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Does Egypt's Crisis Signal The End Of Political Islam?


The downfall of Mohammed Morsi is fueling questions about the future of political Islam. Three years ago, it was on the rise. The revolutions that swept through many Arab countries allowed political Islam to flourish after decades of repression. Free elections brought Islamists to power in both Egypt and Tunisia. But now, as NPR's Leila Fadel reports, analysts are asking if Morsi's overthrow signals the death of political Islam.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign spoken)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Egypt was the birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood. It generated branches throughout the region. But now, some 80 years after its founding, Egypt could become its graveyard. Old Cairo, with its many mosques and madrassas, is the cornerstone of Egypt's religious history. The narrow, winding streets are filled with shops selling Egyptian handicrafts and religious books.

This cobblestone street is known as the street of the muezzin, the man who calls Muslims to prayer five times a day. Egypt is a pious country, but religiosity doesn't mean that Egyptians want Islamists in power anymore. Many here say the Muslim Brotherhood was tested, and in just one year, it failed.

Mohamed Moneim(ph) chats outside his bookshop. He wears glasses and is clean-shaven, dressed in a peach-colored shirt and khaki pants. He says he voted for Morsi because he was a religious man and because he wasn't from the old regime. But then the economy failed, and Morsi, he says, served his only his base in the brotherhood, not Egypt. Now, Moneim has changed his mind.

MOHAMED MONEIM: Islam and politics can't be together. We would think it would be good, no problem. But I think we failed. It was not correct.

FADEL: For others here, Morsi's dismal performance as a statesman excuses the persecution Islamists endured for decades during the regime of Hosni Mubarak. And, they say, it justifies another crackdown now against Morsi's supporters.

One of the brotherhood's biggest opponents is Amr Moussa. He is the former foreign minister and a leading member of an alliance of secular, liberal and leftist political groups that lobbied for Morsi's removal.

AMR MOUSSA: They have failed, and at this stage, this phase is over with failure. So they have to make an overhauling, an operation of overhauling the whole thing, and take an appointment 50 years since.

FADEL: Islamists see it differently. They blame Western nations and Egypt's secular political elite for demonizing them, for turning Egyptians against them and for allying with state institutions to force Morsi's ouster. Gehad El-Haddad is a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood.

GEHAD EL-HADDAD: This military coup, if allowed to continue, would send a very strong message throughout the Islamic movements in the world that democracy is for everyone but Islamic parties. It puts a lot of precedence to the argument of violent organizations that their method is the only method.

FADEL: Already, the violence has begun. In the chronically lawless Sinai Peninsula, some militant Islamists, much more extreme than the brotherhood, have declared open revolt against the military and police. Security forces are under near-daily attack there. The Muslim Brotherhood has called for peaceful resistance, but it doesn't always stay that way.

Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands more wounded in battles with security forces and rival protesters. Most of the dead were Morsi supporters, many killed by security forces. Again, Gehad El-Haddad.

EL-HADDAD: At the end of the day, everyone seems to think that they can destroy the idea of the Muslim Brotherhood or political Islam. No one is capable of that. You can't destroy an idea. Even if you annihilate its entire people, you can't.

FADEL: The brotherhood remains the most organized political force in Egypt, and more repression will actually bolster, rather than destroy it, says Ibrahim El Houdaiby. He is a former member of the brotherhood and a senior researcher at an Egyptian think tank.

IBRAHIM EL HOUDAIBY: Exclusion is not the way to eradicate the brotherhood. Inclusion is the way to dismantle the brotherhood. The brotherhood lost in this past year more than it has lost over the past 80 years. We all know that.

FADEL: Houdaiby says political Islam is changing, not dying, and it started with the brotherhood's rise, not its downfall.

HOUDAIBY: Immediately after their ascent to power, it became very clear that the context is different and that political Islam as had existed for long decades in the opposition, playing on identity politics, primarily, can no longer survive.

FADEL: Others in the region are watching closely as Egypt passes through this dangerous moment, an elected president overthrown by the same military that controlled Egypt for decades. In Tunisia, the Islamist party in power, Ennahda, was inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, and it now faces mass protests against its rule, the latest sparked by the assassination of a prominent opposition figure.

Tunisia has its own rebel movement, emulating the young Egyptians who launched a signature campaign that led to mass protests and the military coup that ousted Mohammed Morsi. Tunisians and Egyptians share many of the same concerns and complaints. On top of the list is the economy and the post-revolutionary failure to improve the lives of the people.

ALI ABDUL-LATIF: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: But Tunisia is not Egypt, says Ali Abdul-Latif(ph), an adviser to Tunisia's religious affairs ministry.

ABDUL-LATIF: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: The Egyptian Brotherhood made lethal mistakes, he says: They didn't seek consensus. Ennahda is more realistic, he says, and more willing to compromise with secular forces. Politics in much of the Arab world is a new game, says Abdul-Latif, adding some Islamist parties will thrive and others will fail. Leila Fadel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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