For all their ideological fervor, revolutions in practice tend to be fairly predictable affairs. More often than not, when the initial groundswell of popular discontent recedes, the best-organized and most ideologically cohesive political factions assume power and proceed to run the show according to their own preferences.
This is what happened in Russia at the turn of the last century, when the Bolsheviks parlayed widespread hostility to czarist rule into a “workers’ revolution” that spawned the Soviet Union. It’s what took place in Iran in the late 1970s, when antipathy to the shah was harnessed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers and channeled into a radical “Islamic revolution.” The latest such transformation has just happened in Egypt, where over the weekend the radical Muslim Brotherhood movement succeeded in wresting control of the country from pro-democracy forces and the Egyptian military.
By Sunday evening, the results were clear: Islamist candidate Mohammed Morsi had bested former premier (and secular favorite) Ahmed Shafiq in a runoff election for the country’s presidency. Mr. Morsi, moreover, succeeded despite frenzied efforts by the Egyptian military to manipulate the national political scene (including the annulment of the country’s parliament on the eve of the weekend’s polls). That he did reflects just how skillfully Mr. Morsi’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, has managed to navigate the prevailing political currents in Egypt since the ouster of long-serving strongman President Hosni Mubarak in February of last year.
So what now? There’s at least some hope that the Muslim Brotherhood, under Mr. Morsi, might not have the ability to fully pursue their radical Islamist agenda. In his acceptance speech on June 24, the new president-elect urged national “unity” and pledged to be a “leader for all Egyptians.” This is savvy posturing, given the country’s deepening fiscal crisis and widespread societal malaise. The Muslim Brotherhood, moreover, doesn’t enjoy unquestioned support across the Egyptian political spectrum, facing opposition from pro-democracy activists and Salafists alike - albeit for very different reasons. Meanwhile, the movement’s main political competitor, the Egyptian military, retains controlling interest over vast swaths of the national economy and the country’s powerful judiciary and remains a dogged adversary. Indeed, in the early stages of voting, sensing electoral defeat, the military’s ruling body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, issued a “constitutional declaration” considerably diminishing the executive powers of the presidency. All of this suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood won’t be able to run the Egyptian political table outright.
Still, it would be a mistake to downplay the magnitude of the moment. Mr. Morsi’s victory represents a watershed in Egyptian politics, where the Muslim Brotherhood - although influential - has long remained on the sidelines. For the movement itself, Mr. Morsi’s success is a resounding affirmation of the grass-roots appeal of its exclusionary religious ideology.
For other Islamists, it means even more. Egypt has become the latest in a very small number of countries that can claim successful Islamic revolutions. Given the nation’s onetime station as a bastion of Arab nationalism, Egypt’s Islamist turn has provided religious fundamentalists throughout the Greater Middle East with new inspiration in their struggle. This is why the Palestinian Hamas movement, itself a Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, has wasted no time waxing optimistic about the regional implications of an Islamist-dominated Egypt.
For the United States, meanwhile, the Brotherhood’s ascension poses a considerable challenge. Since Egypt’s revolution early last year, the Obama administration has sought to engage the movement in unofficial dialogue, hoping that by doing so it could preserve a seat at the post-Mubarak political table. But Mr. Morsi’s campaign rhetoric has made abundantly clear that, whatever the particulars, the future Egyptian government’s outlook toward the West will be decidedly less friendly than that of its predecessor.
Exactly how unfriendly remains to be seen. But it’s worth noting that the Muslim Brotherhood has the political mandate to begin to remake domestic politics in its own image. It also has the freedom to launch what could end up being a major rethinking of Egypt’s current foreign policy - from alterations to the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty to greater support for regional Islamists to possibly even renewed engagement with onetime strategic rival Iran.
Any one of those changes would be significant. If implemented together, the impact on American interests will be profoundly negative. That is why, in the not-so-distant future, the Obama administration is liable to rue its decision to engage and empower Egypt’s new rulers.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.