Egypt and North Africa's Religious Tumult

The fall of the Brotherhood will reverberate across the top of the continent.

As a Moroccan Muslim following the stunning military-led transition now under way in Egypt, I am reminded of a rabbinic adage I once heard from a Jewish friend: “He who tries to hold too much ends up holding nothing.” This pithy statement speaks to what is happening now in Egypt, the situation in the broader North African region, and the question of what would best serve both Egypt and the Arab world in the future.

It is clear that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt overreached. The more politically pragmatic Brotherhood leaders had advised, prior to the first presidential elections after the 2011 revolution, that the Brotherhood refrain from fielding a candidate. A Brotherhood president, they suggested, would be too much, too soon for a movement deeply distrusted by a vast swath of Egyptians and the West. Better to leverage its support base in parliament and position itself as a behind-the-scenes “kingmaker.” Amid economic collapse and a burgeoning crime wave, let a non-Islamist serve as figurehead and take the blame for the country’s woes, while the Brotherhood more gradually enters the corridors of power and only gains in popular esteem. It was the wily Khairat el-Shater who thought otherwise and expected to become president himself. But he was prevented from doing so by Egypt’s judiciary, and so a lesser figure was tapped to step in. But Shater, who represents the more radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood commonly called the “Special Organization” (“Al-Tanzim al-Khass”), remained the most powerful Brotherhood strategist. He wielded great influence over the deposed president, Muhammad Morsi, goading him to decapitate the army, cripple the judiciary and monopolize the media. But each of these sectors was thoroughly dominated by his opponents, and Morsi lacked both a support base within them and an alternative cadre of people with the skills needed to replace the functionaries he meant to remove. This, combined with a vast popular backlash and a deep state that had wished to torpedo his presidency to begin with, wrecked eighty years of painstaking Brotherhood activism in fewer than two.

To be sure, there was also discontent that can only be blamed on the personality and leadership style of Morsi: Six ministers and five governments resigned in the course of his brief administration, and in his last speech, he acknowledged having made numerous mistakes in the management of state affairs. Now it is Egypt’s military leadership that faces the temptation to “hold too much.” Will this powerful institution exploit the people’s anger at the Brotherhood to reconstruct a secular dictatorship? The army has its own Khairat el-Shater-like voices that wish for total control, as well as more pragmatic ones that would serve to safeguard the army’s interests without overstepping and thereby enraging the population. But whereas the Brotherhood’s decision to overstep was merely self-defeating, a similar approach by the army would be a tragedy for the nation. The military is the only institution in Egypt capable of overseeing a real transition toward civil society and pluralism. The arrests of senior Muslim Brotherhood figures and forced closure of pro-Morsi television networks do not bode well for prospects for democratic transition. Whether or not the military leadership has yet grappled with the implications of its unique responsibility, there is hope that bad decisions can be “checked” by other forces: The population, by virtue of its capacity to revolt, wields a heavy influence. And so does the United States, so thoroughly vested in the future of the country.

It will be essential for the latter to use its sizable leverage—over a billion dollars annually in aid to the military—to ensure that all political forces, including the Brotherhood, will have an opportunity to participate in electoral politics. Barring them from doing so will hearken back to a similar bloody decision by the Algerian army to suppress an Islamic electoral victory in 1992: Over one hundred and fifty thousand died in the civil war that followed. Heeding the lessons of Algeria means taking it seriously when an Islamist group such as Muhammad al-Zawahiri’s Salafiya Jihadiya (Muhammad is the brother of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri) calls for an armed mobilization. For these groups, any regression toward military rule only vindicates its long-held opposition to the idea of democracy. It is in their interest to do everything possible to portray the current transition as a coup backed by foreign elements. Viewing the larger North African region that was also profoundly affected by the Arab Spring, the lessons of Egypt represent the road less traveled for some, a cautionary tale for others.