Morsi's Misstep

The Egyptian president's power grab may have set up the Muslim Brotherhood for failure.

Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi has fired most of the who’s who in the Egyptian military. Should we be worried about this latest move? Is Cairo on its way to becoming the new Tehran on the Nile?

The Muslim Brotherhood is a worrisome organization. Its long-range goal is to transform the secular character of the Egyptian state—if not to control it. Its views on Israel and Jews run from hostile to anti-Semitic. And I wouldn’t want to be a woman in the new Egypt.

But Morsi’s strike against the generals—apparently with some of their consent—also offers the proverbial silver lining. And that’s this: as Spiderman says, with power comes responsibility, and with that responsibility comes accountability. Egypt isn’t an easy country to run. If the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t produce, it’ll be blamed, and the Islamists will be discredited too.

There’s so much about the Morsi move that we don’t know. Why did Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi agree without a fight? How will the other senior military figures react? Is this the prelude to a campaign to push the military back to its barracks and also begin taking away the 15 percent of the Egyptian economy they control?

And what does this say about the Muslim Brothers themselves? Clearly somebody thought this one through. Morsi has resigned from the party, but it’s almost unimaginable that the Brotherhood’s highest decision-making body, the Shura Council, didn’t approve the firing. Using the failure of the Egyptian military to prevent the attack on its soldiers in Sinai as leverage and pretext, Morsi eliminated key figures in the old guard—the heads of the navy, air force and air defense, as a well as the chief of staff and consolidated control—setting the stage for future moves.

And what will those moves be? The Morsi decision also included nullifying the June constitutional decree that the generals imposed essentially emasculating the presidency. The Brotherhood now dominates key institutions of the state, the presidency and the parliament. And there’s little the military or anyone else can do about that. He who controls the streets—and the Brotherhood can—controls Egypt. What can the military do? Launch a counter coup? Pull an Assad and confront Egyptians in the streets?

This round and perhaps the near-term direction of Egypt’s politics goes to the Islamists. The good news is that Egypt has a civilian government for the first time in its history. The potentially bad news is that the civilian government has a particular vision for the country that is ideological, exclusive and carries enormous baggage toward both the United States and the Israelis. And with the weakening of the Egyptian military’s influence in politics, the counterbalancers—the Egyptian liberals and secular parties—are unable to serve as competitors and keep the party in power honest. The fact is they are no match for the Islamists in their capacity to organize and mobilize.

But paradoxically, having acquired power, Morsi and the brothers are now vulnerable to their own success. They now must govern, manage and produce. And to do that effectively in a country like Egypt is no small achievement. In short, it’s all but impossible to meet the expectations that have been rising ever since Mubarak was ousted.

The brothers may have maneuvered themselves into the worst of all possible situations. They won’t succeed in relieving Egypt’s crushing economic problems any more than Mubarak did, but in the process of trying to manage, they could compromise their principles and lose their ideological cachet. To maintain security in Sinai they may be forced to confront fellow Islamists, and keeping control over the border with Gaza could bring tensions with Hamas.

Finally, in the cruelest of ironies, they’re stuck supporting a peace with Israel they can’t stand but need to maintain, since it attracts direct foreign investment and donors who want to know that Egypt is guaranteed a peaceful future. And they don’t want to anger their own military, which has a stake in maintaining the treaty and the $1.5 billion in military aid from the United States.

Uneasy lies the head; and the Muslim Brotherhood may find it very lonely at the top, caught between its ideological goals and the realities and responsibilities of governance. Maybe the Muslim Brotherhood can adapt, become inclusive, reach out to minorities, let women become equal citizens of the state, transform the Egyptian economy and surprise us all.

But I wouldn’t hold my breath. Perhaps Egypt will not be able to become a real democracy until the Brotherhood's narrow vision of the future—including its exclusivist views of God, minorities, Jews and women—is perceived to have failed decisively. In a country as traditional as Egypt where many share those attitudes, that may never happen. But one can always hope that in their latest victory, the brothers have unwittingly brought their movement one step closer to achieving that goal.

Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He served as an adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations.

Image: AslanMedia