the Turkish Newspaper Milliyet (translated by Al-Monitor) last week asked, "With Fall of Political Islam, Are Fault Lines Emerging in Moderate Islam?" The day after the coup, the London Review of Books carried a post titled "The End of Islamism?" and the author answers "yes" to his question:

"It turns out that Morsi’s tenure was a blessing in disguise. If he had lost the presidency, Islamism would have remained the path not taken. But today, millions of Muslims have voted with their feet against Islamist rule. Those who grieve over this affront to ballot box democracy forget that Egypt, like any new democracy, has every right to seek popular consensus on the basic tenets of its future political system. Revolutionary France went through five republics before settling into the present order, and America needed a civil war to adjust its democratic path. It is not uncommon in the history of revolutions for coups to pave the way or seal the fate of popular uprisings. Those who see nothing beyond a military coup are simply blind. I asked the old, bearded man standing next to me in Tahrir Square why he joined the protests. ‘They promised us that Islam is the solution,’ he replied. ‘But under Muslim Brotherhood rule we saw neither Islam nor a solution.’ The country that invented Islamism may well be on its way to undoing the spell."

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has, of course, been overjoyed at Morsi's fall, locked as he is in a war for survival with rebels whom he has consistently sought to paint as Islamist terrorists. "What is happening in Egypt is the fall of so-called political Islam," Assad told a state newspaper on July 3. "This is the fate of anyone in the world who tries to use religion for political or factional interests."

Well, maybe. But is this really the death of political Islam, a modern ideology that has proven itself robust and adaptable over 80 years of frequently violent repression? Or even the death of the Egyptian Brotherhood? Despite a number of articles speculating so, this strikes me as not only a premature but unlikely conclusion.

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A fickle mood

In Egypt, the public mood has been fickle. Mass protests in 2011 and 2012 decried military and police abuses, the use of military trials for civilians, and the military's running of the country for 16 months after Mubarak's downfall. Today, millions of Egyptians are singing the military's praises and cursing the Brothers as terrorists, traitors, and worse. All but forgotten was the murder of Khaled Said in 2010 by corrupt cops in Alexandria, an event that became a symbol of abuse and impunity under Egypt's long-running military dictatorship and proved the galvanizing factor in the street protests that drove Mubarak from power.

Who's to say, if Egypt's economy continues to deteriorate in the next year, that whatever amalgam of senior officers and civilian appointees are in charge won't be blamed for the country's troubles, and the crowd will look back toward the Brothers with rose-colored glasses? And while Morsi's year in power was by any measure a failure, it was only a year in power, and he inherited a mess that was decades in the making. It will be easy for the Brotherhood to argue that it failed not because its ideology was wrong, but because it wasn't given enough time.

“This had to play out this way, but it’s frustrating to me, as someone who is not a fan of the Islamist project, for Islamist rule of Egypt not to be allowed to completely fail on its own,” says Will McCants, a scholar of Islamist movements at the Center for Naval Analyses. “I worry that the coup has kind of short-circuited the process of the Islamists kind of hoisting themselves by their own petard and demonstrating that the ideology isn’t really fit for governance.”

And regionally, the impact of Morsi's election was probably always overstated.

While the Syrian brand of the Muslim Brotherhood has struggled, with Qatari support, to rebuild itself during the civil war (it was destroyed by Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez in the 1980s), jihadi groups who favor a much more authoritarian style of political Islam have made enormous inroads.

In Turkey and Tunisia, Islamists aren't going away

Turkey, where the Islamist AKP has faced protests of late, has nevertheless prospered under a decade of Islamist rule, and while Prime Minister Erdogan's party may suffer at the next election, the party isn't going anywhere.

Michael Hanna, a fellow at The Century Foundation in New York who closely follows regional politics, points to how Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party handled Morsi's fall in Egypt.  

"If you look at some of the reaction, I think the most instructive one is Ennahda," he says, pointing out that while they opposed the removal of Morsi, they took great pains to distance themselves from the Brotherhood. "You know, 'we decry this usurpation of the democratic process and, by the way, we here in Tunisia are nothing like the Muslim Brotherhood, we are inclusive, we listen to the people.' [Ennahda's] reaction reflected a sense that the Brotherhood had messed up and they’re not the Brotherhood."

Tunisia's leading Islamist party has been having problems of its own, but has also been far better at adaptation and compromise than Egypt's Brotherhood. The Tunisian Islamists don't appear to be going away any time soon.

In Syria, Hanna says members of the local Muslim Brotherhood were privately telling him last year that the arrogant manner in which Morsi and Co. were running Egypt was hurting their cause locally, since it was getting in the way of forming coalitions with religious minorities. But Salafi groups, backed with heaps of cash from donors in Gulf monarchies like Saudi Arabia and a battlefield zeal unmatched by other rebel units, continue to thrive.

In Egypt, too, the Brotherhood is not the only option. The Salafi Nour Party, which won about 7 percent of the seats in the 2012 parliamentary election, was largely cut out of power by the Brotherhood, and when the time came supported the removal of Morsi. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, they remain untarnished by any failings while in power.

"It’s been fascinating to watch particularly in Egypt, but across the region, the Salafis really enjoy playing spoiler and sniping from the wings because they don’t have really any pretense towards a mass political party," says McCants. "My hope is that the Egyptian Broterhood looks at what happens and says 'OK, the big mistake we made was not being inclusive enough.' They didn’t even include Nour, which would have made a good ally if they’d given them some cabinet appointments, and they didn’t." 

Mr. McCants says his concern is that the Brothers will go the other way. "What they’re going to do I’m afraid is conclude that what’s better for us is to be much more serious about implementing Islamic law" and perhaps start building alliances with militant groups.

"My worry is that they learn to be far more intransigent, they learn to more strenuously cultivate ties to violent actors so they provide a credible threat to their opponents and state security. I don’t think they go back to grassroots, sort of (preaching and social outreach). I think I worry that it’s going to be a far harder Brotherhood that emerges out of this than the one we've seen in the recent past."


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