When looking at the developments of the last year and a half in the Middle East, it seems quite clear that the media was too quick to coin the term “Arab Spring” to describe the popular unrest and overthrow of regimes in significant parts of the Arab World. Presumably this term comes from the Prague Spring reform movement in what was then Czechoslovakia in early 1968. That movement was concerned with liberalization and democratization in the face of an oppressive Soviet-style political system in the country (and, sadly, was crushed by Warsaw Pact tanks). However, what is currently happening in the Arab world is the venting of popular frustration with corrupt, dictatorial regimes and the desire for a viable alternative, which, in all cases, consists of Muslim Brotherhood-style groups rather than liberal-democratic parties. It would thus be more appropriate to refer to what is happening in the region as the “Islamist Spring” because it is creating unprecedented opportunities for Islamist political movements to finally grasp the reins of power.
The election of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) candidate, Muhammad Mursi, to Egypt’s presidency represents an unprecedented victory for Egypt’s MB, which was founded in 1928 and has, from that point on, aspired to lead the country and consistently been frustrated (first by British-dominated monarchs and then by Egypt’s military rulers) in its quest for power. Of course, Egypt’s military is doing its best not to take Mursi’s electoral victory lying down and it has not only curtailed the powers of the presidency but also dissolved the recently elected, and MB dominated, parliament (thus depriving the MB, at least temporarily, of the power to legislate). In the long term however, the rise of the MB may lead to the gradual erosion in the military’s power (in a manner similar to what is occurring in Turkey where a Turkish MB party, the AK Party, has profoundly diminished the role of the previously hegemonic military, on Turkish political life).
The MB is a Sunni Muslim organization that advocates Islamic rule through the use of the Sharia (commonly referred to as “Islamic Law” though it is really more of a moral code that uses the Quran, statements attributed to the Prophet Muhammad and stories about the Prophet as guidelines for what is permissible and what is not permissible). Its slogan is “Islam is the Answer” and its central thesis is that Egypt’s problems are the result of straying from Islamic values and teachings (and thus from God’s favor) and that Egypt can be a great nation again if it returns to those core values. Not surprisingly, this is a powerful message that resonates well with Egyptians (and across the Arab world in general) thus making Egypt’s MB and its counterparts in other Arab countries desirable alternatives to the present regimes (which, in addition to being seen as venal and corrupt, are also seen as lacking Islamic credentials and as puppets of the West, or of Russia in the case of the Syrian regime). The MB has branches in virtually all Sunni Arab countries and the Syrian MB appears to be active in anti-government fighting in Syria, the Gaza Strip is ruled by Hamas (which is the Palestinian version of the MB) and Tunisia is also run by an MB-type political party).
What happens in Egypt matters; it is the largest Arab state by population and the strongest Arab state in terms of military power. It is also very influential, from a cultural perspective, in the rest of the Arab World and consequently the country has a large footprint across the region and changes in Egypt tend to act as a bellwether and model for the rest of the Arab world. Indeed, the MB victory in Egypt is likely to embolden other MB organizations and may herald the eventual domination of MB parties across the region.
All of this, of course, has implications for the region and the United States. Egypt is a critical country in terms of US interests in the Middle East and the US provides military and economic support to the country to the tune of $2 billion per year, while helping to arm and train the Egyptian military. If Mursi is able to eventually wrest significant power from the military, and if he decides to commit to a policy that is contrary to US interests (such as by partially or fully voiding the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, supporting Hamas, strengthening ties with Iran, etc.), then the US may lose additional influence and stature in the Middle East. No doubt Egypt will loom large in the calculations of American policymakers for some time to come.