Whither the Muslim Brothers?

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What does the ouster of Muhammad Morsi mean for the future of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? Does it foreshadow a permanent reversal of fortune?

Given the detention of Mr. Morsi and the arrest of many of the Brotherhood's leaders by the military, the immediate prospects for the organization in Egypt don't look promising. But it would be hasty to conclude that Mr. Morsi's demise signals a long-term weakening of the Brotherhood. While today's crisis in Egypt arose because of Mr. Morsi's failures, the fundamental strengths that made the Brotherhood a formidable player in Egypt for more than 75 years and that propelled it to electoral victory in 2012 are still in place.

The calamity that has beset Egypt in recent weeks can be traced to three major strategic errors on the part of Mr. Morsi. The first was a failure to make the transition from a strategy of opposing to one of governing.

Historically the Brotherhood had been an opposition movement, better at challenging political leaders than at filling their shoes. Since its inception in 1928, it has garnered political support by presenting itself as a more legitimate and competent alternative to secular leaders like former President Hosni Mubarak. But once it climbed into the seat of political power, as it did for the first time with Mr. Morsi's election, it behaved as if it still was in the opposition.

Mr. Morsi arrogated broad powers to himself, stacked political posts with his Brotherhood cronies and disregarded the sensitivities of secular groups -- and even the more moderate members of his own party. This inability to adapt from serving in the opposition to the challenges of governing created an unresponsive, arrogant government that ultimately courted mass protests and military intervention.

Mr. Morsi's second major error was adopting several moves from the playbook used by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, a strategy that was well suited to political conditions in post-revolutionary Iran in 1979 but out of sync with post-2012 election conditions in Egypt.

Khomeini's strategy was Machiavellian in both style and substance. He sidelined secular groups, most of which had been fervent supporters of the revolution, and systematically purged Iran's military, an institution that, like the Egyptian military, was known to be fiercely secular.

Khomeini's strategy worked for two reasons unique to the revolutionary conditions in Iran. First, he was able to fill the vacuum left by the hollowing out of Iran's military by creating a parallel armed force, the Revolutionary Guards, whose fealty to Islamic values and loyalty to the new regime were unquestioned. Second, he was able to purge the secularists because the legitimacy of the revolution that had toppled the shah cast a halo on the post-revolutionary government.

This approach was poorly suited to Mr. Morsi's political situation in Egypt, however. Reminiscent of Khomeini, Mr. Morsi marginalized the secular parties when they were at their weakest. Then he deluded himself into believing that he had eliminated the army as a threat by replacing its top leader with a younger, more pliant one.

This was a naive and doomed strategy. While Khomeini had a window of opportunity after the Iranian revolution to purge both secularists and the military, Mr. Morsi, who came to power as a result of the more controlled process of an election, did not.

By disregarding the secularists, he deprived himself of the leverage he might eventually have used to send the military back to its barracks. Rather than multiplying his power, he squandered it and the legitimacy that could have been used to solidify his position. Paradoxically, arrogating more powers to himself actually weakened him, exposing him to strengthening secular groups, like Tamarod, and to the military.

The third strategic error was that Mr. Morsi didn't follow the model of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Like Mr. Morsi, Mr. Erdogan came to power as a result of an election, not a revolution. But unlike Mr. Morsi, Mr. Erdogan worked to widen his support beyond his religiously conservative base, particularly in the early years. He knew that immediately confronting the formidable Turkish military would court disaster. This broadened base enabled Mr. Erdogan to later subdue the military.

Mr. Morsi would have been wise to adopt Mr. Erdogan's strategy. Rather than using power in a way that exposed him to the wrath of both the street and the military, a smarter approach would have been to widen his base of support by trying first to co-opt the secular groups and then work to diminish the traditional role of the Egyptian military.

What about the future of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? By simultaneously alienating the secularists and the military (as well as other religious groups, such as the Salafists), Mr. Morsi has made it nearly impossible for the Brotherhood to recover the power it had at its peak after the 2012 presidential elections. But the Brotherhood still has one of the most formidable political and social organizations in Egypt, not to mention many impassioned followers.

The next civilian government in Egypt needs to understand this and not misconstrue Mr. Morsi's defeat as tantamount to the loss of the Brotherhood's political mojo. The next government shouldn't make the same strategic mistake Mr. Morsi did by excluding its opponents.

If Egypt is ever going to have a sustainable civilian government, and if the power of the military is ever to be diluted, all major political factions, secular and religious, need to be included in the governing formula. The new government should do its part by not pushing the Brotherhood deeper underground and back into the permanent opposition.


Ross Harrison, author of "Thinking in 3D: A Guide for National Security, Foreign Policy and Business Professionals," teaches strategy at Georgetown University and Middle East politics at the University of Pittsburgh. He will discuss leadership strategies at a World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh event July 24 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Bar Marco in the Strip District.


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