CAIRO — The military's overthrow of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood's fall from power in Egypt have sent Islamist parties around the region scrambling to preserve gains made in the Middle East and North Africa as a result of the Arab Spring uprisings.
The stunning reversal has instilled caution among some Islamists against pushing their agenda too hard, but it has also strengthened hard-liners long opposed to democracy.
The Arab Spring uprisings boosted Islamist political parties from Morocco to Syria, and nowhere was their victory more complete than the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's domination of parliamentary and presidential elections, which made its repudiation by the people and then the army all the more striking.
Brotherhood offshoots in Tunisia and Syria are struggling to distance themselves from their parent outfit in Egypt, while the secular forces they are struggling against have been emboldened.
"What happens in Egypt has a major impact on the 'children' or branches," said Middle East analyst Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics. "I am not talking about the loss of power, but the setback to the moral argument that the Islamists somehow stand above the fray, are more competent. In fact, one of the lessons we learned is that they are as incompetent, if not more so, than the old authoritarian regimes."
The night the military deposed Morsi, celebrations erupted across the Tunisian capital, with people calling for dissolution of the Islamist-dominated assembly elected in October 2011.
After Egypt, the Islamists' electoral victory in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, was the most impressive. The long-repressed Ennahda Party won more than 40 percent of the seats and rules in a coalition with two other leftist secular parties.
The head of Ennahda, Rachid Ghannouchi, was quick to condemn the overthrow of Morsi as a "flagrant coup" but soon followed up with statements setting his party apart from how the Brotherhood conducted itself in Egypt.
"We have followed a strategy based on consensus, especially between the Islamist and modernist movements, which has saved our country from divisions," he told the Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat on Thursday.
But now Tunisia's diverse opposition of left-wing parties and remnants of the deposed regime have been galvanized and are calling for a new national unity government. There is even a signature-gathering campaign modeled on the Egyptian one that helped mobilize opposition to Morsi in the past few months.
They accuse Ennahda of many of the same failings that brought down Egypt's Brotherhood, including incompetence and an arrogant approach to rule.
North Africa analyst Issandr El Amrani noted that the significance for the region is more than just the triumph of secularists over Islamists in Egypt, but a realignment of the original coalition of the Arab Spring that overthrew dictators like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia.
"It's not just an anti-Islamist shift, but elements of the revolutionary leftists and liberals who had once allied with the Islamists against the old regime now allying with the old regime against the Islamists," he said.
The Brotherhood's fall comes at a delicate time for Tunisia. It not only faces an economic crisis but is also finally coming to the final stages of the difficult process of approving the country's new constitution.
The upheaval in Egypt, however, has also shown Tunisia how much smoother its own rocky transition to democracy has been. Tunisians may opt to let the process run its course and express their feelings about Ennahda in elections that could be held as soon as early next year.
In Syria's conflict, which pits a rebel movement rife with Islamist groups against the regime of President Bashar Assad, the Brotherhood has always played a large role in the attempts to create a leadership in exile.
But following the setback in Egypt, it has have taken a more subdued part. At a meeting in Istanbul this week, its candidate to be the new leader of the opposition's political umbrella group lost by a narrow margin.
The Syrian Brotherhood's spokesman, Zuhair Salem, warned that the overthrow of a democratically elected Islamist leader sends a deeply negative message to other Islamists around the region.
"I've been in the Brotherhood since I was 15 and I used to always preach the value of the election box and democracy, conciliation and partnership. This makes a lie of what I said," he said.
According to Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, Syria's Brotherhood had disagreed with the high-handed approach of its Egyptian counterparts.
"Privately most of them are quite critical about how the Brotherhood handled their year in office," he said. "You hear criticism that they have not managed to build trust and have been too confrontational and they have not turned themselves into a true national force."
Hard-line Islamists who have been among the toughest and most effective fighters in the rebel movement may now be even more resistant to allowing more moderate factions to move to the fore — with an eye on who will hold power in Syria if Assad ever falls.
A jihadist site on Sunday compiled a series of tweets from commanders of extremist groups fighting in Syria saying that the overthrow showed that Islamists would never be allowed to succeed in elections.
"Secularism has shown its ugly face to those who were blind, and the mask of democracy has fallen in the struggle between right and wrong," said Sheik Zahran Alloush, a commander of the Islam Brigade. "As the mujahedeen leaders say, we chose ammunition boxes over ballot boxes."
Extremist groups around the region that have long called democracy un-Islamic and a Western conspiracy were positively gleeful over what they saw as proof that elections were no way to seek power.
In North Africa, al-Qaida's branch issued a statement Thursday saying that Western governments' refusal to condemn the military overthrow of the Brotherhood showed that the only path lies through armed struggle.
"The youth of Egypt should learn that the price for applying principles on the ground is a mountain of body parts and seas of blood, because evil must be killed and not shown mercy," said its spokesman Abu Abdelilah al-Jijeli.
Probably the Islamist party hit hardest by the Brotherhood's fall has been Hamas, in the tiny Gaza Strip next to Egypt's Sinai. Hamas has lost its most important regional ally.
Senior Hamas officials have largely remained silent about the development, especially since the new Egyptian government could easily re-seal their borders, but one Hamas official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject that it was a serious blow.
"It's a setback to Hamas and the Muslim Brothers in the region. People now view the Muslim Brothers in Egypt as losers," he said.
Many countries in the region that have regarded the Brotherhood in Egypt with deep suspicion welcomed its downfall as a vindication of their long-held view that the organization was dangerous and had no business ruling.
Saudi Arabia applauded Morsi's fall. The normally staid official news agency of the United Arab Emirates described its "satisfaction" at the turn of events. The UAE claims groups backed by the Muslim Brotherhood have sought to topple its Western-backed ruling system, and earlier this week 69 people were convicted on coup-plotting charges.
But it was from Damascus that the real crowing could be heard, as Assad told the daily Al-Thawra that "this is the fate of anyone in the world who tries to use religion for political or factional interest."
Most analysts don't see the Brotherhood's setback as the end of political Islam as a force in the region. It remains the most organized political movement in many countries. The ideology has remained relevant despite several military interventions in the past, including Algeria's overturning of elections Islamists were set to win in 1991 and the Palestinian Authority's refusal to recognize a Hamas electoral victory in the West Bank in 2006.
The Egyptian Brotherhood's catastrophic loss of popularity in just a year, however, shows Islamism has a lot to learn when it comes to ruling, said Shaikh of the Brookings Institute.
"As time went on, they have shown themselves as a lot less capable and more ideological in their approach than people would have liked, and this should be a wake-up call," he said.
Associated Press reporters Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan; Diaa Hadid and Zeina Karam in Beirut; Brian Murphy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank; and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.
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