Cairo Smoke Signaled Brotherhood Ouster as Army Bit Back

The Muslim Brotherhood’s move to a multistory headquarters on a hill overlooking Cairo was supposed to be a symbol of the Islamist group’s triumph over decades of secular, military-led regimes. A year later, it was set on fire and the president it backed was deposed.

The army suspended the Brotherhood-backed constitution yesterday and removed President Mohamed Mursi, as the dominant force in Egyptian politics after the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak became a target of rage against cronyism and economic hardship. Egypt’s prosecutor ordered the arrest of the Brotherhood’s General Guide Mohammed Badie and his deputy Khairat el-Shater.

The backlash has undone in months a rise to power that took 85 years. It also risks reverberating across the Middle East, undermining gains by Islamist groups inspired by the Brotherhood’s journey from prison to the presidency.

“The collapse of the Muslim Brotherhood will lead to dangerous consequences for this region, creating despair among young Islamists who could be radicalized,” Khalil al-Anani, a political analyst at Durham University in the U.K. and author of a 2007 book on the group, said from Cairo before Mursi’s ouster. Losing power in Egypt “would have a significant impact on political Islam movements in the Arab world,” he said.

Defense Minister Abdelfatah al-Seesi, who was promoted to the post by Mursi in August, announced in a televised broadcast that an early presidential election would be held after Mursi failed to meet the demands of the military’s 48-hour ultimatum on July 1 to end a political impasse. Mursi called it a coup.

Retaliatory Coup

Eleven people were killed and 516 injured in clashes between Mursi’s supporters and opponents after the army issued its statement, the health ministry said.

Mohammad Saad Al-Katatni, former parliament speaker and head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, was arrested after the military’s announcement. Rashad Bayoumi, a deputy leader of the Islamist group, was also detained on allegations of having escaped from prison during the 2011 uprising, Egyptian security official Yasser Abdel Raouf said.

“This is a military coup and a retaliation of the old regime,” Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad told Bloomberg Television. “We will continue down the path of democracy. We are committed to democracy.”

‘Powerful Player’

Even as the Brotherhood retreats, it will remain a “powerful player” in Egyptian politics, according to Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.

“You can still have parliamentary elections in which the Freedom and Justice Party wins a plurality,” he said before the military’s announcement.

Not everybody agrees.

While “political Islam isn’t going to go away” some groups “probably will think that violence is the only way to establish Islamic rule, and others will continue to participate in electoral politics,” said Firas Abi Ali, a Middle East analyst at research firm IHS in London.

Formed in 1928 by Hassan El-Banna, a schoolteacher who preached the adoption of Islamic law and principles as the way to end Western domination, the Egyptian Brotherhood helped spawn similar movements from the Gaza Strip to Jordan and Syria.

The struggle between the generals and the Islamist group has been a prominent feature since the 1952 military coup that toppled Egypt’s monarchy.

Nasser’s Attack

President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who championed unity under the Arab rather than Muslim banner, clamped down on the Brotherhood after accusing it of an assassination attempt in Alexandria. Successive governments at times tolerated the group and at times cracked down on its leaders, sending them to prison and confiscating their financial assets.

Decades of suppression left the Brotherhood suspicious of institutions such as the military, judiciary and the police, contributing to their failure to build alliances, said Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center.

“Making the transition from opposition to power was difficult for them,” Hamid said from the Qatari capital. “Brotherhood officials were saying they were in the opposition even after they won several elections.”

Moving from opposition to power in Egypt, the group inherited institutions reeling under decades of mismanagement and corruption and a population in which one in five lived in poverty and the unemployment rate was rising.

‘Building Consensus’

Instead of “building consensus” to revive the economy, though, the Brotherhood moved too quickly to consolidate political power, according to opposition groups and analysts.

“Now economic unrest is occurring with political unrest, and together they made Mursi’s position untenable,” said Abi Ali. “He failed politically before he failed economically.”

Unlike Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who waited until his second term to start purging the military of his opponents, Mursi fired Mubarak’s defense chiefs two months into his presidency, ignored opposition to the Islamist-backed constitution and failed to rally the judiciary to support him.

Mursi’s government also has struggled to conclude a $4.8 billion loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund that Mursi said was needed to restore investor confidence. Instead, the authorities relied on stop-gap grants and deposits from countries including Qatar, which extended $8 billion in aid to Egypt’s finance ministry and the central bank.

Enemies Blamed

The result was that youth groups, opposition parties and army supporters united behind the single goal of removing the Muslim Brotherhood from power. Protesters stormed the group’s building on July 1 and fought street battles with members.

The Islamists “created many enemies and were fighting battles on different fronts at the same time,” said Al-Anani, the Durham academic. “They don’t have any friends.”

Mursi, 61, and the Brotherhood say they won the presidency and a parliamentary majority democratically. They blame Egypt’s ills on mass protests and conspiracies by their enemies.

The now former president rejected the army’s ultimatum as his supporters poured into the streets by the thousands. While not capitulating to demands for him to step down, Mursi proposed a power-sharing arrangement until new elections, calling it a “clear and safe” road map to end the turmoil.

Crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the focal point of the revolution against Mubarak, set off fireworks when the defense minister declared an end to Mursi’s time in office.

Plunging Popularity

It’s a world away from the group’s standing after the 2011 uprising, when bankers and investors from the U.S. to Australia courted its leaders and their vision for Egypt’s economy. Fifty-seven percent of Egyptians saw Mursi’s election as positive.

That support slumped to 28 percent, according to a poll by Washington-based Zogby Research Services on June 17. More than 90 percent said they had confidence in the army.

The plunging popularity has been greeted with a mix of relief and satisfaction in some Gulf Cooperation Countries wary of the Brotherhood’s influence over other Islamist movements.

“Two things that don’t mix: the Brotherhood and prosperity,” Dubai’s Police Commander Dhahi Khalfan said on Twitter to his 463,195 followers before Mursi was removed.

The United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven sheikhdoms including Dubai, handed down jail sentences to 69 people on July 2 after finding them guilty of setting up a secret cell the country said was linked to the Brotherhood.

U.A.E. Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan said yesterday his country was following Egypt’s developments “with satisfaction,” according to the state-run WAM news agency. The Egyptian army “proves, once again, that it is the strong shield” of the country, he said.

“Other Islamist groups are watching very closely,” said Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center. “Everyone looks at Egypt as a bellwether for regional trends.”

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