Skip to main content

Will Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood survive?

By Isobel Coleman, Special to CNN
July 5, 2013 -- Updated 1033 GMT (1833 HKT)
A celebrant bears a poster on July 4 showing Mohamed Morsy surrounded by leading Muslim Brotherhood figures as babies.
A celebrant bears a poster on July 4 showing Mohamed Morsy surrounded by leading Muslim Brotherhood figures as babies.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Muslim Brotherhood decries coup, recalls history of military rulers brutalizing its leaders
  • After Morsy's win, secularists feared a takeover by theocratic Muslim Brotherhood
  • But Muslim Brotherhood believed it had won a mandate to govern, Isobel Coleman says
  • Coleman: Egypt must choose secular or Islamist rule, hope Islamists don't turn to violence

Editor's note: Isobel Coleman is the author of "Paradise Beneath Her Feet" and a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

(CNN) -- In a stunning reversal of fortunes, Egypt's President Mohamed Morsy was deposed by a military coup just one year after being sworn in as president. The Egyptian protesters who took to the streets by the millions over the past several days to demand Morsy's resignation were jubilant as news spread Wednesday that their goal had been met: Morsy's Muslim Brotherhood-backed government was gone, along with its creeping authoritarianism and mismanagement.

The leaders of the protest movement are insisting that what happened was not a military coup, but rather a remarkably peaceful demonstration of the will of the people to achieve the original goals of the revolution: bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity.

Morsy's embittered supporters see it quite differently: Even as their democratically elected leader was talking compromise with an opposition that would have none of it, he was pushed out of office by a military that positioned its tanks in strategic locations throughout the capital, took control of state media, and has placed Morsy and key advisers under house arrest.

Isobel Coleman
Isobel Coleman

The Muslim Brotherhood website on Thursday warned of a "new era of repression and tyranny." They know of what they speak: There is a long, dark history of Egypt's military rulers brutalizing Muslim Brotherhood leaders.

Within 20 years of its founding in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, a charismatic schoolteacher and preacher, the Muslim Brotherhood was disbanded by the Egyptian government, which felt threatened by its rapid spread. The Brotherhood, a popular grass-roots political, social and religious movement, had attracted a huge following with its simple slogan, "Islam is the solution," and its provision of social services.

By the time it was banned in 1948, it had nearly 2 million members. Several violent decades followed as increasingly radical Brotherhood members took up arms in an attempt to realize their goal of creating an Islamic state. But by the 1970s, the organization renounced violence and vowed to participate in the political process. Still, the government barely tolerated the Brotherhood; under longtime President Hosni Mubarak, Brotherhood leaders were regularly arrested in crackdowns.

Muslim Brotherhood leader arrested
Brotherhood: This is end of democracy
Can Islamists learn from coup in Egypt?
What do the Egyptian people want?

Although the Brotherhood did not lead the events of January 2011 that toppled the Mubarak regime, it quickly capitalized on them to become the political front-runner in post-revolutionary Egypt. Aware that it was held in deep suspicion by many at home and abroad, the Brotherhood at first vowed not to dominate the country's new politics. "We will not have a presidential candidate," promised Mohamed Morsy. "We want to participate and help. We are not seeking power."

But that promise quickly faded as the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, buoyed by its superior organizational structure and credentials as a stalwart opposition, took the largest number of seats in the new parliament (43.4%) and then won the presidency. The Brotherhood's secular opponents became increasingly uncomfortable that they were watching a slow-motion takeover of the country by an organization that at heart remained secretive, autocratic and theocratic.

From the start, Egypt's political stage was set for an impasse between secularists and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, who believed they had won a mandate to govern the country and shape Egypt's future in their Islamist vision.

The Islamists never seemed to acknowledge that Morsy had won the presidency in a runoff with barely a majority of votes (51.7%), and that in the first round of voting, his secular opponents combined had more than 55% of the vote. Morsy behaved arrogantly, pushing through a controversial constitution with little consensus, passing a highly divisive edict putting the president's actions above judicial review, and in his most recent politically tone-deaf move, appointing 17 provincial governors last week, all affiliated or allied with the Muslim Brotherhood -- including an astonishingly divisive member of Gamaa Islamiya, the organization responsible for the devastating 1997 massacre of 58 tourists in Luxor.

For their part, secularists never accepted the legitimacy of the Morsy government and vowed to prevent political Islam from taking hold. The judiciary, filled with holdovers from the Mubarak regime, tried to use the courts to undermine the Morsy government. Leaders of the opposition deemed any Morsy effort to compromise as half-hearted and refused to test the political process.

Against this background of political polarization, the country staggers under a teetering economy. The millions of Egyptians who filled the streets in recent days demanding Morsy's resignation were protesting not only his authoritarian tendencies, but also his economic mismanagement.

Egypt's fate now hangs on whether Egypt's secularists and Islamists can be reconciled. Thursday's statement by the National Salvation Front, the alliance of opposition parties -- stressing that no parties, "particularly political Islamic groups" should be excluded from ongoing reconciliation talks -- is a positive one. So too are Morsy's calls for his supporters to pursue only peaceful protests.

But the crux of the matter is that the process of writing a new constitution, which the military has promised to oversee, is unlikely to give Islam as preferred a position as the one that Morsy pushed through. Will extremist Islamists conclude that violence is the only way they can achieve their goal of an Islamic state? The specter of Algeria's civil war hangs heavily over the situation: In 1991, the Algerian military took control of the government after Islamists looked poised to come to power through elections. The ensuing decade of conflict left as many as 100,000 dead.

Ultimately, the role of Islam in the state must be settled by the people themselves. If Egyptians approve, through a fair and open referendum, a new constitution that reduces Islam's role, it will take the wind out of the sails not only of the Muslim Brotherhood, but of political Islam across the region. But if Egypt returns to a cycle of repression and violence, it will only serve to revitalize a radical movement.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Isobel Coleman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT