Middle East

Egypt crisis: A dangerous moment for the Middle East

Crowds celebrating Mr Morsi's removal from power in Tahrir Square (4 July 2013)

The ousting of Egypt's President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood after just one year in power may have been greeted with euphoria by their opponents, but the celebrations are likely to be short-lived. This is a dangerous moment, not just for Egypt but for the wider Middle East.

Deposing a democratically elected Islamist leader and suspending the constitution will be interpreted by many political Islamists as sending a blunt message: it doesn't necessarily pay to choose the ballot over the bullet.

There is a terrifying precedent here, in Algeria. In 1991 the Islamist party FIS won the first round of elections. Days later the president, under pressure from the secular military, dissolved parliament and annulled the elections.

Algeria's Islamist movement went underground and there followed a decade of insurgency in which more than 150,000 people lost their lives.

Remnants of that insurgency live on in the Sahara today, smuggling, extorting ransoms, and kidnapping and killing hostages.

'Very dangerous situation'

Egypt is the birthplace of political Islam, a movement which had its roots in anti-colonial nationalism in the early 20th century and which saw the intellectual godfather of the movement, Sayyid Qutb, tortured in prison by the military government of Colonel Nasser and eventually killed in 1966.

Ever since, there has been an ongoing debate in certain circles of political Islam over whether it is worth bothering to bid for power legitimately through the ballot box, or whether opposing secular rulers through violence and seizing power - as advocated by jihadist groups - is the only practical option.

When the Arab Spring protest movement overthrew the corrupt and discredited government of Egypt's President Mubarak in 2011, and elections replaced it with the Muslim Brotherhood, this was a serious blow to al-Qaeda and the jihadists. It showed the world there was a future for political Islam through peaceful, democratic means.

Image caption Mr Morsi was Egypt's first freely elected leader

Events in Cairo this week now risk undermining that logic.

"There is a fear for the future," says Muna Al-Qazzaz, UK spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood.

"One of our major fears (in the Muslim Brotherhood) is that people will take matters into their own hands. Millions voted for Morsi. We thought it was democracy. But we are now in a very dangerous situation."

Analysts at the US-based Stratfor Global Intelligence group agree.

While they doubt that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood itself will abandon the path of democratic politics, they predict: "Morsi's ouster will lead elements from more ultraconservative Salafist groups to abandon mainstream politics in favour of armed conflict."

Stratfor also points to a wider, transnational impact, stating: "The overthrow of Egypt's moderate Islamist government undermines the international efforts to bring radical Islamists into the political mainstream in the wider Arab and Muslim world. Ultimately, within the context of Egypt, Morsi's ouster sets a precedent where future presidents can expect to be removed from office by the military in the event of pressure from the masses… It does not bode well for the future stability of Egypt."

Potential trigger

It is worth remembering that the Egyptian authorities fought a long, existential campaign to defeat a violent jihadist campaign to overthrow the government.

In 1981 jihadists assassinated President Sadat, and Vice President Mubarak only survived because a hand grenade that landed close to him failed to explode.

Throughout the second half of the 1990s there were constant clashes between police and jihadists, and in 1997 Egyptian jihadists murdered 58 tourists at Luxor's temples.

The current leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, is Egyptian, and it was he who "radicalised" Osama Bin Laden in the 1990s, getting him to expand his horizons beyond his personal animosity towards the presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia and to embrace a more global jihadist agenda.

Today hundreds of Egyptian jihadists have gone to Syria to join Islamist rebels fighting President Assad's forces, while at home in the Egyptian Sinai jihadist groups have taken advantage of the chaos of the Arab Spring to build up their arsenals, their numbers and their power.

So if Egypt's more extreme proponents of an Islamic government do decide that violence is now their only option, then the events of this week could later come to be viewed as something of a trigger.

You can follow Frank on Twitter @FrankRGardner