Egypt is rarely just about Egypt. So a full conversation about whether to sustain American aid to the military government currently in power in Cairo has to include a widening of the scope to the broader Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood, which the army deposed in a coup and the recent crackdown, is not just another domestic political party, so its defeat is not just a domestic concern. The Brotherhood represents the recent ascendancy of pan-Islamism that threatens to destabilize any non-Islamist government in the region.
A perfect example of that comes today from Reuters, which reports that Hamas, the Palestinian offshoot of the Brotherhood, is foundering now that its ally next door is out of power. Hamas’s relationship with its Iranian patron was strained by the civil war in Syria, which Iran and its proxies joined on the side of Bashar al-Assad, putting them at ideological odds with Hamas. The Gaza-based terrorist group therefore had arguably the most to lose with the Brotherhood’s exit from power in Egypt.
A weakened Brotherhood means a weakened Hamas, which means a slightly strengthened Fatah in the West Bank, which benefits the peace process and keeps American influence in the region active while Iran struggles to maintain its ability to make mischief in the Palestinian territories while simultaneously distracted in Syria. Additionally, the Reuters story notes that Hamas was relying on funding from the Qatari emir, but the emir’s heir does not seem to be nearly as interested in doling out cash to Hamas. The story also quotes an Israeli analyst arguing that Hamas will have to swallow some of its pride–and principles–to go crawling back to Iran:
Israeli analyst Yaari thought Iran would exact a price for welcoming Hamas back into the fold. “It will require them to stop opposing Assad and stop any criticism of Hezbollah’s intervention (in Syria) and Iranian support of Assad,” he said.
Even so, with the Brotherhood out of power in Egypt Hamas will have far more difficulty smuggling Iranian-funded weapons into the Gaza Strip. The next question, then, is: How much trouble is the Brotherhood in, at least in Egypt? The Washington Post argues today that it is facing “what many are describing as the worst crisis to confront Egypt’s 85-year-old Muslim Brotherhood.”
The primary reason seems to be that the Brotherhood cannot simply go back to its pre-Arab Spring role. Before the presidency of the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, the organization was an underground opposition network that offered a religious alternative to the Mubarak police state. But most importantly, it offered something to the non-Islamists as well. As the Post explains:
The Brotherhood is more than a political or religious group. It has been almost a shadow state in modern Egypt, winning over supporters over the decades with a vast network of charitable services, including dental clinics and thrift shops. It is the “mother of all Islamist movements,” in the words of Shadi Hamid, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Doha Center, having spawned dozens of related groups worldwide since its founding in 1928.
Throughout its history, the Brotherhood has repeatedly clashed with Egypt’s authoritarian governments, enduring arrests, torture and imprisonment. But what’s different now, analysts say, is that it’s battling not only a military-backed government but also the disdain of a broad swath of society. Many Egyptians are irate at Morsi for the country’s economic slide and the rise in crime during his one-year rule. Others complain that the Brotherhood tried to grab power by excluding minority political groups and trying to insulate its decisions from judicial review.
“It’s the first time to see the Muslim Brotherhood in conflict not only with the state — but with the whole of the state, [including] the bureaucracy, and the political elite, and an important part of society. It’s not a limited confrontation,” Rashwan said.
Gaining authority over the most significant and populous Arab country presented the Brotherhood with a classic high-risk, high-reward opportunity. The reward was obvious–power, influence, a certain degree of regional hegemony if not over neighboring governments then over their chief domestic opposition. The risk was that if it didn’t work out, it would not be so simple to go back to the way things were.
In Cairo, it did not work out. The Brotherhood in opposition was able to provide services to a public greatly in need of them, especially since Mubarak’s reign was marked by empty promises of economic reform. But then the Brotherhood came to power and turned its totalitarian oppression on the entire state.
If an Egyptian considered himself an atheist and a socialist, but only had access to dental care because of the Brotherhood, he was likely to still consider the Brotherhood an acceptable, and possibly preferable, alternative to the Egyptian state. That is no longer the case, and it explains why the Brotherhood, whose defeat would greatly benefit the West, is on the ropes.