The Magazine

The Evil of Two Lessers

Egyptian politics boils down to Mubarak and the Islamists.

Feb 27, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 23 • By PAUL MARSHALL
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE SHOCKWAVES OF HAMAS'S ELECTORAL victory were felt keenly by everyone in the Middle East, not just the Israelis. In fact, few people watched the Palestinian election returns with more hope, trepidation, or calculation than the Egyptians.

Hamas was established in 1936 as an offshoot of Egypt's own major opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, the world's oldest Islamist organization. Founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, the Brotherhood remains a central source of radicalism throughout Sunni Islam. In recent decades it has forsworn violence within Egypt, but the Brotherhood still advocates the killing of Israelis in Israel and Americans in Iraq and proclaims that it wants a new caliphate. On December 22, its head, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, echoed Iranian president Ahmadinejad, claiming that "Western democracy has attacked everyone who does not share the vision of the sons of Zion as far as the myth of the Holocaust is concerned."

The Brotherhood scored its own notable successes in Egypt's December parliamentary elections. To avoid provoking stronger government repression, it contested less than a third of the seats and still ended up winning 88 out of 454 seats. It was quite a triumph given that some of the Brotherhood's activists were killed during the campaign while others were arrested or otherwise harassed. Furthermore, since Egyptian law forbids religious parties, Brotherhood candidates could not run under a common party banner. Many observers believe the organization could have achieved a much larger victory in a more open election.

The Brotherhood's success reflects Egyptian society's increased Islamization, fueled by workers returning from stints in the Gulf and increased Saudi funding, including support for the Al-Azhar university system and other central Sunni institutions. To be sure, Egypt retains its own distinct patterns. In the south, Bob Marley is remarkably popular, and jokes proliferate--one of the latest: "What's Egypt's major export? Jokes." But that usually reliable indicator of Islamization, the number of burka-enshrouded women, has increased noticeably in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities.

Islamists have sought to allay growing fear in Egypt's ancient Coptic Christian community, the largest religious minority in the Middle East, but the Brotherhood's election slogan, "Islam is the solution," stokes those concerns, especially in view of Hamas's victory. In addition, the Copts are still reeling after thousands of angry Muslims in October mobbed St. George Church in Alexandria, leading to four deaths, following accusations that the church had put on a blasphemous play two years before. Their fears have multiplied as Islamists use the Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoons as an excuse to attack not only Westerners but also Middle Eastern Christians. Meanwhile, the Hamas-led Bethlehem Council has called for the reinstatement of a jizya tax upon non-Muslims, while, back in Egypt, Mohamed Habib, the first deputy of the Brotherhood's supreme guide, averred that "Islamic Rule" means "that non-Muslims can have no authority over Muslims."

Egypt's liberals, such as Hisham Kassem, head of the new daily Al Masry al Youm, think the Brotherhood's apparent strength may be misleading, since it faces little competition. Hosni Mubarak's regime has for decades choked off the media and human rights organizations and strictly controlled civil society--thus prohibiting any grassroots organizations from challenging Mubarak or the Brotherhood for political influence. Ayman Nour, the second leading vote-getter in the September presidential election, was sentenced in December to five years of hard labor on what most observers believe are trumped-up charges of forging signatures on his Ghad (Tomorrow) party's application for legal recognition. This event prompted the United States to suspend trade talks with Egypt.

The Islamists have been resilient. In the '80s and '90s, brutal repression by state security destroyed the Brotherhood's violent splinters Gamaat Islamiya and Islamic Jihad. This prompted Gamaat's "spiritual leader" Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman to move to New Jersey, where he led the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, while Jihad's leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who also fled Egypt, went on to help found al Qaeda. But the main organization has held to nonviolence, kept its head down, and patiently organized through Egypt's professional associations and networks of mosques. The Brotherhood has also, it is said, intimidated and even infiltrated Mubarak's police, who tread lightly when it comes to mosques.

Since the rest of Egypt's opposition could maintain no such network, Mubarak has effectively ensured that the short-term choice, for America and Egyptians, is him or the Islamists.

Essam el-Erian, the Brotherhood's main conduit to Western media, is affable and gregarious as he seeks to allay fears of an Islamist state but declines to answer concrete questions. Two subjects get a rise out of him. One is the role of Islamic law, sharia, which he told me last month "is none of America's business," even though, if enforced by a Brotherhood government, it would amount to a state-coerced caste system of religion, sect, and gender. The other is support for civil society in Egypt, which "America absolutely should not do." El-Erian's response reveals the Brotherhood's fear of robust alternatives to both it and the regime. This is something for U.S. policymakers to keep in mind.

President Bush has said that elections are only "the beginnings of democracy," but they need not even be that. Without security, a free press, free debate, a robust opinion-shaping civil society, parties that have been able to organize and mature, and, not least, a range of choices for the electorate--none of which Egypt has--elections can prove hollow.

But Egypt has far more advantages than the Palestinian territories. It has breathing space, with six years until its next presidential election. And it has a talented but hitherto smothered population that could, if given the chance, contribute mightily to the growth of free institutions.

Paul Marshall, who was recently in Egypt, is senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom and the editor of, most recently, Radical Islam's Rules: The Worldwide Spread of Extreme Shari'a Law (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005).