UNDERSTANDING POST-MUBARAK EGYPT
By Dr. Daniel Pipes
The spirit of Tahrir Square is real and alive, but exceedingly remote from the halls of power. Revolutionary ideas – that government should serve the people, not the reverse; that rulers should be chosen by the people; and that individuals have inherent dignity and rights – have finally penetrated a substantial portion of the country, and especially the young. In the long term, these ideas can work wonders. But for now, they are dissident ideas, firmly excluded from any operational role.
Military rule will continue. Soldiers did not seize power with Hosni Mubarak's departure two months ago; they did so in the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. That's when the Free Officers movement overthrew the constitutional monarchy and took office. One senior military man followed another – from Muhammad Naguib to Gamal Abdel Nasser to Muhammad Anwar Al-Sadat to Hosni Mubarak to Mohamad Hussain Tantawi – in an unbroken succession over 59 years. With time, the military expanded its grip from the political realm to the economic, producing everything from television sets to olive oil and acquiring control over a sizable portion of Egypt's wealth. The soldiers have become far too accustomed to power and the good life to give up these perks. They will do whatever it takes, be it purging Mubarak, throwing his sons in jail, banning his old political party, changing the constitution, or repressing dissent, to keep power.
The military is not secular. From the furthest origins of the Free Officers movement in the 1930s to the recent re-affirmation of Shari'a (Islamic law) as "the principal source of legislation," the Egyptian military leadership consistently has displayed an Islamist orientation. More specifically, the Free Officers movement emerged out of the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood and, through the decades, has been in competition with the civilian wing. As analyst Cynthia Farahat writes in the Middle East Quarterly (Summer, 2011), their rivalry "should be understood not as a struggle between an autocratic, secular dictatorship and a would-be Islamist one but a struggle between two ideologically similar, if not identical, rival groups, hailing from the same source."
The Muslim Brotherhood is less formidable than its reputation suggests.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not a powerhouse. The organization suffers from major problems. First, hot-headed and violent Islamists despise it. Al-Qa'ida recently blasted it for taking part in elections and ridiculed it for being on the path to becoming "secular and falsely affiliated with Islam." Second, the Muslim Brotherhood is weak on the ground. Hesham Kassem, of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, notes that the Brotherhood's membership does not exceed 100,000, which, in a country of 80 million, means it "is not really a grass roots movement," but a coddled institution benefiting from being uniquely tolerated. Genuine political competition should diminish its appeal.
Finally, understanding Egyptian politics means penetrating the characteristically Middle Eastern double game (as in Iraqi and Syrian politics), one played out here by the military and the Islamists. Note its contrary elements:
Routine military-Islamist cooperation. The military has, Farahat notes, "subtly colluded with Islamists against their more democratically inclined compatriots and religious minorities, notably the Copts." One of many examples: On April 14, a human rights conference critiquing the military for hauling civilians before military tribunals was twice interrupted. First by a military police officer worried about "indecent women" and second by Islamists angry about inappropriate discussion of the military. Who is who? Roles have became nearly interchangeable. Likewise, the new military leadership permitted Islamists to form political parties and released Brotherhood members from jail. Conversely, Mohamed Badei, the Brotherhood leader, praised the armed forces and his organization endorsed the Army's March referendum.
The government exploits fears of the Muslim Brotherhood. The military benefits from worries, both domestic and foreign, of an Islamist takeover. That prospect justifies not only its own continued domination of Egypt but also excuses its excesses and cruelties. The military has learned to play Islamists like a yo-yo. For example, Mubarak cunningly allowed 88 Muslim Brothers into parliament in 2005; this simultaneously showed the perils of democracy and made his own tyranny indispensable. Having established this point, he allowed just one Muslim Brother into Parliament in the 2010 elections.
In brief, while the modernity of Tahrir Square and the barbarism of the Muslim Brotherhood both have longterm importance, in all likelihood, the military will continue to rule Egypt, making only cosmetic changes.
© Daniel Pipes 2011
Originally Published in National Review Online, April 26, 2011
Republished with the Permission of Daniel Pipes
Reprinted from the Daniel Pipes Mailing List, April 26, 2011
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Author or co-author of eighteen books, Dr. Pipes is a regular columnist for National Review Online, Front Page Magazine, the New York Sun, and the Jerusalem Post. His analyses of world trends and of forces and developments in the Middle East have appeared in numerous North American newspapers, including the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. He frequently appears on American network television, as well as at universities and think tanks, to discuss the Middle East, Islam, and the Islamist threat to the U.S.A. and the West. He also has appeared on BBC and Al Jazeera, and has lectured in approximately twenty-five countries.
Dr. Pipes is a Polish-American Jew whose parents fled Poland in 1939, immigrated to the U.S.A., and assimilated well into
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