Several days of protests across the country were met with violence by the Muslim Brotherhood and allied Islamists who sought to protect the first Islamist President of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, at all costs. But the Egyptian army declared it would side with the will of the people on July 3 and ousted Morsi, signaling a new era in the region.
Prior to the June 30 revolution, Islamists across the region had reached the highest echelons of power, including the presidency in Egypt in 2012. They controlled the parliaments of Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan.
They were moving steadily to dominate the entire region between the years of 2011-2013, but along came the June 30 revolution that obliterated the Islamists’ ambition to rule the region.
“The June 30, 2013 [revolution] underscored for the first time that the Arab Spring was not brought about by democratic forces as many Western scholars have claimed and many in the MENA region liked to believe at the time, but rather was a result of a narrow, hierarchical structured manipulation by the Muslim Brotherhood and its state sponsors,” New York-based human rights lawyer and editor-in-chief of the Washington Outsider Irina Tsukerman told the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
“The revolt that followed uprooted the mistaken perception of the MB as having widespread popular and institutional support in Egypt,” she added. “This change was very important because it uncovered that the MB and its allies were actually subverting democratic processes, rather than implementing them.”
Back in Feb. 2012, the Arab Spring revolutions had toppled long-serving leaders such as Tunisian President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who were ousted from office in quick succession under pressure from uprisings that were initiated by liberal powers. These rebellions were eventually hijacked by Islamists in all of these countries.
A few years after the June 30 upheaval, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, Syria and the United Arab Emirates. Last April, Tunisia banned the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Ennahda Party.
“The revolution (June 30) itself did not stop the efforts by the MB but it sent a strong message across the various countries that MB was not in fact a popular movement in Egypt and did not have the power or the influence that it claimed to have,” said Tsukerman. “It had no popular or political legitimacy despite external efforts to prop it up, and that it could and should be stopped to avoid disastrous and unpopular results such as marginalization of minorities, the spread of extremist ideology.”
The Muslim Brotherhood’s brief rule of Egypt under Morsi was characterized by authoritarianism that reached its climax when Morsi suspended the constitution, disbanded the High Constitutional Court and appointed Islamists to most key positions in the country.
One former convicted terrorist, Adel el-Khayat, a member of the Islamic Group that committed the Luxor massacre in 1997 that left 58 tourists and four Egyptians dead, was appointed by Morsi as the governor of Luxor in 2013, resulting in a massive outcry and protests.
The growing anger against Morsi was parallel to massive waves of violence that reached Christian minorities and even the headquarters Coptic Cathedral in Cairo. The violence also targeted Christian individuals and businesses.
The American embassy in Cairo was attacked by Islamists and assailants replaced the U.S. flag with the ISIS flag under the nose of Morsi, who didn’t lift a finger. Three years later an Egyptian court sentenced 168 of the rioters to two years in prison.
The winds of change in the Middle East
Other Middle Eastern countries’ leaders who were facing the meteoric rise of Islamists in their countries, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and Tunisia, felt relieved that the Muslim Brotherhood was beaten in its home country by the will of the people.
“The revolution certainly sent a message of support and inspiration to the other Middle Eastern leaders who were facing the same concerns, precisely because Egypt is a huge country that has played a particularly important role in the region and because it is the place where the Muslim Brotherhood originated,” said Tsukerman.
The Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE began to adopt more liberal ways of living and governance. Both countries introduced secular-leaning reforms, and the UAE eventually adopted social and religious liberties in a region that is marred by ultra-conservatism and extremism.
Saudi Arabia adopted massive reforms, many of which focused on women and social freedoms, unlocking the potential of Saudi society.
“KSA and UAE reforms have independent roots but benefit from the positive developments in Egypt, as major steps are easier to take in coordination; moreover, the countries had united at one point to bring an end to extremist ideology and to terrorism and other subversive activity emerging from the ashes of the Arab Spring. Saudi Arabia had been taking very slow steps in the direction of improving [the] situation for women under King Abdullah; however, due to the regional hold by the MB, any improvement in the situation was glacial,” said Tsukerman.
Changes included granting women permission to drive in 2019 and to remove their Islamic headscarves—hijab and niqab—freely without being arrested or punished. Cinemas, theaters and music carnivals are allowed now in the once ultra-conservative kingdoms. Moreover, religious reforms have been adopted that enable the country to part from its Wahabi doctrine.
“The end of the MB reign in Egypt sent a signal that such reforms could be welcomed and would not have additional financial or ideological opposition coming from one of the most significant players in the region,” said Tsukerman. “When Mohammed bin Salman became the Crown Prince, he embraced the reforms far beyond the initial steps that were hoped for in terms of driving rights and embraced a much more active effort to integrate women into the work force and to create an opening for their much more visible public role in various institutions.”
Qatari state-sponsored terrorism failed to turn the tide of events
Following the Jan. 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood leaders received direct political and financial support from Qatar, which endorsed the groups and hosted its leaders in Doha.
But the constant media support spearheaded by the Al Jazeera news network, along with financial and political support, did not change the destiny of the Muslim Brotherhood, as reality and the shoddy performance of the group in power became too visible to mask.
“Qatar’s power and money have limits; mismanagement of the economy by the local proxies, radical excesses, and local violence are just some of the factors they cannot control. Ultimately, [the] MB fell because it was weak and because it got too greedy too quickly without accounting for the overall situation inside the country,” said Tsukerman.
“Qatar thus lost an important link for spreading its sentiments and disinformation,” she explained. “The crackdown on the revolutionary activity and the proliferation of the ideology in Egypt was not something they could buy off or change because their accounts were frozen and their media had been shut down.”
Qatar capitulated under a boycott from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, and was forced to alter its rhetoric and mitigate its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Following visits from Qatari Prince Tamim Bin Hamad, the diplomatic relations between Egypt and Qatar were restored.
But Tsukerman warns that the Qatari threat and Muslim Brotherhood support is not over yet.
“I would caution against early triumphalism, because Qatar always looks for back doors and the Al Ula agreement, along with the recent economic crisis, provided such an opening,” said Tsukerman.
“The normalization of financial relations led to an influx of Qatari money into energy and other investments in Egypt; the Biden administration’s support for [the] MB and poor relations with the Egyptian government have contributed to internal crises and concerns which made it easier for Islamists to reemerge and to attack the government on the basis of economic grievances as always,” she warned.
“With so much economic and political activity in Egypt in its favor, it’s hard to imagine the ideologues in Doha will not try to capitalize on that by gaining ground on the grassroots level in any way that they can, including by weaponizing or exploiting any domestic or foreign vulnerabilities,” she said.
Sudan changes its path
Sudan was reeling under the weight of Islamist rule under President Omar el-Bashir since a 1989 coup d’etat. The Sudanese dictator allied himself with Muslim Brotherhood leader Hassan Al-Turabi to rule with strict Islamic laws in the country.
Following the ouster of El-Bashir in 2019, Sudan turned a new page and the former stronghold of Islamists and launchpad of terrorist groups including Al Qaeda in the region adopted a secular constitution and recognized Israel. Sudan and Israel announced last February that they will normalize relations this year.
“Sudan is one of the countries that benefited the most and most directly from Egypt’s revolution. In fact, arguably, the June 30 event served as a model and a direct inspiration for the ousting of Bashir,” said Tsukerman.
“Unfortunately, due to the complex dynamics inside the country and the initial lack of direct Western involvement and support, it cannot be said that Islamists have had their positions erased,” she noted. “Some are still active within Sudan’s armed forces; with the failure of the civilian secularists, they have arguably gained some traction and ground especially now vis-à-vis the power struggle with the Rapid Support Forces.”
The Rapid Support Forces evolved from and were comprised of Janjaweed militia elements involved in massacres in Darfur that left over 300,000 killed and over 2.5 million displaced.
The Tunisian revolt against the Muslim Brotherhood
Following the events in Egypt, Tunisia—which was once regarded by the media as the epitome of Arab Spring success stories—has also revolted against the tight grip of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party Ennahda. The once ruling party, Ennahda repeated its Egyptian counterpart’s mistakes and adopted violent methods and schemes including assassinations and hidden deals with foreign powers such as Erdogan’s Turkey.
“In Tunisia, elections eventually put a limit to the extent of Muslim Brotherhood influence and activity. Ennahada, the MB party, too came to be seen as corrupt and linked to foreign actors. Tunisia was ripe for internal strife; the situation there is not ideal now, but [the] MB is now only one of competing interests and concerns; it has lost a lot of political hold and power,” said Tsukerman.
However, Tunisia is facing economic problems following the COVID pandemic and the political instability that has characterized the country over the past few years. Western political circles and analysts fear the worst for the country if the international community does not assist Tunisia financially.
The international community is at risk of “having the Muslim Brotherhood create instability” in Tunisia if the country is not swiftly granted “substantial financial help,” said Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani at a conference last March. “We can’t afford the radicalization of the Mediterranean.”
That said, the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to return to the political scene in the Middle East cannot be discounted.
“The Muslim Brotherhood not only can but is already returning to the Middle East—taking advantage of the economic crisis in Egypt, of the attacks on Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and of UAE’s cold relations with the U.S.,” Tsukerman said.
“The U.S. has welcomed and fully embraced [the] MB at top levels of their governance, which sends a bad signal along with U.S.’s overall foreign policy not favoring more liberal Middle Eastern leaders,” she added.
“The current chaos and lack of visionary leadership in the West has put Middle Eastern leaders into extremely vulnerable and pressured situations,” she noted. “They may be forced to make political compromises for the sake of political survival and hope for a better future.”
The ripple effects of the revolution that led to the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be ignored. The era will be remembered as a time when Islamists almost ruled the Middle East. It can be safely stated that the June 30 revolution in Egypt was the D-Day for ending the rule of Islamists, which had been projected to last for decades, if not centuries.