Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is reviving the authoritarian agenda and contributing to what one analyst calls “the entrenchment of Islamist-liberal cleavage in the Arab world.”
“Beware the Islamists now that they have shown their true colors. That’s the message that the authoritarian Arab regimes still standing are sending to their people as the Middle East watches with alarm the possible unraveling of the first major Muslim Brotherhood experiment in government,” writes Roula Khalaf:
From Jordan to the Gulf, Egypt’s divisions and the instability unleashed by Mohamed Morsi’s assumption of sweeping powers and a rushed Islamist-tinted constitution are playing into the hands of authoritarian regimes. The rise of Egypt’s Brotherhood after the fall of Hosni Mubarak had bolstered the ambitions of other Islamists. Now, however, the Islamists find themselves on the defensive.
“The Gulf is using this as the perfect ‘we told you so’ moment and Morsi presented it on a golden plate,” says Sultan al-Qassemi, a prominent Emirati commentator. “And there are people already saying that they don’t want to be like Egypt.”
Moderate Islamists share liberal concerns about the Islamists’ growing authoritarianism.
“The Muslim Brotherhood needs to understand that democracy is not just a way to gain power but an end in itself,” said Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh (above), a former Brotherhood leader.
Morsi initially enjoyed considerable public support and goodwill from the international community, but he has “risked all this by seeking extra powers and pandering too much to his real power base – the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by many hardline Salafist Islamists,” writes Amin Saikal, director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University.
“He has lost, or possibly never had, the ability to strike a balance between his Islamist supporters and the liberal and secularist opposition forces (including many from the Coptic Christian minority), and thus also to keep the military out of politics.”
Islamists elsewhere in the region are arguing that the Brotherhood should have taken a more incremental, inclusive, power-sharing approach,” says analyst Abdelwahab Badrakhan.
“The Egypt experience has an echo everywhere; in Yemen, Libya, Tunisia and even in the Gulf states,” he says. “And some Islamists say we would have preferred Egypt’s Brotherhood not to have moved so fast. [Egyptian Islamists] are learning [to govern] at the wrong time and they have concepts and complexes from decades of repression that make it difficult to learn about civilian rule.”
The current events in Egypt are “truly historic and significant” because of three main factors, argues Rami G. Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut:
• We rarely have a chance to assess the behavior of Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist politicians who are endowed with the great mantle of legitimate democratic incumbency and operate in a reasonably credible democratic system. Tunisia and Egypt are really the only two examples that meet these criteria and both are passing through stressful days.
• Everything in Egypt except for its stunted cuisine eventually influences similar developments across the Arab world…….. How the Islamists perform will shape the Arab region’s transitions much more profoundly than, say, developments in Turkey and Iran …
• The newly dynamic, open and competitive nature of the public political sphere in Egypt has allowed a wide range of actors to take part in political activism….. The incumbency of the Muslim Brotherhood has been coupled with the equally decisive birth of a political system that allows for the mostly peaceful contestation of power, with the occasional lapse into momentary clashes that are politically insignificant in historical terms.
The Brotherhood’s instincts are being exposed in the face of the liberal-secular opposition’s new-found vibrancy and unity, observers suggest.
“We suddenly discovered that the other civil society is strong and that they are challenging the Islamists. That’s reassuring for Egypt and for the outside world,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, professor of political science at Emirates University. “A weak Muslim brotherhood – not a triumphant Muslim Brotherhood – is good for everybody.”
Dismissed by Islamists as out of touch with largely conservative Egyptian society and often treated by Brotherhood leaders with disdain, the liberals will earn credibility and receive a much-needed boost in parliamentary elections if they can manage to at least shrink the Islamist win in the constitutional referendum.
“Now what’s happening is the opposition is putting pressure on them in a way that makes them less democratic,” said Ibrahim Zafarani, a former member of the Brotherhood who now leads a small moderate Islamist party. “That forces them to close in on themselves and become more defensive.”
Morsi’s gambit “is now playing into the criticism that Islamists groups are aggressively majoritarian,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre:
In any case, he says, Islamists have a different conception of democracy, which makes it very difficult to reach a consensus. Liberals believe in rights and freedoms “that are, by definition, non-negotiable”. Islamists see democracy as the pursuit of a majority that can promote a different ideological project, he says.
“We are seeing the entrenchment of Islamist-liberal cleavage in the Arab world. This has become the fundamental divide in Arab politics and will be the case for the foreseeable future.”