Fearing a fundamentalist future

The international community cannot afford to ignore the key lesson that Middle Eastern history has taught: Religion, and not socio-economic concerns, is the primary victor of uprisings and the strongest catalyst for radical regime-change.

Muslim Brotherhood Leadership Council in Egypt 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Muslim Brotherhood Leadership Council in Egypt 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
Recent press coverage of events in Egypt has made one thing clear: theinability of the secular mind to accept religion as a motivating force.The successful overthrow of on former Tunisian autocratic presidentZine El Abidine Ben Ali may have inspired Egyptian protesters, butunlike in Tunisia, radical Islamists play a significant role inopposition politics in Egypt. The secular and devout may be marchinghand in hand, but the Egypt they envisage building should they succeedare vastly different.
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Riots began, we are told,because of high prices and unemployment. Many are protesting in thehope of achieving democracy and economic stability, but if Mubarakfalls, the likely beneficiary is the Muslim Brotherhood. A supposedlydemocratic uprising, compared to the one which brought about the fallof the Iron Curtain, will most likely give way to cruel repression inthe name of religious fundamentalism. The Brotherhood initially kept alow profile while the press coverage was littered with references tosecular, educated protesters. 
But as events are unfoldingand the chances of its success are rising, the group is becoming moreopenly involved. Brotherhood members are joining those on the streets,as they begin jockeying for position between Egypt’s disparateopposition groups. Recall that in the 2005 Egyptian elections, theBrotherhood was the leading opposition party.
The outcome of those elections ought to set alarm bells ringing,yet it too is put down to economic concerns. People voted for theMuslim Brotherhood, so the conventional wisdom has it, because they arepoor and it runs an extensive welfare network. It is depicted as aMuslim Salvation Army, albeit one with a political wing. TheBrotherhood, like its Palestinian branch Hamas, makes no secret of itsradical Islamist agenda. Their supporters may appreciate the effects ofthese groups’ welfare policies, but cannot be ignorant of theiradvocacy of jihadism.
As the 2005 electionswere clearly not rigged in their favour, there are two possibleexplanations for the Brotherhood’s success. Either the Egyptian people,along with the West, have been duped into believing the MuslimBrotherhood to be primarily socially motivated and with a minimalreligious agenda, or the majority of people would genuinely like to seeShari’a law imposed.
The more rationalexplanation in the eyes of non-believers is to focus on economicsrather than ideology. The absence of religion from the script worksperfectly in the modern West, but if history has taught us anything, itis that religion - especially its more extreme variants - motivates. Itseems somewhat absurd to ignore the declared explanations provided byassorted jihadists and Islamist groups and to continue ascribing thereal cause of their actions to anything from poverty to colonialism.  
Membership of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptis illegal. There is no good reason, other than wishful thinking, toassume that their members would undertake the risks of joining if theywere not wholly convinced by their party platform - radical Islamismnotwithstanding. They are not seeking the transformation of Egypt intoa liberal, Western- style democracy. More likely, they reflect theIranian leadership’s desires for a tyrannical Egypt, one that, in thewords of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, will be “turn[ed] intoanother Gaza, run by radical forces [that] oppose everything thedemocratic world represents.”
The pinning ofhopes on ElBaradei as the country’s future leader is slightly odd, notleast because he has ruled himself out of acting as anything but acaretaker. The most we could expect would be for him to take on aninterim role, until free and fair elections could take place. But ifthe Muslim Brotherhood win, they may be the last such elections Egypthas for a long time. The risk to Israel of the Muslim Brotherhoodcoming to power is clear, their commitment to ripping up the peacetreaty with Israel is well known. For ordinary secular Egyptians, theoutlook could be equally grim.
The writer is apolitical historian and former research assistant for the JerusalemCenter for Public Affairs.