Egyptian Military Coup: Are Radical Islamists the Real Winners?

Though supporters of the military coup that deposed Egypt’s first democratically elected president have hailed the events of July 3rd as revolutionary and a result of the will of the people, the coup has already been criticized by many as a huge blow to Egypt’s fragile democratic development. While inviting the military back into politics may have seemed like a good short-term response to Morsi’s economic and political failures, it seems that serious unintended repercussions of this decision will haunt Egypt.

While the Egyptian military intended to wrest power from the hands of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and succeeded, their actions may have actually strengthened radical Islamist groups throughout the world and pushed the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood towards more radical methods of grasping power.

How is it possible that the military coup may have actually strengthened Islamists rather than defeating them? They have done so by alienating a sizable swath of Egypt’s population that supported the Brotherhood, and also by seemingly proving radical Islamist groups’ assertions about the incompatibility of Islam and democracy to be correct.

For one, the military coup has effectively disenfranchised Muslim Brotherhood supporters and stripped them (and all other Egyptians) of their ability to express themselves nonviolently at the ballot box. The lesson learned from the coup is that physical force, rather than votes, is the key to political dominance. Morsi supporters, feeling angry and politically impotent, may turn their backs on the democratic system that failed to respect their votes and opt for other methods of implementing their political goals.

A second and corresponding consequence is that this message – that violence is stronger than democracy – is the very same argument to which extremist Islamist groups like Al Qaeda subscribe. They have long argued that, rather than participating in existing political systems, Islamist groups must resort to extra-governmental violence to achieve their goals. This coup is a gleaming opportunity for such extremist groups to shout a resounding “We told you so!” to moderates who argued that Islamist parties could thrive in a democratic environment. In other words, a military coup that only took a few hours may become a discursively powerful cautionary tale for extremist Islamist groups to use for years to come. By the same token, it will weaken moderate Islamist parties that seek to work within democratic frameworks. 

The coup and its significant consequences cannot be undone, but the interim government can take steps to mitigate the damage. If interim President Adly Mansour takes a conciliatory approach to the Freedom and Justice Party and allows them to participate freely in the political system, he may start the slow process of restoring trust in the democracy that was so thoroughly trounced on July 3rd. Alternatively, if the new interim government attempts to expel the Brotherhood from Egypt’s political arena by arresting its leaders, banning them from running in elections, and punishing their supporters, the Brotherhood movement will not be defeated, but instead may reemerge in a different, possibly more extremist or violent, extra-governmental form.

So far, it is unclear which path Mansour’s interim government will take. In a statement made to journalists after he took the oath of interim president, Mansour adopted an inclusive tone, saying, “Nobody will be excluded” from building Egypt, not even the Muslim Brotherhood. However, hundreds of Brotherhood officials (Morsi and other top leaders included) have reportedly been arrested since July 3rd, the Brotherhood’s television station has been shut down, and its journalists reportedly arrested. Such initial discrepancies between rhetoric and actions do not bode well for Egypt under the interim government.