As we all watch the events in Cairo unfold today—including reports that several protesters having been shot and killed by the army, and that several top Muslim Brotherhood politicians have been ordered released—it’s worth checking in again with our colleague Adam Garfinkle for some much needed perspective:
The Muslim Brotherhood is at the same time a radical group but not a revolutionary one. One has to be very careful with how one uses English words when talking about Egypt, because its political and social physiognomy is not the same as ours…. The Army and the Brotherhood were long-time political contestants, so long that both sides grew to guardedly respect each other in the midst of their tussles so long as certain red lines were respected on both sides. The MB was technically illegal but tolerated so long as it forswore violence, and the Army let the MB proselytize and provide some social services the regular bureaucracy could not ever seem to manage. That arrangement was encouraged by the fact that, by Sadat’s time, both the Army and the Brotherhood had common enemies: unreconstructed Nassarite leftists and Communists to the one side, and truly revolutionary salafi Islamists to the other. In this light, then, conflating the MB with a group like al-Gamaa al-Islamiya is deeply, profoundly ignorant.
Of course, that established if fragile equipoise, which had to have been a major factor leading Tantawi to think he could control Morsi, has now gone by boards. But anyone who imagines that the Egyptian MB can turn itself into a revolutionary insurgent force that stands any chance against the Army just doesn’t know what he’s talking about. One fellow I know on the scene saw from his apartment window a bunch of MB types running “training” laps around a city square while chanting some lamely dramatic slogan, with some clutching tree branches for would-be weapons. If there’s anything funny about what’s going on in Egypt right now, this has to be it. Senior MB leaders are not going to start a civil war. They may be stupid, but they are not suicidal.
At the same time, it is true that if the Army tries to completely exclude the MB from the nation’s future political configuration, it is bound to sire a new generation of Islamist terrorists. Nothing about General al-Sisi suggests he is that foolish, however. So in a sense the limits of action within the ambit of Army-MB relations remain intact, at least in some form. But who knows? Making big mistakes is the one hallmark that, whatever their other differences, unifies recent Egyptian leaders.
Adam’s writing is always interesting, but in the past few days it’s been absolutely required reading if you want to understand what’s going on in Egypt.