An Independence Day for Egypt's Secularists?

The dramatic fall of the Muslim Brotherhood is another example of an Islamist government floundering in the modern world.
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A policeman (center) cheers with protesters as they dance in front of the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo on July 3, 2013.(Reuters)

Early on, Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood cohorts made all the right noises. In April 2012, as Egypt was preparing for its first elections since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, leading Muslim Brotherhood figures -- including the Islamist political group's chief strategist, Khairat el-Shater -- held convivial conversations with a visiting delegation of U.S. lawmakers. As one member of that congressional group reported to me then: "They all go out of their way to say what we want to hear. They are going to fully protect women's rights, minority rights, the constitutional assembly. They all made great pains to emphasize, without being asked--Shater included--that they will respect all international agreements."

Above all, Shater, a successful businessman (and at the time Morsi's superior), and the other Muslim Brotherhood leaders indicated that they wanted to make Egypt prosperous, and to accomplish this they would have to compromise their dreams of immediately installing a narrow form of sharia, or religious rule, as the law of the land.

When he was elected president, Morsi met those promises part of the way, especially by not breaching the Egypt-Israel peace treaty (although the Brotherhood does not officially recognize Israel). Morsi even enjoyed a brief interlude of international acclaim when he brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in 2012. But the new Egyptian president seemed to think that he could pretty much have his way domestically, forcing through an unpopular sharia-inspired constitution, appointing fellow Muslim Brothers to key ministries, sacking generals and above all failing to understand the needs of a modern economy. And, unfortunately, the Obama administration may have encouraged that view, with what amounted to a mostly hands-off policy toward Egypt's internal politics, at least until recently.

The results are now in. On the eve of July 4, secular Egyptian protesters have achieved something like their own Declaration of Independence against the threat of Islamist takeover. With a desperate Morsi rocked by protests even larger than those that toppled Mubarak--one state-run outlet is reporting that the Egyptian military has already ousted him from office--some lessons are already apparent. Once again, an Islamist political party in charge has failed the simple test of finding its way into the modern world. Ideology trumped reality in an era when the reality of the global economy demands fast integration, openness, and adherence to basic economic principles. So we have already seen in Iran since the Islamist revolution of 1979, with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and even to a degree in Turkey where Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's more mildly Islamist party has found itself confronted with angry and violent street protests (despite the very different political history that brought Erdogan to power).

But the lesson of Egypt, which for centuries has been considered the cultural and historical center of the Arab world, is perhaps the starkest of all.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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