Cairo’s jolt towards democracy

“There are deep concerns over who will rule Egypt next. The door will be open to all political and religious ideologies, extremists and fundamentalists included.”

Egypt clashes 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egypt clashes 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It was like the fabled butterfly which fluttered its wings, stirred a breeze and thereby spawned a tempest. In mid-December, a modest fruit vendor from an obscure town in Tunisia, apparently humiliated by a female government inspector, set himself alight outside the local governor’s office.
The act of self-immolation quickly sparked flames of unrest across the country, as protesters chaffed at the heavy-handedness of Tunisian authorities and their indifference to poverty and suffering. Within days, long-ruling strongman Zine el- Abidine Ben Ali had fled into exile.
The public disturbances rapidly spread to other Arab nations which have languished for decades under authoritarian regimes. The resulting storm has now brought down a regional kingpin in Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and continues to threaten the throne of Jordan’s King Abdullah II as well as the military backed regimes in Yemen, Algeria, Sudan and elsewhere.
Where the unprecedented wave of political turmoil will end is unclear yet, but the causes were plain enough.
Corruption and crime are rampant in Arab countries. There is widespread poverty and high unemployment. Food and energy prices are soaring globally, and the Arab bloc is the world’s region that is most dependent on food imports. The ruling elite enjoy lavish lifestyles, while the lower classes face shrinking subsidies and fewer job opportunities. The younger generations want an end to the suppression of basic rights just so dictators can stay in power. Most are aware that things are broken and could be better. All are yearning for personal dignity and freedom.
The situation in Egypt has grown especially acute. Cairo is the world’s largest importer of wheat. Half the population lives on less than $2 a day. Some 35 percent of all Egyptians, and 45% of Egyptian women, are illiterate.
“The elections are fraudulent. The people in power monopolize all the resources. There are no jobs. There’s no health care. And I can’t afford good schools for my children,” summed up one man in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square as the protests there swelled in size in late January.
The demonstrations drew secularists, students, unionists, the religious and the poor into a loose coalition demanding democratic changes from the Mubarak regime.
Meeting resistance, they then demanded his ouster.
The protesters had come to realize the fix was on. Mubarak – now 82 and rumored to be battling cancer – was poised to anoint his son Gamal as his successor in national elections slated for this September. But most Egyptians bristled at the notion that they still needed to be looked after by an aloof family dynasty. This rising sentiment had failed to register on the radars of not only Western intelligence agencies, but of Mubarak’s inner circle as well.
Mubarak responded by shuffling his cabinet, offering concessions, and playing on public fears of the Muslim Brotherhood. The banned but powerful Islamist organization was indeed trying to use the turmoil to find some daylight after decades of living underground. As the best organized party in the expanding opposition, it was hoping to moderate its image and gradually work its way into power. The group found a suitable partner in former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, even though he has no real domestic following, no democratic credentials, and is seen by most Egyptians as an outsider due to his many years of diplomatic service abroad.
Still, the Muslim Brotherhood knows he enjoys a reputation for animosity toward Israel and thus found him an acceptable front man. So after winning the Brotherhood’s endorsement as leader of the revolution, ElBaradei told Time magazine, “The Muslim Brotherhood... has nothing to do with extremism... [It is] an integral part of Egyptian society... [and] a conservative group that favors secular democracy and human rights.”
Middle East analysts warned not to take him seriously. The Muslim Brotherhood is considered the grandfather of radical Islamist groups in the modern era, serving as the source of inspiration for Hamas and al-Qaida, and even the Shi’ite revolution in Iran. It would like nothing more than to hijack a fragile transition toward democracy in Egypt and repeat the 1979 Iranian revolution.
The rapidly unfolding developments left the Obama administration in an
awkward position – either stand by a long-time, key ally or push for quick democratic changes that would risk losing a major Arab capital to radical Islamists. US President Barack Obama decided to distance Washington from Mubarak to undercut long-held perceptions that America keeps Arab dictators in power.
Egypt’s embattled Coptic Christian community – some 10% of the nation’s 80 million citizens – also joined the calls for change, standing alongside Muslims in protests aimed at ensuring that Mubarak did not entrench his son in place. But once Mubarak promised that neither he nor his son would run for president in September, many Copts claimed victory and headed for home.
Given the Islamist threat, they realized that, despite all the complaints against the regime and the growing violence against Christians, they had actually fared well under Mubarak and could not expect much better from any successor. In fact, life for them could easily get worse.
“There are deep concerns over who will rule Egypt next. The door will be open to all political and religious ideologies, extremists and fundamentalists included,” cautioned Ramez Atallah, General Secretary of the Bible Society of Egypt.
“We need Mubarak. What we need above all is to be safe,” said Samy Farag, director of the St. Mark’s Hospital, which adjoins the church bombed by Muslim terrorists on New Year’s Eve.
The Obama administration also eventually engaged in some secondguessing about the Islamist threat.
After demanding that a transition to democratic reforms be launched immediately, the US backed off somewhat, out of concern that total chaos could indeed fuel the Brotherhood’s aspirations. Thus both the White House and State Department praised the “monumental” gestures offered by Mubarak, attempting to walk a fine line between not discarding a faithful ally and supporting genuine seeds of democracy.
Washington eventually opened channels to Egypt’s all-powerful military council, which was determined to prevent a societal meltdown by sidelining Mubarak and leading an orderly process toward free elections. Most of all, it was bent on keeping a lid on its bitter rivals in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt’s armed services are now firmly in control of what it hopes will be an orderly transition toward democratic national elections. Besides promising key constitutional reforms, it has also vowed to honor Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood is promising to reject violence, honor the emerging democratic reforms, and not Islamicize Egypt. But given their long track record, it is hard to trust them. They are not yet ready to shoulder the burdens of governance, and thus will likely follow the Hizbullah model in Lebanon. The goal is to gain legitimacy by taking part in democratic elections and slowly accrue power, also by infiltrating the military.
Whether it can ultimately reach that target is uncertain. Instead, Egypt’s emerging democracy is likely to track closer to the Turkish model, where Islamist leaders have enjoyed public backing for a more assertive and independent foreign policy. This shift has been marked chiefly by Ankara’s increasing stridency towards Israel and the West. Can Cairo be far behind?