Nahlah Ayed: Can Egypt put the Islamist genie back in the bottle?

The Arab Spring catapulted once-banned groups like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood into power. But its dramatic ouster this month reflects a growing anti-Islamist backlash across the Middle East that serves many agendas, not all of them altruistic, Nahlah Ayed writes.

A growing anti-Islamist backlash across the Middle East serves many agendas, not all of them altruistic

A supporter of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi reads the Qur'an during a sit-in in Cairo on Wednesday. (Suhaib Salem / Reuters)

Within weeks of the Muslim Brotherhood's swift ascent to power last year, a friend of mine who lived in Egypt decided it was time to leave.

"The Islamists are coming," she told me. "There will be no room for people like us."

My friend was joining a small but steady exodus of Egyptians being driven away as much by the increasingly frequent episodes of violence, as they were by the belief that their country was about to become a far more conservative place.

They simply could not bear the idea of being ruled by Islamists, however moderate or inclusive the new ruling party might claim to be.

Just as Islamists began reaping the power rewards of the Arab Spring, a perceptible backlash was taking root — and not just in Egypt.

Over the past year, this opposition was slowly coalescing right across the region into a movement dedicated to taking some of the wind out of the Islamists' sails.

In Egypt, the sentiment gained real momentum in November when the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi, then Egypt's president, rammed through a controversial constitution that, among other faults, barely mentioned women.

But it truly found its voice amidst the din of dire warnings of Egypt's economic collapse and its imminent failure as a state, as well as the irreparable polarization that had peaked under Morsi.

A growing backlash

This anti-Brotherhood sentiment in Egypt became perceptible on television, in newspapers, even during debates at the Cairo University student elections earlier this year when Islamist candidates uncharacteristically received a drubbing.

Throughout the Middle East, the backlash found an outlet in websites such as, an online magazine run by secular bloggers whose motto "democracy, secularism, fun" accurately reflects their irreverent but searching look at everything from fatwas to sharia law.

Comedians and politicians alike became bolder in their criticism and derision of political Islam.

The new interim vice-president, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog, bluntly stated in June "you can't eat sharia," in a critique of Morsi's troubled administration.

Soldiers and security police have taken control of the streets of Cairo and other large centres in the wake of the ouster of President Morsi on July 3. (Asmaa Waguih / Reuters)

Perhaps knowingly, ElBaradei was tapping into a strong current that was about to explode onto the streets.

On June 30, the first anniversary of Morsi's presidency, millions answered the call of a small, secular group called Tamarod (Rebellion), and clogged the country's streets with anger.

Egypt's swerve

Within days of these protests, Egypt's generals, with considerable popular approval, removed Morsi from office and embarked on a campaign of arresting Brotherhood leaders, seemingly aimed at putting the proverbial genie back in the bottle.

The Egyptian army — which has its own substantial economic and political interests — denied this was a coup, saying it was acting on the will of the people.

But its subsequent actions — the arrests, and the shutting down of networks and newspapers sympathetic to the Brotherhood — provoked an obvious discomfort among many of those who supported Morsi's forcible removal as they were so reminiscent of the previous Hosni Mubarak regime.

Still, Egypt's latest political swerve is forcing the entire region into an unprecedented debate about religion and its place in Middle East politics.

It is a debate that probably needed to happen a long time ago. But it could not under the old authoritarian regimes that banned or restricted the role of Islamists prior to the Arab Spring and, as a result, lent them a certain credibility as the uncorrupted underdogs.

That debate also failed to materialize after the Arab Spring, when Islamists emerged as the most organized of the opposition groups and became the natural next leaders once dictators were toppled.

In Egypt's case, the transition to democracy (led then by the army) was rushed — there was little time for the kind of debate that may have helped head off the current circumstances.

The Brotherhood then slowly edged out all the other voices to consolidate its hold on every aspect of Egyptian government including the bureaucracy and state media, despite its lack of experience in running a country.

An 'Arab awakening'?

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the parent organization of several others in the region, waited some 80 years to rule this country.

There are some among its supporters camped out at the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque who believe Morsi's calling was greater than just being Egypt's president.

Supporters of deposed President Morsi attend a protest outside Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo July 9, 2013. Large crowds of Brotherhood supporters have taken to the streets in several of Egypt's largest cities. (Louafi Larbi / Reuters)

"We're going to stay here until we get our president back to be the leader not only for Egypt, but for all Islamic countries," one of them told me.

For Egyptians, it is going to be difficult to find common ground if that's the starting point. Especially as official pushback against such thinking is now region-wide.

For example, Saudi Arabia — hardly a beacon of political or religious freedom, and an opponent of the Arab Spring — suddenly poured billions into Egypt's vacant coffers just days after Morsi was deposed.

The United Arab Emirates — fresh from charging some of its own citizens with having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood — also offered $3 billion in preliminary aid. Its foreign minister, Anwar Gargash, called the uprising that led to the ouster of Morsi "the new Arab awakening."

"The rejection by Egyptians of their Islamist government marks a turning point — not only for that country, but for the entire Middle East," wrote Gargash. "Now is the time to implement a new agenda … to bolster Egypt's moderates and prevent extremists from taking any more advantage of the Arab Spring."

Supporting moderates (on all sides) sounds like a laudable goal. But such support from countries where basic freedoms are still denied does ring a bit hollow.

When even the discredited Syrian regime starts to call for Morsi to step down, it's clear the anti-Islamist current is already being co-opted for less than altruistic reasons.

The spectacular failure of the Brotherhood, the people's incredible response, the army's eventual intervention and the Brotherhood's own street reaction — looks to have created a serious stalemate in Egypt, for now at least.

But ultimately it has underscored, across the region, the importance of all sides having a voice — including Islamists and moderates. For the Middle East, it is a lesson long in coming, and still in progress.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.