Events reinforce Brotherhood’s suspicion of democracy

Amid competing narratives, there are questions over where Islamists sit in Egypt’s political order

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood stage a rally in support of Mohamed Morsi in Cairo earlier this week. Photograph: Yusuf Sayman/The New York Times

Just as Islamists of all hues across the Middle East watched eagerly as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood swept the country's first post-Mubarak elections and ushered one of their own, Mohamed Morsi, into the presidency, so they have been observing grimly his removal at the hands of the military this week.

“The danger is the lesson some will take from this is that even when Islamists win elections, they eventually lose,” said one in Libya, where Islamist parties gave a lacklustre performance in elections last year. “My worry is that some will begin to question the point of democracy and hardliners who were always sceptical of it will say they were proven correct.”

In the annals of political Islam, Morsi’s government was a rare example of Islamists coming to power through the ballot box and not revolution (as in Iran in 1979) or military coup (as in Sudan in 1989). Other Islamist election successes in Algeria and Turkey in the 1990s were either stillborn by the military in the case of the former, or brought down by an army coup in the latter.

So when the Muslim Brotherhood became the government in the country where it was founded in 1928, there was much anticipation on the part of its supporters and trepidation on the part of its critics as to how it would negotiate Egypt’s delicate transition from dictatorship to democracy. After years of employing the slogan “Islam is the solution” the Brotherhood now had to prove to Egyptians just how they would translate that into hard policy, particularly when it came to resurrecting the country’s ailing economy.


There are two competing narratives of what happened this week. For Morsi, the Brotherhood, and their supporters elsewhere in the region, they participated in the democratic process only to be forced out by opponents who, having fared poorly at the ballot box, called on the army to intervene.

Before Morsi's removal,
his senior adviser Essam el-Haddad argued that democracy was being undermined by the quickening events. "The opposition has steadfastly declined every option that entails a return to the ballot box," he wrote.

Beyond its mandate
But many of those who marched against Morsi this week could never shake off their belief that Islamists are only interested in democracy as a means to an end. They accused the Brotherhood of seeking to consolidate power beyond its mandate. These suspicions deepened after Morsi controversially decreed greater powers for himself last November, giving his decisions immunity from judicial review.

“It’s a mistake because it will give critics the impression everything they suspected about the Brotherhood and its intentions is true,” one Libyan Islamist told me at the time.

There are indications that Morsi’s forced removal may mark the beginning of a major period of upheaval for the Brotherhood, similar to what it experienced during and after a major crackdown on the group in 1954. The difference is that today the Brotherhood is no longer an illegal, underground movement but Egypt’s largest political entity, with a powerful and organised network of members across the country.

How will that membership react to the fact Morsi and senior Brotherhood figures have been put under house arrest, and some could face trial for escaping prison during the 2011 uprising? If the aim is to exclude the Brotherhood from Egyptian politics once again, what would be the long- term repercussions?

Forceful removal
"The forceful removal of the nation's first democratically elected civilian president risks sending a message to Islamists that they have no place in the political order," the International Crisis Group warned.

Islam Abdel-Rahman, who grew up in Belfast and is now a member of the Brotherhoodaffiliated Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt, says the situation remains unpredictable. “We still believe that the best way to fight this coup on legitimacy is by peaceful means. However, with such a bloody coup and the threatening of civilian lives, you cannot make sure that everybody would adhere to such means.”