The toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood power in Egypt by the army is an event of historic importance. It is important chiefly because it represents an enormous setback in a process which only a few months ago looked inexorable and unstoppable. That process was the replacement of the military-republic regimes in the Arab world by new regimes based on Sunni Islamism, with franchises of the Muslim Brotherhood most prominent among them.
The setback suffered by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was preceded by an earlier rallying of one of their chief enemies. In the course of this year, the Assad regime in Syria succeeded in reversing rebel gains and ending the threat to Damascus.
Since then, Assad’s forces, assisted by Hizballah and advised by Iran, have been turning the Sunni Islamist rebels back in the west of the country. They have consolidated the area of regime control in the west, the capital, and the communication links between them. The regime is now in the process of brutally crushing remaining rebel-held areas in the city of Homs.
The regimes that have fallen as a result of the “Arab Spring” agitation have so far been of a single type: namely, the nationalist-military regime type patented by Colonel Gamal Abd el-Nasir and his friends in Egypt in 1952. In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, regimes of this type fell in the course of 2011-12. The Syrian version held on because of its alliance with Iran (in contrast to all others on the list, who were either aligned with the U.S. or isolated and friendless).
Syria’s membership in a regional bloc which understands the importance of standing by friends and clients was the key factor in enabling Assad to escape the fate of his fellow nationalist dictators. Two other superannuated representatives of Arab nationalism also managed to stay in business: Algeria and the West Bank Palestinian Authority. There were clear reasons in each case. Algeria had dealt with an early version of the Arab Spring, when the military intervened to crush the Islamist FIS movement in 1991, after the latter achieved victory in elections.
In the case of the nationalist Fatah-controlled PA, survival was assured because of the presence of a military force capable of crushing any Islamist attempt to seize power. That military force, with the irony that history favors, is the armed force of the state which Fatah came into being to destroy. It is the Israel Defense Forces.
But despite these exceptions, the general direction of events looked clear — namely, the onward march of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Not any more. In Egypt, faced with impending anarchy, the old regime acted. The Muslim Brothers were removed. Notably, among the first to congratulate General Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi were President Bashar Assad of Syria and PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas. Both understood very well the significance of the Brotherhood’s eclipse in Egypt for their own battles with its local representatives.