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: the inability of the secular mind to accept religion as a motivating force. The successful overthrow of on former Tunisian autocratic president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali may have inspired Egyptian protesters, but unlike in Tunisia, radical Islamists play a significant role in opposition politics in Egypt. The secular and devout may be marching hand in hand, but the Egypt they envisage building should they succeed are vastly different.
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Riots began, we are told, because of high prices and unemployment. Many are protesting in the hope of achieving democracy and economic stability, but if Mubarak falls, the likely beneficiary is the Muslim Brotherhood. A supposedly democratic uprising, compared to the one which brought about the fall of the Iron Curtain, will most likely give way to cruel repression in the name of religious fundamentalism. The Brotherhood initially kept a low profile while the press coverage was littered with references to secular, educated protesters. 
But as events are unfolding and the chances of its success are rising, the group is becoming more openly involved. Brotherhood members are joining those on the streets, as they begin jockeying for position between Egypt’s disparate opposition groups. Recall that in the 2005 Egyptian elections, the Brotherhood 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 the Muslim Brotherhood, so the conventional wisdom has it, because they are poor and it runs an extensive welfare network. It is depicted as a Muslim Salvation Army, albeit one with a political wing. The Brotherhood, like its Palestinian branch Hamas, makes no secret of its radical Islamist agenda. Their supporters may appreciate the effects of these groups’ welfare policies, but cannot be ignorant of their advocacy of jihadism.
As the 2005 elections were clearly not rigged in their favour, there are two possible explanations for the Brotherhood’s success. Either the Egyptian people, along with the West, have been duped into believing the Muslim Brotherhood to be primarily socially motivated and with a minimal religious agenda, or the majority of people would genuinely like to see Shari’a law imposed.
The more rational explanation in the eyes of non-believers is to focus on economics rather than ideology. The absence of religion from the script works perfectly in the modern West, but if history has taught us anything, it is that religion - especially its more extreme variants - motivates. It seems somewhat absurd to ignore the declared explanations provided by assorted jihadists and Islamist groups and to continue ascribing the real cause of their actions to anything from poverty to colonialism.  
Membership of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is illegal. There is no good reason, other than wishful thinking, to assume that their members would undertake the risks of joining if they were not wholly convinced by their party platform - radical Islamism notwithstanding. They are not seeking the transformation of Egypt into a liberal, Western- style democracy. More likely, they reflect the Iranian leadership’s desires for a tyrannical Egypt, one that, in the words of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, will be “turn[ed] into another Gaza, run by radical forces [that] oppose everything the democratic world represents.”
The pinning of hopes on ElBaradei as the country’s future leader is slightly odd, not least because he has ruled himself out of acting as anything but a caretaker. The most we could expect would be for him to take on an interim role, until free and fair elections could take place. But if the Muslim Brotherhood win, they may be the last such elections Egypt has for a long time. The risk to Israel of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power is clear, their commitment to ripping up the peace treaty with Israel is well known. For ordinary secular Egyptians, the outlook could be equally grim.
The writer is a political historian and former research assistant for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.