Last summer when Egypt’s military intervened in a conflict between a protest movement composed of what appeared to be tens of millions of citizens and the country’s Muslim Brotherhood government, critics of the coup warned the generals not to exclude the Islamist party from government. While there was a case to be made against overturning the results of an election, the Brotherhood’s use of the power it gained to try to transform Egypt and to ensure it could never be challenged galvanized public opinion against it. But those calling for a cutoff of U.S. aid to Cairo to punish the military for usurping Mohamed Morsi also warned that any effort to defeat the Brotherhood rather than to bring it into the next government would backfire. The Brotherhood would, we were told, go quickly underground and be impossible to root out. The assumption was that the Islamists would not only survive but that it would transform Egypt into another Algeria where, in a similar fashion, the military denied power to Islamists and plunged that country into a bloody conflict.
But more than three months later, it appears that the predictions of doom were exaggerated. As the New York Times reports, the military just announced the arrest of one more Muslim Brotherhood leader, Essam el-Erian, a senior leader and advisor to ousted president Morsi. With el-Erian, the military has now effectively decapitated the Brotherhood with virtually every member of the group’s leadership now in prison. The capture of this particular figure is especially satisfying for the military since he is thought of as being, along with Morsi, a symbol of Islamist overreach and a key figure in the group’s attempt to establish hegemony over Egypt. But the main point is that, without much in the way of resistance from the Brotherhood and its vaunted underground capabilities, the military looks to have won its battle. Indeed, as the Daily Beast reported earlier this month, Gen. General Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi has become a popular figure. This is especially true since the Obama administration foolishly cut off most of the aid the U.S. sends to Egypt annually.
There are two conclusions that may be drawn from this.
One is that those who warned that the Islamists were, if not invincible, at least impossible to defeat, were wrong. It is true that the last word has not been spoken on the conflict in Egypt and the Brotherhood may well rally itself to cause more harm. But it is also clear that, at least for the moment, it doesn’t appear that the group is capable of mounting an insurgency that could threaten the military. Rather than make the country unstable, as critics of the coup warned, it seems to have had exactly the effect the military hoped it would have. While democracy is nowhere in sight in Egypt, it has also not descended into chaos, let alone civil war.
Also instructive is the fact that the Brotherhood is not as popular as its American cheerleaders (including, unfortunately, much of the administration) thought it was.
When the Mubarak regime fell in 2011, the Brotherhood was the only organized opposition party and took full advantage of its advantage in the rush to transform the country into a democracy. With powerful friends in Turkey and in Gaza (where its ideological offshoot Hamas ruled), the Brotherhood was popular and powerful. Other new parties, especially those that were secular or liberal, were no match for it and it breezed to victory in the elections that followed.
The assumption was that not only would the Brotherhood quickly adapt to the coup and resume its status as the leader of the opposition in the underground but that it could still count on the backing of a critical mass of Egyptians.
But the year in power may have degraded the Brotherhood’s ability to pose a terrorist threat to the new regime in Cairo.
On the one hand, assuming office took them public in a way they had never done before. That makes it much harder for them to operate underground. But their time in power, and the enormous hostility they generated among ordinary Egyptians, may have also made it impossible for them to lead any kind of clandestine effort. Not only are they more visible but their unpopularity—tens of millions took to the streets to protest against them—may have rendered it impossible for them to practice the classic technique of the guerilla and to hide in plain sight.
This should also call into question the judgment of the Obama administration’s policies toward Egypt. Not only, as the New York Times reported last weekend, is the United States still laboring under the burden of the president’s embrace of the Brotherhood during its year of power. But it is also now deeply resented by most Egyptians for its disdain for a change in power that most of them approved. And the military, which was long a bastion of sympathy for America, is now alienated and perhaps tempted by Russia’s efforts to revive the ties it had with Egypt until Anwar Sadat dumped them.
The U.S. miscalculated badly in Egypt. Not only is the military firmly established in power, but the most populous Arab nation may also be drifting out of the U.S. orbit. But as bad as that may be, there is something in this tale of failure that should encourage the West. The Arab spring may have turned in many places into an Islamist winter, but their eventual triumph is not certain. Totalitarian movements like the Brotherhood can be defeated.