The ouster Wednesday of Egypt’s elected Muslim Brotherhood government barely a year after it took office represents a significant setback for the Islamist movements that have proved the biggest beneficiaries so far of the Arab Spring revolts.
From Tunisia to war-torn Syria, anti-Islamist activists have begun expressing unhappiness with the religious parties empowered by freedoms the turmoil unleashed. That the backlash has crescendoed in Egypt — the Arab world’s political and cultural trendsetter and the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood 80 years ago — is likely to resonate far beyond, perhaps most forcefully in Syria.
“What happens to the Islamists in Egypt will determine their status in the remaining countries of the region,” said Jordanian political analyst Labib Kamhawi. “This is making them nervous because they know that if they lose in Egypt, they will end up losing everywhere.”
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It is far too early to write off political Islam as a force in the region, and the Egyptian army’s role in forcing President Mohammed Morsi’s departure sets a potentially worrying precedent for the future of democratically elected governments.
Islamist extremists, in Egypt and elsewhere, may argue that what many are calling a military coup validates the use of violence to achieve their aims. The regimes and monarchies still holding at bay the clamor for greater freedoms will cite the example of Egypt as evidence that elections that empower Islamists will lead to chaos, perhaps breaking further progress toward political reform.
But there can be little doubt that the specter of the Arab world’s most populous nation rising up in seemingly unprecedented numbers against an Islamist leader has tainted the Brotherhood’s long effort to present itself as a viable alternative to the region’s mostly repressive regimes, in ways that it may find hard to redress.
“This is one of Islamism’s biggest crises in recent memory, indeed in decades,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
Molhem al-Drobi, a Syrian Muslim Brotherhood senior official, acknowledged the anxiety. “This is not what we hoped for,” he said.
Drobi defended Morsi’s record, saying he had not been given a chance, in just one year in office, to address the multiple problems confronting post-revolution Egypt. He nonetheless emailed Morsi on Tuesday to ask him to submit to fresh elections, out of concern that his refusal to surrender power gave “the wrong indication that indeed we are no different from any other ruler, that we want to stay in power even if the people don’t want us.”
He received no answer, he said.
“We in Syria would love the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to prove they are really democratic,” he added.
Perhaps nowhere are the potential ramifications greater than in Syria, where the use of the army by President Bashar Assad’s regime to violently suppress demonstrations prompted protesters to take up arms, triggering a civil war that has lured both Sunni and Shiite volunteers regionwide to fight in the name of jihad.
The Syrian government, which has long sought to portray its repression of the revolt against its rule as a crusade against Islamists, is relishing the Brotherhood’s humiliation in Egypt. Assad, in comments to be published in the state-run newspaper al-Thawra on Thursday, declared that “what is happening in Egypt is the fall of so-called political Islam.”
Meanwhile, in rebel-held portions of Syria, people are starting to chafe at the behavior of the Islamist groups who gained prominence on the battlefield and are now seeking to impose their authority on the areas they control.
In the northern city of Aleppo, the execution on the streets last month of a 14-year-old boy for making a blasphemous comment and a rule issued this week by the city’s self-appointed sharia court banning women from wearing makeup have stirred anger. Citizens in the north-central city of Raqqah have staged small-scale demonstrations against the Islamists who hold sway there.
Some in Raqqah have watched with eager interest as the unrest unfolds in Cairo, said a resident who spoke via Skype on the condition that he not be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject. “The time will come when people realize that these groups don’t represent Islam, and they will kick them out,” he said.
Further afield, the recent mass demonstrations in Turkey, hailed as a model for emerging Arab democracies, were sparked by plans to chop down trees in a central Istanbul park but quickly grew into a wider expression of unease with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian style and his policies of Islamicization.
In Tunisia, the ruling Ennahda party, a Brotherhood affiliate, has held the middle ground between the radical Salafists who have threatened to use force to impose Islamic law and secularist activists, in another reflection of the splits opening up across the region that could shape a new round of turmoil.
“There is a fundamental divide in the Arab world over big issues such as the role of religion in government … and the identity of the state,” Hamid said. “It is a real, fundamental divide, and there is a lot at stake.”