How will the Egyptian army’s coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government affect Islamism, intellectually and politically the most consequential movement in the Middle East since the 1960s?
Historically, it’s impossible to imagine Islamic militancy without the Brotherhood. Founded in 1928 against British imperialism and a rapidly Westernizing Egypt, the Brotherhood became the flagship for Sunni fundamentalism. Secretive but populist, contemptuous of state-paid clergy, intellectually syncretistic (socialism, fascism and European anti-Semitism blended into their “authentic” faith), the brethren became widely popular in Egypt as the army’s experimentation with radical Arabism and crony capitalism failed.
The real strength of the Brotherhood movement, along the Nile and beyond, has always been its public faith and private virtue and its appealing historical narrative for Muslims who see the prophet Muhammad as a paragon — a people’s greatness flows from moral rectitude. The downfall of the general-turned-president Hosni Mubarak two years ago caught the brethren off guard.
Thirty years ago, they opted for coexistence with the security state: Abjuring politics, they focused on missionary and social work. They became “neo-fundamentalists” who envisioned the collapse of the Egyptian police state one convert at a time. Islamic fundamentalist movements have increasingly adopted a democratic lexicon and started, however tepidly, to struggle with the contradictions between popular sovereignty and the Holy Law.
The brethren’s embrace of democratic politics always hinged on an old-fashioned Sunni assumption that the majority of Muslims couldn’t be bad Muslims. The recent massive demonstrations in Egypt certainly show that many Egyptians who voted repeatedly for the Brotherhood — in parliamentary elections in 2011 and 2012, in the presidential election last summer and to adopt the new constitution in December — hit the streets against them. This has shocked some of the brethren and provoked Islamists elsewhere to reflect on the intersection of religion and politics.
Although religious tyranny secularizes society, the Brotherhood’s “rule” was probably too short, ineffectual (real power remained with Egypt’s army and security services) and morally tepid. What the Arab Middle East has not seen since before World War I — when Egypt experienced a brief efflorescence of secular liberalism — is a real competition between Arab liberals and devout Muslims who see politics largely as an extension of their faith.
The latter is, unquestionably, still a majority in Egypt. Many young secular Egyptians (and their Western fans) appear not to know this. They imagine having a liberal democracy in which advocates of Sharia and the Islamic tradition cannot win an election, write the constitution or otherwise shape society except along secular lines.
Westernization has been so successful in Egypt that perhaps a third of the population might no longer share basic cultural mores with the religious majority. Egyptian liberals, and the rest of the intellectually diverse opposition to the Brotherhood, turned to the street and the army — Egypt’s real ruler since 1952 — to compete.
It’s an umbilical relationship that is now unlikely to be broken. And Egypt’s experiment with democracy is probably over.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He served in the CIA’s Clandestine Service from 1985 to 1994, specializing in the Middle East.