Some have argued plausibly enough that recent events in Egypt could be described as a conflict between secular and Islamist forces. The military has been portrayed as a defender of secularism, while the Muslim Brotherhood is depicted as the vanguard of Islamist movements. This argumentation, in spite of holding an element of truth, is a-historical and offers a narrow view of the events in Egypt. It also falls into the trap of unconsciously confirming the rhetoric of the military, as the defender of the secular state, ignoring the history of the military’s use of a certain brand of Islamism to consolidate its grip on power. If one looks at the evolution of Islamism in Egyptian society, one can convincingly argue that this process started as a top down process rather than the other way around, and that a certain brand of Islamism has been prompted by the military to stifle dissent and to create an aura of legitimacy for the regime.
A brief historical overview is in order. The top-down process of Islamization of society started with President Sadat, when the defeat in 1967 inflicted a fatal blow to the ideological base of the regime, namely Arab nationalism and socialism. For the military to remain in power, this ideological vacuum had to be filled with a political ideology that would ensure the continuation of the current regime, while crowding out opposition from the Nasserist and the Egyptian left. The selected ideology needed a carrier that would be able to infiltrate all aspects of civil society, with active government support, maintaining ideological domination over the masses. The chosen carrier in this case was the Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist group that craved the role of an illiberal opposition: a role that happened to be essential for the survival of the regime during the turbulent 1970s. This was the essence of the bargain between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood that persisted in one form or another until the military coup in 2013.
Sadat attempted to create an image for himself as the “Pious President”, an image he tried to preserve until his death. This is best exemplified in the writing of the 1971 constitution where the principals of Sharia were introduced as the main source of legislation. Most importantly, this was followed with the opening up of civil society to Islamist forces, while clamping down on the then powerful Egyptian left. A drastic reduction of the welfare functions of the state ensued, to be slowly replaced by Islamist organizations. The process of replacement allowed the state to re-trench, while absorbing possible dissent by providing welfare services through charity networks,thereby giving the regime room to maneuver and move away from its populist Nasserist legacy. Constructing the ideological base of domination which was the Islamization of society was a process initiated by the military itself.
At the same time, the regime incited a dangerous sectarianism, turning a blind eye to crimes committed against the Coptic population of Egypt. This is a policy that was aimed at coopting the Coptic minority into supporting the regime. The regime posed as their protector with the goal of scaring the secular middle class into supporting them, by playing on their fear of the supposed “Islamist threat”.
The question is, why did the military cooperate with the Brotherhood? Why this particular brand of Islamism? The Brotherhood has had a long history of cooperation with the state in Egypt, against successive hostile nationalist movements. One of the most famous examples is their cooperation with the King against the Wafd party, which articulated the aspirations of the Egyptian nationalist movement during the 1930s. When Nasser came to power, the Brotherhood believed that they had sufficient political clout to directly confront and eliminate him; however the outcome was disastrous. Direct confrontation, they discovered, was too costly. The Brotherhood became non-confrontational by nature, a conservative mass movement willing to work within the confines of the present political system. They were also willing to come to terms with the military in exchange for gains in civil society.
The Brotherhood now attempted to come to power through an iterative gradual process; eliminating rivals from the left during the process. In essence, they can be described as anti-revolutionary, as is the brand of Islamism they promote. This contrasts,for example, with the explosive brand of Islamism promoted by Khomeini. The Brotherhood embraces a brand of conservative Islamism which prohibits revolutionary activity and praises obedience to the ruler and stability. All of the above made the Brotherhood the objective ally of the military and their natural arm in civil society.
Based on the above, is what we are currently looking at a confrontation between a secular military and the Islamist Brotherhood? Look closer and you will notice that this military has been using Islamist language to attack the Brotherhood, deploying Al-Azhar to legitimize their actions and positioning themselves carefully as a bastion of moderation, against the supposed extremism of the Brotherhood. More importantly, the military has been using Islamist language to boost their legitimacy and build a halo of religious piety around its actions, e.g. the military has been using a hadith attributed to the prophet where he is claimed to have said that the “The Egyptians are the best soldiers on Earth”, to claim legitimacy. El Sisi gave an interview to Al Masry Al Youm where he says that his role model is the Prophet. Taken together, there is a clear attempt to build the image of the “Pious leader”, (whether he will be president or not, the next few months will tell).
So it is the case that the current confrontation is not along secularist/Islamist faultlines. Rather, it is a confrontation between the deep state and an old ally who has served their purpose. The Brotherhood, unwittingly, allowed the overt return of the Egyptian military to the political scene, and has given the military the chance to rebrand itself, after the losses in credibility that it suffered during the first transitional period. Both political forces have used religion whenever convenient to create a halo of legitimacy for themselves and to counter the weight of nationalist forces. The Egyptian military is not a force for secularism in Egyptian politics, on the contrary, it was the first to re-introduce religion into politics after the collapse of Arab nationalism. It will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. In the end, both factions are different shades of Islamist.