Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days

Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days

by Eric Trager


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How did Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood win power so quickly after the dramatic “Arab Spring” uprising that ended President Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year reign in February 2011? And why did the Brotherhood fall from power even more quickly, culminating with the popular “rebellion” and military coup that toppled Egypt’s first elected president, Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, in July 2013? In Arab Fall, Eric Trager examines the Brotherhood’s decision making throughout this critical period, explaining its reasons for joining the 2011 uprising, running for a majority of the seats in the 2011–2012 parliamentary elections, and nominating a presidential candidate despite its initial promise not to do so. Based on extensive research in Egypt and interviews with dozens of Brotherhood leaders and cadres including Morsi, Trager argues that the very organizational characteristics that helped the Brotherhood win power also contributed to its rapid downfall. The Brotherhood’s intensive process for recruiting members and its rigid nationwide command-chain meant that it possessed unparalleled mobilizing capabilities for winning the first post-Mubarak parliamentary and presidential elections.

Yet the Brotherhood’s hierarchical organizational culture, in which dissenters are banished and critics are viewed as enemies of Islam, bred exclusivism. This alienated many Egyptians, including many within Egypt’s state institutions. The Brotherhood’s insularity also prevented its leaders from recognizing how quickly the country was slipping from their grasp, leaving hundreds of thousands of Muslim Brothers entirely unprepared for the brutal crackdown that followed Morsi’s overthrow. Trager concludes with an assessment of the current state of Egyptian politics and examines the Brotherhood’s prospects for reemerging.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626163621
Publisher: Georgetown University Press
Publication date: 10/20/2016
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 1,128,993
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Eric Trager is the Esther K. Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where his research focuses on Egyptian politics. His writings have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, and elsewhere.

Read an Excerpt

Arab Fall

How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days

By Eric Trager


Copyright © 2016 Eric Trager
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62616-363-8


Late to the Revolution

Mohamed al-Qassas was a rising star in the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest and best-organized opposition movement. The son of an Azhari sheikh, al-Qassas grew up in Cairo's upscale Heliopolis neighborhood and joined the Brotherhood as a student at Cairo University during the 1990s. Within the organization, the charismatic al-Qassas developed a strong following among younger Muslim Brothers, so the Brotherhood leadership tasked him with recruiting university students to the organization.

Given that the Brotherhood was arguably the greatest political threat to Hosni Mubarak's regime, al-Qassas's Islamist activism came at a personal price. He was arrested four times, once stood before a military court, and faced various professional restrictions. But al-Qassas's outreach work on university campuses also had a major upside: It enabled him to break through the Brotherhood's rigidly insular internal culture and meet a broad range of relatively young opposition activists from across Egypt's political spectrum.

It was through these contacts that al-Qassas learned on January 15, 2011, that opposition activists were planning major protests against the Mubarak regime ten days later. He immediately publicized the demonstrations on his Facebook page and coordinated with peers in other — mostly non-Islamist — groups to spread the message.

But al-Qassas knew from prior experience that social media activism didn't always translate into protesters on the streets. Getting a significant turnout required convincing the Brotherhood's executive bureau, known as the Guidance Office, to mobilize the organization's hundreds of thousands of members to participate in the demonstrations from the moment they started.

That, it turned out, was a tall order.

* * *

By early 2011, popular frustration with the Mubarak regime had been building for many years. Despite posting an impressive average 5.9 percent real GDP growth from 2005 to 2010, there was limited trickle-down, and a 2010 Gallup survey found that only one-fifth of Egyptians believed that economic conditions were improving. Meanwhile, following the 2008 global economic crisis, unemployment rose from 8.7 to 10.1 percent during the next two years, and youth unemployment was especially high at 23 percent, including 60 percent among women fifteen to twenty-four years old. The final decade of Mubarak's rule also witnessed a surge in labor strikes, with over two million workers participating in nearly 3,400 strikes and other collective actions.

Egypt's calcified autocracy exacerbated these frustrations. To many Egyptians, Mubarak's apparent attempt to anoint his younger son Gamal as his successor was a throwback to the pharaohs. The severely rigged 2010 parliamentary elections, during which Mubarak's ruling party won over 86 percent of the seats, and rampant governmental corruption added to popular distrust of the regime.

Yet, even as Egyptians frequently warned that mounting anger might yield a popular infigar — an explosion — there appeared to be no party or group that could channel this distress into an impactful anti-Mubarak movement. After all, Egypt's legal opposition parties were small and thoroughly co-opted by the regime.

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, which was Egypt's largest and best-organized opposition group, feared greater repression if it challenged the Mubarak regime too directly. So the Brotherhood downplayed its political ambitions. It instead focused on building relationships among other sectors of society through its involvement in the professional syndicates and spreading its Islamist message through the social services it provided in Egypt's neediest areas. It also appealed to the public by occasionally organizing anti-Western protests, which was a useful tactic for criticizing the Mubarak regime's cooperation with the United States and Israel without challenging the regime's political legitimacy directly.

Like many of his colleagues, al-Qassas had participated in these protests since his earliest days as a Muslim Brother. His first political act was marching in a Brotherhood-organized, pro-Palestinian demonstration in 1992, and he increasingly participated in organizing these protests as he emerged as a Brotherhood student leader at Cairo University during the 1990s. In the process, al-Qassas befriended leftist activists who disagreed with the Brotherhood's Islamism yet flocked to the Brotherhood's pro-Palestinian demonstrations at a time when few other outlets for protest activity existed. Away from the heat of the protests, al-Qassas spent long evenings with these leftist counterparts, debating a wide range of political, social, and philosophical questions. Before long, they located various points of agreement and, in 1996, formed the Committee on Collaboration among Political Forces, which protested the Mubarak regime's prosecution of Brotherhood leaders before military courts.

Al-Qassas continued his campus activism even after he graduated from Cairo University in 1998. He remained one of the Brotherhood's foremost student recruiters at the university and continued organizing protests as a mechanism for raising the Brotherhood's campus profile. Al-Qassas's network of opposition youth activists thus expanded considerably, and a loose coalition of Muslim Brothers, socialists, communists, and Nasserists coalesced amid the various waves of protest that emerged in the years that followed.

The first protest wave began in late 2000, shortly after the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada. The intifada engendered mass sympathy for the Palestinian cause within Egypt, and al-Qassas worked through the Brotherhood to organize campus protests against Israel, which the regime initially tolerated. But as these demonstrations increasingly criticized Mubarak's relations with Israel, the regime began cracking down. Central Security Forces (CSF) police would surround the protests, clash with demonstrators, and detain activists by the dozens.

Egypt's response to the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003 intensified the activists' ire. While the Mubarak regime publicly criticized the invasion, it nevertheless permitted US warships to pass through the Suez Canal. In an apparent attempt to contain the mounting popular outrage in the run-up to the war, the regime permitted the Brotherhood to hold a major antiwar protest at Cairo Stadium on February 27, which over a hundred thousand reportedly attended. But it was to no avail. On March 20, the day after the US invasion began, tens of thousands of protesters occupied Tahrir Square before CSF police beat them back. The massive outpouring included strong denunciations of the Mubarak regime's foreign policy, and protesters tore down a Mubarak poster hanging outside the ruling party's downtown Cairo headquarters.

Then in late 2003, a coalition of older Nasserist, leftist, and Islamist political opposition figures jointly established the Popular Campaign for Change, which ultimately became known as Kefaya, meaning "Enough." The campaign demanded a variety of political reforms, including competitive presidential elections. From December 2004 through the spring of 2005, Kefaya held a series of antiregime protests in downtown Cairo, representing the first sustained antiregime protest activity. Al-Qassas participated in Kefaya, and the movement's ideological diversity made it another important meeting ground for Islamist and non-Islamist activists. But the ideological diversity of Kefaya also contributed to its downfall: Its leadership failed to offer a coherent political program beyond opposing Mubarak, and it fizzled due to regime pressure two years later.

The youth activists who joined Kefaya, however, soon built other, often narrower anti-Mubarak movements. These included Haqqi ("My Right") and Gami'atunah ("Our University"), which protested the heavy police presence on campuses.

But the most successful of these movements was April 6 Youth, which took its name from the date of a 2008 labor strike at Egypt's largest textile factory in Al-Mahalla al-Kobra, during which workers confronted riot police for two days. In the run-up to these strikes, youth activists created a Facebook page to express their solidarity with the workers. The page rapidly attracted over seventy-six thousand members and thus became an important forum in which young Egyptians vented their frustration with the Mubarak regime. Al-Qassas had met April 6 Youth founder Ahmed Maher during the Kefaya protests, and the two continued their collaboration through the mostly small protests that April 6 Youth organized in the years that followed.

Yet, as al-Qassas's involvement with non-Islamists became more frequent and visible, Brotherhood leaders in Cairo urged him to back off. "Those people are not Islamists," they would tell him, apparently worrying that cooperation with non-Islamists would damage the organization's ability to pursue its narrow Islamist agenda. But the Brotherhood leaders also had another, less ideological concern: They feared that the regime might use al-Qassas's anti-Mubarak activism as a pretext for a broader crackdown on the organization. To assuage the Brotherhood's leaders, al-Qassas and his fellow Brotherhood youths agreed that they would only participate in these protests as individuals, meaning that they wouldn't carry Brotherhood insignias.

Mohamed ElBaradei's retirement from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in late 2009 added a new dimension to these anti-Mubarak activities. A Nobel Peace Prize winner, ElBaradei was an outspoken critic of Mubarak's autocratic rule, and his global stature made him far less susceptible to the regime's repression. Activists thus started an online campaign to support a prospective ElBaradei presidential candidacy and held their first major event on February 19, 2010, when they mobilized approximately one thousand people to Cairo International Airport to greet ElBaradei as he returned to Cairo after decades abroad as a diplomat. Shortly thereafter, activists named ElBaradei chairman of their newly formed National Association for Change, and he released a manifesto calling for seven constitutional reforms. Despite the Brotherhood's tepid outreach to ElBaradei, al-Qassas collaborated with his non-Islamist peers to petition for ElBaradei's reforms.

Then on June 6, 2010, police officers grabbed twenty-eight-year-old Khaled Said from an Alexandria Internet café and beat him to death as horrified pedestrians looked on. Images of Said's severely mangled face went viral on social media two days later, and activists established a Facebook group titled "We Are All Khaled Said," which drew over a hundred thousand members within days. The Facebook group became another platform for organizing protests, including one that drew over four thousand activists on June 25 in Alexandria, and al-Qassas gathered his colleagues to participate in protests outside of the Interior Ministry's headquarters in Cairo.

By the autumn of 2010, however, this opposition activity suddenly cooled off. Activists staged dozens of demonstrations, but they were mostly small and had little impact. The severely forged November 2010 parliamentary elections and the bombing of a Coptic Orthodox church in Alexandria on New Year's Day 2011, in which twenty-three people were killed, each catalyzed new blips of protest activity but nothing sustainable.

As a result, the Mubarak regime felt quite secure. When 118 former opposition parliamentarians, including some Muslim Brothers, created a "shadow parliament" in December 2010 to protest the rigged elections, Mubarak wryly remarked, "Let them have fun." Protests came and went, it seemed, but the regime was still standing strong.

* * *

Tunisia is approximately one-sixth the size of Egypt, has only one-eighth the population, and its capital is situated 1,328 miles from Cairo. Historically, its impact on Egypt has been meager, and contemporary Egyptian rulers typically looked eastward — toward Israel and the Arabian Peninsula — in projecting their power and competing for regional supremacy. But on January 14, 2011, Tunisia suddenly moved into the center of Egyptians' political imagination. After three weeks of protests that began when a fruit vendor immolated himself in response to police harassment, dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Malta, thereby ending his twenty-four-year rule.

Within hours of Ben Ali's ouster, approximately a hundred Egyptian youth activists rallied outside the Tunisian embassy in Cairo before security forces beat them back. The following afternoon's planned demonstration was less impressive: Approximately twenty protesters turned out, and security forces quickly surrounded them. But the activists were already looking ahead: They hoped to use Tunisia's successful uprising to build momentum for a mass anti-Mubarak protest in downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square on January 25.

January 25 was National Police Day in Egypt, marking the anniversary of a 1952 battle in which forty-one Egyptian police officers died while fighting British forces along the Suez Canal. Mubarak declared it a national holiday in 2009, but Egypt's youth activists regarded it as a propaganda effort to whitewash the regime's police brutality. So they staged Police Day protests in 2009 and 2010, which attracted only a few dozen participants. Yet Ben Ali's ouster in Tunisia suddenly gave the activists new hope, and they intensified their efforts for 2011's Police Day protests.

Al-Qassas first learned of these preparations on January 15, the day after Ben Ali's fall, and immediately started spreading the word. He stayed in close contact with his longtime friends in April 6 Youth and the socialist Justice and Freedom Movement, who took the lead in assembling the overall route map, and flooded his Facebook and telephone contacts with exhortations to participate. Meanwhile, al-Qassas and some of his Brotherhood colleagues lobbied the Brotherhood's Guidance Office to mobilize the organization's hundreds of thousands of cadres in support of the protests.

* * *

For the Brotherhood's leaders, the Tunisian Revolution was both inspiring and threatening. In their analysis, Ben Ali's relatively quick ouster in the face of mass protests demonstrated the inherent weakness of secular Arab dictatorships. But the Brotherhood also feared that it would be the Mubarak regime's first target if a similar uprising erupted in Egypt.

It was a risk that the Brotherhood could barely afford because it had been the target of a significant government crackdown for much of the past five years. The Brotherhood's impressive performance in the 2005 parliamentary elections, in which Muslim Brothers won 88 of 444 contested seats, greatly unnerved the Mubarak regime. So in March 2006, the regime arrested twenty prominent Muslim Brothers, and hundreds of lower-ranking Brotherhood activists were arrested by May. Then, when the Brotherhood participated in a series of demonstrations to support two judges who had been arrested for exposing rigging during the parliamentary elections, the regime arrested an additional five hundred Muslim Brothers, including six top leaders.

The crackdown intensified in December 2006 after dozens of masked Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated students staged a martial arts demonstration at Cairo's al-Azhar University in front of approximately two thousand students. The demonstration's militancy shocked the regime, which responded by arresting several hundred more Brotherhood members, including seventeen senior officials. Among them was Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat al-Shater, a millionaire businessman widely considered the Brotherhood's most influential leader. A military tribunal ultimately sentenced him and another prominent Brotherhood businessman to seven years in prison, and the state seized their assets.

Thereafter, the crackdown intensified with each new election. Thirty Brotherhood members were arrested prior to the 2007 elections for the Shura Council (Egypt's upper parliamentary house), seven hundred Muslim Brothers were arrested before the 2008 local council elections, and over one thousand Muslim Brothers, including sixteen top leaders and eight candidates, were arrested as the November 2010 parliamentary elections approached.

The Brotherhood thus had good reason to fear that it would end up "paying the bill" for any revolutionary activity and responded to the Tunisian Revolution very carefully. The morning after Ben Ali's ouster, the Brotherhood released an official statement offering its "heartfelt congratulations" to the "brotherly Tunisian people" and saluting the Tunisians' "victory in the first round of their struggle for freedom and dignity." But the statement was otherwise quite vague, urging "Arab regimes and the whole world to listen to the voice of the people demanding freedoms and democracy" and warning "global powers" against "interfering in the affairs of the region." It contained no mention of Mubarak and certainly nothing that could be construed as a call for an uprising in Egypt.

As news of the forthcoming January 25 protests spread, however, the Brotherhood's leadership suddenly felt compelled to offer a stronger statement. But it faced a significant dilemma: If it openly embraced the protests, it risked an intensified crackdown, and if it distanced itself from the protests too forcefully, it would alienate younger Muslim Brothers like al-Qassas, who were determined to participate in the demonstrations either way.


Excerpted from Arab Fall by Eric Trager. Copyright © 2016 Eric Trager. Excerpted by permission of GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Rapid Rise, Faster Fall 1. Late to the Revolution 2. An Islamist Vanguard 3. Postrevolutionary Posturing 4. Preparing for Power 5. The Road to Parliament 6. Powerless Parliamentarians 7. The Road to Ittahidiya Palace 8. The Power Struggle Continues 9. Power, Not Policy 10. The Power Grab 11. In Power but Not In Control 12. The Rebellion Conclusion: Broken Brothers Appendix: InterviewsNotes Select Bibliography IndexAbout the Author

What People are Saying About This

Jeffrey Goldberg

Eric Trager is Washington's go-to expert on Egypt, the Arab Spring, and the rise and fall (and possible rise again) of the Muslim Brotherhood. Clear-eyed, incisive, and authoritative, Trager specializes in making sense of a maddeningly complicated crisis, and he does so without sacrificing scholarly rigor in the process. "Arab Fall" is an indispensable book about a tumultuous period in the history of a hugely important country, and in the history of the Brotherhood, a group that has profoundly shaped the world in which we live today.

Hisham Melhem

This is the definitive book on the Muslim Brotherhood that you have been waiting for since the Egyptian uprising. This is a brilliant chronicle of a collapse foretold. The closed, rigid political culture of the MB, its disciplined cohesiveness and exclusivism; the very reasons for its initial brief success, quickly became the causes for its thunderous, bloody collapse.

Nancy Youssef

Throughout the Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, Eric Trager was consistently prescient about Egypt’s political trajectory through an unprecedented period. In this book, he is just as thoughtful as he threads seeming disparate events to tell Egypt’s story, both during the uprising and now. This is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the Muslim Brotherhood and its impact on today’s Egypt.

Steven Cook

Add Trager’s book to the 'must-reads' on the Muslim Brotherhood. His years of research that includes large numbers of interviews with Brothers up and down as well as across Egypt offer an extraordinarily rich picture of the organization’s structure, the ways its members think, and the Brotherhood’s political goals. Trager writes extremely well, which makes the volume a great read, too.

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