A few weeks ago I wrote about the capture of a Muslim Brotherhood leader by Egypt’s military government and observed that the bloodbath and popular revolution that many observers expected after last summer’s coup hadn’t materialized. Today comes news that seems to make plain what was just an informed guess in October: the Brotherhood knows it is beaten. As Haaretz reports,
A Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition of organizations in Egypt announced Saturday that it wants to engage in dialogue with the interim government in order to put an end to the current political impasse.
The call by the National Alliance to Support Legitimacy is the first formal proposition by Morsi supporters, who have organized near-daily protests demanding his return to office since he was removed in a popularly supported military coup on July 3. It also marks the first time the group has not demanded Morsi’s return to power.
In other words, the organization is conceding that ousted Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi is never going to be president of Egypt again and that if they want any say in their country’s future it will have to be on the military’s terms. This is big news for Egyptians, since it signals that a repeat of Algeria’s decade-long bloody civil war after that country’s army ousted an Islamist government is now off the table. This puts to rest the argument often heard in this country calling for a stern U.S. response to the coup since it was thought in some quarters to not only a guarantee a long terrorist war but suppression of a legitimate point of view that could count on the support of a critical mass of Egyptians. But if the Brotherhood is waving the white flag and appealing for the tolerance of the government, if not peace with it, it is as strong an indication as we are likely to get that the group knows it’s licked.
Let’s specify that the process by which the army has repressed the Brotherhood was based on repression, not debate. The military has killed Brotherhood protesters and done everything possible to hinder their ability to organize opposition to their rule. But their victory was made possible by something that many critics of the coup did not understand or sought to deny: the toppling of Morsi’s government was as much an expression of the will of the Egyptian people as the movement that led to the fall of the Hosni Mubarak regime.
Tens of millions of Egyptians took to the streets of Egyptian cities in the last days of the Morsi government calling for it to cease its drive for total power and to allow the people a vote on whether it should hold onto power. But if the military had not stepped in, there is little doubt that Morsi not only would have stayed in office but that he would have continued his efforts to ensure that he could never be defeated by fair means or foul. Though it had been able to call on the support of many Egyptians in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster and won an election, the year of Brotherhood rule that followed convinced many of those who voted for them they had made a mistake. Though some Western journalists were fooled into thinking the Brotherhood had no intentions of transforming the country into an Islamist state, the Egyptian people were not fooled.
That is why when some Brotherhood leaders vowed vengeance after the coup and sought to create an uprising, few supported such a move. The Islamists were not only intimidated by the military’s show of force; they were rejected by the people among whom they had thought to hide in plain sight, as is the case with successful guerrilla wars. Egyptians understood, even if many Americans did not, that democracy was not an option and that if they had to choose between the military and the Brotherhood, there was no doubt which was the more preferable option.
It is in this context that the Obama administration’s aid cutoffs to Egypt should be viewed. While it is proper for the U.S. to encourage a turn to democracy in Egypt, it must be on terms that will make it impossible for a totalitarian movement like the Brotherhood to win back power.
The Obama administration has foolishly downgraded ties with Egypt and even acted as if it wished for a return of the Morsi government that it had for a time embraced. This shortsighted policy has left an opening for Russia to seek to revive an alliance with Egypt that was ended by Anwar Sadat. But the moral of this story remains clear: while some in the West seemed to accept the Brotherhood’s claim that Islamism was the wave of the future in the Middle East and that they could not be defeated, the military and people of Egypt have proved the contrary to be true. Islamists can be beaten. That’s something the U.S. should be celebrating, not condemning.