After the Coup

Egypt must reach out to the Islamists it is now jailing

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

Anti-Mubarak protesters near Tahrir Square during the 2011 protests that toppled the dictator.

The greatest blow to Islamic terrorism in recent years came not from the killing of Osama bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, but rather from the Arab Spring. When millions of Arabs went out into the streets in protest against their dictators, the world saw that they were asking for freedom and justice, not an Islamic state. Indeed, perhaps the sharpest blow to the jihadi worldview was to see Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood--the largest Islamist organization in the Arab world--join the 2011 mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square to ask for elections, not Shari'a. The leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian, certainly saw the danger and denounced the Brotherhood for participating in the democratic process.

There is jubilation in many quarters of Egypt and beyond over the downfall of the Muslim Brotherhood. And it is true that President Mohamed Morsi's government was a disaster in many dimensions. The Brotherhood ruled in a manner that excluded large segments of the society, used and abused the law and overreached. Perhaps as important, it was utterly incompetent, steering Egypt's already dysfunctional economy into the gutter. It had become wildly unpopular, with millions who had supported it now actively opposed. The Brotherhood was almost certain to be roundly defeated in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Had it failed politically, electorally and democratically, that would have been a huge boost for the forces of liberalism and reform in the Arab world. It would have sent the signal that political Islam may be a heartwarming, romantic idea but is utterly unsuited to governing--that mullahs can preach, but they cannot manage an economy.

Instead, the great danger of what has happened in Egypt is that followers of the Muslim Brotherhood will once again become victims, gaining in stature as they are jailed, persecuted and excluded. And some of them will decide that democracy is a dead end.

The most important debate in Egypt since the July 3 coup, taking place behind closed doors and on websites and in chat rooms, revolves around this question: How will followers of political Islam respond to the Brotherhood's ouster? For decades there has been a dispute among these groups on whether to embrace democracy or work through underground means and methods. The Brotherhood renounced violence some 40 years ago and chose to work though social and political organization, pressing for democratic change. This stance was actively criticized and opposed by the more extreme Islamist groups in Egypt and beyond--like al-Qaeda--which advocated violent struggle as the only way forward. Those groups now feel vindicated.

Somalia's al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab movement weighed in with a series of tweets (yes, it has a Twitter account): "When will the Muslim Brotherhood wake up from their deep slumber and realise the futility of their efforts at instituting change?" "It's now time for the [Brotherhood] to revise its policies, adjust its priorities and turn to the one and the only solution for change: Jihad." An ultra-Islamist page on Facebook, Asalaffy, with more than 200,000 followers, posted a note thanking al-Zawahiri: "Thank you ... for you have warned us time and again to not enter the political game."

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