Skip to main content

Will Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood survive?

By Isobel Coleman, Special to CNN
July 5, 2013 -- Updated 1033 GMT (1833 HKT)
A celebrant bears a poster on July 4 showing Mohamed Morsy surrounded by leading Muslim Brotherhood figures as babies.
A celebrant bears a poster on July 4 showing Mohamed Morsy surrounded by leading Muslim Brotherhood figures as babies.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Muslim Brotherhood decries coup, recalls history of military rulers brutalizing its leaders
  • After Morsy's win, secularists feared a takeover by theocratic Muslim Brotherhood
  • But Muslim Brotherhood believed it had won a mandate to govern, Isobel Coleman says
  • Coleman: Egypt must choose secular or Islamist rule, hope Islamists don't turn to violence

Editor's note: Isobel Coleman is the author of "Paradise Beneath Her Feet" and a senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

(CNN) -- In a stunning reversal of fortunes, Egypt's President Mohamed Morsy was deposed by a military coup just one year after being sworn in as president. The Egyptian protesters who took to the streets by the millions over the past several days to demand Morsy's resignation were jubilant as news spread Wednesday that their goal had been met: Morsy's Muslim Brotherhood-backed government was gone, along with its creeping authoritarianism and mismanagement.

The leaders of the protest movement are insisting that what happened was not a military coup, but rather a remarkably peaceful demonstration of the will of the people to achieve the original goals of the revolution: bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity.

Morsy's embittered supporters see it quite differently: Even as their democratically elected leader was talking compromise with an opposition that would have none of it, he was pushed out of office by a military that positioned its tanks in strategic locations throughout the capital, took control of state media, and has placed Morsy and key advisers under house arrest.

Isobel Coleman
Isobel Coleman

The Muslim Brotherhood website on Thursday warned of a "new era of repression and tyranny." They know of what they speak: There is a long, dark history of Egypt's military rulers brutalizing Muslim Brotherhood leaders.

Within 20 years of its founding in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, a charismatic schoolteacher and preacher, the Muslim Brotherhood was disbanded by the Egyptian government, which felt threatened by its rapid spread. The Brotherhood, a popular grass-roots political, social and religious movement, had attracted a huge following with its simple slogan, "Islam is the solution," and its provision of social services.

By the time it was banned in 1948, it had nearly 2 million members. Several violent decades followed as increasingly radical Brotherhood members took up arms in an attempt to realize their goal of creating an Islamic state. But by the 1970s, the organization renounced violence and vowed to participate in the political process. Still, the government barely tolerated the Brotherhood; under longtime President Hosni Mubarak, Brotherhood leaders were regularly arrested in crackdowns.

Muslim Brotherhood leader arrested
Brotherhood: This is end of democracy
Can Islamists learn from coup in Egypt?
What do the Egyptian people want?

Although the Brotherhood did not lead the events of January 2011 that toppled the Mubarak regime, it quickly capitalized on them to become the political front-runner in post-revolutionary Egypt. Aware that it was held in deep suspicion by many at home and abroad, the Brotherhood at first vowed not to dominate the country's new politics. "We will not have a presidential candidate," promised Mohamed Morsy. "We want to participate and help. We are not seeking power."

But that promise quickly faded as the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, buoyed by its superior organizational structure and credentials as a stalwart opposition, took the largest number of seats in the new parliament (43.4%) and then won the presidency. The Brotherhood's secular opponents became increasingly uncomfortable that they were watching a slow-motion takeover of the country by an organization that at heart remained secretive, autocratic and theocratic.

From the start, Egypt's political stage was set for an impasse between secularists and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, who believed they had won a mandate to govern the country and shape Egypt's future in their Islamist vision.

The Islamists never seemed to acknowledge that Morsy had won the presidency in a runoff with barely a majority of votes (51.7%), and that in the first round of voting, his secular opponents combined had more than 55% of the vote. Morsy behaved arrogantly, pushing through a controversial constitution with little consensus, passing a highly divisive edict putting the president's actions above judicial review, and in his most recent politically tone-deaf move, appointing 17 provincial governors last week, all affiliated or allied with the Muslim Brotherhood -- including an astonishingly divisive member of Gamaa Islamiya, the organization responsible for the devastating 1997 massacre of 58 tourists in Luxor.

For their part, secularists never accepted the legitimacy of the Morsy government and vowed to prevent political Islam from taking hold. The judiciary, filled with holdovers from the Mubarak regime, tried to use the courts to undermine the Morsy government. Leaders of the opposition deemed any Morsy effort to compromise as half-hearted and refused to test the political process.

Against this background of political polarization, the country staggers under a teetering economy. The millions of Egyptians who filled the streets in recent days demanding Morsy's resignation were protesting not only his authoritarian tendencies, but also his economic mismanagement.

Egypt's fate now hangs on whether Egypt's secularists and Islamists can be reconciled. Thursday's statement by the National Salvation Front, the alliance of opposition parties -- stressing that no parties, "particularly political Islamic groups" should be excluded from ongoing reconciliation talks -- is a positive one. So too are Morsy's calls for his supporters to pursue only peaceful protests.

But the crux of the matter is that the process of writing a new constitution, which the military has promised to oversee, is unlikely to give Islam as preferred a position as the one that Morsy pushed through. Will extremist Islamists conclude that violence is the only way they can achieve their goal of an Islamic state? The specter of Algeria's civil war hangs heavily over the situation: In 1991, the Algerian military took control of the government after Islamists looked poised to come to power through elections. The ensuing decade of conflict left as many as 100,000 dead.

Ultimately, the role of Islam in the state must be settled by the people themselves. If Egyptians approve, through a fair and open referendum, a new constitution that reduces Islam's role, it will take the wind out of the sails not only of the Muslim Brotherhood, but of political Islam across the region. But if Egypt returns to a cycle of repression and violence, it will only serve to revitalize a radical movement.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Isobel Coleman.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1928 GMT (0328 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT