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No More Morsi

A coup in ungovernable Egypt

Jul 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 42 • By LEE SMITH
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After the coup, Morsi was put under house arrest, along with several top Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie. There is talk of trying to bring the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups back into the political process​—​Mansour says that all parties are welcome to run in the next elections, including the Brotherhood​—​but this is unlikely to happen, especially when the Tamarrod movement wants the Brotherhood banned from political life forever.

More important, even if the Brothers were allowed to return to the political arena, party discipline and esprit de corps would almost certainly forbid it, especially now that dozens of Brotherhood supporters have been killed by the army. From the Brotherhood’s point of view, prospective candidates would merely be lending legitimacy to an illegal process and a corrupt system. There is no Brotherhood member so credulous as to believe that even if by some chance he happened to win at the polls he, unlike Morsi, would be allowed to enjoy his presidential term in its entirety.

The participation of other Islamist groups hinges on a number of factors. It’s true that the Salafists hate the Brotherhood, and the country’s second-largest Islamist party after the Brotherhood, Al Nour, agreed at first to participate in the ruling coalition. However, after the army killed Brotherhood supporters, Al Nour withdrew from consultations. Perhaps Al Nour is looking to leverage its position as legitimate Islamist cover for the ruling coalition, and will get a deal they want from the army and its civilian frontmen. However, they are also likely to find themselves in a precarious spot. They are not going to win any support from the so-called liberal or secular part of the electorate, which has made its dislike of all Islamists clear. They are also unlikely to pick up much of the support previously tendered to the Brotherhood, because most of those sympathetic to the Brotherhood are seething. Further, if the confrontation between the army and the Brotherhood continues to draw blood, it will be difficult to justify participating in a political process that, as the Brotherhood will make sure to clarify, is overseen by an American-funded army that is spilling the blood of authentic Muslims. The Salafists may wind up sidelined, if not compelled to side with the Brotherhood.

And yet the biggest problem is not the derailed Islamist parties but the many millions of Egyptians whose views and aspirations they represent. Some observers have noted that Morsi won by a very slim margin, suggesting that the Brotherhood is not really that popular with the Egyptian public. However, it’s worth recalling that Morsi was the Brotherhood’s second-choice candidate after master strategist Khairat el-Shater was disqualified. The fact that an uncharismatic novice who by all accounts is not a terrifically bright man nonetheless carried the majority suggests the Brotherhood is popular indeed.

While some have cast doubt on the integrity of the electoral process that landed Morsi in the presidential palace, the reality is that most Egyptians, as well as the rest of the world, remain convinced that Morsi won Egypt’s first free presidential election. For example, in contrast to the Green movement that arose after the results of Iran’s contested and likely fraudulent 2009 presidential elections were announced, very few Egyptian protesters complained that Morsi stole the elections. They were simply unhappy with how he performed at the job that 51.7 percent of the voters, perhaps including themselves, had elected him to do.

With the coup, the millions of Egyptians who voted for Morsi were told that their first free votes were worthless. Their political will was nullified by the army on behalf of a vocal but not necessarily representative protest movement. Some estimates have claimed that at the height of the recent protests, 14 million people took to Egypt’s streets. It is an impressive number, but it is worth noting that there are several Cairo neighborhoods that are more than twice the size of the largest demonstrations that took place in the capital. Brotherhood supporters, or the losers in the army-refereed referendum, are likely to be just as numerous and every bit as angry as those who took to the streets and saw their demands fulfilled. As two and a half years of incessant protests have shown, no Egyptian needs to swallow his grievance silently. Going to the street and employing violence has been proven to work​—​after all, it toppled two presidents.

Both coups of course were army affairs, the first one by proxy. Because the military did not want to see Mubarak raise his son Gamal to the presidency, it made no move to clear the streets when protesters went out in January 2011 to bring down the aging autocrat. It was in the army’s own interests to let the revolutionaries topple Mubarak. Lacking a civilian frontman, the military was then forced to rule directly, a role it played reluctantly and performed poorly, not least by failing to keep the streets free of violent actors, like those who killed 24 Coptic Christians in October 2011, or those who laid siege to the Israeli embassy in September of that year, or soccer supporters who slaughtered 73 rival fans in Port Said in February 2012.

To be fair to the army and police, there is another reason, in addition to incompetence, that they did not bring peace to the streets of Egypt. In the aftermath of the February 2011 revolution, security forces were charged for attacking and killing protesters. Many, if not all, were subsequently acquitted, and in announcing that they would be retried, Morsi found common cause with the Tamarrod activists. However, what that meant was that the police and the army would remain wary of enforcing Egypt’s laws, lest they find themselves brought up on charges.

Thus, the anti-Mubarak protests and the carnivalesque violence that followed it for more than two years​—​including the storming of the U.S. embassy (conducted when Morsi rather than the army held executive power)​—​paved the way for July 3. In forcing Morsi from power at the behest of protesters, the Egyptian army effectively institutionalized street demonstrations, and the violence that issues from them, as a legitimate form of political expression. The army is largely responsible for the mayhem now on the streets. It took sides against roughly half the nation. If the violence continues and a full-scale civil war ensues, the question for the army will be whether to try to adjudicate the war that it started, or choose to finish the job itself and take up arms against half of the country.

Since there is little chance of the Brotherhood returning to the political arena anytime soon, or of Morsi being reinstated, the immediate question for the organization’s leadership is how best to take revenge on the army. Direct confrontation, like that which has already left dozens dead, is possible. There are lots of small arms at hand, via smuggling routes between the western desert and Libya. Indeed the Brotherhood has called for a war against the army, but it will likely avoid a war in which it would be outgunned. Similarly, if the Brotherhood waged terrorist operations that harmed the general population, it would risk losing the sympathy the coup has earned it. It seems that the Brotherhood has already made its decision: to mobilize forces in the Sinai. Already Hamas and Sinai-based jihadists have been active in what has become the Wild West of the eastern Mediterranean, killing at least three Egyptian soldiers, reportedly in coordination with the Brotherhood. 


Perhaps the key strategic concern is that the Brotherhood may go after the Egyptian army’s Achilles’ heel​—​the unpopular peace treaty with Israel that ensures the military continued flow of American money and arms. Therefore, it may try to embroil the military in a conflict with Israel, or at the very least embarrass it for not fighting Israel. In such efforts, the Brotherhood would find themselves with many allies, including the Salafists, Hamas, and Sinai jihadists, cheered on by millions of ordinary Egyptians.

Many believe that the coup spells bad news for Hamas, but this would appear to be wishful thinking. Rather, what is bad for Hamas is an Egyptian government that, while obviously sympathetic to the goals of Gaza’s Islamic resistance, must nonetheless for reasons of its own self-interest contain it. This was the situation prior to the coup, when the Brotherhood was compelled to come down on the side of Washington and Jerusalem during Israel’s campaign in Gaza last fall, Operation Pillar of Defense. The Obama administration overstated Morsi’s role, letting it be known that he sponsored the peace deal. (There was no deal, only a return to the status quo ante with lots of dead Hamas commanders and a depleted arsenal, and the arrangement was brokered through military and intelligence channels, not by Morsi.) And yet because Morsi could not afford war with Israel, or afford to be made to look like a quisling for avoiding a war with Israel, the Brotherhood was furious with Hamas. Moreover, because the army enjoyed the cover of an Islamist government, it was more aggressive in closing Hamas’s smuggling tunnels than it ever had been under Mubarak. The coup changes all this. It will likely push the Brotherhood and Hamas back into each other’s arms because, in the end, a few small tactical differences are nothing compared to the larger war against an American-Israeli project to subjugate Muslims.

The same is likely the case with jihadist groups in the Sinai, who dislike the Brotherhood as much as the Salafists do, but are itching for any excuse to take up arms against an Egyptian army that they see as acting on behalf of the Americans and Zionists. In short, the coup may well unify those whom the Morsi presidency divided​—​the Islamists. Undoubtedly, the Islamic Republic of Iran will be looking at these configurations in order to exploit the various opportunities that the coup has made available to advance Iranian interests in the eastern Mediterranean.

In  spite of the coup and the Freedom and Justice party’s likely removal from official Egyptian politics, the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t going anywhere. It embodies the fullest expression of Arab political modernity. Founded in 1928, the Brotherhood has roots going all the way back to Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt, when the first modern contact between the West and the lands of Islam touched off the Muslim reform movement. As the Muslim reformers saw it, the reason the Westerners had so easily overrun Egypt, and the reason their science and technology were superior, was that Muslims no longer practiced authentic Islam. Because the faith had become corrupted by innovations and polluted with extraneous influences, Muslims were weak and subject to the power of the West. From where the Brotherhood is standing, the coup only validates a 200-year-old worldview.


Morsi was an autocrat, which is hardly surprising given that Egypt has been ruled for many thousands of years by autocrats. There is no template for an elected commander in chief to build consensus and promote compromise. But neither do the various parties that opposed Morsi have any homespun experience of the democratic process. Even with the Islamists exiled from the political arena, willingly or not, it is unlikely the opposition will prove any less divided among themselves.

The fact that Morsi failed to govern well is immaterial, and not just because under the present conditions Egypt is virtually ungovernable. The Brotherhood was never interested in governance, but only in raw power. It promises adherents not just a better standard of living or a better Egypt, but triumph and transcendence in this realm and the next. It was never a political party interested in the details of leadership, as evidenced by its quasi-totalitarian slogan: Islam is the solution. Rather, the Brotherhood is a social movement whose success rests on having turned an existential issue into a political problem. The Brotherhood uses the term “social justice,” a locution derived from third-world nationalist movements, to describe what others think of as the tragic nature of life: Fate is cruel, and often so are other human beings. Islamism appeals to so many Egyptians, as well as millions of others across the Middle East, because it is a utopian project with a readymade scapegoat. If the promise of a better world like the one that gave birth to the prophet of Islam cannot be fulfilled, if social justice cannot be achieved, it is because someone out there is to blame.

It is a rich irony that Morsi was cast in the role that the Brotherhood has typically reserved for Egyptian leaders​—​Nasser, Sadat, and of course Mubarak: to be blamed for everything that was wrong with Egypt. Other players featured in Egypt’s paranoid political drama include Israel and the United States. The fact that so many anti-Morsi protesters complained of American support for Morsi does not augur well. There is much to criticize in the Obama administration’s Egypt policy. However, the fact that the opposition blames the White House for conducting bilateral relations with an American ally of four decades led by a president that its population chose freely is yet more evidence of Egypt’s political immaturity. It suggests that the opposition is feeding from the same trough of paranoia that nourishes the Brotherhood’s political program. Sadly for Egypt, this would seem to be the one thing that virtually all parties agree on at this point​—​the Americans are at fault.

It will be years before the consequences of the coup are fully understood. If by some chance the toppling of an elected president leads to political maturity, the careful creation of an inclusive system in which politicians and voters accept compromise as a necessary virtue, then this subversion of Egypt’s experiment in democracy will come to be seen as a useful step. In the meantime, as the coup made plain, Islam is not the solution​—​and the Muslim Brotherhood is hardly Egypt’s only problem.

Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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