We are witnessing an extraordinary and potentially historic transformation in Egypt and the Arab world. Sparked by the Tunisian pro-democracy movement and toppling of the Ben Ali regime, the rulers of Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Syria are facing popular demands for reform. As the Gallup World Poll, the largest and most systematic poll of the Muslim world representing the voices of a billion Muslims, reported, majorities in most countries, including Egypt, want democratic freedoms.
President Mubarak and other nervous Arab rulers, warn that the choice is between security and stability on the one hand and demands for greater democratization and liberty on the other. Their trump card with Western governments has always been to cast this choice as one between a tried and true ally or an Islamist takeover. Images of the thousands who turned out to meet Rachid Ghannoushi, leader of Tunisia’s banned Ennahda (Renaissance) Movement, on his return from political exile in London and the significant role Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics and society, have raised concerns among Arab and Western governments, Israel and others about the role of religion, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, in a future Egyptian government. Will the departure of Mubarak mean the “threat” of an Islamist takeover, instability and social chaos?
Gallup World Poll polling found that while majorities of Egyptian Muslims believe religion is important to their spiritual lives and to progress, they also want greater democratization, freedoms and the rule of law. In fact those in the region were the most likely to say that greater democracy and attachment to spiritual and moral values would contribute to a brighter future. But, does regime change mean a Muslim Brotherhood takeover?
Since the late 20th century, far from being advocates of religious extremism, the Muslim Brotherhood like other Islamically-oriented candidates and political parties in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia have opted for ballots, not bullets. Among the Brotherhood’s most vigorous critics (and enemies) have been Egyptian militants, including Al-Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiry. For decades the Muslim Brotherhood, though officially illegal, has proven to be the largest and most effective non-violent opposition movement, politically and socially within mainstream Egyptian society. It and other Islamic organizations have provided an effective social service network of schools, medical clinics, and youth camps, an effective alternative an indictment of the government’s inability to deliver. Politically, despite government persistent provocation — harassment, arrest, imprisonment and violence against the Brotherhood, it has remained non-violent. The government regularly arrests Muslim Brothers before presidential and parliamentary elections, detaining them until after elections. Despite lack of access to media and the ability to hold public political rallies etc., the Brotherhood managed to emerge as the most effective opposition in Egypt’s rigged elections. In 2005, it took 20 per cent of parliamentary seats despite official intimidation and limits on its candidates.
But what about the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in this period of political change and in a post-Mubarak Egypt?
Because Egypt’s repressive political context, political parties have remained weak. The National Democratic Party (NDP), founded by Anwar Sadat and then led by Mubarak, has enjoyed uncontested power in state politics. At the same time, the government has controlled the creation and functioning of political parties, the government registers political parties and can and does intervene. The net result is that the Muslim Brotherhood, though technically illegal and not a political party, has been the main opposition movement.
However, the Brotherhood did not initiate nor led the pro-democracy protest. While the Brotherhood, like many others was caught off guard and initially did not as an organization support the protest, members of the Brotherhood have participated in protest demonstrations. The Brotherhood supports El Baradei’s current leadership role and has been invited along with other opposition spokesperson to dialogue with Vice President Omer Suleiman. While the Brotherhood will no doubt continue to have an influential role, in a new more open and pluralistic political climate, they will be one of many potential political players and parties. The Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Ennahada as many other Islamist parties in the past elections, absent other political choices, were the only game in town. They garnered the votes not only of their members and supporters but also of those who wanted to express their opposition or disfavor with the government. Though it has a strong following, its religious conservatism, as witnessed by a 2007 draft political program that proposed setting up an Islamic council to vet laws and banning women and Christians running for president, will not appeal to many other Egyptians.
Though it subsequently backed off the idea of an advisory Islamic council, it will need to be more explicit on issues of the full equality of all citizens, the acceptance of religious and political pluralism, and its understanding of the role of Shariah.
But, what about fears that a post-Mubarak Egypt will become an Iran?
Egypt is not Iran. The Iranian revolution was dubbed an Islamic revolution because of the heavy use of Islamic symbols, slogans, and reliigously legitimate ideology and its leadership and infrastructure, the Ayatollh Khaomeini and the mullah-mosque network. In contrast, Egypt’s pro-democracy popular revolution is not primarily about religion. It is about democracy and the rule of law. What is taking place is not an attempt at an Islamist takeover but a broad based call, supported by secular and religiously minded, young and old, men and women, Muslim and Christian, the poor, middle and upper classes. As their signs, placards, statements and demands demonstrate protesters want Egyptian unity, speak of one Egypt and sing the Egyptian national anthem; they wave Egyptian flags not Islamist placards.
Religious leaders have not been at the forefront of the protest nor publically spoken out and rallied support. If anything prominent religious leaders have been silent or publically not been supportive. However, diverse, they are driven by longstanding political and economic issues and grievances: the lack of democracy, a growing gap between a rich minority and the middle class and poor, rampant corruption, rising food prices, high unemployment levels, and lack of opportunity and a sense of a future for young people.
For too long, Western governments have supported authoritarian regimes and subordinated the desire of peoples in Egypt and many other parts of the Arab world for broader political participation and human rights. As a result, majorities in some 35 Muslim nations surveyed by the Gallup World Poll did not believe that the U.S. was serious about the establishment of democratic systems in the region. Only 24 per cent in Egypt and Jordan and only 16 per cent in Turkey agreed that the United States was serious about establishing democratic systems. As Amb. Richard Haas, a senior State Department official in the George W, Bush administration, noted prior to the invasion of Iraq, America for decades had practiced “democratic exceptionalism” in its promotion of democracy, what then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a speech at the American University in Cairo on June 20, 2005 described as
America’s record of supporting regional tyrants for six decades.
Barack Obama, recognizing Egypt as a center of gravity for the region, went to Cairo early in his presidency and affirmed his commitment to democratic freedoms and human rights: “no system of government can or should be imposed upon one nation by any other.” Obama stressed, “That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people…. I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere.” America and Europe must press Hosni Mubarak to exit now and thus enable Egyptians to sort out their future. Regrettably, thus far the administration seems to have succumbed to the Achilles heal of US foreign policy in the Middle East, opting for a policy of “perceived” stability more than democracy, driven more by fear of the unknown, of a process whose outcome it cannot control, than support for our principles of self-determination, democracy and human rights.
In the political transition that follows, emerging governments and reformers in Tunisia and Egypt will be challenged to form a national unity government, to demonstrate commitment to political liberalization, civil society and human rights by fostering the development of those civil institutions and values that support democratization. The litmus test will be the extent to which their policies and actions reflect an acceptance of basic democratic freedoms, diversity of opinion, multiple political parties and civil society organizations, as well as an appreciation for the concept of a “loyal opposition” rather than viewing alternative voices and political visions as a threat to the political system.
JOHN L. ESPOSITO is Professor of Religion & International Affairs at Georgetown University and founding director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, author of The Future of Islam and co-author with Dalia Mogahed of Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org