Early on, Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood cohorts made all the right noises. In April 2012, as Egypt was preparing for its first elections since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, leading Muslim Brotherhood figures -- including the Islamist political group's chief strategist, Khairat el-Shater -- held convivial conversations with a visiting delegation of U.S. lawmakers. As one member of that congressional group reported to me then: "They all go out of their way to say what we want to hear. They are going to fully protect women's rights, minority rights, the constitutional assembly. They all made great pains to emphasize, without being asked--Shater included—that they will respect all international agreements."
Above all, Shater, a successful businessman (and at the time Morsi's superior), and the other Muslim Brotherhood leaders indicated that they wanted to make Egypt prosperous, and to accomplish this they would have to compromise their dreams of immediately installing a narrow form of sharia, or religious rule, as the law of the land.
When he was elected president, Morsi met those promises part of the way, especially by not breaching the Egypt-Israel peace treaty (although the Brotherhood does not officially recognize Israel). Morsi even enjoyed a brief interlude of international acclaim when he brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in 2012. But the new Egyptian president seemed to think that he could pretty much have his way domestically, forcing through an unpopular sharia-inspired constitution, appointing fellow Muslim Brothers to key ministries, sacking generals and above all failing to understand the needs of a modern economy. And, unfortunately, the Obama administration may have encouraged that view, with what amounted to a mostly hands-off policy toward Egypt's internal politics, at least until recently.
The results are now in. On the eve of July 4, secular Egyptian protesters have achieved something like their own Declaration of Independence against the threat of Islamist takeover. With a desperate Morsi rocked by protests even larger than those that toppled Mubarak—one state-run outlet is reporting that the Egyptian military has already ousted him from office--some lessons are already apparent. Once again, an Islamist political party in charge has failed the simple test of finding its way into the modern world. Ideology trumped reality in an era when the reality of the global economy demands fast integration, openness, and adherence to basic economic principles. So we have already seen in Iran since the Islamist revolution of 1979, with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and even to a degree in Turkey where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's more mildly Islamist party has found itself confronted with angry and violent street protests (despite the very different political history that brought Erdogan to power).
But the lesson of Egypt, which for centuries has been considered the cultural and historical center of the Arab world, is perhaps the starkest of all.
Over the past year Morsi, the first elected Islamist head of state in Arab history, has been the subject of an unprecedented set of experiments. To wit: Could radical jihadists in power adapt and learn to govern pragmatically, especially by linking up Egypt's impoverished economy to the global system? Could an Islamist head of state renounce jihadist violence in practice instead of theory, in contrast to al-Qaida or its many offshoots, as well as Hamas and Hezbollah? Could Morsi work with the international community rather than consistently defy it, as the Iranian regime had done?
Morsi failed miserably on several of those counts, particularly and perhaps fatally the first. Egypt's economy remains a disaster, with rising food prices, long gas lines and daily blackouts. To her credit, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson warned Morsi of the dangers in a blunt speech in Alexandria this February, when she noted that the government owed billions to oil companies, was running out of foreign reserves, and that Morsi was failing to supply his people with the most basic needs.
The future of Egypt's infant democracy is now utterly unclear, but there is some cause for hope. While the most radical Islamists will no doubt draw the wrong lessons from the turmoil in Egypt—don't participate in Western-style democratic elections at all—the smarter and more numerous Islamist parties will, like many in the already-fractious Muslim Brotherhood (which has seen many defectors), have no choice but to learn to compromise on their ultimate dreams of a fundamentalist state far more than they have already done. Already the radical Salafist Nour Party has hedged, cautiously siding with the protesters and calling for fast presidential elections in order to avoid "civil war."
As the oldest, most entrenched and most socially acceptable of these fundamentalist groups, the future direction of the Muslim Brotherhood is being critically tested too, and not only in Egypt but in Syria as well, should Bashar al-Assad fall. As in Egypt, Syria's exiled Muslim Brotherhood has long carried the political prestige of being the only organized group to have opposed the regime over the decades.
"The Muslim Brotherhood is losing legitimacy at an astonishing rate, faster than I thought likely," says Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA expert who is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is an expert in the region. Yet the secular protesters in the streets can't win either by acclaiming or supporting a coup. And here, perhaps, the Obama administration can provide a helpful nudge. "The administration should do what it has not done, and rip Morsi and the old MB guard for trying to set up majoritarian democracy and that runs roughshod over minority concerns," says Gerecht. "We have little financial leverage here--except through the military. But we should use the bully pulpit. It may be a bit late, but better late than never. The administration needs to take Egyptian civil society seriously."
So do the Islamists. One can only hope they digest the latest lesson from the Arab street.