Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is well organized and popular. Its Freedom and Justice Party easily won a plurality of seats in the first post-Hosni Mubarak parliamentary elections, and the party is set to remain a dominant force in Egyptian politics for the foreseeable future. Important party members are touring Western capitals, including London and Washington, on a charm offensive.
The Brotherhood’s Islamist origins and ideology have caused much hand-wringing in the US about the group’s commitment to democracy and liberalism. But the short-term risk of the Brotherhood’s rule for the US isn’t its religious beliefs, which are not out of step with those of most Egyptians and which their need to maintain international reputability is likely to moderate. Rather, it’s the group’s political incompetence.
Foreign media are no longer enamoured with revolutionary Egypt, but this is the most critical period in its transition since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011, with the process of writing a new constitution and conducting a presidential campaign happening simultaneously. On both fronts the Muslim Brotherhood, already in a tense and fraying accord with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has shown an alarming political tone-deafness.
Yet the main risk of increasing Brotherhood-SCAF tensions is not, as commonly portrayed in the US, sustained military rule. Rather, the tensions belie a much tougher challenge: an Egypt in which the only power centres are the Brotherhood and/or SCAF, with all other groups alienated or disempowered. This is a negative outcome for both US foreign policy and Egyptian stability – but it looks increasingly probable.
Back when SCAF and the Brotherhood were playing nice, Egypt’s military leaders decided that parliament – which the Brotherhood dominates – would elect a 100-member constituent assembly to write the document. All political parties and most political forces in Egypt, the Brotherhood and liberal groups included, could agree on more or less the same thing: a semi-presidential system, a compromise on the role of the military and Sharia as a principal source of legislation.
The Brotherhood-led, Islamist-dominated parliament could easily have crafted an assembly with only 30 or so Islamists, ceding the remaining seats to Coptic Christians, women, liberals, civil society activists and legal experts, and still have gotten the constitution it wanted. And by including a broader array of forces in shaping Egypt’s post-revolutionary political bedrock, the Brotherhood would have garnered increased trust and credibility from its opponents.
Instead, the Brotherhood clumsily overplayed its hand. In a move guided as much by historical insecurity as newfound power, the group’s leadership created a constituent assembly list dominated by Islamists, alienating Egypt’s non-Islamist political class – the Brotherhood’s natural ally against SCAF. In response, most of the non-Islamists on the list, dejected and no longer feeling they had a stake in the political process, announced their withdrawal from the assembly.
Rather than moderating its approach, however, the Brothers doubled down. Exactly a week after the constituent assembly debacle, the Brotherhood announced it was reneging on its promise not to field a presidential candidate. The Brothers originally made the guarantee – repeated countless times over the past year – to assuage domestic and foreign concerns that they sought to monopolize politics in much the same way Mubarak’s National Democratic Party had. The backtracking announcement immediately raised hackles within military circles and unsettled Egypt’s already wary non-Islamist groups.
While the relationship between SCAF and the Brotherhood has not collapsed completely, it is clear that the political accord between the two, which sustained stability for much of the past year, is unraveling. Had the Brotherhood not tried to pack the constituent assembly with allies and extremist Salafis, non-Islamist political forces would have rallied to the Brotherhood’s side on the presidential question. (In fact, a court in Egypt today ordered the constituent assembly disbanded.) But now many non-Islamists mistrust the Brotherhood as much as SCAF. And this poses a significant challenge for the US.
Throughout Egypt’s difficult transition, the US has sought to encourage reform while maintaining its distance, wary of sabotaging the process by fuelling a nationalist backlash. And though the US has not been entirely comfortable with some of SCAF’s moves, it recognized that Egypt was heading in fits and starts toward a civilian-based regime, even if the road was bumpy. Likewise, the Brotherhood’s success did not especially unsettle the US, as the group’s leaders appeared committed to assuming power only as part of a broad coalition – an outcome with which the US could live.
Now, however, the US faces two alternatives, equally unappealing and dangerous. Some Egyptians on the fence would now have no problem if the military staged a coup – the logic being that a military dictatorship you know is safer than an unpredictable Islamist dictatorship you don’t. With the US already struggling to regain stature in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, supporting a new authoritarian regime in Egypt would do incalculable damage.
Yet a government over which the Brotherhood effectively has a monopoly and that may be emboldened to pursue Islamist goals and reconfigure regional geopolitics, is equally unpalatable. The US would be forced to work with a regime to which it is ideologically opposed, while marginalising the very political forces in Egypt (liberals, youth, women, Islamist youth and civil society activists) whose uprising last year ultimately led the US to cease its support for long time ally Hosni Mubarak.
In either outcome, the US finds itself stuck. And that’s not good – not for the US, not for the Muslim Brotherhood and, most of all, not for the Egyptian people.
Ian Bremmer is a Reuters columnist.