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Column: What's next for the Muslim Brotherhood?

Supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi hold up posters of him during a protest along Zahara street in Cairo August 18, 2013.
Supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi hold up posters of him during a protest along Zahara street in Cairo August 18, 2013.

By John Lloyd

CAIRO - The Muslim Brotherhood is on the run.

Its leaders, including its Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie, are in prison. Badie's only son, Ammar, was killed during the military's clearing of protests last week. Badie's deputy, Mahmout Ezzat replaced him, and is apparently free for now, but others are imprisoned or sought for arrest. Its protestors have been scattered by police and the army, losing hundreds of lives in the process. The cancellation of its legal status is now being discussed by the military-backed government. Former President Hosni Mubarak's release on Thursday, from jail to house arrest, is salt in a wound. As they fall from the heights of leadership, so the old and reviled leader climbs, if shakily, out of the pit.

In a special report, Reuters correspondents wrote that the Brotherhood originally had decided not to contest for power after the fall of Mubarak, arguing — according to the U.S. scholar Nathan Brown, who met the senior Brotherhood official Khairat El-Shater several times — that "the burdens of Egypt are too big for any one political actor." Yet, in power, it insisted on being that one actor.

Neither a visionary nor an efficient politician, Mohamed Mursi issued meaningless calls for unity and moderation, while rooting legislative power in an Islamist-dominated Shura Council that he appointed. He brushed aside all proposals for inclusion of other forces and sought to make his office unchallengeable. Mohammed Habib, a former deputy supreme leader of the Brotherhood, now a renegade with his own party, wrote in the Egypt Independent this week that, "they lost everything due to their failure to understand what was happening around them."

The loss is still visible in the streets around Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo, where the Brotherhood and their supporters camped for weeks before the military moved in last Friday.

There are lines of burnt out cars and other equipment standing sentry around scorched pavements and buildings. Soldiers sit behind machine guns on top of tanks and armored carriers, baking in the sun. There are few people on the streets. It has the sense of a space with the life sucked out of it. Abdallah Hassan, an Egyptian journalist with whom I work in Cairo, took a series of pictures of the sprawling encampment a day or two before the clearances: he decided to focus on the children, playing about the tents, posing charmingly for the camera. There were a few boys with toy guns in mock military pose — carefree, as if on holiday.

The violence that cleared this space changed everything. In Egypt, nearly all but the Brotherhood and its supporters accept it as a necessary act. In an interview, the former presidential candidate and co-leader of the National Salvation Front, the leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, said that the revolution had gotten rid of Mubarak's secular dictatorship only to find it replaced by the Mursi's Muslim dictatorship. The army "stood with the people" to get rid of the latter: Egypt "would never return" to a dictatorship.

This is now the position of almost all public figures, and is echoed across the spectrum. The Catholic priest Rafic Greiche, at ease in his study by Saint Cyrille church in Cairo's Heliopolis suburb, had been a member of the National Dialogue that Mursi had created with minorities. But, Greiche told me, "It got nowhere, it was designed to get nowhere. We Christians left the Dialogue when it was clear they wanted a tough application of Sharia law. By that time they had alienated everyone — police, army, teachers, Christians, judges, ordinary people, everyone."

The Brotherhood had seen Egypt as a bulwark in the attempt to Islamize the Middle East. It wanted to make Egypt, the region's biggest state with its largest military, a model Islamic society. The problem was that Egyptians Muslims felt patronized by the Brotherhood's attempts to tell them about how best to be a Muslim.

The party now has little chance of a comeback. The brutality with which its protests have been put down, the enthusiasm with which the army's actions have been received both in Egypt and in most other states in the region and the reluctance on the part of the United States and the European Union to cut off aid and links with the new government, have for now condemned the Brotherhood to impotence. Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, told ABC News that he doesn't fear civil war. He is likely to be right: the Brotherhood is not in fighting shape.

From here, the Brotherhood — down but not out — has three possible options.

First, it could continue its strategy of inviting martyrdom, in the hope that further bloody repression will stir the consciences of more than just foreigners. Leaders of the movement called for renewed protests in the coming weekend immediately after the killings last weekend, and these may again run into the impatient savagery of the military and the police. The latter perhaps avid to avenge the murder, earlier this week, of 25 of their number in Sinai by Islamist militants (not, according to the Brotherhood, its members). This weekend may be a flop; but the week after - Friday, August 30 - has already been identified in graffiti and posters as the day when the "martyrs" parade themselves in force.

Second, it could develop a strategy of terror, which it has so far claimed to avoid. Terrorist movements — the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland is the classic case — can, if determined to carry on the struggle for years, attract enough support to force the governing power to compromise with it, and bring it again into the political arena. The sociologist Ramy Aly told me, "The authorities have now transformed the Brotherhood into a terrorist organization, and are saying to Egyptians, if you're not with us you're with these terrorists." Some of the more ardent spirits in the Brotherhood might be tempted to make the charge a reality.

Third, the party could remember its origin and pose as the savior of the rural and urban poor. That class is now getting poorer, and is likely to continue to do so. The collapse of Arab socialism, which had been the creed of President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-70) has left a vacuum that a gamut of leftist and far-leftist parties have not filled. An Islamic socialism, basing itself on calls for equality, which are held to be a basic value of Islam, could have considerable force.

Alternatively, the Brotherhood may simply disintegrate. The group misread its fellow Egyptians, who seem to be determinedly moderate. The U.S.-based scholar Fouad Ajami writes, in his book, The Arab Predicament, that Egypt has long been attached to peaceful, moderate ways; not to the kind of radical visions "that would grip those who see societies driven by the purity of saints and the fire of revolutionaries." If the Brothers forgot their own insight into the ungovernability of their country, they perhaps never learned Ajami's.

They may now.

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