Riots in Egypt: Where is the liberal option?

(By Dennis Mitzner)
Hillary Clinton recently encouraged the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to push for reforms. She did not explicitly support the rioting masses, but instead took the middle way in an attempt to accommodate both sides.
In the light of history, this was the only sensible thing to do as the real motives of the protesters are unclear.  
A Facebook group in support of the rioting masses declares its opposition to corruption, injustice, unemployment and torture. These are important issues, but do not reveal the political nature of the rioters.
Western observers who are willing to throw their enthusiastic support behind the rioters should think twice.
Anyone even remotely familiar with the ideas espoused by the Muslim Brotherhood, its founder Hassan al-Banna and its most influential thinker, Sayed Qutb, should take note that opposition to corruption, injustice, unemployment and torture are common rhetorical devices for Islamists who oppose secular autocrats.
Removing an illiberal ruler might not lead to a liberal outcome. Many Western commentators can’t resist to draw parallels between the current upheaval in the Arab world and the past liberal mass movements of Eastern Europe. But where are the Natan Sharanskys of the Arab world?
There is no talk of separation of religion and state, gender equality or individual freedom. We only hear value-free notions against Hosni Mubarak’s regime. The question is: what are the rioters for? What alternative to the present order do they offer?
Muslim Brotherhood is by far the most popular political movement in Egypt. The organization has a controversial history, founded in 1928 in Egypt by Hassan al-Banna, it is the world’s oldest, largest and most influential Islamic political group, which early in its history became associated with jihad.
In the aftermath of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, Muslim Brotherhood declared President Anwar Sadat, the architect of peace, as the enemy.
The Egyptian opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei was embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood already in June of 2010. He has now taken the centre stage as the voice of the rioters.
Muslim Brotherhood’s support for ElBaradei is indicative of two possible outcomes: Either the movement sees him as the Islamic alternative to Mubarak’s autocratic secularism or it wants to use his perceived legitimacy and moderate demeanor to grab power. In either case, the MB comes out on top.
According to a poll conducted in 2010 three-quarters of Egyptian Muslims would like to see Islam play a large role in politics. Moreover, when asked whether the respondents identify with the modernizers or the fundamentalists, 59 per cent of Egyptians identified with the latter.
In the light of the recent upheaval, one should keep in mind that the modern Arab world – except for Lebanon – has only seen two types of government, Islamist or autocratic. Both are totalitarian in nature and equally distant from the ideas of liberalism.
It would be arrogant to claim that Arab countries cannot become liberal and democratic, but to claim otherwise, one would have to turn a blind eye to history.
Dennis Mitzner is a writer living in Tel Aviv.