Mohammed Mursi

Mursi, Muslim Brotherhood felled by authoritarianism, paranoia

The world's largest Islamist organisation could not transcend its instinct to impose rigid control

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 July, 2013, 3:42am

The passions fuelling Egypt's political turbulence arose directly from the Arab spring of 2011, but they have deeper roots in a decades-long struggle over the nation's identity between two authoritarian forces - Islamists and a secular military state.

Egypt won its independence from Britain after a 1952 revolution by army officers led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. From the start, the military was set against the Muslim Brotherhood, a growing and at times violent underground Islamist movement. Strong in the provinces and among professionals, it espoused sharia, or Islamic law, and went so far as to attempt political assassinations to wear down the military-backed government.

The Brotherhood's vision inspired both moderate Islamist groups and terrorist organisations across the region. It renounced violence decades ago and concentrated on social and religious programmes, but the group was both co-opted and persecuted by successive military leaders who regarded it as a threat to the westward-leaning secular state they envisioned.

The organisation's bitterness simmered through six decades as military men ran the country, until a popular uprising overthrew Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The army quickly seized control, but the Brotherhood began a political ascendancy that culminated with the election last year of President Mohammed Mursi, the nation's first Islamist leader.

The young protesters and opposition figures who led the revolt against Mubarak were outflanked by the Brotherhood and sidelined by political naivety, conflicting visions and lack of organisation. That left the country's fate in the hands of the Islamists and the military. Mursi began accumulating power, ignoring court rulings against his authority, pushing through an Islamist-backed constitution and referring to opponents as "thugs".

Aided by young officers, Mursi purged the military of top commanders loyal to Mubarak, including Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, giving him a space to negotiate a new relationship with officers, notably Mursi's new armed forces chief, General Abdelfattah Said El-Sisi.

But the state was falling apart. Foreign reserves plummeted, inflation soared, tourism dwindled, blackouts spread, petrol queues grew and poverty deepened. The Brotherhood was once respected as the most potent - and brave - opposition to Mubarak's police state. But it had never governed.

The military grew restless as protests and riots spread. Mursi placated the army by granting it wide autonomy in the new constitution and vowing not to interfere with the business empire the military had created for itself.

The world's largest Islamist organisation could not transcend its authoritarian instincts and lost the ability to deal with multiplying crises. Mursi accused remnants of the Mubarak administration of instigating street unrest and sabotaging his government, the whiff of paranoia further highlighting his inability to solve the nation's many ills.

The June 30 anniversary of his inauguration brought another groundswell against him. Millions of anti-Mursi protesters and tens of thousands of supporters held rival rallies across the country. The size of the rallies stunned the Brotherhood, and provided a pretext for the army to move.

The change in atmosphere was epic. Mursi was caricatured as an Islamist version of Mubarak, a tone-deaf autocrat who alienated the youth and mistook bluster for leadership. The Brotherhood's blend of religion and politics began to buckle.

"I don't think there is a future for the Muslim Brotherhood," political analyst Abdelgelil Mostafa said. "They're in the midst of political suicide. These people on the streets will not go home until this dark era ends."