Egypt: The First Defeat of Political Islam Since the Start of the «Arab Spring»
Boris DOLGOV | 18.07.2013 | FEATURED STORY

Egypt: The First Defeat of Political Islam Since the Start of the «Arab Spring»

The removal of President Mohamed Mursi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood movement who was elected in June 2012, from power by the military on July 3, 2013 was a logical consequence of the schism in Egyptian society. The schism showed in the results of the 2012 presidential election: the gap between the number of votes for Mursi (51.7%) and for his opponent Ahmed Shafik (48%), the former prime minister who represented the opposition to the Islamists and who is connected with the army and those who didn't believe that the Brotherhood is capable of ruling Egypt, was quite small. 

Various social forces participated in the mass protest against the corrupt and authoritarian Mubarak regime: liberal democrats, nationalists, the Left, and Islamists. However, it was the latter who took advantage of the results of the Egyptian revolution, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Although it is worth noting the fairly high voter support for Hamdeen Sabahi, the leader of the Dignity Party (Karama in Arabic), oriented toward a Nasserist, left-wing ideology. He received 20.72% of the votes in the first round of the presidential elections. However, part of Sabahi's supporters voted for Mursi in the second round of the elections, when only Mursi and Shafik remained in the presidential race, considering Shafik to be tied to the Mubarak regime. 

After being elected, Mursi announced that that he is «the president of all Egyptians», but in fact he attempted to monopolize power and implement the Sunnite «Islamic Project». President Mursi essentially established control of all branches of power: legislative, executive and judicial. He consulted regularly with the leader of the Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, and his deputy on financial issues, multimillionaire Khairat el-Shater, on important state issues. 

During Mursi's administration, in addition to the Salafi parties al-Nour (Light) and Salafi Call, the Islamist groups Islamic Jihad and Islamic Group, which in the past did not stop at terrorism, created their own political parties. The Islamists increased their influence in the country. For example, a representative of these movements who had previously participated in terrorist attacks was appointed to a gubernatorial post. Militarized «Islamic militia» troops began to be created.  In his foreign policy, Mursi openly supported the militant Syrian opposition, as a result of which dozens of Egyptian Islamists fought in their ranks in Syria. In 2012 a headquarters of the Syrian radical opposition group the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was opened in Cairo, with whose assistance Islamist mercenaries from various countries have been sent to Syria. Jihadists from among the Egyptian Brotherhood even tried to export the «Islamic project» to Persian Gulf countries where, in their opinion, the regimes are not «truly Islamic». For example, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2013 a group of Egyptian Islamists who were planning, according to the UAE authorities, to «mount a coup d’état» and «expand their activities to Saudi Arabia» were arrested and committed for trial, which caused a certain tension in the relations between the UAE and Egypt. 

Relations with the United States; Qatar, which provided him with financial assistance; and Turkey, with which Mursi planned to implement the «Islamic Sunni project», were a priority for Mursi. While in the U.S. on an official visit in 2012, Mursi asserted that he does not intend to reconsider the 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Israel.  In domestic policy Mursi's leadership, despite financial subsidies from Qatar and some protectionist measures to help the national economy, was unable to do anything concrete to bring the country out of crisis. The acute socioeconomic problems and corruption in the government which were the main cause of the Egyptian revolution of January 2011 persisted. In fact, they got worse.  While in 2010 about 40% of Egyptians lived on an income of less than$2 a day, in 2012 the number of such people increased to 50%. Due to political instability, income from tourism dropped sharply.

All of this heightened the disappointment and dissatisfaction of those forces which took part in the toppling of the Mubarak regime. They felt that they were being excluded from decision making and saw that the Islamists were monopolizing the fruits of the revolution. The regime's policy of strengthening the role of Islam in sociopolitical life gave rise to protest among the part of the populace that aimed to preserve secular values, deepened the rift in society, and intensified social tensions. 

The passing of a new constitution (57% of Egyptians eligible to vote voted for it in a nationwide referendum in December 2012) spurred protests against the Mursi regime and bitter disputes in sociopolitical circles. Many of its clauses, which were drafted by the Constitutional Assembly Committee, where the majority of members were supporters of the Muslim brotherhood and the Salafi party al-Nour, drew sharp criticism from the opposition, as well as from Human Rights Watch. For example, the clauses on the status of women and the designation of Al-Azhar (the most famous and influential Muslim university in the Arab Muslim world) as «the supreme and only arbiter in questions of sharia law» and «the main source of the legal framework» were criticized as «not conforming to international democratic norms». 

Mursi reacted to the criticism rather harshly: he closed dissenting publications and brought legal action against the journalists. This consolidated the liberal democratic, nationalist and left-wing forces, which defended the «secular character» of Egypt.  The political bloc the National Salvation Front was formed, which was joined by such influential parties as the Egyptian Conference Party, headed by former Arab League General Secretary Amr Moussa; Karama (the Dignity Party), headed by Hamdeen Sabahi; and Dustur (the Constitution Party), whose chairman is former IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei. Then the Tamarod (Rebellion) protest movement was created, one of whose founders was Mahmoud Badr, a vocal opponent of Mursi. Many parties and groups which oppose Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood joined this movement. 

Mursi's political opponents started holding mass demonstrations with the slogans «A Constitution for all Egyptians» and «Social justice and unity». By summer 2013 these protests had reached a high intensity. In several instances they escalated into clashes with supporters of President Mursi, with numerous casualties. The proposed national dialog between opposition forces and supporters of the president never took place. The confrontation mounted in proportion to the increase in casualties on both sides. A schism also took place among the Islamists. Part of the Salafis did not support Mursi and objected to his authoritarian methods.  Among Mursi's opponents, who accuse him of acting on the orders of the Brotherhood, the slogan «Uskut hukm al-murshid» (Down with the power of the murshid, the supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood) has become popular. The opposition movement, according to their statements, has collected 23 million signatures addressed to the Constitutional Court (according to other figures there were 30 million signatures) demanding the removal of Mursi from power. 

A rift has formed in the president's camp; four ministers have left his government, including the foreign minister. In several cities opponents of Mursi attacked the headquarters of the Brotherhood and their political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. And the police and army did not try to protect them. Furthermore, policemen often put on civilian clothes and participated in protests against Mursi. The former president either did not make up his mind to carry out the radical purge of the military and law enforcement agencies which he had planned, or else he did not have time.  

As a result, a rather dangerous situation developed for Mursi's leadership, where the army, security agencies and police, which had been fighting with Islamists for dozens of years, were mostly opposed to them. The military in Egypt, as in most other Arab countries, not only protects the country from external threats, it also plays an important role in politics, economics and business. Such is the tradition which in Egypt is over 60 years old.  All the presidents of independent Egypt, except for Mursi, were former military men. About a third of the country's economy is controlled by military personnel. The army was neutral in the period of the January 2011 Egyptian revolution, the massive popular protests and the overthrow of Mubarak's regime. However, military personnel could not but see the rise of the Islamists, represented by president Mursi, to power; the removal of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by Marshal Tantawi, although it was presented as an honorable retirement; and the Islamists' intention to conduct a radical purge of the army and law enforcement agencies and limit the role of the army in politics and economics as a threat to their interests. Thus the army's ultimatum to President Mursi in late June 2013, at the height of the bloody conflict between his opponents and supporters which threatened civil war and the country's collapse, was completely logical. 

The army, represented by Minister of Defense Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, demanded that Mursi's leadership immediately find a political consensus, declaring that if they did not, it would «take responsibility for defending the Egyptian people and the territorial integrity of the country upon itself». Mursi rejected the ultimatum. On July 3, 2013, the army, with the support of police and intelligence leadership, as well as the Great Mufti of Egypt, the Coptic patriarch and the leadership of the Constitutional Court, suspended the constitution and removed president Mursi from power. He was placed under house arrest. Several members of the leadership and activists of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested on charges of inciting violence. The head of the Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, was appointed as acting president; he announced that pre-term parliamentary and presidential elections are planned for early 2014.

The events in Egypt in late June – early July 2013 mark the first defeat of political Islam since the start of the «Arab spring». The main reason for the defeat of the Islamists was the inability of their leaders to at least feel around for a way out of the socioeconomic crisis, which was the main factor in the social explosion in Egypt in January 2011. To be fair, it should be noted that this crisis is impossible to overcome within the existing model of Egyptian economics in conditions of world financial crisis.  And at the same time, there was a period in the history of independent Egypt when Gamal Abdel Nasser's leadership, making use of the levers of the state's participation in the economy and giving it a social orientation, solved many complex socioeconomic problems. It is possible that some elements of this experience could be used in Egypt today, and not only there. 

Another factor which contributed to the downfall of Mursi's regime was the attempt by his leaders to implement the «Islamic project» and Islamize the country. That is a utopia in itself, and in a country like Egypt, it could not but lead to confrontation with the representatives of other religions and with the part of the people who do not wish to live in an «Islamic state».   

The defeat of the Islamists in Egypt has great international significance and changes the balance of power in the Middle East. The position of political Islam in the Arab spring zone and among the forces supporting the Islamists has been seriously shaken. The Egyptian military has suggested to the representatives of the Syrian militant opposition that they liquidate their headquarters in Cairo and leave Egypt, and it has prohibited the entry of Syrian rebels who are fighting against the Syrian government forces into Egypt. In Tunisia a Tamarod movement similar to that in Egypt is being formed. The change in power in Egypt has caused a storm among the Turkish leadership. And while Islamism which makes use of terror will continue to operate, its revenge, even with the support of the West, is unlikely...