In Egypt, a win that is also a loss

Adly Mansour, Egypt's chief justice (center), is applauded at his swearing-in ceremony as the nation's interim president Thursday.
Adly Mansour, Egypt's chief justice (center), is applauded at his swearing-in ceremony as the nation's interim president Thursday. (AMR NABIL / Associated Press)
Posted: July 08, 2013

A few months ago, King Abdullah II of Jordan told me about his meetings with Mohammed Morsi, the now-deposed president of Egypt. The king wasn't fond of Morsi, both because the Egyptian was a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and because he found Morsi exceedingly stupid.

"I see a Muslim Brotherhood crescent developing in Egypt and Turkey," the king said.

He despises the movement, partly because it is fundamentalist and totalitarian, and partly because in Jordan it seeks his overthrow.

The saving grace in Egypt, he said, was that Morsi seemed too unsophisticated to pull off his vision. "There's no depth to the guy," he said. The king compared him unfavorably to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist prime minister of Turkey. Like Morsi, the king asserted, Erdogan was also a false democrat - but he was one with patience. "Instead of the Turkish model, taking six or seven years - being an Erdogan - Morsi wanted to do it overnight," he said.

I haven't spoken to Abdullah since Egypt's military overturned the results of the election that brought Morsi to power, but I imagine he's pleased. That's not only because Morsi is gone, but also because Abdullah's main rival for power, the Islamic Action Front, the Brotherhood's Jordanian branch, is now on its back foot. So are Islamist political parties across the Middle East.

There are many reasons to be happy for the turn of events in Cairo. Women, as well as the 10 percent of Egyptians who are Christian, should be quite pleased. The Brotherhood's most vicious war was on women. It has also been working assiduously to marginalize, even terrorize, Egypt's Christian minority.

Luckily, Morsi was a thoroughgoing incompetent who fulfilled few of the Brotherhood's promises, including its most vindictive ones.

The millions of people who rallied against the deposed president were infuriated by his pinched vision of Egypt's future as well as by his mishandling of the economy and public safety. They couldn't abide Morsi's decisions, backed by his masters in the Brotherhood, to concentrate power in the presidency and deny cabinet positions to the political opposition. This last decision could have been undone through pressure by the United States and its ambassador in Cairo, Anne Patterson. Patterson, however, together with her indifferent bosses in Washington, chose not to exert pressure on Morsi.

And yet, while Egypt's military coup represents a victory for progressivism, it is also a defeat for democracy. Morsi was freely and fairly elected. If the anti-Morsi demonstrators had exhibited the patience the president lacked, they would, theoretically at least, have had their chance to remove him at the ballot box.

Had the military not intervened, though, the Muslim Brotherhood might have tried, over time, to make sure that Egypt's first free and fair election was also its last. A number of Egyptian friends have written to me in the past day arguing that what the Egyptian people did - or what the Egyptian army, responding to the will of the people, did - was to forestall the rise of a new Hitler. As in, if the Germans who elected Hitler had turned on him a year later - well, you know the rest. The analogy is overdone, but it is true that the Brotherhood is a totalitarian cult, not a democratic party.

Which suggests one other potentially disastrous consequence of last week's coup. The Brotherhood will not go quietly into obscurity or jail. Its members and leaders are true believers. In particular, they are true believers in martyrdom. Had they been turned out of office by voters at the end of Morsi's term, the opportunities for martyrdom would have been limited. Now that they have been removed by force and are being arrested in large numbers, the opportunities are many.

Middle East analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht told me that the coup has forestalled the Muslim Brotherhood's "self-immolation through the ballot box."

"This will keep the Brotherhood strong and make them, I suspect, meaner and nastier and less public," he said. "They will grow popular again. Hell, they might still win parliament in a free vote. Who knows? But the military has just guaranteed their livelihood and humbled, if not killed, the democratic process."

As Tamara Cofman Wittes, the director of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said, "My greatest worry is that this coup, if followed by undue repression against Islamists, will drive the creation of a new generation of Islamist terrorists in Egypt. Egyptians have suffered enough from terrorism already."

Actually, Egyptians have suffered enough from everything already. The hope, as outlandish as it sounds, is that this coup finally sets their country on a different trajectory.

Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist. E-mail him at

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