The Egypt Coup's Implications for Mainstream Islamism

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Because the Muslim Brotherhood is the largest international Islamist movement, the ouster of Egypt's Brotherhood-led government has implications for the broader Arab and Muslim world. The military coup, which followed days of mass protests in the streets of Egypt, will shape the behavior of Brotherhood organizations and their opponents throughout the region. Although these Islamist groups, having long sought to establish an Islamic state through democratic politics, will be forced to further temper their ideological agendas, many that have only recently joined the political mainstream (Salafists), or are in the process of doing so (Afghanistan's Taliban), will see the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's experience as vindication of their use of armed struggle. 


The Brotherhood parent organization's fall from power in Egypt represents a setback for its formal branches and like-minded groups across the Middle East. The most prominent of these groups are Hamas, the Syrian and Jordanian branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, Tunisia's governing Ennahda party and Morocco's ruling Justice and Development Party. Each group will be affected according to its particular geopolitical circumstances.

Given Gaza's proximity to Egypt and the role that Cairo plays in Israeli-Palestinian relations, Hamas will be the most immediately affected. That said, Hamas and the Egyptian military-intelligence complex have been coordinating since years before the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi became president. In fact, Hamas had a close working relationship with former President Hosni Mubarak's regime while Cairo was suppressing the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

The Palestinian Islamist movement always knew it would be some time before it gained any significant leverage from the Brotherhood's rise to power, because the Egyptian movement needed a long time to consolidate itself in Cairo. Conversely, the Brotherhood government privileged the Camp David Accords over the commitment to its Palestinian ally, as seen during the last Israel-Gaza war. For this reason, Hamas issued a statement July 4 steering clear of supporting the Brotherhood and saying it would work with whoever is in charge in the Egyptian capital.

The Brotherhood in Syria and Jordan

Even before Morsi's removal, the Syrian branch of the Brotherhood was not faring well because of the civil war in the country. As a political entity whose armed rebellion against the Alawite-dominated state during the 1970s and early 1980s had failed, the Syrian Brotherhood had a latent presence in the country at best. The rapid transformation of Syria's peaceful demonstrations into a civil war enabled competitors to overtake the Syrian Brotherhood, which now is caught between the more Salafist and jihadist groups and the more secular Free Syrian Army.

The Syrian Brotherhood's hope was that, with the world worried about the more radical Islamists dominating the Syrian rebel landscape, it would be able to advance itself as a moderate alternative to the jihadists and would get some support from Egypt's Brotherhood-dominated government. But with the Egyptian public uprising against the Brotherhood and the ensuing military coup, the situation has become more complicated. The al Assad regime can now make the case that if the Muslim Brotherhood could not function within a democratic framework in Egypt, then more radical Islamists involved in the armed conflict in Syria cannot be trusted. Syria's Brotherhood can still position itself as the moderate alternative to the jihadists, though that alone does not demonstrate that the group has influence among the Syrian people.

Jordan's Brotherhood had hoped that the empowerment of the Egyptian branch and the collapse of the Syrian regime would give it the momentum to force Amman to enact reforms that would enable it to form a majority in parliament and dominate the Cabinet. Morsi's fall came as a relief to the Hashemite monarchy and as a blow to the Jordanian Brotherhood, which will have a harder time expanding its influence. If anything, the coup in Egypt will exacerbate the internal differences between the hawkish and dovish factions within the Jordanian branch.

Islamist Movements in North Africa

Tunisia's Islamist Ennahda party, which leads an interim coalition government with two secularist parties, has had much more success than the Egyptian Brotherhood. This is primarily because of the Islamist-secularist power-sharing agreement, which is informed by Ennahda's similarity to Turkey's ruling Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party rather than to the Brotherhood. Ennahda has been pursuing the goal of a civil state that is not based on strict implementation of Sharia.

Still, Ennahda and its secular partners have not been able to craft a new constitution. Furthermore, the provisional authorities have been struggling with economic issues and the rise of Salafist forces pushing for an austere understanding of Sharia. In many ways, the rise of the Salafists in Tunisia has helped Ennahda because the group has been able to position itself as the mainstream alternative to the Salafist organizations, most of which are either vigilante groups or engaged in armed struggle.

This is very different from Egypt, where the largest Salafist movement, Hizb al-Nour, has actually opposed the Brotherhood and sided with its non-Islamist opponents. Moreover, unlike Egypt, Tunisia's military does not have a history of controlling political action, nor is it capable of doing so now. Thus, even if efforts to form a Tunisian version of the Tamarod movement, which helped topple the Morsi government, gain momentum, there is no superior force such a movement could call on to fulfill its wishes. That Tunisia's secularist president, Moncef Marzouki, condemned the Egyptian military for forcibly removing Morsi from power speaks volumes about the difference in the situations between Egypt and Tunisia.

On the western end of North Africa, in Morocco, the Islamist-led government is least likely to be affected by the collapse of the Brotherhood. First, the Moroccan monarchy recently pushed the Justice and Development Party's secularist partners to reconcile with the movement in order to prevent a collapse of the Islamist-led coalition government, which was formed shortly after the outbreak of the Arab Spring. Second, the North African state is concerned about the more hard-line Islamist movement, al-Adl wa al-Ihsane, which rejects the monarchy and has considerable support within the country. Finally, there is a vibrant Salafist and jihadist tendency within the country, which sustains the value of the ruling Islamist party for the monarchy.

Salafists, Jihadists and the Political Mainstream

The Arab Spring brought to the fore a number of ultraconservative Islamist forces that hitherto rejected democracy as un-Islamic. Most of them are Salafists, and some former jihadists are in the mix as well. Some of these radical Islamist forces are likely to look at the fate of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and will be discouraged — to say the least — by mainstream politics. If the Brotherhood, which is far more accommodating than them, was not tolerated and was ousted in a military coup, then these groups must be considering their prospects, given that they have a stricter view of Sharia.

Of course, not all of these groups will automatically resort to armed conflict. For example, Egypt's al-Nour Party, which is more conservative than the Brotherhood, is siding with the non-Islamists against the Brotherhood. Part of it has to do with al-Nour's desire to replace the Brotherhood as Egypt's major Islamist movement. But al-Nour is also a unique case in that it is the political wing of al-Dawah al-Salafiyah, which, until the early days of the uprising against Mubarak, was an apolitical group. It actually opposed protests against Mubarak early on and therefore is unlikely to resort to radical measures because of the experience of the Brotherhood.

But there are plenty of other Salafists and former jihadists who can be expected to decide that participating in democratic politics does not pay off. This does not necessarily apply to entire groups, such as the various Salafist factions or two former jihadist outfits, Gamaah al-Islamiyah and Tandheem al-Jihad; these groups renounced violence years before the Arab Spring and even before the Sept. 11 attacks. Rather, it is elements within these groups that could go back to the old ways.

Elsewhere in the region, in places such as Libya, Gaza and Yemen, there are militias — many of which are radical Islamist and are dedicated to neither armed struggle nor democratic politics. These outfits already are under the impression that there is more to gain from bullets than ballots. Morsi's collapse will only reinforce their views.

The Efforts to Moderate Current Jihadists

Morsi's downfall will have the greatest impact on active jihadist forces. These include many rebel groups in Syria, the Afghan Taliban and groups that are determined to gnaw away at the weakened Pakistani state. Some groups, such as the Afghan Taliban, are being courted into the mainstream. Others, such as the Syrian jihadist groups, realize that at some point they will have to decide whether to participate in democracy. If the Brotherhood, despite its political machine, was not able to survive the process, then they will assume they have no chance and thus must stick to their jihadist ways.

In the case of the Syrian jihadists, this is not an immediate issue. They still need to achieve their immediate goal of toppling the Syrian regime. For the Afghan Taliban, this is a much more immediate concern, given that they are engaged in talks with the United States over a post-NATO power-sharing arrangement. 

But they also know that Western land forces will be leaving Afghanistan next year, and the "democratic" Afghan state is in transition. Moreover, they are less experienced at mainstream politics and more accustomed to armed struggle. If the more seasoned Brotherhood could not last beyond a year, then they likely believe they would benefit from continuing their armed struggle and using it as leverage to extract a major share of a post-NATO Afghan state.

For the much more radicalized and militant Islamist forces in Pakistan, the Brotherhood's fate only reinforces their existing view that democracy is un-Islamic and susceptible to manipulation by the military establishment. Moreover, the Islamist political parties have never really been able to succeed in constitutional politics.

Clearly, the Egyptian military coup does not bode well for international efforts to bring radical Islamists into the mainstream. However, it does serve the interests of Arab monarchies, particularly those of the energy-rich Gulf Cooperation Council states (and especially Saudi Arabia), most of which see the Brotherhood-style Islamist forces as a challenge to their legitimacy. The fall of the Morsi government has given them cause to celebrate because the Brotherhood's political ideals run counter to their political interests. However, the challenge remains for the republican regimes that have to deal with Islamists, who pose a geopolitical — albeit foreign policy — problem for the states ruled by dynasties.

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