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Depth of discontent threatens a movement and its leader

The Muslim Brotherhood, among the most powerful forces in Egypt and the pre-eminent Islamist movement in the region, is reeling. David Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim write.

world Updated: Jul 04, 2013 02:41 IST

The Muslim Brotherhood, among the most powerful forces in Egypt and the pre-eminent Islamist movement in the region, is reeling.

Its members have been gunned down in the streets, 40 wounded and at least 11 killed. Its new headquarters has been ransacked and burned, its political leader, President Mohammed Morsi, abandoned, threatened and isolated by allies and enemies alike.

The Brotherhood is facing perhaps the worst crisis in its 80-year history, a surprising fall for a group that survived autocrats and came to power through the ballot box just one year ago. Its critics say it remains stuck in old divisions, pitting Islamists against the military, and has failed to heed the demands of citizens.

“I think this is an existential crisis, and it’s much more serious than what they were subjected to by Nasser or Mubarak,” said Khaled Fahmy, a historian at the American University in Cairo, referring to the governments of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hosni Mubarak, the autocrat deposed in 2011.

“The Egyptian people are increasingly saying it is not about Islam versus secularism,” Fahmy said. “It is about Egypt versus a clique.”

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But Morsi and the Brotherhood have made it clear they will not back down. After days of restraint, the movement’s members are fighting bloody street battles, convinced that hard-fought victories are being unfairly stripped away. Members have marched in the streets carrying death shrouds, and a senior leader urged members “to seek martyrdom” in the battle against “a military coup.”

The Egypt that Morsi and the Brotherhood inherited was in a state of political and economic chaos that would have challenged any established government, yet they have sometimes seemed their own worst enemies.

Even as the clock ticked on an ultimatum from the top generals - to meet the demands of the protesters or face military intervention - they remained deeply reluctant to acknowledge errors in governance or the depth of popular discontent. They saw only a conspiracy to topple the Islamists in the face of a new conflict with the generals.

“There were so many streams, and the bulk of them may be legitimate, but behind it is still the same old forces of the old regime trying to come back up,” said Gehad el-Haddad, a senior Brotherhood official close to its most influential leader, Khairat el-Shater.

Morsi echoed that accusation in a speech Tuesday night.

For decades, the Brotherhood was hounded by repressive autocrats and their security forces, its members jailed, its organization outlawed.

But its years as a secretive underground organization did not prepare it for Egypt in the throes of revolution. With its leaders focused on outmaneuvering the military and firming up their own power, critics say the Brotherhood lost sight of its own role in the revolts that helped crown a new power: the people.

The Brotherhood has been shocked by the scale of the popular opposition now emerging against it, failing to foresee the size of the demonstrations, el-Haddad said.

“The lack of professionalism meant the information coming in from our grass-roots network was not good,” he said, adding that the group had also failed to anticipate the speed of the military’s move.

“That was supposed to happen in four or five days more,” he said. “But yesterday’s statement by the military completely changed the game. It is no longer pro- and anti-Morsi. It is now ‘military coup’ vs. ‘democratic change.’”

Brotherhood leaders, for their part, have sounded increasingly isolated, defiant and bellicose. “Everybody abandoned us, without exception,” Mohamed el-Beltagy, a senior Brotherhood leader, declared in a statement.

“Seeking martyrdom,” he declared, was the choice to stop “the coup of June 30,” the day millions turned out to demand Morsi’s ouster on the anniversary of his inauguration.

The Brotherhood’s focus on the military was clear as early as the first weeks after Mubarak’s ouster. El-Shater, as a leader of the group, said it should not move too quickly to take power - at the time, the Brotherhood promised not to run a presidential candidate - lest it scare “the military institution, and the international powers.”

If the Brotherhood sought the presidency, it could “repeat the scenario of Algeria,” when the military battled Islamists for 10 years in a bloody civil war. NYT

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