BEIRUT — As the army ruthlessly crushes the Muslim Brotherhood on the streets of Cairo, having swept away its elected president, Egypt is being painted as the graveyard of the Arab Spring and of Islamist hopes of shaping the region's future.
This week's bloody drama has sent shockwaves out of Egypt, the political weathervane and cultural heart of the Arab world. The effect on the region of the army's power grab will not be uniform, because while countries such as Egypt are locked in a battle over identity, other states, from Syria to Yemen, and Libya to Iraq, are in an existential struggle for survival.
The Egyptian chapter of the Arab awakening began with the uprising that ended the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak and has moved on to the spectacular implosion of the Brotherhood that replaced him. Having been outlawed intermittently since their founding 80 years ago, the organization won parliamentary and presidential elections, then self-destructed in one year.
Deposed president Mohamed Morsi alienated all but a hard-core constituency by devoting his energy to seizing control of Egypt's institutions rather than implementing policies to revive its paralyzed economy and heal political divisions, analysts say.
“I was surprised by the rapid fall of the Islamists,” said Jamel Arfaoui, an analyst on Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring uprisings.
“I was expecting that the Muslim Brotherhood would continue long in power and benefit from the experience of the Islamists in Turkey,” where the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party has won three straight elections.
The Egyptian Brothers, or Al-Ikhwan, now have reason to fear they could be back in the wilderness for decades after the army, with much bloodshed, imposed a state of emergency last week. The last time emergency rule was implemented - after the assassination of president Anwar Sadat in 1981 - it remained in force for more than 30 years.
In power, Morsi and his backers in the Brotherhood proved unable to collaborate with either Islamist allies or secular adversaries and fatally alienated an army they first tried to co-opt. They have left the country more divided than at any time since it became a republic in 1953.
“They have no understanding whatsoever of the way democratic politics operates,” says George Joffe, an expert on North Africa at Cambridge University. “It is difficult to imagine how anyone, given the opportunity of power, could in any circumstances have behaved as stupidly as they did. It is staggering incompetence.”
The 2011 upheavals promoted Islamist groups affiliated with or similar to the Brotherhood to the heart of politics across the Arab world, and most observers say events in Egypt are not just a national but a regional setback for the organization.
“The Brotherhood [has] committed political suicide. It will take them decades to recover ... because a significant number of Egyptians now mistrust them. Al-Ikhwan is a toxic brand now in Egypt and the region,” said academic Fawaz Gerges, adding that the damage goes beyond Egypt to its affiliates in Tunisia, Jordan and Gaza, where the ruling Hamas evolved from the Brotherhood.
This has delighted leaders as distinct as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, traditionally wary of rival flavors of Islam, and Bashar al-Assad, who greeted last month's military takeover in Egypt as vindication of his own bloody fight against Islamists.
Some say Egypt is a setback for democracy itself in the Arab world.
“It delegitimizes the ballot box and legitimizes in the eyes of Arabs that the army is the only institution we can fall back on to protect us against disintegration or Islamists who hijack the state,” said Gerges of the London School of Economics.
Tarek Osman, author of “Egypt on the Brink,” said Egypt represented a clash over whether these states are to be governed according to traditions of secular nationalism or see their rich, ancient identities squeezed into the Islamist strait-jacket of the Brotherhood.
It is “the Islamic frame of reference versus old, entrenched, rich national identities”, he said: “This identity clash is a root cause for the antagonism that wide social segments have for the Islamists,” said Osman.
Struggle for identity, survival
The struggle might be about the identity of the state in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, where political structures are relatively strong, but in Libya and Yemen, riven by tribal rivalries and lacking properly functioning institutions, it is about the survival of the state.
“In Libya, the Brotherhood is hardly in the scene,” said Joffe. “The danger is that there is chaos, no centralized government, not even regional authority of any kind.”
In Libya, armed militias have filled the vacuum left by the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi. In Yemen, the militant Islamists of al-Qaida have taken over swaths of land, while sectarian, tribal and regional rivalries are tearing the country of 25 million apart.
In Syria, a popular uprising against Assad's 40-year family rule has evolved into a civil war that has killed 100,000 people and provided a new opportunity for al-Qaida and a proxy battleground for regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.
And now in Iraq, fresh venom is being injected into the conflict between the country's Sunni minority and Shi'ite-led majority.
It is obvious, analysts say, that the future of the East Mediterranean nation states, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, is in danger. These countries were created by Britain and France from the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire after World War One, but their imperial interests took priority over the sectarian and ethnic cohesion of the new states.
The faultlines have since been kept in check by the deep freeze of the Arab security state.
The removal of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in a U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and the lethal challenge to Assad has certainly brought Islamism to the fore, and made these countries the front line of the Shi'ite-Sunni sectarian battle.
“Sectarianism now rules supreme. The Iraq war and its aftermath - effectively dividing the country along confessional lines - and then the Syrian civil war, which is already sending tremors into tense sectarian-ridden Lebanon, create various triggers for potentially wider conflicts…. Now that these nation states have fallen (in Iraq and Syria) and face serious threats (in Lebanon), these realities are crumbling, and the region's societies are confronting these demons,” Osman said.
Al-Qaida militants have been quick to exploit sectarian tensions in Iraq, the power vacuum in Yemen and civil war in Syria. They have yet to play a significant role in Egypt, though the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, as part of a push to disseminate the state's narrative of events, has distributed photos showing, among other things, Muslim Brotherhood members carrying clubs, firearms and a black al-Qaida flag.
The Brotherhood denies links to the network.
In the new Arab order, the region's leaders and generals are finding that their people will no longer roll over in the face of violent suppression. Heavy-handed attempts to stamp out civic unrest led to the ousting of Zine al-Abidine Ben-Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and Gadhafi in Libya, as well as triggering the revolt against Assad.
Although the Brotherhood is the big loser of recent weeks, the war zone in Cairo where young Islamists keep pouring into the streets undeterred by tanks and snipers of the mighty Egyptian army and security forces is a vivid illustration.
In Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and other parts of the region, over two-thirds of the population are under 30-years old, which should give pause to the generals and secret policemen as much as the politicians, whether Islamist or secular.
“Not only do these huge young masses have immediate economic demands; they are also the first Arab generation ever to grow up with immediate gratification and expression,” said Tarek Osman.
“Their exposure to the Internet, satellite channels and instant communication make them express their views quickly, share their frustrations instantly, build and destroy narratives at incredible speeds, and certainly they are not willing to wait and be patient for inexperienced leaders to learn on the job,” added Osman.