After just one year of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government, a popular uprising opened the door for a military intervention — leading to the ouster of Mohammed Morsi, the country's democratically-elected Islamist leader. And while the insta-analysis on the change in power has largely been a Rorscharch test of how outside observers see and talk about the country, there's plenty of fodder for more nuanced view of the situation in Egypt now and going forward.
One of the most bold examples of insta-analysis here came not from a pundit, but from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who took the opportunity to crow about the "fall of political Islam," in reference to Morsi, an ideological and political enemy of Assad.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times, in a piece today, contextualized the conflict in terms of a "secular" military against the religious "Islamist" party, while MSNBC characterized Egypt as "largely secular," with an incongruous Islamist ruler.
And obviously, this presented an opportunity for those who see Islam itself as a threat:
Egyptian politics and culture are often discussed from the outside in terms of "religious" and "secular" — Islamist groups, representing the religious, stand in opposition to modern, democratic groups, representing the secular. But the Arab Spring was an uprising against an authoritarian, not a religious, regime. And it was a revolution in which Muslims, including Islamists, participated together with liberals. Talal Asad, an extremely influential anthropologist, argued at the time that the forces against Mubarak, Islamist and liberal included, were united however uneasily not by by common beliefs, but by a shared oppositional stance. This massive popular uprising since June 30 is likewise best understood as violating that plurality which Morsi is guilty of breaking.
The "religious" and not religious are further, and more obviously, entwined by the fact that the democratic revolution that brought down Mubarak, a revolution that was not visibly Islamist, especially from the West, was succeeded by the election of an Islamist president, and an Islamist party. And of course, there are elements to the past two years that are stories with substantial religious content: There's the Islamic-influenced constitution the party pushed through. And Coptic Christians, a minority population in Egypt, felt increasing fear for their safety after Mubarak's government was deposed. And, something that will no doubt become more important as the days go on, Morsi's supporters, who feel disenfranchised after their elected president was removed from office by military action, are talking about the change in power as a war on their religion. And yet, the images from the June 30th protests say otherwise:
Anti-Morsy protesters in Tahrir praying. Brotherhood ≠ Islam http://t.co/qsgv8oAbbz— שחררו את פלסטין (@SultanAlQassemi) June 30, 2013
But in the long run, the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood here will be a political one, not separate from, but also not driven by, religion. Nathan Brown, who is very much worth reading on the current events in Egypt, summed up the political context of the ouster of Morsi at The New Republic:
It is true that the Brotherhood did well in elections; that it was not able to govern fully but still saddled with responsibility for Egypt’s insurmountable problems; that important state actors never accepted its authority; that its opposition was unified only by a desire to make the Brotherhood fail; and that Egypt’s rumor mill transformed preposterous rumor into established fact with breathtaking speed.
But it is also undeniable that Morsi and the Brotherhood made almost every conceivable mistake—including some (such as reaching too quickly for political power or failing to build coalitions with others) that they had vowed they knew enough to avoid.
There were further problems for the group, namely a longstanding internal division that meant the party, while trying to move unilaterally, never really spoke with one voice in the first place.
But the complications of the failures of the Brotherhood were less evident in many political responses to today's events, especially among conservative Americans. The position there is pretty clear: the Muslim Brotherhood are the bad guys, their failure was inevitable, and the U.S. should oppose, forever and always. But in the country itself, where the Muslim Brotherhood won a slim majority of the votes in the first democratic elections after an uneasy alliance to topple a common enemy, only to become that enemy themselves, it's more complicated.