Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says “it would be a grave error…to fixate on the obstacles the [Egyptian] army has put in the way of the Islamists without appreciating the latter's remarkable ability to fill any political vacuum they are permitted to fill.” After thinking about this for a day or so, I think he’s right. My initial reaction to Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi’s victory two days ago was a little too flip.
I’ve been half-expecting a less bloody version of the Algeria crisis in the 1990s where the secular police state voided the election after the Islamists won, precipitating civil war. It’s still too soon to rule that out, but let’s assume for now that it won’t happen, that the Muslim Brotherhood has some (albeit limited) power right now and will use as much of it as possible to transform Egypt in its own image. What should we expect to see happen?
While confirmation of Morsi's victory may spare Egypt a potentially violent faceoff between Islamists and the military, the shockwaves will be felt across the Middle East. This ranges from the wilderness of Sinai, where more-violent Islamists will push the Ikhwani leader toward confrontation with Israel; to the suburbs of Aleppo and Damascus, where the Morsi example will be a fillip to Islamists fighting Alawite rule; to the capitals of numerous Arab states, especially the monarchies, where survivalist leaders mortified by the prospect that Islamist revolutions could trump their claims of religious legitimacy will double-down on their velvet-glove/iron-fist strategies to fend off the fervor for change.
Reactions will differ by country. Wealthy Gulf states, more fearful of the Brotherhood's populist message than welcoming of its Islamist content, will offer aid to Egypt, but only enough to keep the country hungry without starving. Jordan, caught between an Egyptian Islamist rock and a Syrian jihadist hard place, will move closer to Washington and Israel. For its part, Israel will cling to the SCAF, with whom it has more intimate contact and better relations today than at any point in years. In other words, everyone will play for time.
But what happens after time passes? A now-volatile place like Egypt can’t remain in a holding pattern forever.
The Brotherhood, as the culmination of the Muslim reform movement, is the embodied critique of modern Muslim communities. The lands of Islam were inferior to the West because of how Muslims practiced Islam. The problem then is not that this well-oiled political machine has never actually governed a country or managed an economy, or that its practical political theory is derived from a 7th-century desert utopia ruled by the prophet of Islam. The real issue is that the Brotherhood perceives itself as a corrective—not simply to the Mubarak regime, but to the way ordinary Egyptians have conducted their affairs for the last half millennium or so. This is the Brotherhood’s ideological core, which may well spell disaster not only for the rights of women and minorities, but also for millions of other Egyptians.
Morsi has said that he is the president for all Egyptians. The question is how, particularly in the middle of an international economic meltdown, he can reconcile more than 80 million Egyptians to the Brotherhood’s rule. What has made the organization attractive for all these years is not its vision, its policies, whatever those turn out to be, but rather resistance, negation, a dynamism built on the foundations of conflict. Morsi will likely have little choice in the matter: To manage an Egypt perpetually on the verge of chaos, he will have to project internal conflict outward. In due time, Egypt will make war either on itself, or on Israel.
Sorry to be grim here, but I see no possibility whatsoever of a happy outcome in this country. Egypt is by far the most Islamist place I’ve ever seen. That volcano can only stay plugged for so long.