A few months ago, King Abdullah II of Jordan told me about his meetings with Mohamed Mursi, the now-deposed president of Egypt. The king wasn’t fond of Mursi, both because the Egyptian was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and because Abdullah found Mursi exceedingly stupid.
“I see a Muslim Brotherhood crescent developing in Egypt and Turkey,” the king said. He despises the movement, partly because it is revanchist, fundamentalist and totalitarian, and partly because in Jordan it seeks his overthrow. “The Arab Spring highlighted a new crescent in the process of development.”
The saving grace in Egypt, he said, was that Mursi seemed too unsophisticated to successfully pull off his vision. “There’s no depth to the guy,” he said of Mursi. The king compared him unfavorably to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist prime minister of Turkey. Like Mursi, the king asserted, Erdogan was also a false democrat, but one with patience. “Erdogan once said that democracy for him is a bus ride,” Abdullah said. “Once I get to my stop, I’m getting off.”
Unlike Mursi, however, Erdogan was masterful at manipulating a system that didn’t trust him, the king said. “Instead of the Turkish model, taking six or seven years -- being an Erdogan -- Mursi wanted to do it overnight.” Recent events in Turkey, including the government’s miscalculated response to mass protests, have shown that perhaps even Erdogan isn’t an Erdogan anymore.
I haven’t spoken to King Abdullah since Egypt’s military overturned the results of the election that brought Mursi to power, but I imagine he’s quite pleased today. That’s not only because No-Depth-Mursi is gone and events have underscored the king’s analytical acumen, but also because Abdullah’s main rival for power, the Islamic Action Front, which is the Muslim Brotherhood’s Jordan branch, is now on its back foot. So are Islamist political parties across the Middle East. “Islam Is the Solution,” a common slogan among these parties, will be heard only infrequently in the coming days.
There are so many good reasons to be happy and grateful for the latest turn of events in Cairo. Women, as well as the 10 percent of Egyptians who are Christian, should be quite pleased. The Brotherhood’s most vicious war was on women. It has also been working assiduously to marginalize, and even terrorize, Egypt’s Christian minority.
Luckily, Mursi, as King Abdullah suggested, was a thoroughgoing incompetent, who fulfilled few of the Brotherhood’s promises, including its most vindictive ones. It is almost comical now to remember that among Mursi’s more banal pledges was his vow to solve Cairo’s impossible traffic, a mess exacerbated in recent days by the presence of millions of anti-Mursi demonstrators on the streets and in the squares.
The millions of people who rallied against the deposed president were infuriated by his pinched vision of Egypt’s future, as well as by his mishandling of the economy (a truly apocalyptic situation) and public safety. They couldn’t abide by Mursi’s fateful decisions, backed by his masters in the Brotherhood, to concentrate power in the presidency and deny positions in his Cabinet to figures from the political opposition. This last decision, to exclude Egyptians of differing opinions from any role in governance, could have been undone through pressure by the U.S. and its ambassador in Cairo, Anne Patterson. Patterson, however, together with her indifferent bosses in Washington, chose not to exert pressure on Mursi. They seemed to believe, for reasons still unknown, that he and the Brotherhood were firmly ensconced in power. (I wrote about Patterson’s troubles here).
And yet, while Egypt’s military coup represents a victory for progressivism, it is also a defeat for democracy. Mursi was freely and fairly elected. If the anti-Mursi demonstrators had exhibited the patience the president lacked, they would, theoretically, at least, have had their chance to remove him at the ballot box. They would also have exhibited a maturity about the processes of democratic governance.
Had the military not intervened, though, the Muslim Brotherhood may have tried, over time, to make sure that Egypt’s first free and fair election was also its last. A number of Egyptian friends have written me in the past day, arguing that what the Egyptian people did -- or, more to the point, what the Egyptian army, responding to the will of the people, did -- was to forestall the rise of a new Hitler. If the Germans, who chose Adolf Hitler in a democratic election, had turned on him a year later, well, you know the rest. The analogy is overdone for so many reasons, but it is absolutely true that the Muslim Brotherhood is a totalitarian cult, not a democratic party.
Which suggests one other potentially disastrous consequence of this week’s coup: The Brotherhood will not go quietly into obscurity, or into jail. Its members and leaders are true believers. In particular, they are true believers in martyrdom. Had they been turned out of office by voters at the end of Mursi’s term, the opportunities for martyrdom would have been limited. Now that they have been removed by force and are being arrested in large numbers, the opportunities are many.
The Middle East analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht told me that the coup has forestalled the Muslim Brotherhood’s “self-immolation through the ballot box.”
“This will keep the Brotherhood strong and make them, I suspect, meaner and nastier and less public,” he said. “They will grow popular again: Hell, they might still win parliament in a free vote. Who knows? But the military has just guaranteed their livelihood and humbled, if not killed, the democratic process.”
As Tamara Cofman Wittes, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, says, “My greatest worry is that this coup, if followed by undue repression against Islamists, will drive the creation of a new generation of Islamist terrorists in Egypt. Egyptians have suffered enough from terrorism already.”
Egyptians have suffered enough from everything already. The hope, as outlandish as it sounds, is that this coup finally sets their country on a different trajectory.
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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