ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | Egypt the Middle East Fulcrum

Egypt the Middle East Fulcrum

24 November 2011

By Yisrael Ne'eman

By now it is the increasingly unspoken Middle East nightmare, an Islamist Egypt. We are at the beginning of the end of secular Arab nationalism as the major force in the Muslim Arab Middle East – from now on "Arab" is increasingly the adjective while Muslim in the defining term or noun, hence Arab Muslim. In this latest round of violence in Cairo's Tahrir Square, this time directed against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces transitional regime led by Gen. Tantawi, the Muslim Brotherhood on an official level may be "absent" from the demonstrations but behind the scenes they are in the lead. In case one forgets, the Muslim Brotherhood is the best organized most popular force in Egypt and yes, the Middle East today. The slogan "Islam is the Answer" will be increasingly heard throughout the region even if it is not being pushed at the moment. As the Facebook and Twitter liberal generation are ushered out, one can expect a good few decades if not two generations of Islamic control in one form or another. The last several days of massive protests still finds liberals and secularists among the demonstrators but their presence and influence will dwindle. There are those like the Nobel Prize winning liberal and presidential candidate Mohammed ElBaradei who are calling for a national unity government to replace the military regime, but this can only be a temporary measure.

So why did everything explode just a week before the beginning of the election process? The military is accused of trying to force a legal framework whereby they would continue to hold power and reserve the right to intervene politically if they deem it necessary, something akin to the Ataturk legacy in Turkey until very recently. This is certainly an immediate cause but not necessarily the focus of all anger. Barely mentioned and much less discussed (especially if one watches the AlJazeera satellite station) is the army insistence on guaranteeing minority (Christian Copts) and individual rights (women and non-conformists). Now pit that against Muslim Brotherhood demands for Sharia law, even should it not be immediate. Let's be honest, if the military was advocating Sharia law while asserting its right to intervene in civilian matters liberals and secularists might take to the streets but there would not be tens of thousands of Islamists demanding "democracy" and an end to military intervention. Paradoxically some of the liberals are staying away, correctly understanding their future liberties are being defended more by the military than anyone else. Others are playing the democracy game, one which would work very well in Europe or America and are joining the demonstrators.

Although at the moment there is a façade of unity, the Brotherhood is the leading force behind the scenes, tactically attempting to calm the situation. Massive economic failure and lack of faith in the transitional military regime's promise to pass on full powers to a democratically elected civilian government has convinced many that Mubarak may no longer be around but his spiritual descendents continue to control the game. The Brotherhood wants next week's election process to begin (it is to go for several months) where they expect to make impressive gains and possibly attain a majority in parliament. Although they are being accused of cutting deals with their erstwhile enemies in the military which may cost them some support at the polls the liberal democratic free market secular option does not speak to most Egyptians whether they are the Delta peasantry or the urban destitute. Islam and the Brotherhood are the only serious game in town, all others are secondary.

Massive Western capital investment is out of the question – who in their right mind will invest in Egypt today? And even should they want to engage in foreign aid, what government in Europe or North America has the funds to do so? The average Egyptian demonstrating in Tahrir Square is frustrated, humiliated, impoverished and hungry – he feels betrayed by the once beloved military and is demanding an overall panacea. Egypt is on the way to bankruptcy having lost $15 billion in foreign currency reserves since Mubarak's ouster in February and the hemorrhaging continues. That leaves essentially two universal encompassing solutions once one counts out the Arab nationalist praetorian state and western style capitalism. Either take the Maoist route (with an Arab tinge) as done in China not long ago or turn to religion with an emphasis on trust in Allah and the afterlife should despair rule the day. In the face of rising anarchy, a turning inwards towards Islam appears the only answer. The Islamists are calling on the demonstrators to honor the people's will and move towards next week's elections. The idea is that in a step by step process the military will be sidelined and the Brotherhood can consolidate power.

What Western pro-democracy observers are forgetting is that democracy is not the tyranny of the majority but rather rule by the majority and equal rights for all including minority groups, women and specific groups and/or individuals with a different political, economic or social perspective. What we are seeing is popular anger against the military, yet to demand civilianization of the regime does not necessarily mean one supports democracy as an ideal. If holding elections is the way to gain power, so be it, but the results cannot be foretold as leading to democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood will not hold pro-democracy demonstrations, but rather demand elections to attain power. Should they not win power legally one can expect them to undermine the elected regime until they will succeed. As for elected regimes facing the wrath of the Muslim Brotherhood one should not forget the Hamas (Palestinian MB faction) armed overthrow of the unity government they had with the secular Fatah in Gaza (June 2007).

Although never elected, the legendary Arab nationalist Egyptian Pres. Gamal Abdul Nasser understood the tenacity of his adversary already in the 1950s when his regime suffered assassination attempts by the Islamists and he retaliated through massive repression. The previous regime of King Farouk suffered numerous murders of its top officials when Egypt was a semi-democracy. In 1949 its security forces retaliated and are said to have gunned down Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan el-Banna. Nasser for his part had the most renowned Muslim Brother ideologue Sayyed Qutb jailed several times and finally executed in 1966. Qutb's crimes were his ideals, in particular his demands for Jihad against all western influences and those who incorporated them into Muslim society. Qutb, who never killed anyone, is the commonly known ideological father of 9/11.

Egypt may very well go the way of the Iranian revolution (Feb. 1979) although by a different route, a more anarchical one. The Iranians unified around Khomeini, the Egyptians have no figure as such, not even the leading Brotherhood cleric Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi. In Egypt the demonstrators demand the ousting of the military but have no answer as to who will govern them in the aftermath. The street knows what it does not want - but knows not at all what it does want. In both cases secular dictators were overthrown despite support from the military. The Iranian transitional government led by hybrid anti-Shah factions including liberals and Islamic leftists was decimated within a year or so and the extreme Khomeinist Shiites took full control by the summer of 1981. In Egypt there are calls for compromise and a temporary national unity initiative very much echoing the first moderate administrations seen in Tehran. This may very well be the interim response, yet the more permanent answer will be with the Muslim Brotherhood. Their final objective is the achievement of an Islamist state.

To differentiate, the Egyptian military is the regime at the moment and was expected to shepard in a civilian administration. Today few see this as a transitional government and in light of the rising casualties many view Tantawi as Mubarak. In Iran the army declared neutrality when opposition forces gained power. The average enlisted man supported the Khomeini Revolution, not the Shah and his military. Some time in the near future Tantawi and the Supreme Council of the armed forces will find themselves in the same predicament and be forced to stand aside. A broad coalition will be formed and in systematic fashion the left, liberal democrats and moderate Islamists will be forced out. During continuing revolutionary crisis "the people" are known to seek the most radical of solutions. Anybody remember the first PM Mehdi Bazargan or President Abdulhassan Banisadr? Both advocated a liberal yet Islamic perspective including more civil rights and democratic frameworks. The former was gone after the American embassy hostage crisis in November and the latter when the revolution turned on itself liquidating its Islamic left wing in 1981. Moderation was short lived.

Too many are underestimating the power of Islam and the mosque. Imams and qadis have personal relationships with their followers as to be expected in a deep grass roots organization. Believers anticipate Friday noon sermons and take them as the word of Allah's emissaries on earth. This builds a far greater commitment than any hi-tech social network, especially when the destitute do not own cell phones or computers. Islam embodies solid permanent law, a way of life and creed given by the Divine. Social networking is impersonally technical and accompanied by much debate. Muslim Brotherhood style Islam demands personal loyalties and little questioning. Adherents trust and follow the leadership. The relationship is solid, not amorphous.

Egyptian elections are of no great importance and will only be seen as a technical detail in the long run. The Muslim Brotherhood, the most cohesive grass roots organization can be expected to take power in the not too distant future. One can expect a form of Islamized military at their side when a new Egyptian state solidifies. Egypt's better educated more secular classes will be marginalized or forced to conform. And of course the Middle East will be heavily influenced by what happens in Egypt, the fulcrum of the Arab world.

Many may ask what of the West, Israel or whomever? They are all non-players who may get in the way here and there or act as a catalyst such as with the attack on the Israeli embassy not long ago. What we are seeing is an internal Egyptian economic, social, religious and political drama being played out. There is very little the West can do to influence future events.