Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi fell after a year of being in power in part due to a number of serious political missteps. But his ouster also reflected the nation’s rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood as a ruling political group. The Brotherhood’s failure to adapt to its new ruling position prompted the Egyptian army to execute what is known as a soft coup to remove Morsi from power.

The main issue with the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule was that it did not grasp the significance of the moment in which it moved from being in opposition to being in power. The Muslim Brotherhood was kept out of power for eighty-five years because state institutions were suspicious of it. This led to confrontations on many occasions. 

Members of the Brotherhood continued to view themselves as victims of conspiracies by foreign powers and the Egyptian “deep state,” represented by the military, police, judiciary, Foreign Ministry, media, and part of the administrative apparatus of the state, which exceeds 6 million employees. They failed to take into account the performance of their group while in power and its image among large swathes of the Egyptian public. As a result, they squandered an opportunity to promote democratic transition in Egypt.

Popular Uprising and Military Intervention

The movement that ousted Morsi can be viewed not as a full revolution but instead as a large-scale protest. It was essentially a broad popular uprising reflecting wide rejection to Muslim Brotherhood rule that spread throughout most Egyptian cities. Cairo in particular saw unprecedented numbers of demonstrators, larger than those witnessed during the January 25 revolution that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak.

The military issued a statement immediately after the outbreak of the protests giving all parties a forty-eight-hour period to resolve the conflict. The protests continued, and the military resolved the standoff by issuing a statement that announced the ousting of Morsi on July 3. The military then proposed a new road map to govern the country that included a transitional president (the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court) and a new constitution, to be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections.

The military’s role in the transition was more significant than that of a typical interest group but less significant than it would have been in a direct military coup. It also moved faster than people had expected, not waiting for rivers of blood to be shed or for thousands to die before it intervened to oust Morsi from power. 

The military intervention that removed Morsi can be described as a “soft coup” in which the military’s purpose in taking action was not to assume direct rule. By contrast, a direct military coup replaces those in power with military leaders, as happened during Egypt’s 1952 revolution when with the Egyptian Free Officers who overthrew the monarchy and established the new system of republican rule under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser. This time, the military reorganized the political process without exercising direct rule.

Turkey witnessed a famous soft coup in 1997 against the government of Necmettin Erbakan, the founder of the Islamist political movement in Turkey. Erbakan’s party, Welfare, has been described as a Turkish version of the Muslim Brotherhood. In this case, the military exerted pressure through Turkey’s National Security Council on parties allied with the Welfare Party to withdraw from the government headed by Erbakan. Their withdrawal caused the government to fall. Erbakan’s party was dissolved, and he was prosecuted.

Even though the Turkish government did not face wide popular protests such as those in Egypt that prompted the army to intervene, the Welfare Party began a vicious feud with state institutions and with secular parties. This clash alienated wide swathes of society and several government agencies, causing the Welfare Party’s rule to fail after only two years in power.

The Turkish example closely resembles what took place in Egypt, which was not a traditional direct coup or a full revolution. It was a mass popular uprising that demonstrated consensus for an alternative road map but lacked the necessary means to implement it. The military intervention provided these means and a path to achieving the goal of the millions who wanted an end to Muslim Brotherhood rule.

Why the Muslim Brotherhood Fell

Two main dilemmas contributed to the fall of Muslim Brotherhood rule. The first is related to the way Morsi and his group dealt with the state and its institutions, and the second is society’s perception of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The way in which the Muslim Brotherhood dealt with the Egyptian deep state played a major role in the Brotherhood’s downfall. The state’s institutions were threatened after the January 25 revolution, which disrupted their operation. After Mubarak’s ouster, those institutions were in need of a political leadership capable of reforming rather than avenging or dismantling them. But many of the revolutionaries dreamed of seeing the deep state fall, and they did not offer political or institutional alternatives capable of reforming its functions. The Muslim Brotherhood, long repressed by the Egyptian deep state, tried to take revenge on it after rising to power but failed miserably. 

Successful transition experiences indicate that any new power or radical group that comes from outside the political system must adopt a reassuring and reforming stance toward the existing political system, which has shaped the contours of the Egyptian deep state. The Muslim Brotherhood forgot during its year in power that it was a group with origins outside of Egyptian state institutions, unlike all other rulers from Abdel Nasser to Mubarak and even Saad Zaghloul, the leader of the 1919 revolution against the British occupation of Egypt who was appointed minister of education before leading the popular movement. Instead of pursuing reform, the Muslim Brotherhood went in the opposite direction, opting to threaten existing state institutions.

The Brotherhood ostracized those with any experience in lawmaking and lacked the capacity to manage the political life or write an inclusive constitution. The group chose to take a hostile stance toward the police, judiciary, and army and to enter into open battles with the judicial authority, known historically for its traditions. It did so not with the aim of reforming these institutions but rather to try to dominate them. This approach was demonstrated clearly when the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies drafted a law that changed the retirement age for judges from seventy to sixty years old, a move that was supposed to force 3,500 judges into retirement and caused anger among most members of the judicial authority.

The Egyptian state has historically rejected closed ideological stances. The Egyptian army has no ideological affiliation. It cannot be described as the savior of secularism, as is the case with its Turkish counterpart. Instead, the army reflects Egyptian society in its conservatism and religiousness as well as in its civility. Likewise, the Egyptian bureaucracy has never had an ideological affiliation, even under Abdel Nasser, when the rhetoric of socialism was prevalent. The Muslim Brotherhood did not try to impose sharia law on the state and society or change anything significant in civil law, but the perception of the Brotherhood as a closed ideological group persisted. This perception provoked and angered the state as well as the society from the moment the Muslim Brotherhood assumed power. 

Moreover, the religious foundation of the organization, which helped maintain the Brotherhood’s cohesion while it was in the political opposition, closed the group off and isolated it from the rest of society. The conviction of many Muslim Brotherhood members that their affiliation with the group is a “jihad in the name of God” and that maintaining the organization is an aim in itself served to keep the Brotherhood intact during its long years in the political opposition. But upon its ascendance to power, these beliefs became a point of weakness as they kept the Brothers in a closed group, isolated from the rest of the society. This situation has increased the people’s resentment toward the organization, which many perceive to be putting the interests of its members before the interests of society. The organization’s popular associations and its religious education were also considered by the society as a mark of differentiation.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the closed nature of the Muslim Brotherhood led it to rule through the same clandestine measures that it used during its time in opposition. Employees in different ministries complain that state institutions were led by small circles of Muslim Brotherhood members and allies. They convened in private meetings during which representatives from the ministries spoke with advisers from the Muslim Brotherhood on matters of governance. The other employees at the ministries did not know about these meetings or their activities. In this way, the Muslim Brotherhood moved the practice of holding secret meetings to the heart of ministries and government institutions.

In general, the Muslim Brotherhood insisted upon remaining a secret group when it arrived to power and refused to legalize its status in accordance with state laws. This deepened the perception that it was, without exaggeration, a clandestine group that ruled Egypt from behind a curtain, with nefarious plans to destroy the country and remain forever in power.

Reevaluating the Brotherhood’s Approach

The Brotherhood wasted a real opportunity to achieve democratic transition in Egypt. This failure was unprecedented in the history of political movements. Opposition movements usually learn a great deal when they come to power, but the Muslim Brotherhood went in the opposite direction from the path it should have taken. As a result, it brought the whole country to the verge of an abyss in a way that made many people support the idea of carrying out a hybrid popular uprising and military intervention.

It is important to consider what has happened to Egypt since the ousting of Morsi in the context of the perception many people had of the Muslim Brotherhood. The popular rejection of the group, which many Egyptians viewed as an outsider to the society, was unprecedented. This failure should push the Muslim Brotherhood to consider a surgical reevaluation of its thinking, a task it has neglected to undertake since its establishment in 1928. If the Brotherhood refuses to evolve and learn from its mistakes, it will squander any future opportunities it may have to be an influential component of the Egyptian political spectrum.