Egypt's unusual tryst with radical Islam
by Stephen Schwartz
The global Islamic community is approaching a dangerous crossroads in Egypt. While few Egyptians or foreigners will openly defend the continuation of rule by Hosni Mubarak and the Egyptian army, the vaunted "transition" to democracy in one of the world's oldest civilizations is more spectacle than reality.
An Egypt without Mubarak at the helm remains an Egypt ruled by its military, as it has been ruled since the Free Officers movement took power in 1952. Mubarak, his assassinated predecessor Anwar Sadat, and their mentor Gamal Abd Al-Nasir were military dictators, rather than civilian politicians.
In a wide band of countries throughout the "developing world" – but with special prominence in Latin America, Turkey, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, and Pakistan – the military apparatus has substituted itself historically for modern civil institutions. The army in such countries does not support one or another political party, but functions as an "army-party." The "army-party" is not a political party covering military rule or devoted to a militarist ideology. It is the military institution acting as a political force. Yet it is not a political factor, like military establishments in some other lands, but a national arbiter. Where political parties act on its behalf, they are artificial. Its most characteristic modern examples appear on both the right and the left: Spain under Franco and Castroite Cuba – which, as long as Franco was alive, maintained excellent relations.
In the absence of Mubarak, the military will most likely take control of Egypt. This is the third, and strangely unacknowledged, alternative for future politics in the country. Many foreign commentators wish to consign Egypt to a choice between Mubarak's neo-Pharaonic pretensions, including the visible attempt to appoint his son Gamal as his successor, and the Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood (MB).
In addition, a considerable element of foreign opinion, including among U.S. and European elites, have made it their business to ameliorate the radical image of the Brotherhood. That Hamas, which has imposed an open, terroristic dictatorship in Gaza, is the local arm of the Brotherhood is deemed irrelevant. The history of the Brotherhood is being rewritten to argue that, in effect, it was never really as extreme as its critics say. That the Brotherhood, which claims the mantle of Sunnism, inspired the most important violent Islamist current to emerge in Shia Iran during the 1950s, the Fadaiyan-i Islam or Partisans of Islam, is unknown to Western "experts." That Brotherhood publicist and popularizer Sayyid Qutb (1906-66), an Egyptian, is treated by the followers of the Khomeinist clerical state as a "martyr of Islam" is equally obscure. That fundamentalist preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian by birth but resident in Qatar, has injected himself into the anti-Mubarak discourse is ignored.
Put plainly, the Obama administration and its European counterparts have adopted a benign view of the Brotherhood as the beneficiary of the Egyptian people's trust, which has been betrayed unarguably by Mubarak and his cohort.
For the world's Muslims, the mass protests in Iran in 2009, after the falsification of electoral results by the clerical regime and the dictator, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, represented positive developments. We may add to them Saudi measures for social reform and disestablishment of the Wahhabi clerics as state religious guides, and the inconsistent struggle of Pakistan's traditional Muslims and secular citizens against Talibanisation of their country. In all these situations, the majority of the people have expressed their opposition to Islamist ideological domination.
But the events centered in Egypt are proceeding differently. The immense collective repudiation of Mubarak does not carry with it a vision that would discourage, much less prevent, the accession of the Brotherhood to power. Brotherhood representatives speak evasively and ambiguously, here declaring their lack of interest in leading the mass protests, but there assuming a prominent role in them. The protesting masses appear as blind folk groping in the darkness for a solution. Among them, there is no party representing business, no movement based in labour unions, no organization with a credible program to define the democracy Egyptians seek.
The absence of political division may seem, to participants in euphoric crowds, a libertarian virtue of the revolutionary moment. But in political history, differentiation is more than necessary; it is crucial. If the Egyptian people, rather than the military, are to choose a new road, they must know where it leads in practical terms. They must make distinctions and not confuse them.
The movement toward democracy in the Islamic global community may become diverted by the politics of Egypt, a society still dominated by corrupt interests, and in which a political void may open in which the Brotherhood will impose itself. The lessons of Iran may be forgotten, the new phase of Saudi governance may be reversed, and the drive to genuinely reform Pakistan may be halted.
Democracy has historically succeeded in countries with well-established business and professional classes. Entrepreneurs and intellectuals, as well as, in many Muslim countries, spiritual Sufis and other opponents of ideologized religion, reach a point where they are no longer willing to satisfy the demands of the ruling stratum. These requirements of the privileged may involve a share in business profits (as in Tunisia) or control over the public square – symbolized in Egypt by Liberation Square in Cairo, which has attracted thousands of demonstrators. Iran and Saudi Arabia possess stable, educated elites capable of leading their fellow-citizens to an order based on firm accountability and popular sovereignty. Although non-Muslim in its majority, India is a country where business and professionals have achieved a maturity protective of a still-evolving but secure democracy. But the chaotic nature of the Egyptian uprising illustrates the lack of such organs in the country's social anatomy.
In past revolutions, the end of the old order came about through the combination of three factors. First, the rulers could no longer govern in their traditional manner. Second, the people were unwilling to live in the old way. Yet aside from personal distaste for Mubarak, it is uncertain how clearly the Egyptian protestors envision the change in state policies they appear to desire. Egypt is an ancient society in which despotism and corruption have never been effectively challenged. To say "Mubarak, leave!" is easy. But to prepare a thorough cleansing of Egypt's social structure is almost inconceivable. This may explain why the Egyptian demonstrations have focused exclusively on Mubarak's own personality, and have yet to produce coherent social demands.
The third factor present in the historical revolutionary paradigm involved the military and police – the state's bodies of armed personnel. Revolutionary victory was assured either by the military siding with the revolutionaries or by a division in military ranks that would make its further use as a repressive force impossible. In countries with an "army-party," however, the military removes decisions about the future from the hands of the former rulers and the insurrectionary populace alike.
The outcome in Egypt will not determine the fate of democracy in the Muslim countries. But it remains of concern to every Muslim, if not every human being, in the world. The despotism so flagrantly displayed in Egypt exemplifies a style of governance that is not intrinsic to Islam, which in its foundations is egalitarian. But despotism was assimilated into Islamic politics beginning with the conquest of Byzantine Damascus in the generation immediately after the life of the Prophet Muhammad. With the subjugation of Egypt, the tendency toward authoritarian statism was profoundly reinforced in Islamic societies. The marchers for democracy in Iran and bloggers and other social critics in Saudi Arabia are bent on throwing off the despotic heritage shared by so many Islamic countries. If, in the name of democracy, Egypt is delivered over to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Muslim march toward democracy is halted, the judgment of history will be unforgiving.