I am dubious about the common perception that the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist politics in Egypt have been struck a deadly blow from which they may never recover. I say this because in reality Egypt has experienced neither real politics nor meaningful Islamism in recent years, but rather only superficial caricatures of both of those phenomena. I suspect that what Egypt is experiencing now is not the end of Islamist politics, but the start of its first real test in the public political sphere that is still in the process of being born in Egypt and other Arab countries.
The combination of the mass populist demonstrations of June 30 against President Mohammad Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood rule, followed by the army’s intervention to remove Morsi and crack down on the Islamists with beatings, arrests and killings, represents a wild swing of the pendulum to the autocratic and anti-Islamist right that had long run Egypt.
Before that, the Islamists drew on their significant populist support during their catastrophic and amateurish one year of rule. And before that Egypt had experienced bouts of support for the military during the post-Mubarak transition, and the euphoric moment of revolution that overthrew the old regime in January-February 2011.
Only a fool would believe that Egypt will now settle permanently into a condition of military rule that cracks down viciously on Islamists while allowing mass attacks against Christians, and ignoring the reality of the millions of citizens who repeatedly took to the streets to demonstrate against both military or Islamist rule, or for democratic transition. The wild swings in public sentiment continue to plague Egypt, because of the immense mistake that was made in 2011-2012, when parliamentary and presidential elections were held before the citizenry had agreed on a constitution that satisfied the vast majority.
The consequence has been what we have witnessed in Egypt and some other transitioning Arab countries during the past 30 months: the intensity and recurrence of street politics in which hundreds of thousands of citizens demonstrate for or against some political issue or group.
The street still rules today, because a credible and legitimate new governance system has not been agreed upon or implemented.
The street accommodates everyone, including the Muslim Brothers, the old guard, or fulul, non-Islamist centrists, the armed forces, revolutionary youth and many others. The one consistent narrative since December 2010 has been the erratic attempts to forge new constitutional democratic systems of government alongside impassioned public demonstrations that allow citizens to express their views. The powerful birth and continued assertion of populist legitimacy remain undefined, however. The immense force of “the will of the people” has been manifested in wildness on the streets, for it still has not been channeled into stable governance mechanisms.
So the pendulum keeps swinging among the many political actors, now joined by ugly attacks against Christians, foreign journalists, Arab satellite media and other easy targets. Nowhere in this process of post-revolutionary change has Egypt meaningfully experienced the birth pangs of genuine politics – that elusive contestation of power through elections, competition within civil society, political parties, media activism, mobilized social movements, active courts and other civil means.
This moment is special because it reflects the combined power of several forces that have momentarily converged: the armed forces’ desire to maintain overall control of the power structure, the mass disappointment and anger of millions of citizens with the Muslim Brotherhoods’ crude attempt to take over the state democratically, and the fervent, speedy and generous support of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies for the armed forces’ crackdown on the Islamists. The Gulf states may also hope that their support will limit the extent of the populist democratization that so many Arabs seek, but this remains to be clarified.
One thing is certain. The pendulum will keep swinging back and forth between dynamics similar to the ones we’ve seen in the last two years: the actions of the millions of Egyptians who supported the 2011 revolution, the armed forces’ transfer of power to elected civilians, the election of the Muslim Brothers to parliament and the presidency, the drafting of the 2012 constitution, and the removal of the Muslim Brothers by the armed forces and subsequent mass demonstrations.
This is what happens when street politics and mob mentality rule in the absence of constitutional governance. This will continue until one day, perhaps when Egypt is bankrupt, broken and scared, mature centrist leaders will emerge from within the country to harness the common values that we have seen expressed so passionately by Islamists, generals, revolutionary youth and many other citizens.
Their yearnings for both stability and legitimacy remain the ultimate determinants of the country’s future. The Muslim Brothers, secularists, progressive nationalists, the old guard, generals and everyone else will then have to decide how they will participate in the process of politics that remains so elusive, yet so crucial and enticing.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.