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Beware the Islamists now that they have shown their true colours. That’s the message that the authoritarian Arab regimes still standing are sending to their people as the Middle East watches with alarm the possible unravelling of the first major Muslim Brotherhood experiment in government.
From Jordan to the Gulf, Egypt’s divisions and the instability unleashed by Mohamed Morsi’s assumption of sweeping powers and a rushed Islamist-tinted constitution are playing into the hands of authoritarian regimes.
The rise of Egypt’s Brotherhood after the fall of Hosni Mubarak had bolstered the ambitions of other Islamists. Now, however, the Islamists find themselves on the defensive.
“The Gulf is using this as the perfect ‘we told you so’ moment and Morsi presented it on a golden plate,” says Sultan al-Qassemi, a prominent Emirati commentator. “And there are people already saying that they don’t want to be like Egypt.”
Yet the Egyptian president’s actions offer a lesson to other Islamists about the perils of rushing to secure electoral gains during fragile transitions.
Some Islamist leaders outside Egypt justify Mr Morsi’s actions (as he does) as a necessary response to threats against his presidency, including attempts by remnants of the old regime to use institutions such as the courts to undermine his rule.
But as Abdelwahab Badrakhan, an Arab political analyst, says, other Islamists are arguing that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt should have adopted a more gradual approach, securing a share of power but not taking over the responsibility of governing at a time when they are deeply mistrusted by their political opponents.
“The Egypt experience has an echo everywhere; in Yemen, Libya, Tunisia and even in the Gulf states,” he says. “And some Islamists say we would have preferred Egypt’s Brotherhood not to have moved so fast. [Egyptian Islamists] are learning [to govern] at the wrong time and they have concepts and complexes from decades of repression that make it difficult to learn about civilian rule.”
Although the regional influence of Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, is not what it once was, its political transition is the most crucial in the region. Mr Morsi’s presidency is a test of whether political Islam can adapt to democracy.
But as Egypt prepares to vote this weekend in a referendum on a controversial constitution opposed by liberals, the president has shown that he can satisfy only his Islamist followers. He has given up altogether on bringing the liberals on board. Even if, as many predict, the Islamists win the referendum, this would not be a model constitutional process.
Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre, argues that Mr Morsi’s gambit “is now playing into the criticism that Islamists groups are aggressively majoritarian”. In any case, he says, Islamists have a different conception of democracy, which makes it very difficult to reach a consensus.
Liberals believe in rights and freedoms “that are, by definition, non-negotiable”. Islamists see democracy as the pursuit of a majority that can promote a different ideological project, he says. “We are seeing the entrenchment of Islamist-liberal cleavage in the Arab world. This has become the fundamental divide in Arab politics and will be the case for the foreseeable future.”
Liberals in the Arab world, generally a minority that lacks the Islamists’ discipline and ability to mobilise, have been encouraged by the strength of opposition to Mr Morsi. But it is doubtful that the recent show of unity among liberal leaders will survive.
Dismissed by Islamists as out of touch with largely conservative Egyptian society and often treated by Brotherhood leaders with disdain, the liberals will earn credibility and receive a much-needed boost in parliamentary elections if they can manage to at least shrink the Islamist win in the constitutional referendum.
“We suddenly discovered that the other civil society is strong and that they are challenging the Islamists. That’s reassuring for Egypt and for the outside world,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, professor of political science at Emirates University. “A weak Muslim brotherhood – not a triumphant Muslim Brotherhood – is good for everybody.”
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