CAIRO – Egypt was the centerpiece of the Islamist movement's vault to power in the Arab world's sweeping wave of uprisings. Winning election after election here, the Islamists vowed to prove they could govern effectively and implement their vision of political Islam, all while embracing the rules of democracy.
Mohammed Morsi was their pillar: the veteran of the Muslim Brotherhood, the region's oldest and most prestigious political Islamist group, who became Egypt's first freely elected president.
That is what makes his ouster after barely a year in office, with a gigantic cross-section of Egypt's population demanding he go, such a devastating blow to Islamists on multiple levels, not only in Egypt but across a tumultuous region.
Morsi, his Brotherhood and their harder-line allies say they played by the rules of democracy, only to be forced out by opponents who could not play it as well as them at the ballot box and so turned to the military for help. The lesson that the Islamists' extreme fringe may draw: Democracy, which many of them viewed as "kufr" or heresy to begin with, is rigged and violence is the only way to bring their dream of an Islamic state.
But to the millions of Egyptians who marched in the street against Morsi, the Islamists failed at democracy: They overreached.
The protesters became convinced the Islamists were using wins at the polls to centralize power in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood far beyond their mandate and treat the country as if it accepted the "Islamist project." Even worse, for many of the protesters, the Islamists simply were not fixing Egypt's multiple and worsening woes.
That is a serious setback for their dreams, calling into doubt the argument by Islamists across the region that political Islam is the remedy to their society's ills. The damage to their prestige echoes widely, from Gaza where the Hamas rulers who saw in Morsi a strong ally, to Tunisia where a Brotherhood branch holds power, to Libya and Syria where Islamists push for power.
"The Brotherhood in Egypt is now a cautionary tale," said Michael W. Hanna of the Century Foundation in New York. "Morsi's abysmal performance during their short tenure is a tale of how not to guide and rule."
The irony is, the Brotherhood knew the risks going in. After the 2011 fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, the group vowed not to try to dominate parliament and not to run a candidate for president, knowing the backlash if it seemed to be grabbing power or if it led a government that failed to fix a broken Egypt. It went back on each of those promises, every time saying its hand was forced into doing so.
Morsi himself recognized the power of the street as he vowed to be a president for all the people. The day before his formal inauguration on June 30, 2012, he first delivered a symbolic oath of office in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the revolt that overthrew his autocratic predecessor.
"You are the source of power and legitimacy," he told the crowd. Nothing stands above "the will of the people. The nation is the source of all power. It grants and withdraws power."
In the broad range of the political Islam movement — from moderates to militants — the Brotherhood eventually emerged as the central force arguing that Islamists can be democrats. Their influence drew in harder-line groups to participate at the ballot box. Ultraconservatives who once refused elections that could potentially bring any law but God's law took their chance at the polls.
In an impassioned Facebook post just before the army pushed Morsi out Wednesday, one of his top advisers Essam el-Haddad argued that what was happening was irrevocably damaging democracy itself, saying the Brotherhood had been unfairly treated. He insisted history would show the Brotherhood tried to include others in its administration but was shunned.
"Increasingly, the so-called liberals of Egypt escalated a rhetoric inviting the military to become the custodians of government in Egypt," he wrote. "The opposition has steadfastly declined every option that entails a return to the ballot box."
But amid multiple complaints, opponents point to a key factor that turned many against the Brotherhood: the post-Mubarak constitution. Morsi had vowed a consensus on the landmark document, but Islamists dominated the panel writing it. Liberals, leftists, secular politicians and Christians steadily dropped out, complaining Morsi's allies were forcing their vision. In the end, Morsi unilaterally decreed himself and the assembly untouchable by the courts to ensure judges did not dissolve the panel, while Islamists hastily finished writing the charter in an all-night marathon session.
It was rushed to a referendum, where it passed with a hearty 63 percent of the vote — but only just over 32 percent of the electorate casting ballots.
Meanwhile, Brotherhood members and other Islamists were steadily were given more posts across the government, fueling a perception that they were taking over institutions — though they constantly faced resistance on many fronts from the entrenched bureaucracy. Islamist rhetoric from officials and clerics on TV rang in the ears of many as divisive and harsh.
Morsi's ouster could now send the Brotherhood into disarray for years to come, just as a major crackdown on the group did in 1954. Morsi and many of his advisers have been put under house arrest, and he could face trial for escaping prison during the 2011 uprising. Two top leaders of the group, including the head of its political party Saad el-Katatni, were arrested and at least 30 more were expected to meet the same fate.
The danger now could be that a heavy crackdown will turn into forcibly excluding them from politics once more. The Brotherhood was banned for much of its 83-year existence. But it still maintains a powerful, organized and disciplined network of members nationwide.
"The forceful removal of the nation's first democratically-elected civilian president risks sending a message to Islamists that they have no place in the political order; sowing fears among them that they will suffer yet another bloody crackdown; and thus potentially prompting violent, even desperate resistance by Morsi's followers," the Brussels based International Crisis group warned in a statement.
Hendawi is the AP's chief of bureau in Cairo. Keath is the AP's Middle East enterprise editor. Both have covered the Middle East for the AP for more than a decade.