Egypt and North Africa's Religious Tumult

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.

Whereas the Egyptian military survived the revolution of 2011 as a viable institution with the power to stabilize the state, Tunisia had its own set of stabilizing forces—and the new Islamist elite made a different set of choices. Prior to the revolution, Tunisia was the country that had came closest in the Arab world to an Ataturk-style campaign of long-term secularization. One of the legacies of Habib Bourguiba, the country’s larger-than-life postcolonial ruler, was the progressive political and cultural sensibility he instilled that came to pervade the deep state as well as a large proportion of the society. In addition, the Tunisian labor movement, embodied by the UGTT (Tunisian General Labor Union), maintained a high degree of credibility with the population, having played an important role in liberating the country from French occupation and having joined the front lines in the revolution of 2011. These powerful elements, much like the Egyptian military and bureaucracy, have harbored suspicions about Ennahda, the moderate Islamist political party, which has had success at the polls. What’s more, from the UGTT’s many rallies in the streets to more subtle roles played by the civil service and political class, enormous pressure was brought to bear on Ennahda. Thus, it recognized that consensual governance was necessary for it to establish a foothold in the state. Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s founder and guiding figure, made the fateful decision not to run as head of state, and the Ennahda parliamentary bloc established a governing coalition with labor and other elements. Two years later, there is a give-and-take between Ennahda and its rivals that, though sometimes tense, appears likely to endure. The drama in Egypt this week serves to validate the gradualist approach taken by Ennahda, as well as the firm yet cautious actions of incumbent elites.

The situation in Libya is radically different. The incumbent Egyptian and Tunisian dictatorships, however brutal, were benign by comparison to the devastating rule of Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi. There were no institutions of state or civil society on the eve of the revolution with sufficient credibility to endure. Private militias now dominate the landscape, and a coalition of NATO allies remains necessary to hold the country together. But the country’s deficiencies could also be a long-term advantage, in that it is a tabula rasa—where creative ideas might take hold. There is also a greater openness and enthusiasm for partnership with the United States and Europe—though to what degree the West will respond and engage the society remains an open question.

Still, the lessons of Egypt this week do not bode well for Tripoli. Libyan Islamists have registered a visceral reaction to the ouster of Morsi. Skeptical about democratic processes to begin with, they now have cause to view it as pointless. If the Egyptian army blocks the Brotherhood from meaningful participation in the political process, hardline Islamists in Libya will claim vindication, and groups that might once have morphed into peaceable political parties will harden into warlord militias. Always a political trendsetter in the Arab region, Egypt will influence the calculations of Libya’s Islamists.

Morocco, by contrast, is the North African country that enjoys the greatest stability. King Muhammad VI has worked hard since assuming power in 1999 to foster the development of civil society institutions, improve the standing of women and improving the lot of the poor. The three-hundred-year-old monarchy weathered the storms of the Arab Spring and remains a viable and highly esteemed institution throughout the country. Through unprecedented constitutional reforms, the king ceded control over most domestic government institutions to an elected prime minister—chosen by an Islamist parliamentary bloc that had forsworn the path of militancy. And yet, two years later, the Islamist coalition has disappointed voters. It has alienated much of its support base through impulsive, ideologically driven policies, betraying a lack of political maturity. But there are hopes that the democratic process will continue to offer lessons to all parties, whether Islamists or their rivals: The former will learn from their mistakes, whether as winners or as losers in the next election. Their opponents will have the opportunity to mend fences amongst each other and deliver a credible alternative.

Viewing the situation from my home in Casablanca, the main lesson I draw from Egypt is that it can be perilous for political currents to claim the mantle of religion as they enter a democratic process. Whether via success or by failure, it gives rise to new autocratic regimes—and an autocracy based on militant interpretations of religion can be especially damaging to the complex ethnic and religious fiber of a country. My country enjoys a special political balance in terms of the role of religion in the affairs of state. The monarch maintains his highly popular status as “Commander of the Faithful”—that is, the country’s highest religious authority. In this capacity, he oversees Islamic affairs and blocks Islamist parties from imposing chauvinistic interpretations of the faith. This essential check on religious extremism supports a governance model enabling all political currents to participate in a new gradualist experiment to pave the way for a constitutional monarchy. The Moroccan model deserves to be considered elsewhere in the region, because the country remains stable and vital, and its population remains hopeful.