As the Egyptian military increasingly cracks down on the Muslim Brotherhood, it has begun targeting anyone with connections to the organization. These actions are part of a larger effort to weaken the Islamic organization whose perceived abuse of power led the military to depose the Morsi government last month.
There is no doubt that these actions have been a terrible blow to the Muslim Brotherhood. Its dreams of political control over Egypt were dashed as power was taken from them, and now its leaders powerlessly watch as their supporters are suppressed.
However, the military’s actions are also aiding the Muslim Brotherhood’s most radical elements in a very real way. Through the recent coup and crackdown, the military vindicates the contention that the post-revolutionary government is anti-democratic and illegitimate. Further, it aids the argument that the Muslim Brotherhood has the right to permanently boycott it. With its long history of disruptive fringe politics, this could be very real possibility for the Muslim Brotherhood. It is also one that could be devastating to the future of Egypt and that the military would be wise to avoid.
Since its inception, the Muslim Brotherhood has always thrived as a political outlier. Barred from the political process since its founding in 1928, it sought to change Egyptian politics through grassroots organization and often through violence. This included the assassination attempt against President Gamal Abdel Nasser and the successful assassination of President Anwar Sadat. Despite this, at various times, the Muslim Brotherhood did attempt to enter mainstream politics, but the government suppressed them.
After the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood was presented with a real window to enter mainstream politics through democratic elections. This was a major step for the organization because with it the group staked its legitimacy, in part, to the post-revolutionary government.
Having the most organized political machine in Egypt, the Brotherhood was able to capture a slim electoral victory in the 2012. However, as a result of autocratic tendencies, the Morsi government soon grew unpopular and lead Egyptians to take to the streets against the elected government. Seizing the opportunity to undermine the Islamist party, the military used the protests as an excuse to stage a coup, which deposed Morsi.
While the necessity of the military coup is still hotly disputed, the unrepentant crackdown seen in Cairo today should not be. In an Egypt before the Arab Spring, this type of action would be tenable, but it is not anymore. With the power of street protests palpable to all, the long-term suppression of the large segment of the population still represented by the Muslim Brotherhood is simply not possible. Attempts to do so will only drive the country to instability and possibly civil war.
The military must recognize that keeping the Muslim brotherhood inside mainstream politics is the best way to marginalize it. As was famously stated by Mario Cuomo, “You campaign in poetry and you govern in prose.” By driving the Muslim Brotherhood out of mainstream politics, the Egyptian military is shielding them from tarnishing political failures that face every governmental system. As a fringe political group, the Muslim Brotherhood can comfortably criticize and disrupt governance without ever being accountable for it, something they have excelled at in the past.
Furthermore, to give the Muslim Brotherhood a viable excuse to exit mainstream politics would in some ways do its most radical wings a huge favor. It would further drive home that the military sponsored government is neither democratic nor Liberal. In addition, it would establish the Brotherhood in a very comfortable position for the effective fringe opposition that it has historically used.
The Muslim Brotherhood has an undeniably popular base. If such a large group within Egypt remains on the fringe, it will lead to long-term instability. If it is prudent, the military will backpedal to moderate its crackdown on the group. If this is not done, then the Muslim Brotherhood may revert to what it is best at: romanticized and often violent resistance to the political system. Such an outcome will prove a long-term impediment to Egypt as it attempts to form any stable government, democratic or otherwise.