Depth of Discontent Threatens Muslim Brotherhood and Its Leaders in Egypt and the rest of the World
- By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK and KAREEM FAHIM - July 2, 2013 - The New York Times
CAIRO — The Muslim Brotherhood, among the most powerful forces in Egypt, is facing perhaps the worst crisis in its 80-year history. Its members have been gunned down in the streets. Its new headquarters have been ransacked and burned, its political leader, President Mohamed Morsi, abandoned, threatened and isolated by old foes and recent allies.
It is a steep fall for the pre-eminent Islamist movement in the region, and especially surprising for a group that was elected just one year ago. Its critics say the Brotherhood remains stuck in old divisions, pitting Islamists against the military, and has failed to heed the demands of ordinary citizens.
“I think this is an existential crisis, and it’s much more serious than what they were subjected to by Nasser or Mubarak,” said Khaled Fahmy, a historian at the American University in Cairo, referring to the governments of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hosni Mubarak, the autocrat deposed in 2011. “The Egyptian people are increasingly saying it is not about Islam versus secularism,” Mr. Fahmy said. “It is about Egypt versus a clique.”
But Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood have made it clear they will not back down. After days of restraint, the movement’s members are fighting bloody street battles, convinced that hard-fought victories are being unfairly stripped away. Members have marched in the streets carrying death shrouds, and a senior leader urged members “to seek martyrdom” in the battle against “a military coup.”
The Egypt that Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood inherited was in a state of political and economic chaos that would have challenged any established government, yet they have sometimes seemed their own worst enemies. Even as the clock ticked on an ultimatum from the top generals — to meet the demands of the protesters or face military intervention, they remained deeply reluctant to acknowledge errors in governing or the depth of popular discontent. They saw only a conspiracy to topple the Islamists in the face of a new conflict with the generals.
“There were so many streams, and the bulk of them may be legitimate, but behind it is still the same old forces of the old regime trying to come back up,” said Gehad el-Haddad, a senior Brotherhood official close to the group’s most influential leader, Khairat el-Shater. Mr. Morsi echoed that accusation in a speech late Tuesday night.
For decades, the Brotherhood was hounded by repressive autocrats and their security forces, its members jailed, its organization outlawed. But its years as a secretive underground organization did not prepare it for Egypt in the throes of revolution. With its leaders focused on outmaneuvering the military and firming up their own power, critics say, the Brotherhood lost sight of its own role in the revolts that helped crown a new power: the people.
The Brotherhood has been shocked by the scale of the popular opposition now emerging against it, failing to foresee the size of the demonstrations, Mr. Haddad said. “The lack of professionalism meant the information coming in from our grass-roots network was not good,” he said, adding that the group had also failed to anticipate the speed of the military’s move.
“That was supposed to happen in four or five days more,” he said. “But yesterday’s statement by the military completely changed the game. It is no longer pro- and anti-Morsi. It is now ‘military coup’ vs. ‘democratic change.’ ”
Brotherhood leaders have sounded increasingly isolated, defiant and bellicose. “Everybody abandoned us, without exception,” Mohamed el-Beltagy, a senior Brotherhood leader, declared in a statement on the Internet.
“Seeking martyrdom,” he declared, was the only choice to stop “the coup of June 30,” the day millions turned out to demand Mr. Morsi’s ouster on the anniversary of his inauguration.
At a rally in support of the president, many Brotherhood loyalists sought to deny the reality of the protests. A 58-year-old woman who gave her name only as Umm Walid — Walid’s mother — complained that the crowds were supporting Mr. Morsi, but that the news media had mislabeled the huge pro-Morsi demonstrations as protests against him. Many, like Salih al-Dimshan, 39, a teacher from the Nile Delta Province of Sharqiya, said the protesters had been “brainwashed” by “media propaganda.”
Others insisted the anti-Morsi millions were only Mubarak loyalists “upset over Egypt’s progress,” as Ashraf Mahmoud, 39, a businessman from the same province, put it. Overlooking the soaring crime rate, growing fuel shortages and stagnant economy, Mr. Mahmoud said, “They just don’t want to see a renaissance in Egypt, especially not at the hands of the Brotherhood.”
The Brotherhood’s focus on the military was clear as early as the first weeks after Mr. Mubarak’s ouster. Mr. Shater, as a leader of the group, said it should not move too quickly to take power — at the time, the Brotherhood promised not to run a presidential candidate — lest it scare “the military institution, the security apparatuses and the international powers.”
If the Brotherhood sought the presidency, he said, it could “repeat the scenario of Algeria,” when the military battled Islamists for 10 years in a bloody civil war.
Following this philosophy, the Brotherhood provided the electoral muscle to pass a military-led referendum letting the generals dictate the transition. It hung back from violent protests against military rule, not wanting to give the generals a pretext for a new crackdown. Even when the military shuttered the Islamist-led Parliament last spring, Brotherhood leaders quickly backed down.
But as the generals signaled their willingness to allow the Brotherhood to compete for power, Mr. Shater led the Brotherhood in a rush to capitalize on its opportunity. It broke a promise not to seek a parliamentary majority, then its promise not to run a presidential candidate. It even initially nominated Mr. Shater himself, and picked Mr. Morsi only after Mr. Shater was disqualified because of a past prison sentence.
In the process, the Brotherhood fulfilled some of Mr. Shater’s own warnings about the potential backlash if it appeared to try to monopolize power.
After Mr. Morsi persuaded the military to yield him full powers last August, he and his Brotherhood allies increasingly operated as though his narrow electoral victory gave them a mandate to override their civilian opposition. That posture became most apparent when Mr. Morsi issued a presidential dictate overriding the authority of the courts until the passage of a new constitution.
The Brotherhood then rushed to a referendum on a hurried charter drafted by an Islamist-dominated conference, setting off a wave of protests that culminated this week. The intransigence of the Brotherhood’s opponents helped deepen its isolation.
Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood faced daunting obstacles, said Prof. Mona el-Ghobashy, who teaches political science at Barnard College and studies the Brotherhood. “The first elected president as a product of revolutionary upheaval is already in a hazardous position,” she said. “He was not only the first, but he was elected by the skin of an onion,” she said, with just over 51 percent of the vote.
Mr. Morsi was ill equipped to soothe the nation, a party oligarch who hailed from the “most conservative flank of the most conservative organization,” Professor Ghobashy said. And the Brotherhood, seeking to tighten its grip on power, favored “elite level machinations” — like neutralizing the military — rather than the public and its needs, she said.
“They are old-style politicians. The people are trotted out to give you their vote. Then, ‘Go back home, and let the leaders take care of you,’ ” Professor Ghobashy said. “The newly empowered public, which doesn’t have fixed allegiances to the felool” — the remnants of the old government — “or the Brotherhood, need you to deliver.”
Sarah Mousa and Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting.