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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

What to Make of Egypt's Protest Movement ?

In their COMMENTARY piece, ' Egypt's Islamists: A Cautionary Tale ', Hillel Fradkin and Lewis Libby read much signficance into the following incident. On February 18, 2011,when crowds gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to celebrate Hosni Mubarak's ouster, the Muslim Brotherhood denied Wael Ghonim--" the young Google executive whose secret work on Facebook and elsewhere on the Web had been so crucial to organizing the protests "--a chance to speak. Instead they brought to the podium Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a prominent Egyptian exile who had no role in the protests but represents " the chief ideologue and spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood worldwide." 

What exactly does that portend for the the future of Egypt, and the Egyptian-Israeli relations ?  Not much good,  say Fradkin and Libby :
It is true that senior leaders of the Brotherhood were not members of the committee of youth who first organized the protests. But that committee included a leader of the youth arm of the Brotherhood, so the senior leadership knew what was happening. Other members of the youth committee, moreover, included the Brotherhood precisely because they believed they might need their ranks swelled by Brotherhood members. The Brotherhood supplied that need on the first occasion that suited its own institutional requirements: January 28, the first Friday of the revolt. The weekly Friday prayers permitted the Brotherhood to mass its forces easily in the mosques and with the protective cover of religious duty. Large groups of people who emerged from the mosques were led to Tahrir Square under the supervision of Brotherhood monitors. This pattern was repeated on all subsequent Fridays, and the Brotherhood declined to participate in a mass demonstration in March that did not fall on a Friday.

None of this suggests that the Brotherhood had simply a subordinate role in the Egyptian events. But it does exemplify the Brotherhood’s characteristic caution. When Mubarak was still on the scene, and even following his fall with the military in charge, there was—and there still is—a substantial risk in being too conspicuous.

Nor should one take too much comfort from the analyses that say that the Brotherhood has the support of only about a quarter of the electorate. That is a shaky estimate and may be too low. To get that 20-30 percent number, analysts are relying on the results of that 2005 election, but given the extent to which those elections were limited, controlled, and stolen, those results may well understate the degree to which the ordinary Egyptian is in sympathy with the Brotherhood. Indeed, some polls show that a high percentage of the public holds extreme views on key issues, views that should make Brotherhood candidates attractive to them. In truth, we do not know reliably what the Brotherhood’s strength might be, and the Brotherhood may not either. Only the senior Brotherhood leadership is privy to their strategy going forward. Indeed, that strategy is necessarily a work in progress, since they, like all Egyptians, cannot foresee how events will unfold or what crises or turning points might lie ahead. Thus it has ever been in revolutions, and the Brotherhood has been through several.

Westerners have little cause for comfort in the pronouncements of the Brotherhood that it is attracted to the “Turkish model.” That may seem like a course we can welcome, given that the Brotherhood has also praised the bravery of Iran’s leaders and their model for governance. But Turkey should give us pause. Yes, Turkey’s Islamist AKP was democratically elected, then re-elected, and may win yet a third term this spring. But its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, knows to play his own cautious game, skillfully using state power to weaken the army and other institutions, like the press and judiciary, whose independence could check his ambitions. The Turkish model is characterized by growing authoritarianism through intimidation, questionable detentions of opponents, and diversion of public assets to friendly hands. That may be more congenial than the “Iranian model,” but that ought to be cold comfort, given the speed with which Erdogan is effecting Islamist changes in what was the most secular country in the Muslim world [emphasis mine].

Indeed, perhaps what the Brotherhood likes most of all about the AKP’s success in Turkey is the way it has succeeded in bringing that country’s formerly powerful, secular military to heel. That might be the “Turkish model” it really seeks to pursue in Egypt.

The Brotherhood might also want to bide its time when it comes to taking power. For whenever the newly elected civilian government comes to power in Egypt, it may not be able to wield broad powers to effect change, either because the Egyptian military (acting with caution) might act to limit them or because too many parties will win seats and governing authority will be diffuse. The result could be a first government too fractious or enfeebled to tackle Egypt’s enormous problems. Indeed, if the history of Central Europe in the 1990s is any guide, even empowered governments with international support will probably be unable to satisfy the pent-up demands of a long-suffering public, especially one unused to democratic ways.

Those who attempt to take on the overwhelming job of governing the country in this atmosphere face the specter of a body politic that comes to view them with hostility and contempt. If the Brotherhood is among the governing number, it might find itself on the knife’s edge. The roiling dissatisfaction created by these circumstances might produce calls for a national savior to redeem the revolution. That savior might arise from the military’s ranks, or be the military itself. In that event, the Brotherhood might find itself suppressed yet again, its goal of a wholly Islamic society defeated once more.

Thus the Brotherhood has good reason not to seek a majority too soon. It might serve its own purposes best by taking a role as a junior partner in the new government, with particular interest in certain ministries like education or social services that it can use to make the case that the Brotherhood is the only force in Egypt working to provide a better life for the people.

In his sermon, Qaradawi celebrated the demise of Mubarak—the Pharaoh, the Koranic exemplar of tyranny—and urged the consolidation of that victory. But in so doing, he darkly warned of the “hypocrites,” a Koranic term denoting those who apparently supported Muhammad’s “revolution” but secretly conspired against it. It was not obvious who such hypocrites might be. Were they the remnants of Mubarak’s regime, or people like Wael Ghonim, who ostensibly had been comrades in arms but might resist an Islamic state?

Qaradawi was not there simply to celebrate the new Egypt and the new national agenda of “reform and rights” for “all Egyptians,” as el-Errian had put it. Rather, he urged his audience to look beyond Egypt and its reform not as Egyptians but as Muslims and Muslim Brothers. He offered an impassioned “message to our brothers in Palestine.” “I have hope,” he declared, “that Almighty Allah, as I have been pleased with the victory in Egypt, that he will also please me with the conquest of the Al-Aqsa Mosque [in Jerusalem].