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A Life or Death Choice for Egypt's New Pharaoh

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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Deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi has been sentenced to death on trumped up charges. Will he be executed? The most likely answer is that, under guidance from President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, an appeals court will commute the sentence to life in prison.

If that happens, El-Sisi will be signaling that his strategy for handling the Muslim Brotherhood will be to replicate what Hosni Mubarak and Anwar Sadat did before him: keep it illegal but tacitly allow it to exist, as long as it's nonviolent.

If, on the other hand, El-Sisi lets Morsi be executed, he’ll be signaling that he’s adopting a new strategy of suppressing the Brotherhood absolutely, tempting the organization into violence that will be met with further suppressive force. The choice between the two strategies will determine much about Egypt’s future in the next decade.

First, consider the back-to-the-future strategy of suppressing the Brotherhood without eliminating it. Almost from the time it was founded in Egypt in 1928, until the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring, the Brotherhood was officially illegal in Egypt. Members occasionally engaged in acts of violence, including a failed attempt on the life of Gamal Abdel Nasser.

But from the ascent of Sadat to the presidency in 1970, the government adopted an attitude of complex accommodation toward the illegal organization. Formally, members could always be arrested for the crime of belonging. In practice, the Brotherhood was allowed to become the largest informal organization in the country. The unspoken deal was that, whatever its dissatisfaction with the regime, the Brotherhood wouldn’t confront it directly. The leadership was therefore able to stay out of jail. And from the regime’s perspective, the Brotherhood represented a more moderate avenue for directing the energies of political Islamists, who might otherwise join radical groups like the one that ultimately assassinated Sadat.

Under Mubarak, known Brotherhood affiliates were even permitted to run for national assembly. They weren’t officially representatives of the banned organization, but everyone understood that their participation in politics was a kind of modest accommodation of the Brotherhood’s growing ambitions. The Brotherhood responded by drastically limiting the number of seats that it contested. In 1996, some if its most moderate members even broke off and formed their own centrist political party, appropriately enough known as the Party of the Center.

The Brotherhood kept its side of the bargain. Even as the Arab Spring gatherings in Tahrir Square grew in size and importance, the Brotherhood refrained from directly challenging the regime. In part, the Brotherhood feared that its presence in the square would justify or legitimize a government crackdown. The Brotherhood also wanted to wait and see how the revolution would go. In any case, it wasn’t the Brotherhood that forced out Mubarak -- it was the army.

El-Sisi’s optimal strategy now is to get the Brotherhood to return to the status quo ante, the state of affairs that existed before the Brotherhood got its brief taste of electoral success and government power. There are too many party members and supporters nationwide to throw all of them in prison forever. What’s more, radical Islamist alternatives are as prominent today as they’ve ever been in Egypt and in the region more broadly. If he can pull it off, El-Sisi would be best served by convincing the Brotherhood that if it can control its angriest members and become peaceful, it might over the very long term come to participate as a genuine actor in Egyptian politics, albeit from a subordinate position. There is precedent: In Morocco and Jordan, Brotherhood affiliates have served in high positions in government, including as prime minister -- all the while acknowledging the supremacy of the monarchies.

If El-Sisi wants to accomplish this goal, however, he can’t execute Mursi, the Brotherhood leader who was the democratically elected president of Egypt. The Brotherhood couldn’t bounce back from such an execution to become a tacitly tolerated illegal opposition. Its existing members would be too concerned about their futures, and perhaps too radicalized. No self-respecting Brotherhood member could do anything but swear eternal hatred of El-Sisi, who would become a worse “Pharaoh” in the Brotherhood’s parlance than even the hated Nasser.

If El-Sisi executes Mursi, he’ll be telling the Brotherhood to go ahead and try to assassinate him. His goal would then be to eliminate the organization once and for all, deflecting its present and potential members to other forms of Islamist politics, such as the Salafi party Hizb al-Nour, which has been broadly supportive of El-Sisi primarily because it was opposed to the Brotherhood.

If Brotherhood members respond by becoming radicalized and joining terrorist groups or by turning the Brotherhood into a terrorist organization, El-Sisi would likely welcome the chance to suppress them brutally, using the tools of execution, imprisonment and torture. He could take advantage of the opportunity to tell the West and the Persian Gulf states that he needs more support to fight the terrorist threat.

The downside of this strategy is that it could drive Egypt into a civil war of the kind engulfed Algeria after the military regime reversed democratic victories by Islamists in the early 1990s. That war killed more than 100,000 people, perhaps as many as 200,000.

Such violent civil conflict hasn’t historically been the Egyptian way. That’s mostly because of the legacy of successful authoritarianism -- but it’s also because the dictators have generally chosen to suppress some opposition while implicitly tolerating the Brotherhood. In any case, there will be no democracy in Egypt in the near future. But at the margin, peaceful autocracy is better for innocent bystanders than civil war. Here’s hoping El-Sisi is the rational kind of Pharaoh.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net