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How Egypt's military coup could strengthen the Muslim Brotherhood

Egyptians had every reason to greet the political demise of the Muslim Brotherhood with relief. During its year in office under President Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party confirmed the worst fears of its opponents: Its government was economically incompetent, sexually discriminatory, tolerant of violence against minorities, anti-Semitic, censorious, inarticulate and increasingly autocratic. Another year, and it would certainly have been worse.

But is this really the decline of Islamist politics in Egypt? It could be the opposite. By pushing Mr. Morsi from office in a crowd-supported military coup, Egypt has rid itself of a terrible government. But it also may have strengthened the hand of Islamists and bolstered their popular support by handing them a political martyrdom: Instead of suffering a humiliating electoral defeat, which would have shown the world that political Islam had failed in its heartland, the Brotherhood can claim to have been a victim, driven out by infidels.

And the Islamists who formed Egypt's first democratically elected government can now claim to be on the side of democracy, while their more secular opponents have resorted to a strictly non-democratic military ouster to claim victory. This, too, could boost support across the region.

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While Islamist parties have won elections in post-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia, they do not have overwhelming support. In parliaments in both countries, they govern only through awkward coalitions (though Egypt's parliament was dissolved last year by court order); their victories have come from voters alienated by the failings and dictatorial histories of more secular parties, rather than from majority belief in their strict religious ideologies. Electoral defeat would be likely to reduce their support to marginal levels; this ouster places them in the spotlight, and might make them more aggressive.

That was the reaction from Islamist leaders across the region. Tunisia's ruling Ennahda party denounced Egypt's "coup against legitimacy" and warned, darkly, that "this coup will fuel violence and extremism."

The Brotherhood could return to another, perhaps even stronger victory in the elections the Egyptian military has pledged to hold – especially because the opposition appears divided, disorganized and lacking an identifiable leader. Mr. Morsi's bumbling, embarrassing leadership may have discredited the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party, but it is just as likely that the coup will have galvanized devout Egyptians behind the party.

Worse, as the Tunisian warning about extremism suggested, the coup could convince Islamists in Egypt and elsewhere that political parties are pointless and that violent jihad is the only route to success (which is what happened when the Brotherhood was driven underground in the 1970s, its disgruntled backers spawning such organizations as al-Qaeda).

That lesson has already been taken by some. The leaders of al-Shabaab, the Somali militant-Islamist group known for its terror attacks, responded to the Egyptian coup on Thursday morning by denouncing democracy.

"It's time to remove those rose-tinted spectacles and see the world as accurately as it is, change comes by the bullet alone; NOT by the ballot," the group wrote on its Twitter account, according to Reuters.

The al-Shabaab leaders added that the Muslim Brotherhood "should perhaps learn a little from the lessons of history and those 'democratically elected' before them in Algeria [where an Islamist electoral victory led to a brutal military crackdown] or even Hamas [whose election in Gaza led to a boycott by world governments]. … When will the Muslim Brotherhood wake up from their deep slumber and realize the futility of their efforts at instituting change?"

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Egypt's transitional president, constitutional-court judge Adly Mansour, has pledged that the Brotherhood will be allowed to participate in democracy when it is restored.

But so far, the Muslim Brotherhood has refused to take him up on the offer. One of its senior executives, Sheikh Abel Rahman al-Barr, issued a harsh rejection on Thursday: "We reject participation in any work with the usurper authorities." If the "popular coup" was meant to reduce the threat of Islamist excess, it may have provoked the opposite.

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