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Muslim Brotherhood's fall divides Islamists in Egypt

Even former supporters are saying the Muslim Brotherhood's time at the political vanguard - after eight decades underground - appears to be over. Alice Fordham reports from Cairo

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi gather at the Rabaa Adawiya square in Cairo to protest against his overthrow.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi gather at the Rabaa Adawiya square in Cairo to protest against his overthrow.
CAIRO // It was only reluctantly that Mahmoud Al Sayed, a devout man who owns a general store in Cairo, concluded that Mohammed Morsi, the elected Islamist leader he had always hoped for, had to go.
As the president gave a speech on July 2 attacking crowds protesting against his year-old rule, Mr Al Sayed realised that Mr Morsi's position was untenable and that the Muslim Brotherhood's time at the political vanguard - after eight decades underground - was over.
"The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood is like the fall of the dream of the Islamic government," he said sadly.
"And the worst of all is that the fall gave a very bad impression to people ... that the Islamic government will not be successful."
As he spoke, a hot, sweet Ramadan night was in full swing in the Al Helmiya Al Jadeeda neighbourhood. Lights were glittering on Mamluk-era mosques, children were playing dangerous games with fireworks, and a small mosque next door was filling up with men planning to pray almost until dawn.
With as much as 90 per cent of the country Muslim, and religion playing an integral part in most people's lives, analysts say that Islamist politics in Egypt are unlikely to disappear, despite the failure of Mr Morsi to create an effective government.
However, with Islamism far from a monolithic set of values or political alliances, and its adherents now confused or disillusioned by their leaders, some predict that the religious political spectrum faces a period of disunity and chaos not dissimilar to that affecting the divided liberal movement.
The Brotherhood "will take time to recover as a political force", said Kamal Helbawy, a veteran member of the movement, who resigned last year when the controversial Khairat Al Shater was nominated for the presidency. "If they don't learn, they will vanish."
He believes the change will come slowly because the group is institutionally resistant to reform and to decision-making, especially in its upper echelons.
Although the popular complaints about the party relate more to mismanagement and nepotism than to their Islamic agenda, he said the feeling in Egypt against the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party, and by extension all Islamists, was strong, and would probably be reflected in the next elections.
"Some [of those who voted for them] will select non-Islamists, and some of them will stay at home," he said.
Others fear that the more hardline Islamists, who have participated in voting despite preferring governance by experts in Islamic law to democracy, will now turn away from elections, feeling that the experiment failed.
Nizar Ghorab is the lawyer for Mohamed Al Zawahiri, who is the brother of the Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri, and who was imprisoned for 13 years in connection with the assassination of Anwar Sadat before being acquitted. His client, he said, often chides him for putting his faith in democracy rather than forcing Islamic law on the country.
The fall of Mr Morsi dramatically strengthened the arguments of Mr Al Zawahiri, he said, adding: "It's not that people who are against democracy may appear. They exist already."
Mr Ghorab describes himself as a jihadi Salafi, a radical Islamist stance, although he rejects violence. He was elected to the People's Assembly last year and has been trying to gather like-minded people to form a political party. But the failure of a democratically elected Islamist president will make this more difficult.
"We wanted to say that we are able to reach what you want by democracy and peace," he said.
The ousting of Mr Morsi would push some people to join or rejoin violent groups, he added, such as those that operated in the 1990s in Egypt, when a low-level insurgency simmered in some areas.
"When they prevent the Islamist activist and the Islamic law, then automatically the use of force will come back," he said. "There is no way of eliminating the project of Al Qaeda ... except allowing the Islamists their rights and freedoms politically."
But Khalil Al Anani, who studies Egypt's Islamists at Durham University in the UK, said one cannot assume that no Salafis will vote, and with the Brotherhood weakened, Salafi movements could be influential players in the coming months.
However, "they are not organised, they have divisions and they have different points of view", he said. Al Nour party, which won a significant share of votes in last year's parliamentary elections, teamed up with the military in calling for Mr Morsi to leave. Mr Al Anani said that this may have discredited them in the eyes of some of their supporters.
Mohamed Ismail, 46, a retired soldier and Salafi, said that he and his friends had been asking religious scholars for their opinion on the situation.
"They were divided," he said. "They had different ideas - they were confused and it made me confused, too."
In their differences, the religious movements now seem to resemble the liberal political movements in the months after the popular uprising that deposed Hosni Mubarak two-and-a-half years ago.
Unable to agree on a political platform or rely on grassroots support, they performed poorly in the elections.
Mr Helbawy said that Islamist parties' main hope for the future - which, according to a new constitutional declaration, will see elections next year - lies in trying to be aligned, despite the disappointment of Mr Morsi and a crackdown that has seen leaders arrested.
"Islamists must agree among themselves what the Sharia law is and submit that to people," he said.
"If they do not agree, they cannot put Sharia law as something agreed upon by Islamists."
Mr Al Sayed said he yearned for Islam but would wait and see what was offered to him in the next election before deciding whether to vote for Islamists or someone else.
"I'm believing in Islam," he said. "But if the political Islamist movement doesn't have efficient people, they shouldn't lead ... I have the tendency to choose an Islamist, but if you don't have an efficient one, what can you do?"
afordham@thenational.ae
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