What the Muslim Brotherhood Didn’t Understand

Egyptians aren’t sure which leaders they want, but they really don’t want the Brotherhood.

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Supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi chant slogans against Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi during clashes with Egyptian security forces in Cairo's Mohandessin neighborhood, Egypt, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. (Hassan Ammar/AP)
Supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi chant slogans against Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi during clashes with Egyptian security forces in Cairo's Mohandessin neighborhood, Egypt, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. (Hassan Ammar/AP)

The leading Egyptian commenter Muhammad Hassanein Heikal (former editor-in-chief of the Cairo newspaper Al-Ahram) once said that "Egypt [is a] civil-secular country that loves religion." While he seems to understand Egypt, many of the Egypt's leaders are struggling to understand their own people. The country and its people are having a very serious identity crisis.

What Heikal is referring to is the fact that most Egyptians believe that their country is the seat of Islamic learning, the Quran's interpretation and classic Arabic language. Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest university, founded sometime between 970-972, is globally recognized as the center of Islamic learning. Yet years of secular repression of Islam in politics have created confusion on how to mingle Islam and democracy.

How did the Muslim Brotherhood so badly misjudge more than half its own population? Was it simple inexperience in a complex, highly charged political arena? Was it euphoric arrogance after an electoral victory?

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

A decade of negative global climate against Islam has created new trends amongst Muslims. For example, an increased number of Muslims around the world are collectively and consciously asserting their identity as Muslims (even before their own nationality or regional identity, i.e. Arabs). This may have given the Muslim Brotherhood a "false positive" reading on the situation and their understanding of how much support they had to start the Islamization of Egypt.

Egypt, as with other Arab nations, where long-term rulers have been deposed, are all facing an identity crisis. Currently, there are so many complex nuances thrown into this puzzle that it is difficult to discern Egypt's true identity.

The most likely culprit of the downfall of the Brotherhood was its lack of understanding on how to govern a large, modern democratic Islamic country. It should be noted that no government in the region has a formula that is working well. The only constant now is violence.

The Arabs are questioning their long standing views of the military, rulers in general and Islam's place in political systems. The Arab world is grappling to find the right mix between Islam, democracy and modernization. While for a brief moment it looked like the Turks had the answer, that moment was short-lived.

[VOTE: Was Obama's Response to Egypt's Violence Enough?]

People in the Arab world are fed-up and are no longer afraid of their governments or their armies. They do not want to be ruled by secular dictators nor army generals, and yet a democratically elected pro-Islamic government has proven to be too much religion for many in Egypt and Turkey. Many are not sure who they want to be ruled by, but yearn for economic prosperity, peace and personal freedom.

The longer this chaos continues, the more it will scar the people on all sides of this debate. This will guarantee no lasting real peace for decades to come. This does not bode well for democracy in the region.

Creating new national identities in the Arab world is synonymous to the birth of a child. We can expect it to be painful, messy, bloody, and sometimes life is lost in the process, and the end result takes decades to mature.  

Scheherazade Rehman is a professor of international finance/business and international affairs at the George Washington University. You can visit her homepage here and follow her on Twitter @Prof_Rehman.

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