By Geneive Abdo, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Geneive Abdo is a fellow at the Stimson Center and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution. She is the author of "The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of Shi’a-Sunni Divide." The views expressed are her own.
In overthrowing Mohamed Morsy, Egypt’s military, the judiciary, and the secular-minded revolutionaries in central Cairo just extended the political life spans of Islamists across the Middle East.
The Muslim Brotherhood, once at the vanguard of worldwide Islamist political and social movements, failed miserably in their year in power. Most likely, President Morsy’s term in office would have met a natural death during the next presidential election.
Instead, the coup has placed the Brotherhood in the uncomfortable but longtime position it had been in for decades — as the victims of a repressive, dictatorial state.
The coup has also empowered other, more socially conservative Islamist groups, whether or not they might be aligned with the Brotherhood.
The Salafists, in particular, stand to gain from the growing intensity of the broad-based Islamist movement as their vast social networks inspire popular support, and some Salafists are able to take the high ground as the true leaders of the faithful. The Brotherhood, meanwhile, could find itself more reliant upon the Salafists — adherents to a strict interpretation of the Islamic texts — if it wants to win future elections.
Since the July 3 coup, many in the media have speculated over the premature death of political Islam. But support for the Islamists will only increase the more the transitional government represses and imprisons Brotherhood leaders. Those celebrating the demise of Islamists must understand that in Egypt, the separation between religion and state has become blurred over the last 30 years, and moderate and radical groups — inside and outside Egypt alike — have called for the coup to be reversed.
Just this week, for example, the influential Sunni cleric Yousef Qaradawi said, “It is obligatory under Islam that Morsy remains president, and it is prohibited for anyone to claim that the people have the right to remove him.”
A posting on a jihadist website that announced the creation of Ansar al-Sharia in Egypt, or Partisans for Sharia in Egypt, meanwhile, outlined its goal of arming and training Muslims to wage war against the new transitional government. “We offer our blood in the place of Muslims and their honor,” the post reportedly said. The group declared democracy to be “anti-Islamic” and called on Muslims to “rise against” anyone who stands in the path of implementing the Sharia.
Sheikh Abdullah Alsa’ad, a popular Salafi sheikh in Saudi Arabia, tweeted that Egypt’s military had carried out a coup against Islam, while Sheikh Saud Shreim, the imam and dean of the College of Jurisprudence and Systems in Um el-Qurra University in Saudi Arabia, tweeted: “It comes as no surprise that those who call for democracy choose to manipulate words. They call injustice justice, imprisonment freedom, and a coup, a revolution.”
Such outrage from influential clerics is inspiring a street movement that is demanding Morsy’s reinstatement, and the former president’s supporters were even more enraged this week when it was revealed that an interim cabinet did not contain anyone hailing from an Islamist group.
And the military’s response to the street — shooting demonstrators, imprisoning hundreds of Brotherhood leaders and supporters — is only likely to encourage radicals to turn to violence. When Morsy was in power, moderate Islamists held some sway with the radicals by encouraging patience with the first Islamist president in Egypt. But now, as the military declares martial law and acts with impunity, it will be increasingly difficult for moderates to make the argument that violence is not necessary. “We lost what leverage we had to keep the extremists at bay,” one Salafist leader told me. “Now we cannot argue to be patient, and for some, violence is the only option now.”
Egyptians who led the rebellion to oust Morsy claimed that they had collected 20 million signatures — an impressive number for a population of about 80 million. However, one should not assume that all of these 20 million Egyptians are secular-leaning. In fact, religious and socially conservative Egyptians, who are now at odds with the Brotherhood, are perfectly willing to place their trust in another Islamist party.
In February and April, while conducting research in Egypt, I met residents of Imbaba, a district of Cairo that was once a base for militant Islamists in the 1990s. Many residents I met were furious with the Brotherhood over economic issues: life in Imbaba had become worse than ever with fewer jobs, no electricity on some days, and rising food prices. Yet they told me their disenchantment with the Brotherhood was not drawing them closer to secularist groups. Rather, they were looking to back another Islamist group that would govern more effectively than Morsy and the Brotherhood.
Such sentiments, widespread in economically deprived areas such as Imbaba, helped fuel the campaign for signatures. This was the reason the secularists leading the rebellion were able to get so many Egyptians on the streets to call for Morsy to step down. But the masses who signed up gave the mistaken impression that they would also back a more secular rule in Egypt than the Brotherhood.
Just as in 2011, when secular youth occupied Tahrir Square and led the massive marches for Mubarak to go, there was an expectation in the United States that secularism had triumphed. That was not true then; nor is it the case now.
The military, along with the remnants of the so-called deep state of the Mubarak era, may hold sway now, but the fact remains that this is only a transitional state. If free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections are held and the Islamists are allowed to take part, the religious nature of Egyptian society will once again emerge — and Islamists of all stripes will have their say in Egypt’s future.