The Muslim Brotherhood’s Missed Opportunity to Rule Egypt

Supporters of Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi celebrate his victory at Tahrir Square in Cairo, June 24, 2012. (Reuters)
Supporters of Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi celebrate his victory at Tahrir Square in Cairo, June 24, 2012. (Reuters)

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Missed Opportunity to Rule Egypt

By their very nature, once-in-a-generation opportunities occur rarely, but their consequences are often felt for decades. Such has been the case with the Muslim Brotherhood’s one year in power in Egypt, which began ten years ago.

The prize – to rule over 86 million Egyptians – was as great as the Brotherhood’s fall was hard. From the comfort of hindsight, historians can now show how their unexpected rise led to a series of bad decisions, unwise alliances, short-lived goals, and success only in reminding the country why it had for so long avoided theocratic government.

Arguably, the Brotherhood’s leaders dug their own grave, chiefly by placing their Islamist identity above the nationalist identity, one that Egyptians dearly embrace. They then made a bad situation worse by inciting violence against state security personnel from their followers, who were led to believe that they were fighting for Islam. Even in exile, the Brotherhood leaderships decisions have been damaging, instigating needless internal battles over financing and direction while offering their supporters in Egypt no protection. The result has been the group’s splintering into a thousand pieces.

Muslim Brotherhood's senior member Mohamed El-Beltagi sits behind the bars during a court session in Cairo, Egypt, December 2, 2018. (REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)


How did it come to pass? Ten years ago, the Brotherhood’s future seemed bright, as did that of Mohamed Morsi, who - before becoming president in 2012 – was unknown to most Egyptians, including to the Brotherhood’s own supporters. His marginal victory with 51.7 percent against Ahmed Shafik, the former military aviator and last prime minister under former president Hosni Mubarak, marked a significant plot twist in the decades-long rivalry between the Brotherhood and the Egyptian military.

At the time, that victory was celebrated by western commentators and academics, who saw it as a first step towards containing Egypt’s Islamists within an organized political system, with Turkey often cited as a similar example. Yet inside Egypt, the feeling was quite different. There was a heightened sense of shock and defeat, especially among liberals and pro-democracy activists. Those who helped overthrow Mubarak just months earlier had not expected to see their country take a turn towards being an Islamic theocracy, yet that was the fear in the latter half of 2012, with the presidency held by the Brotherhood and the extreme Salafist movement riding high in Parliament.

The mood was difficult. Neither the military nor the liberal base dared challenge the results of the elections. The military simply could not risk civil war by not accepting the new reality of Islamists in power. Likewise, pro-democracy activists had to respect a democratic decision. Despite being ideologically opposed to the winners, they did not want to risk the alternative: letting Egypt fall back into the sludge of dictatorship in the hands of one of Mubarak’s associates. The chaotic aftermath of the Arab Spring had offered up the perfect conditions for this hellish scenario.

As the months passed, Egyptians grew ever fearful for the loss of secular Egypt to a creeping Islamization of the state by the state’s new rulers. In reaction, they chose to quietly retreat into their safe caves of apathy. Thus, the term ‘couch party’ was born, and used by analysts to describe the phenomenon of Egyptians’ sudden withdrawal from public political life.

Protesters against Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi react in Tahrir Square in Cairo July 3, 2013. (REUTERS/Suhaib Salem)

Meanwhile, the Islamists’ political ascendance was instigating a realignment in the dynamics between proponents of political Islam, the military, and the Egyptian public. Barely a year earlier, the celebrated Arab Spring had ushered in democracy and hope. But just a few pages into this new chapter, things were turning ugly. Those empowered citizens now began to reconsider the revolution that ousted Mubarak, even the viability of the resulting democracy, if it came at the expense of Egypt’s security and stability.


The Brotherhood aided its downfall in part because it was in no mood for meeting opponents halfway. They did not address citizen’s concerns about the threat to secularism. They did not they extend a hand to the country’s defeated liberals, either pragmatically or symbolically. They did not even try to negotiate a political deal with Egypt’s powerful military generals. Instead, they seemed to set about marginalizing all those with different political or religious ideologies, while choosing the ultra-conservative Salafists as their only political allies. In alienating themselves, the Brotherhood stirred up popular anger and resentment, yet worse was to follow.

Of the more striking decisions, perhaps, was the Brotherhood’s early targeting of Egypt’s most decorated military generals. In the first week of August 2012, just a month into Morsi’s presidency, the new man fired the two most popular leaders of the Armed Forces: Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawy and Army Chief of Staff General Sami Anan. Together, Tantawy and Anan had run the military for years. Both commanders were highly respected by the Egyptian public and by militaries around the world. Their ouster sent shockwaves throughout the region. Yet, in a stroke of irony, the Brotherhood’s bold step to control the military later backfired spectacularly, because the new defense minister that Morsi appointed - Abdel Fattah El-Sisi – played a vital role in overthrowing Morsi within the year.

In Parliament, the actions of the Brotherhood’s allies – the Salafists – not only shocked the public but threatened the same liberal and democratic values that motivated the young activists who led the revolution that brought the Islamists to power. Despite the country’s economic woes, Islamist Members of Parliament seemed less worried about employment and inflation than they were about legalizing child marriage, allowing the return of the horrific practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and prohibiting women from working in certain fields that they felt should be reserved exclusively to men.

In almost every area, the Salafists picked needless fights, and marginalized Egypt’s Coptic Christians, disregarding their needs for individual freedom and security. Sure enough, it was women and Coptic Christians who formed the rump of El-Sisi’s electoral constituency and supported the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood regime from power in 2013. Others jointed, too. The minds of some Egyptians were made up by the sight of Islamist parliamentarians refusing to stand to honor the Egyptian flag during the national anthem (they claimed that this practice was un-Islamic), or of them disrupting parliamentary proceedings by standing up without permission and loudly reciting the Islamic ‘Azan’ (call for prayer) and then leaving the room in groups.

Egypt’s former president Mohammed Morsi sits in the defendant’s cage during a court hearing in Cairo, Egypt, November 3, 2014. (AP/Mohammed al-Law)

A sense of hypocrisy grew when the Brotherhood began tolerating the discriminatory practices of the Salafists against women and non-Muslim citizens, in order not to lose the support of their grassroots followers, despite the Brotherhood having recently invested time and effort in ending its own discriminatory rhetoric against women. This had led, for the first time ever, to female members of the Brotherhood being allowed to take up leadership positions inside the party. Even if the candidates tended to be the wives and daughters of the group’s leaders, this represented a huge shift.


If there had been hypocrisy, some felt, there had also been manipulation. Islamists emerged victorious in the elections of 2012 in part because they manipulated Egyptians’ religious piety and their hunger for democratic change. There is no better illustration of this than the slogan used by Salafists in the parliamentary elections: “We are your way to Allah’s Heaven.” In other words, a vote for political Islam is a vote for Allah. It was cynical and deceptive, commentators said, but Egyptians were not deceived for long. As polls show, people soon realized that they had made a ballot box mistake.

A series of surveys by the Ibn Khaldun Center for Democratic Studies between July 2012 and June 2013 show how the Islamists’ popularity and credibility dropped off a cliff in a short space of time. In July 2012, a month after Morsi was elected, more than 40 percent of Egyptians said they were satisfied with his performance after he spent the first few weeks promising economic improvements, women’s empowerment, and the political inclusion of religious minorities (despite these being in a clear contradiction to the Brotherhood’s ideology and principles). By November 2012, however, disquiet was growing palpably, public rallies were taking place around the presidential palace, people were protesting government failures, and the Brotherhood was reacting by sending its militia out to instigate violence. Sure enough, citizen satisfaction surveys of Morsi’s performance dramatically dropped to 8.5 percent approval.

By the end of June 2013, coinciding with Morsi’s first anniversary in power, Egyptians had finally decided that the Brotherhood’s time was up. People simply wanted them out. Resistance to the Brotherhood was non-violent and grew from several small-scale protests to the huge nationwide rallies that eventually toppled the Morsi government.

Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in 2012. Egypt’s defense minister for two decades under Hosni Mubarak, he briefly led the nation after Mr. Mubarak’s ouster in 2011 after the Arab Spring uprising. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

Towards the end of 2012, people in the big cities, especially Cairo, started hanging banners outside their houses and shops that portrayed the Islamists as Machiavellian manipulators. Soon, a movement under the name ‘Tamarud’ (Rebellion) launched a petition calling for Morsi to resign. Started by young liberal democratic activists, Tamarud sought to mobilize the so-called ‘couch party’ citizens. It succeeded. In less than three months, in early 2013, the petition had gained 22 million signatures - more than the number of people who voted for Morsi in the presidential elections.

On the street, young liberal activists organized Friday protests outside the Presidential Palace and Brotherhood HQ. When police chiefs and army officers refused to use violence to control the protesters, the Brotherhood’s leadership sent out its own form of protection. Clashes ensued. Yet the decision not to obey presidential orders to violently repress protests did not go unnoticed. On the contrary, it proved hugely popular. It even stirred the public’s desire to see the military back in power. By March 2013, the protesters incorporated slogans in their banners calling for military’s return to office. People once again began chanting the revolutionary slogan: “The people and the military are one hand.” With a renewed sense of confidence, Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah El-Sisi told the military to side with the people against the Brotherhood.

Matters came to a head several weeks later. On 1 July, as the protests calling for Morsi’s resignation multiplied and expanded, El-Sisi told Morsi publicly that he had 48 hours to resign, in compliance with the people’s demands. The next day, Morsi gave a televised speech rejecting the demand, outlining his electoral legitimacy, and asserting his willingness to defend it, even if that meant “shedding blood.”

Within minutes, violence broke out between the Brotherhood’s supporters and anti-Morsi protesters across Egypt, resulting in fatalities. On 3 July, El-Sisi announced the removal of Morsi from office and transfer of presidential powers to the president of the constitutional court until a new constitution could be written and new presidential elections held. Exactly one year later, El-Sisi – a retired Major General - was sworn in as the new president, rewarded by voters for his role in ridding the country of the ruling Islamists.

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks during a joint statement with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades after a trilateral summit between Greece, Cyprus and Egypt, in Athens, Greece, October 19, 2021. (Reuters)


Egyptians look back on this anniversary in different ways. To some, it was the day when the Egyptian people rose up and rallied nationwide to protest the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and call upon the military to intervene. El-Sisi’s candidacy focused on restoring security and stability, and many saw him as being able to deliver, because the military backed him. In his inauguration speech, he was careful to promise only what he felt he could achieve, adding that his main task was to save Egypt from “people of evil”. In this, he asked Egyptians to help him, and millions were ready to do so.

On the flip side, the Brotherhood’s members and sympathizers remember the anniversary as a coup d’état against a democratically elected government that derived its legitimacy from the constitution and the will of the people who voted it in.

In the middle, the pro-democracy activists - who led the Arab Spring revolution against Mubarak’s autocratic rule before supporting the uprising against the Muslim Brotherhood for fear of a religious theocracy - were left wondering whether they had done the right thing. With a sense of guilt, they asked, in the aftermath, whether they had recklessly wasted Egypt’s rare once-in-a-generation opportunity for genuine democracy when they cheered the Brotherhood’s purge. Almost a decade on, they are still asking.


* Dalia Ziada is an Egyptian author and Director of the Liberal Democracy Institute. Her work covers military affairs, political Islamism, and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa. Tweets at @daliaziada.

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