When Egyptians, fed up with corruption, dictatorship, and lousy government, pushed President Hosni Mubarak out the door, some worried whether the burst of enthusiasm for free, open elections and democracy would be squelched by Islamist groups like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. History teaches that the real question isn’t who starts revolution, but who wins it. What begins as a quest for democracy can produce a new dictatorship.
Lenin's Bolsheviks wasted no time in launching the October 1917 revolution that led to a communist takeover after a left-center Provisional Government deposed Tsar Nicholas II. Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is remembered in the West mainly as an anti-American Islamist zealot. He was that, but he was also a brilliant politician who forged a broad coalition of secular and religious leaders, many of whom favored democracy, to overthrow the Shah in 1979. In Egypt, Sayyid Qutb – a leading theologian of the Muslim Brotherhood – advocated the formation of a revolutionary vanguard that could fight by any means necessary to establish a State governed by his interpretation of the Qur’an. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood remains the best organized force in Egypt besides the army.
One recognizes the concerns for Egypt’s direction. But there is more reason for optimism than gloom. It took the Army to give Mubarak his final shove. But the courageous demonstrators who took over Tahrir Square were organized by a collection of younger, well-educated secularists, pro-labor, pro-democracy forces who will fight any effort to replace the old tyranny with a new one. Ahmed Maher, the 28-year-old civil engineer and leader of the April 6 Movement and his colleagues have shown stiff spines in standing up to repressive authority since organizing support for a workers’ strike in 2008. Working with another group, We Are All Khaled Said, they joined forces with younger members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Nobel Prize winner El Baradei’s National Association for Change, political leaders like Abu Moussa and Ayman Nour, and other opposition parties like the Wafd to force change.
Having triumphed, they are not waiting for others to dictate what happens next. Demonstrators returning to Tahrir Square are sending a powerful message. They want free and open elections that decide who leads a new government. They will settle for nothing less. The Muslim Brotherhood may be better organized for now. But elections are at least six months off. Maher and his allies have shown a strong ability to organize and mobilize. They have enough time. They can mount effective campaigns. They will win seats and the next President seems likely to be both secularist and pro-democracy.
For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood has said it will not run a candidate for President and its goal is to win no more than 30% of the seats in a new parliament. If successful, that would provide influence, but not control. It is divided into factions. There are hard-liners. But younger members seem to favor a pluralistic political culture that brings real change, hope, and opportunity. In any event, the Egyptian army still holds the decisive power. Don’t expect it to countenance efforts to establish an Islamic Republic. It doesn’t want one and it knows that most Egyptians don’t want one.
Notice should also be taken of the regional implications. These affect Egypt’s neighbors and our strong ally Israel. One thing the upheavals have in common is a desire to emulate the kind of open politics that Israel enjoys, even if some hesitate to say so directly. Some worry what the changes will mean for Tel Aviv. Politics in this region rarely proceeds smoothly. There will be uncertainty. Still, Egypt’s move towards open government offers the opportunity for Israel and Egypt to forge a solid, sustainable peace, rather than the cold peace they have had for too long. Political leaders in both nations remain wary of one another, but their mutual interests suggest little prospect that either would back away from peaceful relations. Real democracy in Egypt can only enhance that outcome.
Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.