The government crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters appears to have succeeded in sidelining political Islam in Egypt. For now. But it could also be setting the stage for a more violent response.
The Muslim Brotherhood might still be the most organized political group in Egypt. But the Brothers' backs are against the wall. The ousted president and former Brotherhood leader, Mohammed Morsi is locked up. Pro-Morsi demonstrations have been quashed. And up to a thousand Brotherhood supporters have been killed.
"This is, for many members of the Muslim Brotherhood and for many Islamists, an event of world historical proportions," said Tarek Masoud of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "It was always likely that the response to this coup was going to be defiance and violence."
What is most worrisome to Masoud and others are the recent attacks on dozens of churches in Egypt. Brotherhood supporters and Islamist leaders have fanned the sectarian flames with their anti-Christian rhetoric. Meanwhile, the Egyptian military points to the violence as evidence that the Brothers are terrorists, plain and simple.
"On the one hand, you've got members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who see themselves as fighting a good fight against a military coup," Masoud said. "But you also have much more violent extremists–in and outside of the Muslim Brotherhood–who are using this moment of madness to enact a more extreme, radical agenda."
But the government crackdown might be making things worse.
Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy writes that this has a lot to do with the nature of the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization. When it comes to their leaders, Brotherhood members are required to take an oath to quote "listen and obey." Now that the Egyptian army and police are rounding up those leaders, Trager says it's likely the Islamic group's rank and file will become violent.
"When you take off the very top layer of this organization, you leave the rest of the organization–roughly 250,000 members–without any discipline, without any leadership to follow," Trager said in an interview with The World.
"It's highly unlikely that these individuals will return to being regular citizens, especially after they've seen their friends killed."
It is far too early to tell what this moment will mean in the long-term for political Islam in Egypt–or for the broader region, said Gregory Gause, Middle East expert at the University of Vermont.
But the indications that Egypt's interim rulers might be trying to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies as a political force altogether, Gause said, does not bode well for the immediate future.
"They might think that they can repress fiercely in the short term, get the Brotherhood to pull back," Gause said. "To temporarily leave the political stage in exchange for toleration for its social and cultural activities."
It was the kind of accommodation that Anwar Sadat reached with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s, Gause said.
But that arrangement with the Islamists didn't end well for Egypt's former president. Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists in 1981.
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