* Muslim Brotherhood downfall in Egypt a regional setback
* Arab Spring brings sectarian, ethnic struggles out of deep
* Violent suppression less effective on young internet-savvy
By Samia Nakhoul
BEIRUT, Aug 18 As the army ruthlessly crushes
the Muslim Brotherhood on the streets of Cairo, having swept
away its elected president, Egypt is being painted as the
graveyard of the Arab Spring and of Islamist hopes of shaping
the region's future.
This week's bloody drama has sent shockwaves out of Egypt,
the political weathervane and cultural heart of the Arab world.
The effect on the region of the army's power grab will not be
uniform, because while countries such as Egypt are locked in a
battle over identity, other states, from Syria to Yemen, and
Libya to Iraq, are in an existential struggle for survival.
The Egyptian chapter of the Arab awakening began with the
uprising that ended the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak
and has moved on to the spectacular implosion of the Brotherhood
that replaced him. Having been outlawed intermittently since
their founding 80 years ago, the organisation won parliamentary
and presidential elections, then self-destructed in one year.
Deposed President Mohamed Mursi alienated all but a
hard-core constituency by devoting his energy to seizing control
of Egypt's institutions rather than implementing policies to
revive its paralysed economy and heal political divisions,
"I was surprised by the rapid fall of the Islamists," said
Jamel Arfaoui, an analyst on Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab
"I was expecting that the Muslim Brotherhood would continue
long in power and benefit from the experience of the Islamists
in Turkey," where the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development
Party has won three straight elections.
The Egyptian Brothers, or Al-Ikhwan, now have reason to fear
they could be back in the wilderness for decades after the army,
with much bloodshed, imposed a state of emergency last week. The
last time emergency rule was implemented - after the
assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 - it remained in
force for more than 30 years.
In power, Mursi and his backers in the Brotherhood proved
unable to collaborate with either Islamist allies or secular
adversaries and fatally alienated an army they first tried to
co-opt. They have left the country more divided than at any time
since it became a republic in 1953.
"They have no understanding whatsoever of the way democratic
politics operates," says George Joffe, an expert on North Africa
at Cambridge University. "It is difficult to imagine how anyone,
given the opportunity of power, could in any circumstances have
behaved as stupidly as they did. It is staggering incompetence."
The 2011 upheavals promoted Islamist groups affiliated with
or similar to the Brotherhood to the heart of politics across
the Arab world, and most observers say events in Egypt are not
just a national but a regional setback for the organisation.
"The Brotherhood have committed political suicide. It will
take them decades to recover ... because a significant number of
Egyptians now mistrust them. Al-Ikhwan is a toxic brand now in
Egypt and the region," said academic Fawaz Gerges, adding that
the damage goes beyond Egypt to its affiliates in Tunisia,
Jordan and Gaza, where the ruling Hamas evolved from the
This has delighted leaders as distinct as King Abdullah of
Saudi Arabia, traditionally wary of rival flavours of Islam, and
Bashar al-Assad, who greeted last month's military takeover in
Egypt as vindication of his own bloody fight against Islamists.
Some say Egypt is a setback for democracy itself in the Arab
"It delegitimises the ballot box and legitimises in the eyes
of Arabs that the army is the only institution we can fall back
on to protect us against disintegration or Islamists who hijack
the state," said Gerges of the London School of Economics.
Tarek Osman, author of "Egypt on the Brink", said Egypt
represented a clash over whether these states are to be governed
according to traditions of secular nationalism or see their
rich, ancient identities squeezed into the Islamist
strait-jacket of the Brotherhood.
It is "the Islamic frame of reference versus old,
entrenched, rich national identities", he says: "This identity
clash is a root cause for the antagonism that wide social
segments have for the Islamists."
STRUGGLE FOR IDENTITY AND SURVIVAL
The struggle might be about the identity of the state in
countries like Egypt and Tunisia, where political structures are
relatively strong, but in Libya and Yemen, riven by tribal
rivalries and lacking properly functioning institutions, it is
about the survival of the state.
"In Libya, the Brotherhood is hardly in the scene," says
Joffe. "The danger is that there is chaos, no centralised
government, not even regional authority of any kind."
In Libya, armed militias have filled the vacuum left by the
overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi. In Yemen, the militant Islamists
of al Qaeda have taken over swathes of land, while sectarian,
tribal and regional rivalries are tearing the country of 25
In Syria, a popular uprising against Assad's 40-year family
rule has evolved into a civil war that has killed 100,000 people
and provided a new opportunity for al Qaeda and a proxy
battleground for regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran.
And now in Iraq, fresh venom is being injected into the
conflict between the country's Sunni minority and Shi'ite-led
It is obvious, analysts say, that the future of the East
Mediterranean nation states, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, is in
danger. These countries were created by Britain and France from
the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire after World War One,
but their imperial interests took priority over the sectarian
and ethnic cohesion of the new states.
The faultlines have since been kept in check by the deep
freeze of the Arab security state.
The removal of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in a
U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and the lethal challenge to Assad has
certainly brought Islamism to the fore, and made these countries
the front line of the Shi'ite-Sunni sectarian battle.
"Sectarianism now rules supreme. The Iraq war and its
aftermath - effectively dividing the country along confessional
lines - and then the Syrian civil war, which is already sending
tremors into tense sectarian-ridden Lebanon, create various
triggers for potentially wider conflicts.
"Now that these nation states have fallen (in Iraq and
Syria) and face serious threats (in Lebanon), these realities
are crumbling, and the region's societies are confronting these
demons," Osman said.
Al Qaeda militants have been quick to exploit sectarian
tensions in Iraq, the power vacuum in Yemen and civil war in
Syria. They have yet to play a significant role in Egypt, though
the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, as part of a push to disseminate
the state's narrative of events, has distributed photos showing,
among other things, Muslim Brotherhood members carrying clubs,
firearms and a black al Qaeda flag.
The Brotherhood denies links to the network.
In the new Arab order, the region's leaders and generals are
finding that their people will no longer roll over in the face
of violent suppression. Heavy-handed attempts to stamp out civic
unrest led to the ousting of Zine al-Abidine Ben-Ali in Tunisia,
Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and Gaddafi
in Libya, as well as triggering the revolt against Assad.
Although the Brotherhood is the big loser of recent weeks,
the war zone in Cairo where young Islamists keep pouring into
the streets undeterred by tanks and snipers of the mighty
Egyptian army and security forces is a vivid illustration.
In Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and other parts of the region, over
two-thirds of the population are under 30-years old, which
should give pause to the generals and secret policemen as much
as the politicians, whether Islamist or secular.
"Not only do these huge young masses have immediate economic
demands; they are also the first Arab generation ever to grow up
with immediate gratification and expression," says Tarek Osman.
"Their exposure to the Internet, satellite channels and
instant communication make them express their views quickly,
share their frustrations instantly, build and destroy narratives
at incredible speeds, and certainly they are not willing to wait
and be patient for inexperienced leaders to learn on the job."