Nahlah Ayed: Can Egypt put the Islamist genie back in the bottle?
Within weeks of the
ascent to power last
year, a friend of mine
who lived in Egypt
decided it was time to leave.
"The Islamists are coming," she told me.
"There will be no room for people like
My friend was joining a small but steady
exodus of Egyptians being driven away as
much by the increasingly frequent
episodes of violence, as they were by the
belief that their country was about to
become a far more conservative place.
They simply could not bear the idea of
being ruled by Islamists, however
moderate or inclusive the new ruling
partFy might claim to be.
Just as Islamists began reaping the power
rewards of the Arab Spring, a perceptible
backlash was taking root — and not just
Over the past year, this opposition was
slowly coalescing right across the region
into a movement dedicated to taking
some of the wind out of the Islamists'
In Egypt, the sentiment gained real
momentum in November when the
Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi,
then Egypt's president, rammed through a
controversial constitution that, among
other faults, barely mentioned women.
But it truly found its voice amidst the din
of dire warnings of Egypt's economic
collapse and its imminent failure as a
state, as well as the irreparable
polarization that had peaked under Morsi.
A growing backlash
This anti-Brotherhood sentiment in Egypt
became perceptible on television, in
newspapers, even during debates at the
Cairo University student elections earlier
this year when Islamist candidates
uncharacteristically received a drubbing.
Throughout the Middle East, the backlash
found an outlet in websites such as
freearabs.com, an online magazine run by
secular bloggers whose motto
"democracy, secularism, fun" accurately
reflects their irreverent but searching look
at everything from fatwas to sharia law.
Comedians and politicians alike became
bolder in their criticism and derision of
The new interim vice-president, Mohamed
ElBaradei, the former head of the UN
nuclear watchdog, bluntly stated in June
"you can't eat sharia," in a critique of
Morsi's troubled administration.
On June 30, the first anniversary of
Morsi's presidency, millions answered the
call of a small, secular group called
Tamarod (Rebellion), and clogged the
country's streets with anger.
Within days of these protests, Egypt's
generals, with considerable popular
approval, removed Morsi from office and
embarked on a campaign of arresting
Brotherhood leaders, seemingly aimed at
putting the proverbial genie back in the
The Egyptian army — which has its own
substantial economic and political
interests — denied this was a coup, saying
it was acting on the will of the people.
But its subsequent actions — the arrests,
and the shutting down of networks and
newspapers sympathetic to the
Brotherhood — provoked an obvious
discomfort among many of those who
supported Morsi's forcible removal as
they were so reminiscent of the previous
Hosni Mubarak regime.
Still, Egypt's latest political swerve is
forcing the entire region into an
unprecedented debate about religion and
its place in Middle East politics.
It is a debate that probably needed to
happen a long time ago. But it could not
under the old authoritarian regimes that
banned or restricted the role of Islamists
prior to the Arab Spring and, as a result,
lent them a certain credibility as the
That debate also failed to materialize after
the Arab Spring, when Islamists emerged
as the most organized of the opposition
groups and became the natural next
leaders once dictators were toppled.
In Egypt's case, the transition to
democracy (led then by the army) was
rushed — there was little time for the kind
of debate that may have helped head off
the current circumstances.
The Brotherhood then slowly edged out
all the other voices to consolidate its hold
on every aspect of Egyptian government
including the bureaucracy and state
media, despite its lack of experience in
running a country.
An 'Arab awakening'?
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the parent
organization of several others in the
region, waited some 80 years to rule this
There are some among its supporters
camped out at the Rabaa al-Adawiya
mosque who believe Morsi's calling was
greater than just being Egypt's president.
back to be
but for all
Islamic countries," one of them told me.
For Egyptians, it is going to be difficult to
find common ground if that's the starting
point. Especially as official pushback
against such thinking is now region-wide.
For example, Saudi Arabia — hardly a
beacon of political or religious freedom,
and an opponent of the Arab Spring —
suddenly poured billions into Egypt's
vacant coffers just days after Morsi was
The United Arab Emirates — fresh from
charging some of its own citizens with
having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood —
also offered $3 billion in preliminary aid.
Its foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, called
the uprising that led to the ouster of
Morsi "the new Arab awakening."
"The rejection by Egyptians of their
Islamist government marks a turning
point — not only for that country, but for
the entire Middle East," wrote Gargash.
"Now is the time to implement a new
agenda … to bolster Egypt's moderates
and prevent extremists from taking any
more advantage of the Arab Spring."
Supporting moderates (on all sides)
sounds like a laudable goal. But such
support from countries where basic
freedoms are still denied does ring a bit
When even the discredited Syrian regime
starts to call for Morsi to step down, it's
clear the anti-Islamist current is already
being co-opted for less than altruistic
The spectacular failure of the
Brotherhood, the people's incredible
response, the army's eventual
intervention and the Brotherhood's own
street reaction — looks to have created a
serious stalemate in Egypt, for now at
But ultimately it has underscored, across
the region, the importance of all sides
having a voice — including Islamists and
moderates. For the Middle East, it is a
lesson long in coming, and still in