Islamist Power Struggle Behind Egypt’s Embassy Riots

Radical Islamist groups are forcing the ruling Muslim Brotherhood to pick sides.

Quiet appeared to have returned to the streets of Cairo, Egypt on Monday after nearly a week of unrest that was allegedly sparked by an American anti-Islam film. However, the fierce embassy protests may also have been part of a political struggle in the country between the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and more radical Islamist groups.

The American Interest‘s Walter Russell Mead pointed out on Friday that the riots forced Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, to side with the United States, “however slowly or reluctantly. That’s a win for the radicals who want to tar the Muslim Brotherhood as soft appeasers who side with the Americans against their own outraged people.”

Reporting from Cairo for Time magazine, Ashraf Khalil similarly points out that ultraconservative Salafist Muslims “started this fight when — bolstered by several inflammatory television sheikhs — they marshaled a large protest outside the embassy gates on Tuesday evening, coinciding with the anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States.” Although he believes the Islamists almost immediately lost control of the demonstration which was overtaken by widespread anti-Americanism.

Morsi was reluctant to take on the agitators, writes Khalil, for fear of “opening himself up to accusations of being weak in his defense of the Prophet Muhammad’s reputation.” But he badly miscalculated. When President Barack Obama said in a television interview that he considered Egypt neither an ally nor enemy, “it was an immediate wake-up call.”

Within hours, Morsi was giving televised speeches saying disrespect for any embassy grounds in Egypt was unacceptable and powerful Muslim Brotherhood deputy chief Khairat al-Shater wrote a letter to The New York Times, calling the embassy breach “illegal under international law” and generally saying all the things Morsi should have said a day earlier.

In a nation that is rife with anti-Americanism and pious Muslims who honestly don’t understand why the United States government can’t simply ban the film that so offended them, the Muslim Brotherhood’s denunciation of the violence, however halfhearted, weakens the ruling party in favor of hardline groups that want to sever ties with the Americans altogether, whatever the consequences.

Morsi’s government needs American and international financial support to sustain the country’s generous food and fuel subsidies which Egypt’s poor rely upon. The country runs a $3 billion monthly trade deficit. Among its top import products are fuels, foodstuffs and cereals. Direct sources of income, including foreign investment and tourism, have dried up in the wake of last year’s political unrest which saw the toppling of longtime president Hosni Mubarak. Unemployment is rising. Nearly one in four Egyptians between the ages of eighteen and 29 is out of work.

Constant turmoil, writes Mead, will further “reduce the popularity of the government, much to the benefit of the radicals who hope to replace it.” So while opposition groups have an incentive to foment more unrest in the future, the Muslim Brotherhood oscillates between maintaining close ties with the Americans — who also provide military aid while the Egyptian army is campaigning against bedouin insurgents in Sinai — and appeasing its domestic base which is easily stirred to protest by fanatics.