Members of the Muslim Brotherhood sit on a barrier they erected near the Rabaa Adawiya Square, July 11, 2013
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood sit on a barrier they erected near the Rabaa Adawiya Square, July 11, 2013
Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Courtesy Reuters

On June 30, 2012, Mohamed Morsi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, was sworn in as Egypt’s president. On the first anniversary of his inauguration, Morsi faced millions of protesters demanding his resignation. When the president proved unable to resolve the crisis, the military forced him out of office and placed him and other senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders under house arrest.

The Morsi presidency’s abrupt and ignominious end was due to several factors.Although Morsi had promised to serve as a president for all Egyptians, his actions over the past year reinforced the impression -- among key figures in both the state establishment and the secular opposition -- that he was using the powers of his office for partisan gain. For example, he gave Islamists control of key government ministries, including those of education and information. And after he ousted 17 provincial governors, Morsi replaced seven of them with Muslim Brotherhood members and one with a member of an ex-militant Islamist group, al-Gama’a al-Islamiyaa. He also appointed Muslim Brotherhood loyalists to strategic positions in the state prosecutor’s office and in the media.

Morsi and his supporters justified such moves by saying that they needed to cleanse the state of figures associated with the old regime. One could argue, moreover, that rewarding one’s own party members is normal behavior in democratic politics. But in Egypt, relations among leading political and civil-society actors are so warped by long-standing mutual suspicion and distrust that such appointments were widely interpreted as evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood was intent on monopolizing power.

Those doubts about the Muslim Brotherhood’s commitment to the establishment of a truly inclusive political order were only compounded when, last November, Morsi placed his actions above judicial review, which allowed him to protect a constitutional commission packed with Islamists from dissolution. He then pushed for a snap public referendum on the constitution that it drafted, despite the controversy dogging the commission’s skewed makeup. More recently, he issued warrants for the arrest of several human rights activists and proposed a new law imposing state control over the registration and funding of civil society groups.

Of even greater concern to Egyptian voters, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood failed to make tangible progress toward fulfilling the public’s demands during the 2011 uprising for bread, freedom, and justice. During the Hosni Mubarak era, the Muslim Brotherhood built a reputation for meeting people’s needs through the provision of health and education services in lower-class neighborhoods. Yet the organization found the task of delivering public services on a mass scale through the country’s huge calcified bureaucracy far more daunting. In fact, in the past two years, living conditions have deteriorated. Massive traffic jams, garbage pileups, fuel shortages, worsening unemployment, and rising crime have all contributed to growing frustration and resentment.

To be fair, there are no quick fixes for Egypt’s gargantuan structural problems, which are rooted in resource scarcity and rapid population growth and have been aggravated by decades of corrupt and rapacious authoritarian rule. But the Muslim Brotherhood’s lack of experience in governing, as well as its reluctance to share the privileges and burdens of power, made resolving those problems more difficult than it would have been had the Brothers worked harder to mobilize the energy and expertise of those outside its own circles. Further, the Morsi administration demonstrated little inclination or ability to push for a democratic restructuring of the state apparatus carried over from the Mubarak era. In particular, Morsi was slow to reform the security establishment, which had been one of the main goals of the 2011 uprising, for fear of alienating the very forces it had come to rely on to contain spiraling unrest.

After months of civil disobedience, opposition to the Morsi government came to a head with the formation of al-Tamarod (meaning “rebellion”) -- a youth-led campaign that collected millions of signatures on petitions demanding Morsi’s resignation -- and the staging of mass protests against his government on June 30. On July 1, the military issued an ultimatum to the president to resolve the crisis within 48 hours; Morsi rejected it. On July 3, the military stepped in, suspended the constitution, booted Morsi, and declared a new road map for Egypt’s transition.

The Muslim Brotherhood contends that Morsi was robbed of his rightful authority as Egypt’s elected president and has vowed to stage mass protests until he is restored to office. With rival pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi crowds facing off in the streets, and with the military having demonstrated its readiness to use brutal force to maintain order, Egypt’s transition teeters on the precipice. The country is now at greater risk of a descent into wide-scale violence than at any time since Mubarak’s resignation. What makes the situation so fraught is that both the Muslim Brotherhood and its rivals see themselves as defending the democratic spirit of the uprising and the interests of the nation. Each believes that its worst suspicions of the other have been confirmed, and that it has the manpower, resources, and motivation to continue the standoff for some time to come.

To head off prolonged chaos, all of the country’s main political actors would have to commit to resolving their differences through the political process. But the lack of trust between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military on the one hand and the Muslim Brotherhood and its secular rivals on the other makes calls negotiation and compromise ring hollow. In particular, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has seen its hard-won gains undone by military intervention, is not at the moment inclined to act with judiciousness and self-restraint. Still, as long as the military remains firmly in control, there is little chance that pro-Morsi riots will return the ousted president to power. Should the Muslim Brotherhood continue to nurse its feelings of victimhood and refuse on principle to participate in the interim government, it will assume the role of spoiler by default. That would spare the organization the painful task of compromise, but it would also make it more difficult for any new government to succeed.

What the Muslim Brotherhood decides to do in the days ahead will depend in part on the lessons it has taken from recent events and from the actions of other social and political forces. At issue is whether the Muslim Brotherhood will prioritize the success of Egypt’s rebooted transition over the defense of its partisan interests. Ideally, Morsi and other senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders will have the perspicacity to concede -- privately, if not publicly -- that their overreach contributed to their own demise, which will set the stage for them to participate in redefining Egypt’s new political order.  

Yet it is not at all clear that the Muslim Brotherhood’s current leaders are willing and able to learn from their mistakes. As I emphasized in a previous article (“The Muslim Brotherhood After Mubarak,” February 2, 2011), the Muslim Brotherhood is not a monolith. It contains some ideologically flexible factions that are open to dialogue and cooperation with other groups. It also contains factions that are more insular and parochial. The problem is that the flexible factions were progressively marginalized within the group during the siege years of the Mubarak era. While those members were busy running social service programs and holding conferences on human rights and democracy in the professional syndicates and faculty clubs, the more ideologically conservative old guard was consolidating its control over the socialization and training of new recruits and the allocation of internal resources and appointments. Increasingly disillusioned with the old guard’s philosophical rigidity and autocratic management style, some of the group’s most dynamic and progressive leaders left the Muslim Brotherhood to form the Wasat Party in the mid-1990s.

Since the 2011 uprising, an even larger number of progressives have left the Muslim Brotherhood, including the iconic Abd al Mun’em Abu Futuh, who ran for president as an independent and now heads a party of his own. His departure, and those of other progressives, have left the old guard that dominates the Muslim Brotherhood’s Executive Council, together with their loyal allies in the Freedom and Justice Party, firmly in charge and calling the shots since Mubarak’s fall.

Indeed, the Muslim Brotherhood’s behavior in the last two and a half years bears the imprint of a mentality forged under siege, marked by secrecy and aloofness from outsiders, an acute sensitivity to real and imagined threats, and a tendency to view politics as a zero-sum game. And it is arguably that exclusivity that contributed to Morsi’s downfall, not the ideological extremism that many conservative pundits and talk-show hosts predicted just after the uprising. (Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders claim to favor a balance between individual freedoms and the protection of society’s religious identity and values, a position not far from mainstream Egyptian opinion at large.)

It is tough to say whether the military’s dismissal of Morsi was legitimate. Morsi was elected in generally free and fair elections, and in democracies the outcome of the ballot box must be respected. But Egypt is not an established democracy. When the military intervened, it was against a president whose power was not subject to effective institutional checks and balances and whose commitment to democratic values was uncertain. For good or ill, a combination of popular mobilization and military intervention has altered the balance of power and granted the secular groups that were bested by Islamists in recent elections a greater voice in shaping Egypt’s new political order. Military intervention broke the link between democracy and Islamist hegemony, creating the space for the establishment of a new order founded on a constitution that defends individual rights and on some power-sharing formula that prevents any group -- whether the Muslim Brotherhood, the military, or some other force -- from monopolizing power in the future. 

Yet the prospects for Egypt’s “rebooted” transition are dim if the Muslim Brotherhood refuses to take part in it. Unfortunately, the speed and alacrity with which the army has pursued and arrested Morsi and other senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders could be the marks of a witch hunt. And the military’s use of lethal force against pro-Morsi demonstrators in recent days will make the Muslim Brotherhood’s reintegration into the political system even more difficult. More broadly, the military’s hastily conceived road map is conspicuously opaque on key issues such as the criteria that will be used to determine who can propose and review changes to the constitution. And even liberals who supported the military intervention are dismayed that it grants unchecked power to the interim president.

Going forward, the leaders of the interim government must do their best to convince the Muslim Brotherhood -- or at least some factions within it -- that the benefits of participating in the new order exceed those of continued protest and abstention. This will likely require intensive negotiations with senior Brotherhood leaders who are now in detention and may ultimately entail granting Morsi a formal or advisory position in the new government. If Egypt’s new power holders fail to bring the Muslim Brotherhood on board, they risk creating a system that is just as exclusionary, and hence just as vulnerable to disruption, as that of the Morsi government they managed to displace.

The Muslim Brotherhood has deep roots in society and possesses great potential to play a constructive role in the nation’s rebirth. Realizing that potential will depend on the organization and its rivals opting for constructive engagement over confrontation in the days to come.

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  • CARRIE ROSEFSKY WICKHAM is Associate Professor of Political Science at Emory University. She is the author, most recently, of The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement.
  • More By Carrie Rosefsky Wickham