Fifty years ago, the historian Elizabeth Monroe published a beautifully written book with a dismissive title: Britain’s Moment in the Middle East, 1914-1956. Although one can quibble with the description—the British impact in the region really should be clocked from Admiral Horatio Nelson’s checkmating the French in 1798 at the Battle of the Nile—and the book’s weighing of the beneficent with the baleful, Ms. Monroe did capture well the British interlude between two more culturally transformative powers: the Ottoman empire and secular Arab militarism.
If one has been reading the Egyptian press or talking to Egyptian liberals since the coup d’état against the country’s first freely-elected president, Muhammad Mursi, one might have the impression that the Muslim Brotherhood’s “moment” in Egypt lasted 12 months, after an eighty-four year prelude. The Brethren, who rose to prominence in opposition to British imperialism and Westernizing secular dictators, have, so the story goes, immolated themselves in just a year of grossly incompetent government. Grossly incompetent governance has been the norm in Egypt; popular sovereignty is new. There is no denying that millions of Egyptians who’d five times voted for Brotherhood candidates and its constitution, turned against the Islamist group in massive demonstrations. There is also little doubt that many among the Brethren were shocked by the size of these rallies.
But it’s highly doubtful that the Islamist critique of Egyptian society has been routed by marches that we now know were planned by the tamarrud (“rebellion”) movement and the military. The Westernization of the Egyptian poor has been in retreat for over forty years. The vast slums of Cairo—the broken-concrete-and-cracked-brick neighborhoods of low-rising apartments with open sewers, where only mosques and local clerics offer a sense of community and order—are hothouses for Islamism. This is not Facebook Cairo, where alienated, deplorably-educated, unskilled youth express their anger digitally and their community through demonstrations. Local clerics, let alone the cultish, secretive godfathers of the Brotherhood, do not command Cairo’s slums—though local imams and popular preachers are certainly more influential than any representative of a state institution. The faith, with its traditional, “natural” fusion with politics, profoundly matters among the poor and the lower middle class. Among them the Egyptian army, the security services, and the police—all unreformed since the fall of Mubarak—are viewed suspiciously, if not hostilely. The new-found love affair between the army and Egypt’s secular liberals, who have in twelve months come to the conclusion that they need the military to check Islamist power, will likely do nothing to diminish the skepticism that Egypt’s devout have for army officers and their cohorts.
And although President Mursi obviously did not negotiate his short term in office well, alienating needlessly lots of allies, including the powerful fellow Islamists in the Nour Party, it’s doubtful that the Brotherhood will internalize its street defeat as a rejection of its creed. Many of Mursi’s problems we know were either orchestrated or encouraged by the army, security services, and the police (the sometimes fractious triad of the Mubarak-era police state) and the secular business elite. Many of Mursi’s problems will now be confronted by the army-appointed government and any “democratically-elected” administration that may follow. Saudi cash, which has been pouring into Cairo since Mursi’s fall (the Saudi royal family fears the populist Islamism of the Brethren), will not last forever. Economic judgment day is coming and it’s by no means clear that the secular crowd will do any better than Mursi did.
They may well do much worse. Economic revitalization in Egypt won’t happen unless the poor accept the pain that will come with shrinking the country’s unsustainable subsidies and state-owned enterprises. Buying in now, after the coup, will be much more difficult for those who support Islamist causes. Also, it isn’t clear that the secular crowd are economically more adept than the Muslim faithful. Socialism has been a hard-to-kick drug for Egypt’s legions of nominally college-educated youth, who have expected government jobs. Capitalism has probably got firmer roots among devout Muslims, where Islamic law teaches a certain respect for private property. It’s not an accident that Sunni fundamentalist groups—led by the Islamist Justice and Development party in Turkey—have been moving away from the socialist dogmas of the enlightened, Westernized circles in the Middle East. Iranian Islamists are the outlier among devout Muslims precisely because their revolution was so deeply impregnated by Marxism; and even in Iran, traditional clerics have often fought against the state-sanctioned expropriation of private property.
The Brotherhood’s senior leadership may not recover from the coup. Individualism and a distaste for hierarchy—both Western imports—have had their way among Islamists, too. The Salafis of the Nour Party, who took nearly thirty percent of the judicially-scrapped parliamentary vote (much more than any secular party), are new-age fundamentalists, who may gain at the Brotherhood’s expense. But only the deluded, the naive, and the politically deceitful (Western fans of the coup come in all three categories) can believe that Islamism’s “moment” in Egypt has passed. More likely, it’s just having an interlude.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a former Middle Eastern specialist in the CIA’s Clandestine Service and the author most recently of The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East (Hoover, 2011) This piece was published in The Wall Street Journal courtesy of The Caravan.