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Marginalizing the Muslim Brotherhood Is a Mistake

AFP/Getty Images

When the Egyptian army reclaimed power this week, some of its first actions were to shut down three Islamist-run television stations, detain at least five staff members at Al Jazeera's Egypt channel, allegedly for being sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, and order the arrests of 300 Muslim Brotherhood members.

It’s not a surprising impulse for an undemocratic institution committed to displacing the country’s most powerful single political faction—which has some deeply undemocratic tendencies itself. And it evidently seems attractive politically to many observers both in Egypt and in the United States, where people seem to see the Brotherhood purge as a way of returning to more secular political leadership.

But it could prove very dangerous in the long run.

It is risky enough to set the precedent of ousting the country’s first democratically elected president. It is quite another thing to imprison him, round up, and attack large numbers of his followers, who have been demonstrating peacefully for the last week. These people have not violated the law. They were elected to govern—and they tried to do that. Secularists may not like their vision, but the answer is not repression.

To see why, you only have to look to Egypt’s recent history. There is a precedent for this treatment of the Brotherhood, and it’s an ugly one with terrible repercussions for Egypt. It goes back before the rule of Mubarak. Brotherhood members have been persecuted, repressed and tortured for more than 50 years, since the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser and even prior to that under British occupation. Nasser, Egypt’s second president, who came to power in 1956, had initiated a crackdown against the Brotherhood two years before, when he was prime minister. Repression has been a tool of choice for Egyptian regimes ever since in dealing with the group. Long years on the receiving end of government repression have helped midwife the Brotherhood’s evolution into a paranoid, secretive, and sometimes radicalized organization. The impact was not subtle. Brotherhood theoretician Sayed Qutb's dramatic turn toward radical Islamic thought—whose last book was then used as justification for violence by more militant Islamic groups—took place as he watched the brutal treatment of Muslim Brothers and was tortured himself in Nasser-era prisons, where he spent years awaiting his own eventual execution at Nasser's hands. A return to these Mubarak-era tactics of suppression will only serve to radicalize them further. Only this time, they will have a particularly legitimate grievance to nurse: the ouster of a democratically elected president from among their ranks.

The mood at Rabaa el Adaweya, where Morsi’s supporters have been camped out for the last week, is tense, and emotions are running high. My ID was checked more than once during my visit today and several people I spoke to broke down in tears when talking about Morsi’s removal. The army has closed off two of the entrances to the area, but it is stationed a ways off from the protesters so as not to provoke them. More people arrive on minibuses every hour, most from the Nile Delta and from other parts of Cairo. Brotherhood leaders have called today the “Friday of Rejection” and called upon supporters of the former president from across the country to take to the streets. For those who have already been here a week, sleeping rough has taken its toll. Many sat under tents, moving little, waiting for Friday prayers to start. After prayers, the marches will begin. On the way to the recently constructed “media center,” I walked through a corridor of drying laundry, under a bouquet of Saudi flags, and past a line of men patiently waiting to use the bathroom in the mosque, many with newspapers over their heads to protect them from the midday sun.

The opposition cites Morsi’s many mistakes and his undemocratic faux pas, as well as the lack of a constitution at the time of his election that would define presidential power, as reasons why his ouster is legitimate despite his victory at the ballot box. And it’s certainly true that Morsi and his government made mistakes at every turn and squandered all opportunities for real dialogue with the opposition. From the constitutional declaration to forming a cabinet that failed to credibly include the opposition, to the price of bread and fuel, to the societal divisions that opposition members say the Brotherhood stoked. Even fielding a presidential candidate after the organization promised it wouldn’t made the Brotherhood seem power hungry—which, after long years in the wilderness, it surely was. The latest mistake the Brotherhood made was believing that legitimacy in a democracy comes only from the ballot box. Fourteen million people in the streets—one in six Egyptians—creates its own form of legitimacy.

The trouble for the coup’s legion of defenders is that there are still large swaths of Egyptian society that support the Brotherhood, and the events of the last few days have led to unprecedented political and social polarization here. At Rabaa el Adaweya, I spoke to a 48-year-old woman named Souad Hassan from Cairo. The first ballot she ever cast was for Mohamed Morsi, and now he’s been overthrown. A 20-year-old commerce student named Aya Ahmed said that she herself was not an Islamist. Someone in the crowd identified her as a liberal. But she said she wanted democracy and a president chosen by the ballot box.

Last night there was footage of a protester in Rabaa el Adaweya shouting that el-Sisi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, had created a new al Qaeda in Egypt as well as a gathering of Islamists in Sinai saying “not peaceful anymore after today.” Even at the media center at the Cairo Brotherhood protest, the spokesman, Wael el Karim, said, “we won’t participate in any elections after this.” He also pointed out the irony of the situation: “No one on the liberal channels is talking about freedom of expression now.”

The army has no good answer to these people, and arresting the Brotherhood’s leadership and shooting members of the rank and file doesn’t offer one. At least three Morsi supporters have been shot dead today by security forces and the sun has not yet set.

In the early afternoon on the day after the army informed Morsi he was no longer president, there were only a few hundred stragglers left in Tahrir. Everyone else had gone home, because as far as they were concerned it was all over. But for supporters of Morsi, the real opposition has just begun.

As we have seen time and again in this part of the world, it is impossible to stamp out ideas by censoring them. In so doing you only push them underground and legitimize their most radical elements. Even the Brotherhood spokesman, Wael el Karim, who is more diplomatic than most said, “Now we see the only path to power in Egypt is by force.” Only by bringing them into the political fold and treating them like the political losers that they are, rather than like criminals, which they are not, can that rift be healed and can they begin to develop into the mainstream political player, among many players, that they could be.