Déjà Vu

Morsi-less: Are Egyptians Done with the Muslim Brothers?

The first anniversary for Egypt’s new President Mohammad Morsi saw not celebrations or commemorations, but gargantuan demonstrations throughout the country calling for his ouster, writes Hussein Ibish.

Amr Nabil/AP

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.The first anniversary for Egypt’s new President Mohammad Morsi saw not celebrations or commemorations of the first Egyptian elected civilian president in modern times, but instead gargantuan demonstrations throughout the country calling for his ouster, breathtaking in size and scope. Millions of Egyptians took to the streets throughout the country demanding his removal. These demonstrations were bigger, but there is an unquestioned sense of déjà vu in the oust-Morsi movement—called the Tamarod (rebellion) by its organizers—and the original uprising against Hosni Mubarak.

Indeed, the anti-Mubarak revolution began with an attack on his National Democratic Party's headquarters, just as the most intense scenes yesterday were at the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters and that of its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). This morning, the Brotherhood’s headquarters lie ransacked and gutted—an appropriate metaphor for the political state of the President and his party, and possibly for the nation as a whole.

The anti-Brotherhood Tamarod marks another clear turning point in the serpentine process of an Egypt determined to leave its dictatorial past behind, but which knows not where it is going. But what's happening in Egypt is going to be a major bellwether for the future of numerous Arab states and yet again demonstrates how much popular opposition there is to unfettered Islamist rule even in the more conservative Arab countries. If the Muslim Brotherhood cannot take and retain power, in its country of origin—Egypt—after winning elections and in the face of a fragmented and frequently ineffective political opposition, then the entire Arab Islamist project will be called into the gravest doubt. The clear implication will be it was simply never plausible for such religious fanatics to rule large, diverse and mainly non-Islamist Arab societies, particularly given their propensity for authoritarianism and incapacity for compromise and conciliation.

Morsi’s June 26 obnoxious, defensive and endless rant to the nation on television merely underscored his political tin ear and intransigence, and, perhaps, sealed his fate. His unmistakable message was, "we are the revolutionaries," and “everyone who opposes us are reactionary counterrevolutionaries, if not traitors.” It was bound to infuriate the nation, and so it did.

It also left absolutely no one with any confidence he has real policies, let alone solutions, to deal with the daily life crises ordinary Egyptians increasingly struggle with: growing poverty, inflation, mass unemployment, the nightmare of commuting, fuel and food shortages, and a rapidly crumbling national infrastructure. Additionally, there is a terrifying growth of crime, gang violence, rampant sexual harassment, and sectarian atrocities against Copts and Shiites. Egyptians do not feel safe, economically, socially or personally, and with good reason. In answer to all of these crises, the Brotherhood essentially merely offers "Islamic values." Even many of the most devout Muslims fully understand Islam is a religion, not an ideology or political program, and offers no answers to these overwhelming national crises.

The Egyptian military put the number of anti-Islamist demonstrators at "14 million," a figure Reuters reasonably described as "implausibly high," and which would make it by far the largest political demonstration in human history. But even if that number is wildly inflated, it's clear these protests were vastly larger than the anti-Mubarak protests that brought down the old dictatorship more than two years ago. The typically restrained New York Times simply left the number at "millions." At least 16 people were killed.

Egypt is now split along at least four major axes that interrelate in very complex and unstable ways. The Brotherhood and its Salafist allies clearly do have a significant constituency. The revolutionary groups on the ground, mostly young and without strong organizational capabilities and even clearly thought through ideologies, which were instrumental in bringing down Mubarak, once cooperated with the Brotherhood but now seem to have realized that they are at least as much, if not a bigger, threat to freedom than the old dictatorship. They have decided, it appears, that Morsi has to go, and with him the entire Islamist-rule project.

Lurking in the wings of course is the deep state, and in particular the military. Much of the police, the remaining security forces, and the judiciary are key elements in the opposition to the Brotherhood. For its part, the Army was glad to get out of the governing business, and is primarily concerned with protecting its key zones of influence: its control of defense and national security policy, its secret budget, its various extraordinary prerogatives (including the power of arresting and trying civilians in military tribunals), and its massive economic holdings (often estimated at a minimum of 20 percent of national GDP).

The Brotherhood, which overreached at almost every other stage, was wise only in seeking to accommodate the military, and to ram through a dreadful Constitution which even more deeply embeds a military authority and autonomy than the old one did, and also adds a layer of potential Islamist social authoritarianism. So the military remains a major power, but is likely to do its best to avoid directly intervening in domestic politics again. It wasn't to their liking, and they don't see any long-term benefits from such an arrangement.

What the Army needs is a stable, competent political partner to take care of the business of actually governing the country. Clearly that can't be the Brotherhood. Since winning the first parliamentary election, and then the presidency, the Brotherhood has broken every promise it has made to friend and foe alike. It has not only alienated, it has infuriated, almost everyone outside of its core constituency or its direct partners. The degree of overreaching and political miscalculation has shocked even those of us who took the Muslim Brothers to be political cretins.

They rammed through a ridiculous, counter-revolutionary Constitution by terrifying the country with a red herring “constitutional declaration” that granted virtually monarchical powers to the President, far exceeding those of any of Egypt's modern dictators. They've attempted to purge the judiciary. They are clearly trying to take over the Armed Forces by stacking its junior cadres with their own members. They've gone on a veritable bender applying blasphemy and libel laws at the drop of a hat against a breathtaking array of minority groups and political opponents, and even satirists.

More to the point, the Brotherhood has proven both absolutely incapable of cooperating with any forces outside of their immediate sphere of control or influence (except for the shameless Entente Cordiale with the military), and also of doing anything effective in government. Under their rule, the economy has continued to collapse. Social services are worse than ever. The state of social despair that led up to the downfall of Mubarak has been replaced by an atmosphere of social and economic panic.

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And this, more than anything, explains the size and vehemence of the protests. An overwhelming cross-section of Egyptian society can agree on one thing and one thing only: they have had enough of this ridiculous, incompetent, embarrassing, bellowing, threatening petty little thug. They realize that he is incapable of running a bath, let alone a country. And not only is he presiding over a social and political meltdown, his intentions are, if anything, now clearly more autocratic and repressive than the old Mubarak dictatorship. At least five cabinet ministers have reportedly resigned this morning in recognition of popular disgust.

Young revolutionaries who were once willing to make common cause with the Brothers are leading the battle, which has already turned violent. Brotherhood cadres have been ostentatiously preparing "paramilitary" units, but they are really just street gangs. The revolutionaries have a crack force: the "ultras," the football hooligans who are the best street fighters in the country and who were crucial in the battle against Mubarak's security forces. The most politicized of these have formed a loose-knit organization called the "black bloc," but really it boils down to this: young soccer hooligans don't like government and they don't like authority. And they do like a good fight. And they're good at it. So if street fighting becomes the order of the day in the unfolding protest movement, the "ultras" may again prove the most fearsome.

Post-dictatorship Egypt now finds itself at a four-way crossroads. The intersection is essentially between the Brotherhood, the military, the revolutionaries, and the heretofore silent majority. If the size of the demonstrations yesterday is anything to judge by, the extent of public anger and rejection of Morsi, the Brotherhood and their government is unmanageable. Unless they peter out quickly, which seems unlikely, Morsi and his allies are going to have to make an adjustment and a deal with some opposition groups very quickly to try to quell public outrage, or the situation could spiral entirely out of control. They simply have no legitimacy or moral or political authority left, beyond their immediate supporters.

The astonishing size, scope and breadth of the anti-Morsi protests that have erupted in Egypt clearly demonstrates what so many of us have been repeating ad nauseam since the Arab uprisings began in Tunisia: the majority of Arabs are not Islamists, and they do not wish to be ruled by Islamists, particularly not in an arbitrary and autocratic manner. The once-silent Egyptian majority is speaking, because hundreds of thousands if not millions of those who did not participate in the protests that ousted Mubarak were on the streets yesterday, and more may join them in the days to come.

The speed with which the Brotherhood came to power in the post-dictatorship era was no surprise whatsoever. They had long-standing structural, organizational, branding and competitive advantages that no one else could compete with. What has been amazing has been their absolute inability to shift from a strong, well-organized oppositional movement (or, indeed, politicized cult) to a political party, let alone a government. The vertiginous speed with which they have alienated everyone else, squandered all of their advantages, electoral legitimacy, potential for building any kind of coalition beyond the Islamist set, or to produce any positive results in terms of social or economic policies has been astounding. One measure of their political acumen was the FJP’s website description of yesterday’s "imaginary protests in downtown Cairo and the streets of Giza." See, brothers and sisters? It was all just a bad dream.

The only thing the Muslim Brotherhood has left going for them, beyond their substantial but distinctly minority core base, is the fractured, disunited and confused opposition. When it comes to elections and normal politics, that's a huge advantage. But when you're facing millions of infuriated protesters demanding your downfall with a veritable encyclopedia of legitimate grievances and justifiable outrage—as Hosni Mubarak discovered—the quality of the opposition parties is no longer the issue. The only way to recover that advantage, potentially, is for Morsi to give in to opposition demands and call for new presidential elections. But it may be too late even for that, unless such an announcement can be in coordination with some key opposition groups. Right now, they have no apparent incentive to bail him out.

Ironically, capitulation to that risky demand may be the only way to salvage Brotherhood rule. But conciliation is constitutionally anathema to such fanatics. And, when they do compromise, they have an invariable tendency to break their word (in the greater glory of God, of course, so it doesn't matter). Which is one of the largest reasons they find themselves facing millions of brave and infuriated Egyptian citizens who are once again demanding their freedom, this time from a new, and more ominous, brand of tyranny.