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After A Rapid Rise, A Challenge To Political Islam

The Arab uprisings of 2011 produced a clear set of winners — the Islamist parties that were well-organized and prepared to swiftly fill the political vacuum left by toppled autocrats.

But the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood now points to the possibility of a countertrend, the failure of Islamist groups to govern effectively and growing public discontent with their rule.

"Once again, an Islamist political party in charge has failed the simple test of finding its way into the modern world," Michael Hirsh writes at The Atlantic.com. "Ideology trumped reality in an era when the reality of the global economy demands fast integration, openness, and adherence to basic economic principles."

As Hirsh and others note, Islamist groups have been successful in coming to power, often through elections. But their track record for governing has been poor overall.

In Iran, where clerics have ruled since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, voters overwhelmingly opted for the most moderate choice on the ballot, Hasan Rowhani, in June's presidential election.

In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is regarded as a moderate Islamist who can point to multiple successes during his decade of rule. But he has faced huge demonstrations from secular, middle-class Turks who feel he has gone too far in pushing an Islamist agenda.

Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip both came to power through the ballot, but have struggled in power.

Once in power, Islamist groups have generally been difficult to dislodge. But the events in Egypt have generated speculation about whether political Islam has peaked and is now facing a backlash.

In Egypt, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood inherited a country rife with problems. There was an urgent need for a new political system, including a new constitution. The economy was crumbling. Law and order was collapsing.

But the massive protests reflected the broad-based opposition to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood just a year after the president was elected.

"They alienated potential allies, ignored rising discontent, focused more on consolidating their rule than on using what tools they did have, used rhetoric that was tone-deaf at best and threatening at worst," Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University, writes in The New Republic.

Potential Opening For Secular Groups

If Egyptians have turned against the Islamists, who will they look to?

Secular, middle-class Egyptians were the driving force behind the 2011 protests that toppled Murbarak as well as the recent wave of demonstrations. But this group has been unable to cobble together a substantial political movement of its own.

In Egypt and other Muslim countries, this sector is still relatively small. Political parties are still in their infancy. And while secular groups often get wide attention in the Western media, they have generally been weak at the grass-roots level.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and winner of a Nobel Peace Prize, is considered a potential leader that secular forces could rally around.

ElBaradei supported the ouster of Morsi, describing it as a "recall." But ElBaradei, who chose not to run in the 2012 election, told CNN he is not interested in becoming president of Egypt.

Military Reasserts Itself

The Egyptian military, meanwhile, is enjoying a rare surge in popularity, at least for now, from those who wanted Morsi out.

Yet Egypt's military has played a dominant role in the country since a 1952 military coup and was widely blamed for many of the country's ills. The generals who ran the country for 16 months after Mubarak's ouster were widely despised. The military seems to have learned a lesson and is expected to operate more behind the scenes rather than taking center stage.

However, critics of the military say they are not convinced that the military will allow the rise of civilian institutions at the expense of its own power. In addition, the latest move has echoes of the 1990s, when the security forces waged a nasty battle against Islamists and were accused of widespread human rights abuses and unlawful killings.

The military has reportedly detained Morsi and dozens of senior figures in the Muslim Brotherhood.

"The message will resonate throughout the Muslim world loud and clear: democracy is not for Muslims," Essam el-Haddad, the foreign policy adviser to Morsi, wrote on his website. Shortly afterward, he was among those seized by the military.

The Middle East has been defined by authoritarian leaders who dominated their country for decades, brooking little dissent and rarely facing serious threats to their rule.

Two Egyptian leaders have now been ousted in 2 1/2 years, reflecting the broader region where rulers now appear increasingly vulnerable from populations no longer afraid to take to the streets.

"This new wave of activism in the Middle East isn't pro- or anti-American. It's something else — a movement of empowered citizens who don't want the old secular dictatorships of Hosni Mubarak's era, and don't want a new Islamic authoritarianism, either," columnist David Ignatius wrote in The Washington Post. "This week showed there is still a popular movement for democratic change that resists dictation from anyone."

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