To many observers, the crisis in Egypt today bears a striking resemblance to that of 1954. The main actors are the same, as are the issues.
Back then, there was also a vicious political struggle between a coup leader, Major-General Muhammad Naguib, and his comrade in the Revolution Command Council (RCC), Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser. The rift came to a head on 25 February 1954 with an announcement from the RCC that Naguib had resigned. That brought tens of thousands on to the streets of Cairo, the likes of which the city had never seen. Just as it is today, the people’s demand was for the unconditional return of the president and parliamentary rule.
Once the floodgates of protest were opened they were almost impossible to close. Not even the reinstatement of Naguib and his personal appeal from the balcony of Abdin Palace was enough to persuade the angry protesters to return to their homes. In the end, it took an appeal by a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdul Qadir Audah, to get them to clear the streets. His apparent power and popularity unnerved the coup leadership and that cost him his life; he was executed soon thereafter. The late Farid Abdul Khaliq, who lived through those tumultuous days, wrote that even as he walked to the gallows Audah never believed that he would actually be killed.
Today, no-one seems able or willing to bring an end to the protest and sit-ins that have spread like wildfire across Egypt since the military coup of 3 July.
In as much as the current coup-makers are minded to round-up the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood as was done in 1954, they are finding it much more difficult than their predecessors. Today’s Muslim leadership is far less compliant and much more uncompromising. General Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi and his civilian political fig leaves, it seems, did not expect this response from the movement.
It is not just the Egyptian military which feels this way. Regional power brokers and international players have for decades grown accustomed to a docile and timid Brotherhood; one that accepted its persecution with almost total submission.
The Islamic movement has, it would appear, a new strategy that is exemplified in the stand of the deputy supreme guide, Khairat Al-Shater, who refused to negotiate with the US-led international delegation which sought to meet him in his prison cell. A similar dogged commitment to principles was displayed by President Mohammed Morsi himself with his rejection of the fait accompli of his deposition by the army officer he had appointed as his Minister of Defence.
Several factors have influenced this change of strategy. Today the Muslim Brotherhood has political legitimacy and a mandate. It has won five elections since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in January 2011. In the circumstances, the Brotherhood is defending the democratic will and choice of the majority of Egyptians, something that its opponents find hard to acknowledge and accept.
On another level, there is a profound recognition within the organisation that any compromise on this occasion would have disastrous consequences not only for themselves but for the movements it has inspired across the region. A wave of anti-Islamist forces has already been unleashed in several countries. Their campaigns are gathering momentum, from the UAE where scores have been imprisoned and tortured to Tunisia where the old regime is attempting a comeback. In Palestine’s occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip the hostility and threats against Hamas are growing by the day.
Accordingly, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is not just defending its own national interest but the Islamic renaissance project in all its manifestations in the Middle East. Any sign of compromise today will give its arch-rivals, the jihadist movements, an opportunity to gloat that they warned the Brotherhood that the democratic path it advocates is a mythical panacea; that the hope promised at the beginning of the Arab Spring was indeed a false hope based on a false premise called democracy.
The battle today is certainly not an existential one because beliefs and doctrines do not die. There is, though, a historic, generational, threat confronting the Muslim Brotherhood.
If the coup makers do not compromise, the region is going to witness a long drawn out battle of attrition the type of which was witnessed in Iran in the latter days of the shah’s regime. The Islamic Revolution did not happen there overnight; it started with relatively small street protests in 1977 which had swelled into an unstoppable force by 1979.
In the end, the consequences of those protests were far-reaching; they shook up the army. This could happen in Egypt where not only would we see the removal of Al-Sisi and his functionaries but also the very doctrine which underpins the army’s role – obedience to the will of America and Israel, as was the case of the Iranian army in 1979. Like Iran, Egypt could see the emergence of an ideological army to replace the guns for hire to the highest bidder.
As it stands the Brotherhood has no other option but steadfastness. The consolation is that the winds of change are blowing strongly in its favour. The protest numbers are growing and the coup’s backers are shrinking. The new strategy could well be the best yet.