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What’s Next for Egypt?

The Muslim Brotherhood, which won the presidency Saturday, sees itself as a corrective to modern Egyptian life

Lee Smith
June 27, 2012
Egyptians celebrate the election of their new president, Mohamad Morsi, in Tahrir Square on June 24, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt.(Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
Egyptians celebrate the election of their new president, Mohamad Morsi, in Tahrir Square on June 24, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt.(Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

What’s going to happen in Egypt now that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi has been elected president? That’s the question weighing heavily on everyone’s minds—perhaps no one’s as much as Benjamin Netanyahu’s.

Morsi’s victory has brought at least a temporary calm to Egypt. Even the country’s moribund stock market responded, jumping 7.5 percent Sunday, which perhaps reflects a mood less like optimism than relief. A crisis that could have brought Morsi’s supporters and the army into conflict has been averted for now.

But, in addition to certain conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army—its preferred candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, lost by 3 percentage points—there is lots of bad weather in the forecast. Perhaps most troubling is the Egyptian economy. Tourism is way down. Western travelers, as well as Arabs seeking respite from their more austere Gulf countries, will wait to book their tickets until they see if calm is really restored and whether the Brotherhood implements measures against alcohol and other pursuits. Foreign currency reserves are dwindling, and to sustain food and gas subsidies Cairo is now dependent on handouts from an international community that simply doesn’t have the cash on hand. And though some observers, including perhaps American allies or even a few U.S. officials, might be hoping that the military is simply biding its time until it’s apparent to all that the Brotherhood is incapable of managing the country—at which point they will step in and overthrow Morsi—the reality is that the army has misplayed its hand repeatedly over the last 15 months.

What a bitter pill this is for the United States and American interests. More than a decade after Osama Bin Laden’s attack on the United States—which Morsi believes was an “inside” job—the late al-Qaida leader’s spiritual godfathers are now ruling the most populous country in the Middle East and one of Washington’s regional partners—at least up until now. “There is a lot Egypt could do to complicate things for the United States,” says Martin Kramer, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an expert on Islamist movements. “There’s the Suez Canal, overflight rights, and Egypt has been crucial for military contingency planning.”

Then, of course, there’s the peace treaty with Israel, which U.S. legislators on both sides of the aisle have held up as one of the great achievements of American statesmanship. Morsi has promised to respect “Egyptian commitments and treaties,” but many fear that the days of the cold peace that Hosni Mubarak maintained with Israel for 30 years are over, especially now that Gaza, ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood’s ally Hamas, is heating up. Morsi denies that he has called for closer ties with Iran, but the restoration of a bilateral relationship that Mubarak shelved may be only a matter of time since the Brotherhood and the regime in Tehran both back Hamas.

The cold peace that has existed since Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin shook hands in 1979, Kramer explains, “had a lot of predictability about it. Before that you had an armistice and no lines of communication that produced the 1956 and 1967 wars. The cold peace may deteriorate into a 1950s style armistice, with periodic outbursts.” What’s more, says Kramer, “the conflicts will not be settled in bilateral channels, or even a trilateral one, with the U.S. presiding, but will wind up at the U.N., like in the ’50s.”

So, how did it come to this? A revolution that inspired so much hope in so many, not just in Tahrir Square, but around the world, has ended in a victory for that Middle Eastern political party that stands in starkest contrast to the young, tech-savvy, and ostensibly liberal-minded revolutionaries who toppled Hosni Mubarak. The Brotherhood had even promised they weren’t going to field a candidate for the presidency. It was a mistake to believe it, says Kramer: “Islamism is not about political quiescence, but the acquisition of political power.”

Morsi’s victory illustrates the enormous divide between the young revolutionaries and the rest of their countrymen. These mostly upper-middle-class activists seem to have been so isolated from mainstream Egyptian society that they had no idea what other Egyptians—those who don’t speak English, who don’t vacation in the United States and Europe, who don’t have computers, let alone accounts on the Internet, who don’t pride themselves on their secularism—think about the world.

But nearly everyone else, including the governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel and the U.S. Department of State, had long warned that opening Egypt’s political system would empower Islamists. If anyone still believed that was a long shot, the evidence came in the winter and early spring when the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party won 47.2 percent of the recently dissolved parliament. Some have argued that the Brotherhood’s lackluster performance in parliament proved to Egyptian voters that the organization was incapable of governing, which is why the presidential race was so close and augurs poorly for the Brotherhood in future elections if it doesn’t rule wisely. However, it’s worth recalling that Morsi was the Muslim Brotherhood’s second choice. Their leading candidate, Khairat al-Shater, a millionaire widely believed to be the outfit’s master strategist, was disqualified from running in April. The fact that the Brotherhood’s man off the bench won 51 percent of the vote is evidence of its political strength as well as its historical prestige.

Founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, the organization’s roots reach back ever further. The Muslim Brotherhood is the blossom of the Muslim reform movement, touched off by Napoleon’s 1798 conquest of Egypt. There are two core ideas shared by all of the early Egypt-based Muslim reformers. The first was that contact with the West (specifically military conflict) had shown the Muslim world to be weak. The second was that Muslim revival would not come by imitating the West, but rather by shedding the non-Islamic practices that had accreted over the last hundreds of years and restoring Islam to the true path as set down by the prophet Muhammad. Because Western science and military technology had proven superior on the field of battle, it was permissible to use that knowledge but not the West’s secular values—lest Muslims face a spiritual crisis similar to that of modern Christendom.

The obvious blind spot of thinkers like al-Banna is that they never understood that it is precisely those secular values—like freedom of thought and speech—that made the West dominant. Optimists might point out that by participating in an electoral process the Muslim Brotherhood has also, even if unwittingly, endorsed Western values. However, the reality is that elections themselves are simply processes. As we have seen throughout the years—from Hitler’s victory at the polls to Hamas’ in Gaza in 2005—elections give no indication of whether or not a ruler will govern in accordance with democratic values.

Let’s put aside for a moment the question of how a Muslim Brotherhood presidency might affect Egyptian women, or the Coptic Christian minority, or press freedom—matters that, in fairness, did not much concern Mubarak either. What we know about Egypt’s Islamist movement is that it has been forged on the anvil of conflict, not just in its contention with the West (from Napoleon’s conquest through the British occupation to the founding of Israel), but also in its struggle against Egyptian society.

The Brotherhood, as the culmination of the Muslim reform movement, is the embodied critique of modern Muslim communities. The lands of Islam were inferior to the West because of how Muslims practiced Islam. The problem then is not that this well-oiled political machine has never actually governed a country or managed an economy, or that its practical political theory is derived from a 7th-century desert utopia ruled by the prophet of Islam. The real issue is that the Brotherhood perceives itself as a corrective—not simply to the Mubarak regime, but to the way ordinary Egyptians have conducted their affairs for the last half millennium or so. This is the Brotherhood’s ideological core, which may well spell disaster not only for the rights of women and minorities, but also for millions of other Egyptians.

Morsi has said that he is the president for all Egyptians. The question is how, particularly in the middle of an international economic meltdown, he can reconcile more than 80 million Egyptians to the Brotherhood’s rule. What has made the organization attractive for all these years is not its vision, its policies, whatever those turn out to be, but rather resistance, negation, a dynamism built on the foundations of conflict. Morsi will likely have little choice in the matter: To manage an Egypt perpetually on the verge of chaos, he will have to project internal conflict outward. In due time, Egypt will make war either on itself, or on Israel.


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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.

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